The adventures of Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine), a half-white/half-Chinese Shaolin monk wandering throughout the Wild West, helping people along the way with sage wisdom for the good people and devastating expertise in martial arts for the bad ones. This series aired from 1972 to 1975.
When it premiered, it was a unique Western series with a half-Asian lead character (albeit played by an actor with no Asian ancestry) who refused to use a gun and looked out for the innocent, especially the minority groups that the genre typically ignored. The emphasis of the series was very much on philosophy, particularly Eastern philosophy, rather than gunplay.
While it has elements of a Stern Chase (given that he is wanted for killing the Chinese Emperor's nephew after he fatally shot his beloved master in cold blood), it was usually not a pressing matter for the character outside the occasional Bounty Hunter. Caine is also a stern chaser, looking for his half brother, Danny Caine. He often enters a town only a few days after his brother has left it.
It has since become seen as the archetypical Walking the Earth show with a wandering adventurer who has higher spiritual aspirations, but is still ready to get tough when called for. Some of its dialogue became cliches in their own right (calling students "Grasshopper", and "When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave" are two of the best known of these).
There was a made-for-TV movie called simply Kung Fu: The Movie released in 1986 as a sequel. In addition to Carradine and Keye Luke, the movie starred a pre-fame Brandon Lee as Caine's lost illegitimate son and Mako as the father of the royal nephew that Caine killed, using Caine's son as the instrument of his revenge. In 1987, an attempt at a Sequel Series called Kung Fu: The Next Generation was attempted, but only had a pilot episode. Carradine did not return; instead it starred David Darlow as Caine's grandson who tries to turn his own son, played by Brandon Lee, away from a life of crime. A Sequel Series, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, featured Caine's Identical Grandson and his own estranged son Peter, a modern day cop. This series ran from 1993 to 1997 as part of Warner Bros' PTEN syndicated package, and does not appear to include the events of Kung Fu: The Movie or Kung Fu: The Next Generation in its continuity. It lasted longer than its namesake, though it failed to gain nearly so much attention. Kung Fu 3D was a series of 12 Webisodes hosted on the Warner Brothers website in 1999; while it featured a character named Kwai Chang Caine voiced by David Carradine, it deviated from the show's canon. Caine is left on the temple's steps by his mother as a baby, and he is in search of his father instead of his brother. The web series had No Ending.
Either invented or introduced the concept of a kung-fu Western to...well, Western audiences.
If you're looking for martial arts tropes, see This Index Knows Kung-Fu.
The original series provides examples of:
- Adventure Towns
- Annoying Arrows: In one episode, one of Caine's enemies (the henchman of a Tong killer) attempts to assassinate Caine (before a commercial break, of course), by shooting him in the back with an arrow while he is meditating. In a later scene after the commercial break, Caine pulls what is probably one of his finer moments by confronting his assailant, reaching around, pulling the arrow out of his back, and then contemptuously throwing the arrow at his enemy's feet.
- Asians Speaking English/Translation Convention
- Badass Family: The Caines, naturally.
- Badass Normal: Every Shaolin monk, obviously.
- Bald of Awesome: All the monks in the monastery, including Caine before he left.
- Batman Grabs a Gun: In addition to refusing to use a gun, Caine refused to ride horses, saying he didn't want to offend or hurt the horse. In the final episode, "Full Circle", Caine very reluctantly rides a horse because he needs to keep up with his brother Danny, who is also on horseback, as they dodge bounty hunters and rescue Danny's son. He tells the horse, "Forgive me."
- Berserk Button: For Caine, it would definitely be harming Master Po.
- But Not Too Foreign: Bruce Lee originally came up with the concept of the show with the intent casting himself as the main lead, but was not cast because the studio did not want an Asian man in a lead role on American Television.
- Catch-Phrase: "Grasshopper" among others.
- Dissonant Serenity: In one episode, Caine is traveling some settlers who are going into hazardous territory. Along the way, Caine is playing his flute and one of the settler asks why he is doing that when they don't know what fate they will be facing. At that, Caine asks, "If I stop playing, will that fate change?"
- Does Not Like Shoes: Caine wore shoes in the pilot episode, but afterwards goes barefoot. One of the only times Caine wears footwear is to attend a wedding. Conveniently for the stuntman, Caine is wearing shoes on the occasion when he walks through a pit of rattlesnakes.
- Doesn't Like Guns: Caine refused to use guns, often frowned on allies who use guns, and constantly disarmed gun-wielding opponents and then disposed of the gun.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: In "The Nature of Evil", the unnamed murderer assumes Caine is after him for the bounty on his head. Caine says he doesn't care about the bounty, he cares about bringing him to justice for killing a little boy and beating an old man, and making sure he doesn't hurt anyone else. The murderer says he doesn't understand why Caine would care, since the people he hurt weren't related to Caine.
- Eye Scream: A Reverend (played by David Carradine's real life father, John Carradine) is staked out by Apaches with his eyes sewn open. He's permanently blinded by the time Caine rescues him.
- Fighting Series
- Flashback Echo
- A Handful for an Eye:
- In "Nine Lives", Perlee throws mud in Caine's face, allowing him to tackle Caine and get a few hits in before Caine wipes himself off and regains the advantage.
- In "A Small Beheading", Captain Brandywine Gage tries to throw sand in Caine's face, but Caine blocks it with his arm.
- Handicapped Badass: The blind Master Po.
- Heroes Fight Barehanded: Caine never uses a weapon when he has to fight someone, and if he disarms an opponent, he simply throws their weapon aside or breaks it.
- Humble Goal
- Interchangeable Asian Cultures:
- In "The Assassin", Caine tries to explain the difference between a Shaolin monk and a Ninja with little comprehension from the white folk after he is mistaken for the ninja's accomplice.
- In "Barbary Coast", the corrupt businessman Vincent Corbino forces Caine to become a prizefighter. Before a match, Corbino announces Caine as "The Shanghai Kid". Caine says he's never even been to Shanghai, but Corbino dismissively says, "All Chinese come from Shanghai."
- Keep the Reward: Caine doesn't really care about money, so this is his usual reaction to being offered it. For example, in "The Stone", Caine stops a gunman from shooting Isaac Montola. Isaac thanks him and offers a huge wad of cash to compensate him, but Caine ignores it to Isaac's confusion.
- Koan. Well yes, naturally.
- Last-Name Basis: Caine introduces himself as "I am Caine," and people call him Caine. However, when he finally finds his brother (and nephew he didn't know he had) before letting them know that he's related, he introduces himself as Kwai Chang.
- The Lightfooted: As a child, Kwai Chang Caine's mentor challenged him to walk a long sheet of delicate rice paper unrolled across the temple floor. He moved as carefully as he could, but still left a trail of rips and footprints. After years of Shaolin training and study, he successfully made the crossing without damaging the rice paper.
- Magical Asian: Masters Po and Kan to Caine, and Caine himself to most white people he meets.
- The Man They Couldn't Hang: In "The Nature of Evil", the murderer survives a hanging.
- Martial Pacifist: Caine never wants trouble, but woe be anyone who forces him to fight.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Kung Fu: The Movie includes many elements that straddle the line between Chinese mysticism and outright magic.
- Noiseless Walker: Shaolin Priests are trained to walk silently.Master Kan: Your tread must be light and sure, as though your path were upon rice paper. It is said, a Shaolin priest can walk through walls. Looked for...he can not be seen. Listened for ... he can not be heard. Touched ... can not be felt. This rice paper is the test. Fragile as the wings of the dragon fly, clinging as the cocoon of the silk worm. When you can walk its length and leave no trace, you will have learned.
- Old Master: Po, to Caine.
- Punishment Box: Caine finds himself in a two-man Box, and teaches the other man in the box to meditate so as to avoid the torturous aspects of being in the box. The guards & other prisoners are amazed that they're able to leave under their own power instead of being carried out.
- The Remnant: In "The Last Raid", Kwai Chang Caine must rescue people who have been kidnapped by a Confederate soldier who still thinks the Civil War is going on.
- Stern Chase
- Strictly Formula: In a lot of episodes Caine basically goes to a town, townspeople either don't like him or have initial misgivings about him, finds open-minded ally, finds enemy, must fight, makes monk-ly decision concerning friend and enemy, flashback to the power of five, win fight, credits roll. (The producers eventually mixed this up a bit, with some later episodes set entirely in China.)
- Walking the Earth - Trope Namer; well, indirectly.
- Warrior Poet
- The Western
- When You Snatch the Pebble: Quoted verbatim to make it the Trope Namer.
- Worthless Yellow Rocks: While Caine understands the concept of money, he doesn't really care about it and doesn't understand why people assign value to money, gold, silver, and jewels instead of useful things like food. In "The Stone", when Isaac turns murderous because he believes his diamond was stolen, Caine points out it's just a rock.
- Yellowface: Thankfully almost completely averted, with Asian characters played by nearly always played by Asian/Asian-American actors.