Blue Underground // 1978 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // October 22nd, 2004
"It is difficult to kill a horse with a flute." -- The Blind Man (David Carradine)
Based on an original script called "The Silent Flute" written in the 1960s by Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon), James Coburn (The President's Analyst) and screen scribe Stirling Silliphant (The Poseidon Adventure), Circle of Iron was to be Lee's earnest attempt to explain Eastern philosophy to a Western audience. This estimated multi-million dollar production was slated to be filmed in several different cities around the world and in four different languages (including Arabic), and Lee was to star in several different roles.
It's little wonder that the studios passed on such a risky project at the time, but the script was finally committed to celluloid under the title Circle of Iron five years after Lee's death in 1978. Much had changed from the film's original vision -- nixed were the international locations, the foreign languages and a good chunk of the budget, replaced with David Carradine and the questionable talents of Jeff Cooper. It's not much of a trade off, and as a result, Circle of Iron never really comes within striking distance of good filmmaking.
Impetuous martial artist Cord (Jeff Cooper, Dallas) hopes to learn some patience by finding the "Book of All Knowledge," a mystical tome guarded by the mysterious Zetan (Christopher Lee, The Man with the Golden Gun). Cord meets up with The Blind Man (David Carradine, Kill Bill: Volume 2), a visually impaired spiritual guide who speaks softly but carries a large flute. Under the flautist's oblique counseling, Cord undergoes a series of trials designed to prove his worthiness to obtain the secrets of the book. First, Cord learns to adjust his fighting style to defeat Monkeyman (Carradine in a loincloth), the leader of a heavily made-up human/simian race that surely had guest star Roddy McDowell shaking his head in disbelief. From there, Cord comes upon a nomadic group of revelers headed up by Chang-sha (Carradine in a phony moustache). Forgoing the expected fight, Chang-sha surprises the young seeker by offering one of his wives for a night of pleasure -- a temptation that puts Cord in a kung-fu match-up with Death (Carradine in a skin-tight black catsuit). Finally, after absorbing further teachings from The Blind Man and a return visit from Chang-sha, Cord learns the path to Zetan's island and the elusive book.
Bruce Lee smartly bowed out of Circle of Iron after the huge success of Enter the Dragon, seemingly aware that such a celebrity-laden, confusing, Zen Buddhist debacle would have delivered a death blow to his budding career. Unfortunately for martial arts fans, the box office draw of Lee's name was strong enough to revive the ill-fated project after his untimely death. Producer Sandy Howard (The Devil's Rain) had screenwriter Stanley Mann alleviate some of the mind-boggling pretentiousness of the film and signed on David Carradine, hot from his recent stint on Kung Fu, to take on the ambitious quadruple acting job Lee had originally envisioned for himself.
Carradine's ability to pull off this film makes for the biggest surprise of Circle of Iron. He handily rises to the challenge of portraying four different characters, giving each a unique temperament and physical presence. While his martial arts prowess surely can't compare to Lee's intense, acrobatic combat style, Carradine's displays acting talent and an impressive range that Lee would have been hard pressed to match. Roddy McDowell, Eli Wallach, and Christopher Lee all have notable cameos in the film, but Carradine doesn't get the chance to share screen time with them -- instead he is sucked into the celluloid black hole that is Jeff Cooper's acting performance. Director Richard Moore hints that Carradine refused to do the film unless Cooper, one of his sparring partners, was also cast as the seeker, Cord. With his pudgy, California surfer looks, Cooper looks like the only quest he's interested in is driving his custom van to Venice Beach to score some Zen Buddhist tail. Although only on screen for a few minutes, Wallach proves the surreal highlight of the film as a man matter-of-factly trying to eliminating all sexual temptation in his life by disintegrating his genitals in a pot of boiling oil. His casual invitation for Cord to join him is a wonderful addition by Stanley Mann, both poignant and humorous.
Thankfully, even during the scenes in which Cooper begins to grate on the nerves, the film at least remains visually impressive. Circle of Iron is the sole directorial credit of Richard Moore, a talented cinematographer who worked with Roger Corman throughout the 1960s, where he obviously gained great experience creating lush atmospheres on a shoestring budget. Here, he makes excellent use of the highly cinematic Israeli locations and fills the film with bright, vibrant colors. Where he doesn't capture quite so well are the kung-fu sequences, which employ angles that tend to obscure the action rather than highlight it. This is especially notable when Cord fights Carradine's Death figure. Shots meant to conceal Death's ill-conceived costume instead remove all coherency from what should have been one of the most epic battles of the film.
Of course, the martial arts in Circle of Iron are almost beside the point in Cord's spiritual journey, but like the fights, the film's Eastern philosophy often comes at you in a series of blurry, bewildering encounters. Instead of truly serving as an introduction to Buddhist concepts, the film barely skims the surface of notions like overcoming temptation, facing your fears and self-control. Cord may learn how to incorporate these ideas into his life from The Blind Man, but the audience certainly doesn't. The film quite often reduces Eastern philosophy to a handful of trite Buddha parables and abstract concepts of little use to people that don't live in the film's world of whimsy. Still, you don't have to have reached a state of nirvana to realize that the quest for the Book of All Knowledge is teaching Cord far more than he could ever learn from achieving his goal, and that the film's ultimate lesson for the viewer is going to be that true enlightenment is "inside each of us" or "the journey itself" or some such other disappointing nugget of pop philosophy.
Blue Underground has done a pretty respectable job with Circle of Iron, even though this DVD release is clearly a cash-in timed to land in consumer hands under the wide swath of Kill Bill's Hanzo sword. A few minor source artifacts and erratic grain levels mar this otherwise handsome transfer, which draws attention to Richard Moore's vivid palette. A no-frills Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack is as clear as you would expect, and gets the job done admirably. The highlight of the extras is a 14-minute featurette called "Playing the Silent Flute," which has Carradine reflecting on the making of the film, which he calls one of his favorites. Richard Moore is interviewed on a feature-length commentary by Blue Underground's David Gregory, a monotonous track that will be far too technical for most viewers. A text essay by Davis Miller and Klae Moore turns out to be one of the best features, a fascinating look at the screenplay's genesis. Also seeking the path to digital enlightenment are three TV spots and a theatrical trailer, a rough-looking alternate title sequence under the name Circle of Iron (the included print is tagged as The Silent Flute), the usual still galleries, and the first draft script, accessible as a PDF file from your DVD-ROM
Bruce Lee fans who caught Circle of Iron at the local drive-in expecting a night of chop-socky fun would have been distinctly disappointed with this film, which requires an open mind and a willingness to try something different -- qualities rarely associated with the action genre. Despite an enjoyable visual style and a few fun moments scattered throughout the film, a lack of kung-fu, confusing philosophy, and the interminable mugging of Jeff Cooper deliver a five-point palm film defilement technique that ultimately proves lethal. Those looking for an understanding of Zen Buddhism would be better off heading to a bookstore, and those hoping for some martial arts action will probably want to stick with their Bruce Lee box sets.
One more trial is to be added to determine the suitability of future seekers to the Book of All Knowledge-watching Circle of Iron in its entirety. Dismissed!
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Playing the Silent Flute" Interview with David Carradine
* Audio Commentary with Director Richard Moore
* "Bruce Lee's The Silent Flute" Essay
* Alternate Title Sequence
* Theatrical Trailer
* TV Spots
* Still Galleries
* First Draft Script (DVD-ROM)