Way back in the day legendary martial artist/cinematic icon Bruce Lee set out, along with fellow actor and student James Coburn, to create a film with the intent of displaying the spiritual side of martial arts along with imparting some of their philosophical Zen beliefs. Brought in to assist the men was screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, also one of Lee's students, whose other works include In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974). Anyway, the treatment, titled The Silent Flute, was finished, but apparently there was some difficulty in getting it made into a film, until about 5 years after Lee passed away, when producer Sandy Howard (A Man Called Horse, The Island of Dr. Moreau) took interest, bringing on director Richard Moore (The Wild Angels, Devil's Angels, Wild in the Streets) who claimed the original treatment `unfilmable', to which Howard hired screenwriter Stanley Mann (Damien: Omen II, Conan the Destroyer). Mann punched it up a bit, removed some of the more graphic material (both in terms of sex and violence, which, if kept in, would have resulted in an X rating for the film), tossed in a little humor, and eventually became this film titled Circle or Iron (1978), for better or worse. Starring in the film is David Carradine (Death Race 2000, Cannonball) and Jeff Cooper, whose previous gig had him playing Derek Thurston #1 on the TV soap `The Young and the Restless'. Also appearing is an interesting list of cinematic dignitaries including Christopher Lee (Dr. Terror's House of Horrors), Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes), and Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven).
As the movie opens we are watching some sort of martial arts tournament, and the focus is on a character named Cord (Cooper), who looks a little like beefed up Peter Frampton, shaggy mane and all. The purpose of this tournament is to choose a champion, one who would have to endure three trials on a path to find a wondrous book, possessed by one called Zetan, which contains all the wisdom in the world. Anyway, Cord, who isn't affiliated with any school or restricted to any particular fighting style, easily makes it into the final match, but is ultimately disqualified due to not following the rules...if you're familiar with Bruce Lee, you might begin to see the similarities between the character of Cord and Lee as far as where they both were coming from, figuratively speaking, and their difficulties in working within the `establishment', hindered by those who need to pigeonhole people and concepts for their own sake of understanding and acceptance. Undeterred, Cord decides to go after the book despite his not being declared champion, and has a number of adventures, encountering all kinds of interesting individuals and groups including a blind flute player who generally answers questions with more questions (he also uses his three foot flute as a weapon, causing it to make interesting sounds when he fights), a tribe of monkey men, their leader (played by Carradine) garbed in Joseph's Technicolor dream coat, a nomadic troupe/tribe, who specialize in bacchanalian delights, led by Chang-Sha, played by an an Arab-y looking Carradine, a man purposely boiling his privates in oil, a band of gypsy horseback riding desperadoes, and even death itself in the form of a puma man (also played by Carradine). Will Cord find the strength, wisdom, and perseverance needed to confront Zetan for the ultimate prize? What the heck is in the book that makes it so sought after? I'm guessing secret recipes or perhaps the answer to why, when a piece of toast is dropped on the floor, it is always the buttered side that lands face down...
I'm curious as to why the title of this film was changed from The Silent Flute to Circle of Iron...I think Carradine talks about it a little in his interview piece, as those who finally made the movie decided the original title was too confusing, so they opted for a more generic, less fitting, in my opinion, title for the film. Overall I thought this was an entertaining movie, one that stayed relatively true to Lee's original intent of focusing on the transcendental and philosophical aspects inherent within martial artistry, although I couldn't help get the sense it may have gotten watered down a little in the process, perhaps in a effort to make it more accessible to mass audiences. It's interesting that Carradine, who plays four, separate roles, was chosen to appear, since he also took on the lead in the 1972 television series Kung Fu, a vehicle created by Lee with the intent that Lee also star, but prevailing prejudices at the time chose to go with the Caucasian Carradine, making him appear Asian, rather than going with a real Asian in Lee himself. I thought Carradine, who was originally sought to play the part of Cord, but felt he had since 'graduated' from the role as the student, did very well, creating four, distinct characters, and nicely offset the awkwardness in Jeff Cooper's performance. Cooper has the physique, but lacked the required acting range, in my opinion, to properly portray his character , especially in terms of being an arrogant, naïve individual whose quest for a material object turns into a often dangerous journey of learning and self discovery. There are a number of interesting locations used, and the anamorphous fighting sequences were kept realistically within reason. I thought director Moore did very well keeping what was probably a difficult story to film on track and paced well. I did like the somewhat humorous revelation in terms of the book and the character of Zetan, played by Christopher Lee, even though the revelation itself was obvious, especially to anyone who's seen a number of chop socky films.
The picture quality on this Blue Underground DVD release looks sharp, clean, and generally excellent, and is presented in wide screen (1.76:1), enhanced for 16 X 9 televisions. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono comes through well enough, and I had no complaints. There are a number of worthy extras including a newly recorded interview with David Carradine titled Playing the Silent Flute (13:55), an audio commentary track with director Richard Moore, a sort of dissertation titled Bruce Lee's The Silent Flute: A History by Davis Miller and Klae Moore, an alternative title sequence, a theatrical trailer, three 30 second TV spots, a poster & still gallery, and a DVD-ROM feature containing the first draft script by Bruce Lee, James Coburn, and Stirling Silliphant.
By the way, did anyone understand the significance of the sequence with Eli Wallach as the man in the oil? Was it just a humorous interlude, or sort of representational allegory representative of some abstract concept?