Many years ago I was seeing a new dentist for my annual check-up. After learning that I wrote movie reviews and mistakenly assuming I somehow had pull in Hollywood (!), this young dentist -- him hovering over me with sharp instruments and me helpless in the chair wearing a bib -- proceeded to tell me about his screenplay. In exhaustive detail. For more than three hours. My teeth and gums picked and prodded all the while, I sat there listening to this epic, wacky religious fable until the other patients and nurses had long since gone home and we were the only two people left in the building.
Had his screenplay actually been filmed, it might have looked something like Circle of Iron (1978), a sincere but supremely goofy blend of Zen philosophy, Islamic fables, and martial arts action. It's hard to resist a project conceived by Bruce Lee, James Coburn, an Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant -- but please try. You'll thank me later.
The story is a Homer-esque flavored odyssey, with Cord (Jeff Cooper) an undisciplined martial artist searching for enlightenment. Against the wishes of White Robe (Roddy McDowall), Cord begins a quest for The Book which holds the secret of wisdom, held by the apparently evil Zetan (Christopher Lee). But before he can reach Zetan, Cord must pass various trials, including battles with Monkeyman (David Carradine), a panther-like man in black tights identified in the credits as Death (also Carradine, though unrecognizable), and chieftain Chang-sha (Carradine, with Akim Tamiroff accent).
Along the way, Cord also meets a blind sage (Carradine, natch, as a kind of testy Keye Luke) and a Man in Oil (Eli Wallach) trying to dissolve his genitalia by immersing himself waist-deep in a giant gold pot.
As quoted in the Internet Movie Database, Circle of Iron is ripe with dialogue like this memorable exchange:
Chang-sha : Have you eaten? Where's your drink? Your hand is empty.
Cord : Peace.
Chang-sha : [laughs] Don't wish it on me. The whole world is in commotion and you wish me peace! I don't know what peace is, I don't want it. Don't you listen to the desert? Even when there's no wind the sand sings.
Cord : My name is Cord.
Chang-sha : Ha! You see? Cord!
[laughs] Play a Cord, strike a chord? Even your name is a noise! What do you want, Cord? You want us to play on you? My wives can make your skin sing.
There's an almost sweet dopiness about scenes like these, but hard to swallow as serious spiritual discourse, especially when Chang-sha, with his long frizzy hair, hairy mustache and sequined gowns, looks like magician Doug Henning.
The picture might have been tolerable if the martial arts sequences delivered, but they don't, looking more like something out of TV's Kung Fu than anything Bruce Lee ever did. Match-ups are shot and edited like ordinary Hollywood fist-fights, failing to show off several real-life martial artists as well as they might. The picture was shot in Israel, and cinematographer Ronnie Taylor does make the most of the well-chosen locations. Set in a mythical world, the art direction is a smorgasbord of cultures and ages, mostly Arabian Nights Middle Eastern, Asian, and Euro-Medieval, but rather than give the story an air of universality and timelessness, the effect instead resembles a third season episode of the original Star Trek.
Cooper, as the saying goes, has a great face for radio. Take away his impressively sculpted pecs, and he has the screen charisma of a plumber. His odd features -- surfer-dude hair, cat-like mouth -- closely resemble Jack Nicholson's Joker without the green hair and white makeup. Though third-billed, Cooper dominates Circle of Iron, despite Carradine's multiple roles, while second-billed Christopher Lee's role is limited to the film's last 10 minutes. For his part, Lee is shrewdly cast against type, smartly playing against audience expectations.
Video & Audio
As usual for Blue Underground, Circle of Iron is another near-flawless transfer in 16:9 anamorphic format. The elements sourced bear the film's intended title, The Silent Flute, and the picture runs a bit over 96 minutes, not 102 as listed on the IMDB and elsewhere. Though originally rated "R," this version of the film at least is quite tame. The mono sound is clean and clear. There are no subtitles.
Playing the Silent Flute is a 14-minute documentary on the production in 16:9 format featuring an interview with star David Carradine. It's a good show, though Cooper is barely mentioned and conspicuously absent. Director Richard Moore doesn't appear in the documentary, but does discuss the film with Blue Underground's David Gregory on the DVD's audio commentary track.
Also included is a 16:9 trailer (which also refers to the film as The Silent Flute), and three 30-second TV spots (as Circle of Iron) in 4:3 format. An alternate title sequence bears the Circle of Iron moniker; it's in 16:9 format but appears sourced from a very old tape master, maybe even a VHS tape.
Bruce Lee's "The Silent Flute": A History, written by Davis Miller and Klae Moore, is an excellent text supplement, providing more details on the film's origins. Finally, the DVD includes the usual poster & still galleries plus a First Draft Screenplay by Lee, Coburn, and Silliphant, accessible in DVD-ROM format.
Had Bruce Lee played Carradine's roles and James Coburn played Cord, Circle of Iron would likely have been an embarrassingly bad movie with good martial arts sequences, though the go-for-broke attitude of both their script and the movie that resulted is commendable. It's entertaining enough to qualify as a Midnight Movie, and Blue Underground's superlative treatment of the title push this up a notch into "Rent It." Hea - vy.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.