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Elvis Presley Gladiators: The 1974 Elvis Karate Legacy Project

tn_elvisgladiatorsI know Elvis never meant shit to Chuck D, but I kind of like him. I’m not a huge fan or follower, never been to Graceland (yet), but he’s kind of interesting to me. I’m mostly fascinated by his earlier music and his later persona. And I’m especially interested in the fact that he did karate. Maybe if this portion of his life had been made more public it wouldn’t seem that cool, but as it is it’s kind of a mystery. Here’s this iconic part of pop culture, now more of a character than a human being, and you associate him with certain things, but kicking ass is not usually one of them. The juxtaposition of The King and karate is kind of hilarious and awesome to me.

mp_elvisgladiatorsWell, here’s a DVD that promises to mine that uncharted territory for new gems. The packaging and press releases explain, “For nearly two decades, Elvis Presley practiced the art of karate with skill and enormous dedication. The discipline brought a thrilling new physicality to his film and stage performances, but fans have never before had the chance to see the King in authentic action. [This DVD] provides exactly that opportunity, bringing together footage from Elvis’ never-completed martial arts epic The New Gladiators along with insightful commentary by fellow-enthusiast Wayne Carman who was with Elvis when much of the footage was shot.”

Wait a minute, what? Elvis was working on a karate movie called THE NEW GLADIATORS? Why didn’t they finish it with doubles, GAME OF DEATH style? We gotta see this! We gotta know more! Unfortunately, this DVD is itself never-completed. It doesn’t explain jack shit. It seems like a bunch of DVD extras with no feature.

From what I can gather, THE NEW GLADIATORS was not a “martial arts epic,” it was a documentary about karate. When you click “PLAY VIDEO” on this DVD what it does is play the rough footage they shot for the documentary, which is less than an hour of multiple angle footage of Elvis, Red West and a couple karate champions doing a demonstration at the Tennessee Karate Institute in 1974. The sound is too garbled to make out, so the aforementioned “Wayne Carman who was with Elvis when much of the footage was shot” gives his commentary sort of explaining some of what’s going on.

Carman helpfully explains important details like that they bow to each other alot in martial arts, but not any context of what this documentary was supposed to be or why it wasn’t finished. For the most part the DVD is approached as if you know what’s going on and it doesn’t want to insult you by explaining it. So any information you glean is by accident.

Carman mentions that Elvis studied Kenpo, Taikwando and “a Japanese style in the military.” He also says,”Elvis wanted to promote the TCB system, the face, spirit and discipline of it, as a way of taking care of business and doing it in an honorable, fashionable way.” I didn’t know that Elvis had his own style of karate called TCB, but I pretended I already knew so that Wayne wouldn’t look down on me.

I wish they had either tried to complete the documentary as well as possible, or (maybe better) incorporate this footage and other things into an overview of Elvis’s interest and history in martial arts. How did he start? How serious was he? What do other people who were there have to say about it? What other footage of photos are available? Can we see a hilarious montage of these stage moves you say were influenced by karate? etc.

What they have instead doesn’t come anywhere close to a real movie experience, but it is kind of cool to see. Elvis is sweaty and tired looking, but it seems like he’s actually pretty good. Like Seagal in LAWMAN, he demonstrates how to disarm a guy who’s coming at you with a gun. He also mimes a neck snapping move at one point, and tiger style eye raking.

The best thing about it is Elvis’ karate uniform. He has a robe (Gi?) with “EP” stitched on the back in pseudo-Asian font. Under that he wears his trademark embroidered bellbottoms and even has a collar sticking out. Alot of the time he’s wearing boots and sunglasses. And you can see his jewelry hanging out at times. A couple times Carman says that people would ask why he wore sunglasses or boots in the dojo, and Carman would say, “Because he’s Elvis.”

The extras – which really shouldn’t be called extras in this case because there’s not enough to fulfill the regular duty of a DVD let alone have extras leftover – include an audio interview with Carman where he comes a little closer to explaining what the documentary project was about and why it fell apart. Sort of.

One highlight is his story about the gladiators choosing animal names. The master decided Elvis should be Black Panther, which Elvis thought was awesome and Carman thought was perfect because “he looked like a panther, just pretty and black.”

But after he got home Elvis started thinking about black militants, and called the master on the phone. “I don’t wanna be disrespectful, but would it be okay if I changed my animal name?” And he became Mister Tiger.

Actually the coolest feature on the DVD for me was “1968 Comeback Special Karate Cut,” which is several takes of a karate scene that I guess was in the special. If I was familiar with this scene already it wouldn’t have been impressive, but I wasn’t. Elvis is on a set, lip synching “It Hurts Me” to a woman, when suddenly a bunch of dudes (some of them the same guys we saw in the dojo) start attacking him, and he fends them off with karate, even picking up one guy and airplane spinning him, and doing a move where he jumps onto a guy, falls onto his back, somersaults and kicks the guy in the air. Since we see multiple takes we also see that he does the entire routine all at once, knowing all the moves real well.

This would make amazing Youtube footage, but not a good DVD. Still, I’m glad there is this record of Elvis’s TCB style of karate. After A CHRISTMAS CAROL we were discussing that idea of how some day they might digitally create movies with dead celebrities and all that shit. Well, here’s what that technology was made for. Somebody needs to make a movie in the style of the Elvis musicals as they would’ve looked if they were made for the martial arts movie fans of the mid ’70s. And Elvis’s fighting style could be based on the moves we see here. That’s a movie that should exist, and somebody should spend hundreds of millions of dollars correcting the fact that it doesn’t.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, January 11th, 2010 at 2:00 pm and is filed under Documentary, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

31 Responses to “Elvis Presley Gladiators: The 1974 Elvis Karate Legacy Project”

  1. I wonder if Segal can do a decent Elvis impersonation. (I suspect the answer is yes…)

    Also, first. {g} THANKyaverymuch.

  2. Elvis actually did karate? I thought that was some kind of post-ironic-meta thing that hipsters put into their comics and cartoons and sketch comedy and whatnot. Wow, that’s awesome, it puts Bubba-Ho Tep in a much cooler light, if that’s possible.

  3. Chuck D’s line about Elvis being a racist always kind of pissed me off. As far as I know, the closest thing Elvis ever said that could be interpreted as a racist remark was that the collective breath of his back-up singers smelled like catfish one night. Which I guess is racist, but not as bad as…you know, associating with vehement anti-semites. Anyway, it also pissed me off that ‘Coffee & Cigarettes’ repeated the outright lie that Elvis once said something to the effect of “The only thing a negro can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.” Don’t people do research before engaging in post-mortem slander?

  4. I saw this (or footage of Karate Elvis) a few years ago. It was my understanding that Elvis just hired a bunch of guys who basically fell to the floor whenever Elvis gave them even a light karate chop or kick.
    I found it to be hilarious.

  5. I didn’t knew , but , damn , this is awesome . The line “For nearly two decades, Elvis Presley practiced the art of karate” is kind of familiar . This huge icon , that you know for something else , was doing all this other interesting things . Yes , it’s like Seagal , that for decades was also a cop , a swords expert , a bluesman and a dog trainer , but in reverse , now we know that Elvis karate-kicked ass . I don’t know , but the musical component seems to be a link between all this ass kickers : Kris Kristofferson , Steven Seagal , Clint Eastwood. And even good old Jean Claude Van Damme has this unstoppable urge to dance , only , in his case , it’s not really all that cool.
    But juxtaposition nonetheless.

  6. Can you imagine , if he was alive here , today , his reality TV show ? “Elvis : Everyday Ninja “. With his own spin on the Seagal vision , the Royal Vision .

  7. I watched this the other day and the narration by Wayne Carman absolutely killed me. That guy says some really bizarre shit. Like when he said of one of the martial artists: “That man truly loved the laws of physics.”
    But the highlight is Elvis’ TCB Karate. I always thought that Taking Care of Business was just some weird Elvis catch-phrase, I didn’t know it was the name he made up for his style of karate. Like Vern said, he’s surprisingly good and takes it really seriously, but Vern didn’t mention that it looks like he’s wasted off his ass on queludes the whole time. For most of the video he’s stumbling around with his eyes half-closed, covered in sweat, seeming to not know where he is, then he suddenly starts throwing kicks and punches with this scary Sonny Chiba-like intensity and looks like he could really kick somebody’s ass.

    Cause that’s how Elvis takes care of business.

    So you’ve got that weirdness complemented by the half-remembered drunken ramblings of a guy who just happened to be hanging around at the time. Vern’s right that it’s a half-assed amateur-hour dvd, but I still found the whole thing pretty entertaining.

  8. David Lambert – Or that story where when Elvis went to Las Vegas in the late 1960s and at the news conference, some reporter called him “King of Rock n Roll” and Elvis thought Fats Domino deserved that title more.

    Elvis was a good ole boy, but really if blacks want to exact revenge at the 50s/60s white guys for covering their music and making their money…..piss at Pat Boone. Not excusing Elvis, but the guy at least put his own unique cool flavor and swagger on his covers. Which is what you want from a good remake.

    I don’t know if its still there, but on YouTube you could find that clip of B.B. King talking about how back on Beale Street (Memphis) in the early 1950s, he remembered nobody Elvis hanging around with the black musicians, playing music, chilling out and shit.

    Didn’t Chuck D to a degree cool down on the Elvis line? John Wayne on the other hand, fuck him.

  9. There is nothing like Elvis lore. His wife Priscilla was Scientologist. One day Elvis (being a spiritual guy seeking enlightenment) decided to visit them. He went in while some of the Memphis Mafia people waited outside. Couple of minutes later Elvis came back. He said “Them fuckers only want my money.” And then they rode off.

    Also, in the last Elvis movie A Change Of Habit his characters’ name is John Carpenter. Sadly the director’s name wasn’t.

  10. RRA, I didn’t know Chuck D cooled down on the Elvis line. Seems I’m somewhat guilty of what I was complaining about. I like John Wayne, I know people that knew Wayne and said he was a wonderful man (including a Mexican immigrant who said Wayne treated him as well as he had ever been treated by anyone), but Wayne said some horrendously shitty things later in his life. I’d like to think it was hyperbole spurned on by old man bitterness at the changing social climate, but even then that’s not even close to an excuse.

    I am still pissed at Michael Moore for trying to paint Chuck Heston as a racist but that’s another story altogether.

  11. Lambert – Supposedly he cooled down, I don’t have a reference for that. Just what I heard. On that VH1 Top 100 Rap songs special (which “Fight the Power” was #1), Chuck D. didn’t seem to have budged from his position. Maybe more diplomatic, like fuck Elvis the image than the guy. Or something.

    Wayne was such a great movie presence, and yes even a good actor when a director (John Ford, Howard Hawks) makes him bother. But then I can’t accept his shit about dodging the draft during WW2. So he had a career and a family? He wasn’t the only one. Dudes like Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, all served. Wayne made money at home. Which is why I admire other American “badass” icons like Bronson and Marvin, both who did serve. Even Clint Eastwood during Korea.

    And yeah I’m with you on Heston. Honestly the guy kinda went nuts with the NRA and all that, but a racist? I mean how can Michael Moore say that? Heston marched publicly for the Civil Rights cause. He just…liked his guns.

    Then again, bullshit like that is why I don’t Moore. Which is sad because he has and makes so many potent points in his documentaries that are tainted and ignored by millions of people. All because of the messenger. Also his Mother Jones editorial stint really really is…….well, not good for the good causes.

  12. David Lambert — well, in all fairness, don’t think Moore was trying to make Heston look like a racist. Watch the footage and you can see Moore kind of drop his jaw as Heston starts to flail around connecting race and crime. Moore was going after him on gun ownership and Chuck did all the racial stuff himself.

    That having been said, there’s absolutely no question that as a younger man Heston was a devoted and fearless advocate of civil rights, and that’s something that can’t just shrug off. Hell, if Marion Berry can stil get credit for it, I think Heston deserves o be cut a little slack. I think Heston, like many people of the era, pushed hard in his youth but by the end of his life felt like the cause had gone too far and passed into an area where he had to oppose it. Does that make him a racist? Well, I’d argue it makes him less than enlightened, but look – people are complicate. To Summerize a life into a single adjective is to say nothing meaningful at all. I mean, Andrew Jackson, arguably the architect of one of the cruelist, most gleeful, and most successful genocides in history, adopted an Indian child as his own. Was he a racist? Yup. But he was a lot of other things, too. I think the same could probably be said for Wayne and (probably to a lesser degree) Heston.

  13. I once saw Chuck D talking about the Elvis line at a concert. He said that he actually liked Elvis’s music, but that he resented him getting credit as the king of rock n roll. The song obviously calls Elvis a racist (“straight up racist, the sucker was simple and plain”) but I think if you take it along with “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” (a reference to the Elvis stamp that was a big deal at the time) it can be interpreted as more of an attack on cultural institutions and who is honored and who’s not than on Elvis as a person. Chuck always said that “simple and plain” meant Elvis had the typical attitudes of a Southern white man of his era. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

  14. Mr. Subtlety, it’s hard to gauge what Heston means when he refers to a ‘mixed ethnicity’ especially since the interview is poorly structured and edited. He obviously doesn’t mean it in a racist manner, because he immediately speaks about civil rights and how the country initially rejected the efforts to bring them about (and we all know his efforts to further civil rights). I think there’s confusion between Moore and Heston, with Heston talking about America having blood on its hands in a historical sense (the Indians, the Blacks, etc.) and Moore interpreting it as Heston referring to minorities killing each other. If anything, Heston seems to be taking America to task for its racist violence. Given his history, I wouldn’t doubt that this is his point. Watch the interview again. I think you’ll see what I mean. Whether that’s a wrong interpretation, there’s certainly no way to squeeze racism out of what Heston’s saying. It’s just too muddled and confused.

  15. I see Chuck D’s point, but that’s no reason to attack someone who clearly was NOT racist. If D wanted to attack the industry that called Elvis “The King” then he should have, y’know, attacked the industry that called Elvis “The King”. But then, that wouldn’t be quite as iconoclastic and shocking, right? I think it’s quite shameful what D did. To say Elvis had ‘the typical attitudes of a Southern white man of his era’ is prejudiced in and of itself. How does Chuck D know that? Since we know the ‘shining shoes’ quote is bunk what does D have to go on? Or is he just assuming Elvis was bigoted because of where he came from? I have a feeling D heard the quote, needed some shocking shit to say, didn’t bother checking up on it, and figured “Hey, he was a white Southerner, of course he was racist!” It’s shameful, Charles. Shameful.

    P.S. Sorry for derailing the comments.

  16. Motherfuck him AND John Wayne.

  17. My favorite Elvis song is “Kentucky Rain.” Just a sappy country song about a man hitchhiking the backroads of the American south, looking for his wayward love. The song takes on a whole new meaning now that I know that man had developed his own style of karate.

  18. David — well, I dunno. It sounds pretty iffy in my opinion, but ultimately it’s hard to try and extrapolate much from it because of Heston’s deteriorating mental condition at the time of the interview (slightly before his public diagnosis) and I’ll certainly warrent that he’s struggling to express himself properly. Just because he supported ending segregation and fought for civil rights (and I don’t at all mean to diminish his actions, which were borderline heroic at the time) doesn’t automatically make him immune from racist attitudes, though. Plenty of well-meaning folks fought for those causes but later retreated from the idea of a plurality of cultures in America (they thought melting pot, not multiculturalism, in a lot of cases).

    I don’t know if Heston was among those or not, though he swung conservative on many issues (not just guns) towards the end of his life. For that reason, though, I don’t think we can merely discount that interpretation from the Moore inteview — and at the very least, I think you can hardly blame Moore for the way it looks (its not a great interview, but I don’t think he’s trying to frame Heston as a racist (its not like he leads him to that response or anything).

    Moreover, I think its worth noting that the word “racist” means different things to different people and we often forget that it has various degrees. Elvis and Heston may have treated other races with dignity and class in an era where they usually weren’t, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily wanted them living in their neighborhoods or marrying their daughters. Not to say that they would have objected to that either, I dont know.

    So what am I trying to say? I guess I don’t mean to particularly go after Heston or the King, who were paragons of racial tolerance as far as I know. I just figure racism is a kind of slippery, subtle thing, and I doubt there are many Americans out there even today who are completely and totally free of it, much less in Elvis and Heston’s time. That’s why I always try to play the “people are complicated” card. I guess I don’t really believe in anyone as an unblemished beacon of virtue, but rather flawed as people who do the right thing in the end. Predictably, most of my heros don’t appear on no stamps.

  19. They should give Chuck D a stamp just to fuck with him.

  20. I think they should just make stamps of out people who are heroes to no one. Steve Guttenberg. Paul W. S. Anderson. Ray J Johnson. Jeff Lynne. Jared from Subway.

  21. Mr. Majestyk – I’m with you on Kentucky Rain. In fact, that is one of my favorite songs of all time.

    I also think that Stallone should have ended a Rocky movie with American Trilogy (Maybe Rocky III would make the most sense) although I’m glad he didn’t because I would STILL be crying.

  22. It would have been neat to see Elvis use his karate in It Happened at The World Fair after Kurt Russell cock-blocked him and kicked him in the shin again.

  23. nabroleon_dynamite

    January 13th, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Elvis was a racist in the Martin Luther King sense that he NEVER took a stand against what he knew was going on all around him while taking ADVANTAGE of the benefits.

    When black music peers were treated like dirt and elvis was being treated like the king, he had no problem with it, so like flav said “Fuck him and john wayne.”

  24. Elvis was a Cajun.

  25. an elvis karate movie.
    I was working on something similar.
    no new concepts.

  26. Never took a stand? What about when he refused to perform at the Houston Astrodome without his black backing singers when told they weren’t welcome? (“No Sweets, No Elvis!”) – and when the racist promoter’s daughter was made to drive them in an open convertible to the stage?
    He was openly respectful of his fellow black performers. To say he “had no problem” with black people being treated like dirt is unfounded nonsense.
    As civil rights photographer Ernest Withers put it: “Elvis was a great man. He did more for civil rights than people know. To call him racist is an insult to us all.”
    Even Chuck D. later said: “Elvis was a brilliant artist. As a musicologist – and I consider myself one – there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions. As a black people, we all knew that. Eminem is the new Elvis because, number one, he had the respect for black music that Elvis had.”

  27. Last night they replayed a VH1 show where “Fight the Power” was chosen as the #1 hip hop song of all time. They showed Chuck D first say something nice about Elvis (something about him having respect for black music) then said “but the finger is still up for John Wayne.” It’s obviously edited but the impression it gives is that Chuck has changed his mind about Elvis.

    They don’t mention karate at all, though.

  28. Hey Hamslime, on your say-so, I checked out the live version of An American Trilogy. I am listening to it right now, and it is getting me through a very long night at work. When the flutes kick in at the end I can physically feel my urge to kill abating. It’s like when Jennifer Connelly shows up in San Francisco in Ang Lee’s Hulk.

  29. BlackRockerStudBrett1953

    October 1st, 2010 at 8:18 am

    Like all black nationalist mountebanks,Chuck D’s a lying mountebank!!!
    First,Elvis ALWAYS expressed remorse about Dr. King’s assassination,and special
    embarrassment that it occurred in Memphis,Tenn.,Elvis home-town.
    Second,Elvis ALWAYS admitted that Little Richard and Chuck Berry were the true
    “Kings of Rock And Roll.”
    Third,Instead of swallowing the line that he was killed by a madam in her whore-
    house,Elvis opined that his label-mate,Sam Cooke,was a Mob hit because Cooke
    failed to sell “the boys” Cooke’s record company.
    Fourth,Ali and Elvis WERE CLOSE BUDS.
    Any more examples of Elvis’ lack of racism.(And Elvis,unlike Chuck D.,wasn’t a
    disgusting Anti-Semite and homphobe.)
    In closing,for this a**_clown Chuck D. to say nothing has changed for blacks since Public Enemy should go back 74 years(Oct. 1,1936)when my parents,
    Everett F. “Ace” Baylis and Gwendolyn Josephine Turner were married.Dad was
    a lumberjack middleweight boxing champion(yes,boys,there ARE black lumber-
    jacks!!!)who didn’t turn pro because of the overt,violent racism(even in Detroit,
    across the Detroit River from Windsor,Ont.,Can.,where I’ve lived my entire
    57 years;Mom was a native Detroiter)which Dad,A REAL MAN,NOT A DEMAGOGIC A**-WIPE LIKE CHUCK D.,would NOT have tolerated,likely at the
    cost of his life.

  30. Mr. Subtlety: Jeff Lynne deserves his own stationary.

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