Wednesday, July 20, 2016

East Meets Western: Cowboys, Samurai, and Shaolin Monks

by Troy D. Smith

If you've been watching the AMC western about the transcontinental railroad, Hell on Wheels (which is ending its five-year run next week), you know that for the past couple of seasons the Chinese workers have been a heavy focus. Only fans of the Western Fictioneers novel series Wolf Creek would notice that many of the subplots, such as the Chinese criminal kingpin Chang and his importing "hatchet-men" from San Francisco, appeared in that series first. Both series, though, are part of a long tradition of bringing the East to Westerns.

That tradition started in a big way in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s. Before that, the only time you saw Asians in westerns was as servants, most notably the caricature Hop Sing as the family cook on Bonanza (1959-1963). Also notable was Paladin's unfortunately named hotel clerk Hey Boy in Have Gun Will Travel (1957-1963). That show, which featured writing by Gene Roddenberry and was generally more progressive than many westerns, also featured a character named Hey Girl. It did occasionally go beyond the stereotypes and show some elements of the Chinese characters' culture.

But the real East-West conduit was the Japanese director Akira Kurasawa. Chanbara, or sword-fighting films, became extremely popular in Japan after WWII and into the 1970s (oddly enough, also the golden age of the Hollywood western). Kurasawa's chanbara became popular in Europe and the U.S. as well, in part because his style -heavily influenced by American director John Ford -translated well to western audiences. Several of his movies -which often starred Toshiro Mifune -were re-interpreted as westerns: The Seven Samurai (1954) became The Magnificent Seven (1960); Yojimbo (1961) became A Fistful of Dollars (1964); and, less successfully, Rashomon (1950) became The Outrage (1964) -which probably flopped due to the very questionable casting of Paul Newman as a Mexican bandit (!)

Kurasawa's chanbara and westerns had a circular relationship. The samurai movies appealed to American audiences because they felt like westerns; they felt like westerns because Kurasawa was influenced by John Ford; Kurasawa modeled his samurai movies on John Ford westerns because he recognized the cultural similarities.

What similarities? Both these archetypal national heroes -the cowboy and the samurai -can be viewed as representing a romanticized lost way of life, and perhaps a lost attachment to honor. A common theme for both is that they are men out of time, holdovers in a changing world.

These two worlds crossed over in the ultimate way in the 1971 film Red Sun. In the movie, a samurai (Toshiro Mifune) teams up with a gunslinger (Charles Bronson) in the Old West. Unlike previous westerns, Mifune -an international action movie star -is an Asian presented as a capable and sympathetic hero, equal even to the gunslinging cowboy.

It was the popularity of foreign martial arts films which would also bring the Chinese action hero to the western. Kung Fu movies from Hong Kong, dubbed into English, became all the rage in the early '70s -especially those starring Bruce Lee, whose previous American claim to fame was playing Kato on the Green Hornet TV show. He rocketed to international fame with 1973's Enter the Dragon, a joint Hong Kong-American production (he had starred in several Hong Kong productions after his stint on American television.)

But Lee's career trajectory was almost different. In a 1971 TV interview, he talked about pitching an idea to Warner Brothers for a TV series about a Chinese martial artist in the Old West. Such a series was in fact developed -Kung Fu (1972-1975) -with Lee in mind for the lead role, a Shaolin monk named Kwai Chang Caine wandering the West looking for his long-lost American father. In one of the most famous bad decisions of all time, producers decided that Bruce Lee (not yet a superstar) looked too Chinese for the part, and went with David Carradine instead. The show was a huge hit- but what if! {Note: multiple sources tell me this is actually a persistent Hollywood myth, and Lee was not considered- his proposal, The Warrior, was never picked up. But we can engage in wishful thinking! What if Lee's proposed series had been picked up after all?}

Martial arts came to the big-screen western in the 1974 Spanish-Hong Kong production The Stranger and the Gunfighter, starring Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh (at the time one of the major Hong Kong action stars). This "spaghetti western" was produced by the Shaw Brothers, who were titans in the Hong Kong martial arts film industry.

Matthew Baugh helpfully provided this LINK to spaghetti eastern westerns... there were a lot more than I imagined.

Since then, the Easterner in the West -as a hero, though usually teamed with an American cowboy -has become fairly common in various media. In the 1980s there was an adult western series, Lonestar, which teamed a voluptuous cowgirl named Jessie with a Japanese martial artist named Ki. In the mid-90s Marvel Comics had a miniseries called Sunset Riders, which had perennial Marvel western masked man the Two-Gun Kid leading a diverse group that included a samurai named Hijiro Nguri. The early 2000s saw Shanghai Noon and its sequel Shanghai Knights, comedy-action westerns with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson as the kung fu master and the gunfighter.

Richard Prosch informs me there was a short-lived adult western series in the 70s, predating Lone Star, called Sloane. By short-lived, only two volumes, but it was apparently memorable. You can read all about it HERE .

Matthew Baugh reminded me of several 1960s TV shows that had episodes featuring Asian themes/guest stars, including The Rifleman ("The Sixteenth Cousin", 1963), Wanted: Dead or Alive ("Black Belt", 1960), and the over-the-top western comedy F Troop ("From Karate with Love", 1967).


 Here are some more TV episodes:

Wagon Train ("The Sakae Ito Story", 1958)
Laramie ("Dragon at the Door", 1961)
Bonanza ("Day of the Dragon", 1961)
Cheyennne ("Pocketful of Stars", 1962)
Rawhide ("Night of the Geisha", 1963)

In The Wild, Wild West, secret service agent Jim West was trained in the martial arts in Japan and China. There were several Asian-themed episodes, including "The Night the Dragon Screamed" (1966), "The Night of the Samurai" (1967), "The Night of the Camera" (1968), and "The Night of the Pelican" (1968).

I find it interesting that all those TV episodes are from the 1960s (and in one case the late 50s), and almost all of them are focused on Japanese rather than Chinese characters. This is probably a reflection of the growing popularity of Kurasawa samurai movies in the 50s and 60s and the fact kung fu movies had not yet arrived on U.S. shores from Hong Kong.

Similar to the comic book Sunset Riders of two decades ago, the upcoming remake of The Magnificent Seven will have a more diverse group of heroes than one finds in older westerns. This includes South Korean actor Byung-hun Lee as the assassin Billy Rocks. Lee previously played an assassin in the 2008 South Korean film The Good, the Bad, the Weird, a kinda-western remake of the Sergio Leone classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly set in the Manchurian desert in 1939 (Lee took the Lee Van Cleef role as "The Bad."

In recent years Eastern Westerns have been coming out of the East. In 2007 Japanese director Takashi Miike (who has made his share of classic samurai movies in recent years) gave us Sukiyaki Western Django, a pastiche homage to various conventions in both genres. 2010 saw Jang Dong-gun in the New Zealand-South Korean western The Warrior's Way, which co-starred Geoffrey Rush.

In a more serious vein, there have been two well-received movies -one on the big-screen and one on cable -about Chinese women being sold as sex-slaves in the mining camps of the American West. 1991's Thousand Pieces of Gold follows the experience of Lalu (Rosalind Chao) in Idaho, and her efforts to raise the $1,000 price of her freedom. In 2006 AMC aired the mini-series Broken Trail, in which an aging cattleman and his nephew (Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church) risk everything to rescue and protect a group of Chinese women imported to be sold as prostitutes. The production won the Emmy for best mini-series or TV movie, and Duvall and Church both won Emmies for their performance (best lead actor and best supporting actor.)

This theme, also, has been a major subplot in the last season of Hell on Wheels, as hero Cullen Bohannon falls in love with a Chinese woman named Mei who is in hiding as a boy because the villainous Chang "owns" her and wants to force her into prostitution. It is also worth noting that the wife and lost love of the DC western hero Jonah Hex was a Chinese woman named Mei Ling, introduced in 1979 in the story "Massacre of the Celestials" (Jonah Hex #23). Speaking of the western slang-term Celestial, we should note the focus on Chinese in a mining community in HBO's Deadwood (most notably Wu, who could rival Ian McShane's Al Swearengen in villainy.)

Clearly, the day of Asians appearing in westerns only in menial and demeaning, unsympathetic roles is past. Their appearance as either heroes or fully developed supporting characters (or even villains) is no longer out-of-the-ordinary.

A final note: I'm sure I missed some, so if you think of any other examples please let me know!


  1. What a solid, comprehensive overview, Troy. Thanks. And, by the way, I remember watching The Outrage and couldn't quite wrap my mind around Paul Newman playing the role of a Mexican bad guy. Strange casting.

  2. Yeah, Newman had to be the worst White-guy-Mexican. Burt Lancaster did a better job of it in Valdez Is Coming, but it was still jarring and messed up a great Elmore Leonard story. I still wish they'd cast Anthony Quinn or Ricardo Montalban. Or that someone would put Antonio Banderas in a remake, he's at just the right age.

  3. Well done, Troy! One to add: two entries for a minor paperback series called SLOANE by Steve Lee who was really a writer named Michael Parry. The first one is "Man With the Iron Fists," the second: "A Fistful of Hate."

    1. Here's a neat blog post about those:

  4. We've slipped a few into our novels, haven't we? The Ninja named Kei in KATAKI and Wolf Creek. The Okinawan named Shoo Lee in The Snake Den and Diablo. (from my side, anyway)

  5. Fabulous article. Strangely enough I just watched Red Sun yesterday. Bronson played so many undefeatable characters it was refreshing to see him outdone so many times by the Samurai. I was in Hollywood's Musso and Franks early one day and asked the old bartender who was the biggest asshole ever during his 35 year career there...David Carradine, without question. He said no one could hold a candle to him in that particular department.

    1. Sad to hear, but easy to believe. He captured the gentle, humble, and wise character of Caine so well, but was so different in real life. It showed when he got more creative control over the series.

    2. Larry, I've heard that about David Carridine too. And when I worked at the Nat'l. Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum many years ago, he was there for an awards ceremony and yes, he was an a-hole. But so was Jack Palance.

  6. P.S. in my Devil's Bounty, set in SF, I had lots of Chinese, as well as in the only book co-written with my wife, Tin Angel. The first was set around the Barracoons, an interesting time in California history (slavery personified)

  7. Excellent piece. I always wished they had done more with Hey Girl. Lisa Lu was such an appealing actress and they *almost* gave her some non-stereotypical things to do.

    I've always loved Red Sun. It's anachronistic--the Meiji emperor was relentlessly modernizing Japan by the 1870s and would never have used a pair of old-school samurai to guard a treasure. But I can excuse that because the contrast of the two heroes is wonderful.

    I'm afraid the story that Bruce Lee was passed over for Kung Fu is a Hollywood myth. They obviously went with whitewashing the character by choosing Carradine, but Lee was never considered for the role.

    There are a lot of fun examples of martial artists in old TV westerns. Robert Conrad's character had studied both Japanese kenjitsu and Chinese kung fu in Wild Wild West, and faced killers from both countries. A visiting samurai appeared in an episode of the Rifleman, a samurai karate expert appeared in F-Troop, and a karate expert was featured on an episode of Wanted Dead or Alive. The last made me laugh when I finally saw it. The fighter was named Sammy Chang and he was a karate expert from Korea, cause...Japan, China, Korea, they're all prrety much the same place, right?


    1. Thanks for the clarification... but it does make for good wishful thinking!

    2. I remember that Rifleman episode now!

    3. Um, no Karate in Japan until after the Meiji Restoration. Invented in Okinawa, which was an independent kingdom until 1879. Korea, of course, is tai kwan doh and Chinese kung-fu, but we all know that, right?

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    6. Hi guys,

      I have to put in my two cents about the "Wanted Dead or Alive" episode "Black Belt."

      Yes, the character played by Robert Kino, "Sammy Wong" (not "Chang") was "Korean", but the reason why he was written to be Korean was because the most well-known exponent of Karate, known to Americans at that time, was Masutatsu Oyama, the head of the Kyokushin-kai. He was, of course, a Japanese citizen of Korean ancestry.

      Besides being the inspiration for "Sammy Wong", he's also the inspiration for the "Shuto" character played by Japanese American wrestler "Fuji" in 1959's "The Crimson Kimono" as well as the inspiration for Ian Fleming's "Oddjob" character in "Goldfinger."

      All of those characters were written as Koreans who were experts at Karate, and in the case of "The Crimson Kimono", "Shuto" was a Korean Karate expert who could kill bulls with his bare hands (just like what was claimed for Mas Oyama.) 😋

      So yes, even though Karate is an Okinawan martial art descended from Southern Chinese martial arts, and brought to the Japanese mainland from Okinawa in the 1920's, making Karate experts be of Korean descent in 1950's and 1960's American television shows, movies, and novels (okay, the James Bond novel is British) makes "sense." 😊

      Anyway, great blog guys and very informative.

      I will be looking for that episode of "Laramie" because of this.

  8. Oh, what about The Master Gunfighter with Tom Laughlin as the gunfighter/samurai in 1840s California? I've heard a lot about it but never seen it. It sounds like a very odd movie.

    1. I take that back- I do remember watching a few minutes of it once, but I just couldn't take it!

  9. There's a great East Meets West page on this Spaghetti Western page. The only one I've seen is My Name is Shanghai Joe, which is fin.

  10. Great recap, Troy. I'm hoping my exchange son, Shogen, gets a role in an American western someday. We taught him how to ride, so he's good to go. :) He did play the lead villain in The Seven Samurai remake that we haven't been able to see yet here.

  11. Quite thorough - I've a story on the back burner where my lads' Chinese laundrymen hire them for a case...

  12. You made the point well that I have been saying for years. Ford and Kurasawa are giants in the film industry and their influence is legion.

    You also make a very good case for the growth of the Asian's growth as a major character in westerns and cinama in general. Doris

  13. Troy, THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER was a pale imitation of Hideo Gosha's GOYOKIN, a masterpiece. Any and all of Gosha's samurai films are worth finding. THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI and SWORD OF THE BEAST are essentially western plots in samurai guise.

  14. I agree with those who have commented already that this a fascinating and informative post. Thanks for the labor of love that went into researching and writing it, Troy. It's of special interest to me, as Asians play pivotal roles in my novels, Strong Convictions and Strong Suspicions.

    I remember when I first I heard about the significant role of the Chinese in Hell on Wheels. My sister--who had just finished reading Strong Convictions--called to tell me, "Hey, I'm so excited about this TV series! It's about the Chinese out West in Truckee, just like your book!" Well, not just like in my book, but it was certainly enough to get me to take a look at Hell on Wheels again after having taken a break from the series for a while.

    Thanks again, Troy, both for bringing back some old memories (like Bonanza's Hop Sing) and for making me aware of Westerns I was not aware of that featured significant Asian characters.

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