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Martial Arts

David Carradine – Martial Arts Icon and living Legend


There are few actors who can truly be considered as icons of a specific genre or as living legends. David Carradine is one of these and for good reason.

For every generation of martial artist, there is a film or TV series that has proven to be iconic for them.

Obviously there are “Enter the Dragon”, the “Karate Kid”, “Best of the Best” and the “Power Rangers”. However, there are two others that stand out more and these are “Kung Fu” and “Kill Bill”.

Simply titled it may have been, but “Kung Fu” captured the imagination of millions across the world. It has been so influential that it has entered the national psyche without us even realising it. How many times have you heard someone say ‘you have a lot to learn Grasshopper’ in a ‘Chinese-like’ way? David Carradine is Grasshopper aka Kwai Chang Caine.

“Kill Bill” has also proven to become one of the most iconic films of this century. Drawing from every genre there is and starring some of the most famous martial arts actors (Gordon Liu and Sonny Chiba included) as well as incorporating some of the most amazing visuals ever seen (who can forget Uma Thurman wearing that tracksuit?) it has set the benchmark for any film even thinking about following in its footsteps.

Despite the title, all we heard or saw of Bill in the first volume was his voice and maybe a hand caressing a sword. Yet still that voice grabbed you, drew you in and created an image of the man. Finally in Volume 2 the man came forward and David Carradine took Bill and made him his. Who can forget the scene where he is finally killed. Unlike many of the other people ‘The Bride’ kills, Bill dies with calm, cool dignity and looks good doing it.

“When your master tells you to do something you have to do it.”

David has recently written a book containing his memoires and thoughts on the filming process and writes about his experiences from his initial meeting with the director Quentin Tarantino through to the post-release film festivals and press tours. Proving to be as captivating with the pen as he is on-screen, David has written a book that you will read from cover to cover with barely a pause.

We thought that getting to review the book gave us the perfect opportunity to speak to the man himself.

Not a lot of people know this but David didn’t actually study the martial arts (let along Kung Fu) when he landed the part of Kwai Chang Caine and it was only when his Master, Dr. Kam Yuen told him he should learn Tai Chi that he did. As David himself puts it “When your master tells you to do something you have to do it.”

Having led what can only be described as a bit of a wild life, Tai Chi has proven to be the perfect martial art for David  “One that has led me to my own way.” Like many who have studied any martial art for a long time he is firm in the belief that martial arts (regardless of the system) can be a guiding light for society.

“I think if people come to understand what martial arts are really about, not fighting, but making a better life, then, yes. Emphatically it could help.”

David has adopted his own philosophy and rather than fixate on a specific technique or dwell on discipline he looks for freedom. This is reflected in his attitude towards forms. He explained why he no longer performs patterns and which one he used to prefer.

“I know nothing.” – Kwai Chang Caine

“Once you’ve found the way, you have no need for the path.   But it was always Law Horn, traditionally thought of as the first form the shaolins created from Bodhidharma’s teaching.

Like any worthwhile martial artist, he has a number of amusing anecdotes but for him the one that stands out displays a mischievous side; “While making a sword fighting movie in Argentina, I was challenged by one of the stuntmen.   I took him down, without a blow being struck, and kissed him on his head and shoulders.   He slunk away mortified.   A few minutes after, he came back and said I’d torn his t-shirt.   I told him it was probably worth 100 bucks now.   Later, he came back with a marking pen and asked me to sign it.”

One aspect that is a result of the physicality of martial arts is the risk of injury. David has picked up his fair share of injuries but the one that has had a lasting effect was due to Merlin Olsen jumping onto his ribcage.

“My ribs were separated.  It hurt for months.  Still does, sometimes.”

In his book The Kill Bill Diary: The Making of a Tarantino Classic as Seen Through the Eyes of a Screen Legend” David wrote about putting together a reel of his fights for Quentin Tarantino to look at. For David however, the task of picking one favourite is an impossible task, “I don’t know if I have a favorite.   They’re all my babies.   The one with Chuck Norris in Lone Wolf McQuade stands out.   We shot that for 5 days.   Some of the stuff in The Silent Flute aka Circle of Iron I remember very fondly.”

Some people have a problem with fame and the adulation, hero-worship and downright stalking that it generates. True to form, David has developed the perfect way of coping with this.

“I just move on to the next iconic character.   You can’t pay too much attention to adulation.   It’s not healthy.”

Kwai Chang Caine inspired people from all walks of life in a way that many find hard to express. David believes that Kwai Chang Caine was a very deep character. People could see “the seeker, the wanderer, the humility, the wisdom, the abilities, the compassion, and the humour.”

As with any cult TV series, “Kung Fu” generated a lot of urban legends, the main one being that Bruce Lee was supposed to be given the role. David was all too happy to set things straight.

“I’m the Man.” Bill

“There wasn’t really a Bruce Lee situation.   That’s pure mythology.   The part was never offered to anyone but me.   Jerry Thorpe, the producer/director had seen me in a play on Broadway, The Royal Hunt of The Sun, where I portrayed Atahualpa, the emperor of the Incas, and thought I was the right guy for Kung Fu.   Bruce certainly wanted the part, but was never considered.   As a result, he fled to Hong Kong and became an icon.”

Kill Bill had some of the most aesthetically pleasing set locations no matter whether they were down or dirty or an ancient temple. David told me that The Chapel was his favourite location, “I loved that scene.   Everyone talks about the scene with the sandwiches and the Superman monologue.   But the chapel scene is my favourite.”

“Quentin took me to the limit.”

Many actors say that they lose themselves in their characters. Rather than finding himself slipping into the role of a cool, sophisticated international assassin, David was “mainly just trying to remember my lines.”

Remembering his lines was particularly difficult because Tarantino would often completely change scenes, lines and even the actual storyline overnight. For David this meant that “Quentin took me to the limit.”

Strangely enough, in the Kill Bill Diary, he describes Bill as being a ‘sweetheart’ and indeed there are some very touching aspects of the film where you glimpse the lover rather than the killer. However, ‘sweetheart’ might be taking it a bit far. I asked him if Bill was a man that he could admire.

“I’m not sure.   I’ve known some very dangerous people in my life, and loved them.   I think I put aside those little details, like the fact that they kill people, and just feel the good side of them.”

Having a role in a film laced with martial arts (whether or not it is a ‘martial arts’ movie) often means that actors are given the opportunity many would kill for. They are paid to train. Not only that, they are paid to train with world-famous Masters and choreographers often one-on-one or in very small groups. Fortunately David didn’t view this as a chore and truly appreciated it as the gift it was being more than happy to repeat the process “In a second”.

Finally I asked how David would like to be remembered as a martial artist.

“As an evangelist for the Art.”

The Kill Bill Diary by David Carradine is published by Methuen Drama, priced £12.99 paperback (ISBN: 9780713687781) and is available with 10% off from www.acblack.com/methuendrama

About mattsylvester

Father of two beautiful daughters and married to the beautiful Karen, Matthew has been reading and writing fantasy and science fiction since he first read the Hobbit at the age of 7. Matthew was Features Editor, Technical Consultant and regular columnist for magazines such as ‘Fighters’, ‘Combat’, ‘TKD & Korean Martial Arts’ and ‘Traditional Karate’. These are the four leading martial arts magazines in the United Kingdom. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed 'Practical Taekwondo: Back to the Roots', which has been sold around the world. With regard to his martial arts background he has been studying martial arts since 1991. In 1995 he hosted Professor Rick Clark of the ADK and since then has been studying pressure points and their uses in the martial arts and on the street (initially as a Special Constable and as a Door Supervisor). All of this practical hands-on experience means that he is uniquely placed to write fight scenes that are not only plausible but some of which are based on personal or anecdotal experience. Matthew has had a number of short stories published by Fringe Works, KnightWatch Press, Anderfam Press and Emby Press.

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