I'm fairly certain I saw 1979's Circle of Iron, either at the theaters or later on cable, back when it came out (one or two scenes were hazily familiar), but quite honestly, the whole endeavor has slipped from my mind. Having just watched this moderately elaborate Zen-influenced combination of comedy, mysticism and martial arts, I'm not surprised it did float away: let's just say that even though it's only been a few hours since watching Circle of Iron, I'm glad I took notes. All over this newly remastered, two-disc "Kick Ass" Special Edition of Circle of Iron, the name "Bruce Lee" figures prominently. We're reminded that this was Lee's "dream project," and that it was "written by Lee and James Coburn." Well, as anyone can imagine who knows even the tiniest bit about filmmaking, just coming up with an idea - perhaps even coming up with an initial script - doesn't guarantee that that particular vision will make it to the screen intact, especially when other writers eventually work on it. Circle of Iron was made five years after Lee's death; it's not one of his pictures, despite what the DVD box would have you believe. This is a David Carradine and Jeff Cooper film, co-written by Stirling Silliphant and Stanley Mann. And that's a very different thing than a Bruce Lee film.
Following the standard cliched martial arts story of the "young man in search of enlightenment through a series of death-defying physical, spiritual, and mental challenges" (which would have bored even Joseph Campbell after seeing it for the umpteenth time), Cord the Seeker (Jeff Cooper, who looks like Peter Frampton on 'roids), battles to win the chance to find evil wizard Zetan (Christopher Lee), who jealously guards The Book of All Knowledge. White Robe (Roddy McDowall, who wears a black skull cap with long black tails that makes him look exactly like Droopy Dog) judges Cord disqualified because he struck his opponent Morthond (Anthony de Longis) while he was down on the ground. Challenging the wisdom of White Robe, Cord defies his ruling, and follows the winner Morthond on his mission. Morthond isn't too happy about this, but there's little he can do to stop the persistent, impetuous Cord.
On the first night of their journey, Cord spies The Blind Man (David Carradine), who enters a ruined castle and fights off an army of attackers with only his long flute (that's not a euphemism - it's actually his musical instrument). Later, Cord enjoys an apple with The Blind Man, who can cleanly split the fruit with his bare hands. Sensing this is a man of many talents beside just culinary, Cord asks to be trained by The Blind Man, but he only smiles at the silly boy Cord. Unfortunately for Morthond, he fails his first test against the Monkey Men (I swear to god), but Cord, who had earlier watched The Blind Man fend off a little Monkey Boy (again, not kidding), understands how to beat them, and he lays waste to the main MonkeyMan (David Carradine in Role #2). Surviving his first challenge, the MonkeyMan gives him the clue to his next challenge, which is to "find a rose in the desert."
Cord comes upon a desert oasis, where wandering chieftain Chang Sha (Carradine again, who throws a hell of an orgy, complete with fireworks and acrobats) offers his wife Tara (Erica Creer) to the weary traveler. Unfortunately, Cord has taken a vow of celibacy, which he quickly (and intelligently) throws out the window the minute Tara gets naked (he's no fool, our Cord the Seeker). Waking up in the middle of the empty desert, Chang Sha's caravans and tents gone, Cord finds Tara crucified in a particularly nasty way; Cord learns that sleeping with Tara wasn't a challenge he failed (or at least we assume he didn't fail in that department), but rather a lesson learned. Chang Sha will be the final obstacle for Cord on his journey to meeting Zetan, with encounters on the way with a marauding cavalry band (in an embarrassingly inept action sequence), a stereotypical Borscht Belt-bickering Jewish couple (Circle of Iron was filmed in Israel), and Death himself (Carradine again, this time in a black leotard like something out of Cats). Will Cord the Seeker find true enlightenment in his search for Zetan and The Book of All Knowledge?
Circle of Iron strikes me as one of those fun mind games that movie fans like to discuss in terms of "what if," particularly because Bruce Lee and James Coburn were associated with the initial conception. A large part of its validity stems from fans saying, "This is almost a Bruce Lee film!" Well, it's not even close, even if Lee did come up with the story. Who knows what would have been changed, had production actually started with Lee and Coburn? Film sets are fluid creative endeavors, where scenes can be reshaped or even jettisoned if they're not working. What would Lee have done with Silliphant's script? Who knows? According to the extras included on this DVD, Lee himself rejected the script when he had become a big star (so much for Lee's "dream project"). But we do know what producer Sandy Howard did with it - he brought in another writer, Stanley Mann. Everyone knows Silliphant's track record (In the Heat of the Night, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure), and Mann had some interesting films as well to his credit (among them The Mouse That Roared, The Collector and A High Wind in Jamaica). But both writers had their fair share of dogs, too (Silliphant was responsible for The Swarm and Shaft in Africa, while Mann penned Russian Roulette, Meteor, and Conan the Destroyer, among others). So despite the almost willful fantasy that some fans of Circle of Iron have with regards to Lee's involvement with the film, Circle of Iron is really the work of others, and as such, shouldn't be given the cache it somehow enjoys today.
That being said, Circle of Iron fails to deliver even a modicum of excitement necessary for such a film, with a hokey, hazy script that delivers some real whoppers in the camp department, as well as fight scenes that play at half speed with little or no contact. The script is a muddle, with sequences that meander on with absolutely no payoff (the notorious Eli Wallach sequence, as The Man in Oil, who's trying to soak away his lower half, plays like a deleted El Topo scene), while delivering some unintentionally hilarious dialogue. It's hard to choose just one example, but during their interminable journey, Cord the Seeker and The Blind Man engage in this conversation:"How long have you been blind?"
"How long have you been blind?"
"I'm not blind"
"Do you always answer a question with a question?"
"Do you question every answer?" It's priceless exchanges like the above that often times makes Circle of Iron sound like a Zen Who's On First? ("I'm not asking you where Zetan took The Book of Knowledge!" "Oh, he's found total enlightenment!" "Third base!").
All of that silliness would be forgiven, though, if the action scenes had just delivered, but unfortunately, they play quite tamely, with the actors appearing as if they're rehearsing them at half speed, not actually performing them. We rarely see hard contact, and when we do (as in the first fight sequence with The Blind Man and his numerous attackers), it's so poorly lit that most of the action is obscured. Big close-ups dominant some of the scenes, so we can't even see the hand and foot work, and many of the fights end with no winner. Yes, I know that's the ultimate point of this Zen-based film, but frankly, my philosophy lessons go down a lot smoother when I'm allowed to have my bone-crunching, head-busting, ass-whomping martial arts sequences, too. After all, this is still just a B chop-socky flick, despite its pretensions, so at least deliver the goods. Director Richard Moore (who was one of Hollywood's top cinematographers in the 60s, with great-looking films like Sometimes a Great Notion and The Reivers) proves the old Hollywood adage that most talented cinematographers don't necessarily translate into good feature film directors; this was his solo feature film effort. There's just no drive to Circle of Iron, no internal engine that keeps the thing moving. And with precious little action to recommend it, we're stuck with the Hallmark card/Zen banalities of the script. Seriously, even bad episodes of Kung Fu had more zip than this failed effort.
On the second disc, we have Playing The Silent Flute, a fourteen minute interview with David Carradine that already appeared on the 2004 DVD release. It's pretty funny to hear Carradine say Lee had turned arrogant at the end of his life. Next, we have a new featurette, The Producer, a twenty-nine minute interview with co-producer Paul Maslansky that moves quickly and gives out a ton of useful information on movie producing in general, as well as info on this particular production. Next, we have Karate Master, a thirty-one minute interview with Joe Lewis, the martial arts coordinator of the film. The Jaguar Lives star has some fairly unvarnished things to say about Carradine while he recounts his career, and appears to confirm that the martial arts scenes in Circle of Iron aren't exactly top-notch. It's a really lively interview, and a lot of fun. Next, there's a twenty-five minute audio interview with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, conducted by John Corcoran in 1980 for Kick magazine. It's a cool extra, with Silliphant discussing his fascination with martial arts as well as the production of Circle of Iron. Text written by Silliphant, remembering his work with Bruce Lee, is included. Next, we have the text Bruce Lee's The Silent Flute: A History, written by Davis Miller and Klae Moore, which was included in the 2004 DVD edition. As well, the poster and still galleries, and the DVD-ROM feature of the first draft script written by Lee, Coburn and Silliphant are included from that earlier DVD release.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.