Circle of Iron (1978) / Adventure-Fantasy
aka The Silent Flute
MPAA Rated: R for nudity, sensuality, and violence
Running time: 102 min.
Cast: David Carradine, Jeff Cooper, Christopher Lee, Roddy McDowall, Eli Wallach, Erica Creer
Director: Richard Moore
Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant, Stanley Mann
Review published October 10, 2007
Circle of Iron is based on an original script called "The Silent Flute", notable for originally being written by such luminaries as actors James Coburn (Payback, The Nutty Professor) and Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon, The Chinese Connection) , as well as prolific screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (The Enforcer, Shaft in Africa), almost a decade before. Reportedly, Coburn and Lee had a falling out, things came to a halt. Silliphant would revisit the script again after Lee's death, along with screenwriter Stanley Mann (Conan the Destroyer, Damien: Omen II) , changing the original concept greatly, transforming the Zen musings to a fantasy adventure with new characters and a new name. Of course, Lee kicked off a wave of popularity that allowed a market for the movie, starring another man known for the genre, ""Kung Fu"'s David Carradine (Death Race 2000, The Outsider).
The story follows a loner fighter named Cord (Cooper, The Born Losers), whose goal in life is to best the one who cannot be bested -- the dreaded mythic champion, Zetan. It is through the defeat of Zetan that a vaunted book containing the answers to life's riddles can be obtained. To get to Zetan, though, all fighters must first survive the trials, which most fail on the first attempt. In addition to physical strength, the fighters must possess spiritual strength as well. With the help of an unlikely mentor in a blind flautist (Carradine) with amazing fighting skills, Cord undergoes a transformation from within that will help him to achieve his ultimate goal, if his headstrong tendencies don't do him in first.
Although it would be easy to lump in Circle of Iron as just another kung fu flick from the 1970s, to do so would not only be a disservice to the main thrust of the picture, but will also disappoint those who turn it on expecting wall-to-wall action. Think of it more as an odyssey of learning, almost like a parable for higher consciousness that extols the virtues of peace and harmony above fists and force. Because of this dichotomy, it's the kind of movie that has never really found an audience, save for those who enjoy quirky oddities that are, at the very least, different from any other kind of film. It's culty, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always interesting, if you take it on its own terms.
Despite its odd nature, there are enough good qualities in the story to suggest something better could have resulted. Part of the reason why the film is crippled comes from some less-than-stellar casting of the lead role in Canadian Jeff Cooper, known primarily for bit roles on various TV series. Certainly, Cooper has a physical presence that suggests he should fit right into a warrior role with ease, but his delivery of lines, as well as his demeanor, is just too modern in appearance to not seem somewhat anachronistic to the events of the story. He seems like he strolled in right from a surf movie.
The other aspect of the film that fails to satisfy is in the costumes. The hooded garb, the necklaces, the veiled outfits, and all of the rest of the wardrobe look like something the guys at work would make and throw on for a Halloween party rather than authentic pieces of olden days of mysticism. It's sometimes hard not to be taken out of the story when you're noticing silly attire from the extras in the background.
The martial arts scenes could have used someone of Bruce Lee's talents, as they are stiff and unconvincing, with kicks that look like they have no impact whatsoever. The tone of the film is uneven, sometimes comical, sometimes just odd, but that's not to say they aren't enjoyable precisely for being interesting. The real strength of the film is its injection of Eastern philosophy, which elevates a rudimentary adventure into something more enriching and enlightening than most other films to come from the martial arts arena. It also has some rather beautiful locales and scenery, shot in Israel, with good cinematography by Ronnie Taylor (Sea of Love, Gandhi), punctuated by a nice, subtle score from Bruce Smeaton (Roxanne, Evil Angels).
David Carradine may not be the most gifted of physical performers but he fakes it well enough, and gives each role (he plays four of them in the film) the charisma needed to carry each scene to success, despite Cooper's goofy charm. One can only imagine how much better the film would be by plugging a better actor like Coburn in the lead role and giving someone with much more martial arts skills and screen presence like Bruce Lee in the other roles.
I have to admit, I like Circle of Iron more than I give it credit for, and despite my giving it just a passing grade, it's one of those movies that I have enjoyed on multiple occasions. Viewed with a critical eye, perhaps the aforementioned liabilities will amount to too much for some viewers to really buy into, but from my perspective, the mix of kung fu, mysticism, philosophy, and humor makes this a unique and refreshing journey worth taking for those predisposed to action films that tread off the beaten path.
©2007 Vince Leo