By Dennis Hartley
…nor can any be replaced.
I was very saddened to hear about David Carradine’s passing this week. He may not have always necessarily been discriminating in his choice of roles (like Michael Caine, it seemed that he never met a script that he didn’t like) but he had a unique screen presence, and with well over 100 films to his credit over a 46-year career, was obviously dedicated to his craft. According to the Internet Movie Database, there were six films in post-production and one in pre-production at the time of his death. He’s even in a SIFF film (screening next week) called My Suicide (I know what you’re thinking…but we still don’t know for sure at the time of this writing, so let’s not go there). One thing’s for sure, I don’t think I’ve met anyone in my age group who doesn’t have a certain nostalgic affection for Carradine that is forever cemented in their minds via the character he created in the TV series Kung Fu (which I’m pretty sure was your average ‘murcan teevee watcher’s first exposure to Zen philosophy). Here’s a few film recommendations:
Box Car Bertha-This 1972 Bonnie and Clyde knockoff (produced on the cheap for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures) was the launching pad for the then fledgling director Martin Scorsese. It is also one of the 4 films in which Carradine co-starred with Barbara Hershey (the two had a longtime off-screen romantic partnership as well). Carradine also landed a small part as a drunk in Scorsese’s breakout film, Mean Streets.
Americana-Carradine and Hershey teamed up again in this odd, no-budget 1973 character study (released in 1981) that Carradine directed and co-produced himself. He plays a Vietnam vet who drifts into a small Kansas town, and for his own enigmatic reasons, decides to restore an abandoned merry-go-round. The reaction from the clannish townsfolk ranges from bemused to spiteful. It’s a little bit Rambo, a wee bit Billy Jack (although nowhere near as violent as those films) and a whole lotta weird. What really makes this film a curio in the “coming home” genre is that none of the violent acts in the story are perpetrated by its protagonist. Carradine also composed and performed the song that plays during the closing credits. This pre-dates Deer Hunter by 4 years, by the way.
Death Race 2000– At first glance, Paul Bartel’s film about a futuristic gladiatorial cross-country auto race in which drivers score extra points for running down pedestrians is an outrageous, gross-out cult comedy. It could also be viewed as a takeoff on Rollerball, as a broad political satire, or perhaps a wry comment on that great, timeless American tradition of watching televised blood sport for entertainment. One thing I’ll say about this movie-it’s never boring! Carradine is a riot as the defending race champ, “Frankenstein”.
Bound For Glory-You can almost taste the dust in director Hal Ashby’s leisurely, episodic 1976 biopic about the life of Depression era songwriter/social activist Woody Guthrie. Carradine (as Guthrie) gives his finest performance, and does a very credible job with his own singing and playing (from what I understand, music was his first love).
The Long Riders-An underappreciated western from the highly-stylized action film maestro Walter Hill. I think it’s one of the more entertaining renditions of the oft-filmed tale of Jesse James and his gang, largely due to the stunt casting on display. Three sets of well-known acting siblings (the brothers Keach, Quaid and Carradine) portray three sets of legendary outlaw siblings (the brothers James, Miller and Younger, respectively).
Q, The Winged Serpent–I know this darkly comic horror flick from psychotronic writer-director Larry Cohen isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a personal guilty pleasure of mine. It’s actually one of my favorite Carradine performances. He plays a New York police investigator looking for the nest of a flying lizard that is randomly terrorizing the city. Michael Moriarty (in a truly demented performance) is ostensibly the star, but Carradine’s straight-faced character gets to deliver some very wry lines, and I think he shows some very subtle comic timing throughout the whole film. Also look for Richard Roundtree and Candy Clark. C’mon-a dragon in NYC…you’ve gotta love it!
Kill Bill, Vol 1 / Kill Bill Vol 2-Ever since Jules told Vincent (in Pulp Fiction) that his “retirement” plans were to “…just walk the Earth. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu…” you just knew that at some point, Quentin Tarantino and David Carradine were going to work together. It took 10 years, but it landed Carradine one of the most plum roles of his latter-day career, giving him a second wind with a whole new audience of potential fans.