No other deceased superstar has as sketchy a legacy as kung fu king Bruce Lee. Part of it comes from the fact that he was a charismatic Asian actor in an industry where such performers were consistently reduced to playing ridiculous, repugnant stereotypes. The other aspect comes from his decision to travel abroad to expand his career horizons. Unlike the West, which views film as a combination commercial and artistic medium, the East sees cinema somewhat differently. There, it’s disposable and direct, providing an entertainment service and then fading away to make room for the next interchangeable offering. Even though films like Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection, and Enter the Dragon managed to crossover, his untimely death at age 33 locked his celebrity into a single unswerving ideal.
Perhaps this is why most fans have long since forgotten his posthumous labor of love entitled The Silent Flute. Originally conceived with pal James Coburn as a cool co-starring vehicle, and polished with the help of Oscar winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, it had everything that was dear to Lee’s heart. Renamed Circle of Iron and released five yeas after his passing, this exploration of Zen and the art of bountiful butt kicking is by far the most personal movie the man never made. Hoping to include as much of his own spiritual philosophy as possible while simultaneously showing off the various unique forms of martial artistry, this almost epic would have – along with Game of Death – propelled the actor deep into legitimacy’s limelight. Instead, it’s now an anomaly, a project of near mythic proportions eventually half realized by friends, well wishers and determined disciples.
In this simple quest narrative, a rebellious fighter named Cord (an off kilter Jeff Cooper) heads out to seek the Book of All Knowledge. It’s supposedly held by a great sorcerer/villain named Zetan (Christopher Lee in an extended cameo). Along the way, he must face several trials, each one determining his worthiness to reach his destination. In addition, he constantly runs into a blind master (a cool, collected David Carradine) who hopes to teach him humility and focus. After battling a deranged monkey man, a panther-like shadow of Death, and a nasty nomadic flesh merchant, Cord finally reaches the final stage of his journey. But there is not another fistfight in the offing. Instead, the stubborn warrior must learn that there is more to life than aggression, and that the answers to the great mysteries of the universe lie not with a single volume, but in another ‘vessel’ all together.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why devotees both past and present have shunned this otherwise excellent veiled vanity project. Containing more mysticism than martial arts, and an incredibly awkward turn by Cooper (Lee originally pegged Coburn for the lead), what could have been unique and quite unparalleled in the burgeoning world of international action filmmaking ends up an endearing but often incomplete voyage. Part of the problem lies directly in the casting. While exceedingly buff and talented in the ways of personal fighting, Cooper’s Cord is too contemporary in his mannerisms. He just can’t play period. He speaks like a guy down the street, not a meditative wanderer looking to purify his soul. Even in moments where he’s not required to deliver dialogue, there is just something about his actor that screams mid 1970s.
Luckily, Carradine is much, much better. While still slightly too modern for his characters (he plays several roles here, including the blind sage and all the bad guys), he projects a kind of inner consciousness that flows directly into what Lee was after. Indeed, as a substitute for the late artist – Bruce created this collection of roles as his own personalized tour de force – the Kung Fu star is stellar. Even the supporting roles are better than our ab-addled lead. Eli Wallach is intriguing as a doctor trying to temper his own biological urges by dissolving the lower half of his body in oil, and Roddy McDowall is nicely disconnected as the organizer of the competition which starts the film. As for Christopher Lee, his is a very minor turn as the notorious Zetan. But one shouldn’t expect a Count Dooku preview here. In keeping with Lee’s original idea, nothing happens the way it’s supposed to in this obviously allegorical world.
Apparently, it was an approach that many in the cast and crew found confusing. As part of a new double disc DVD release from Blue Underground, Circle of Iron gets a collection of telling supplemental material that try to explain this ersatz epic. Director Richard Moore is on hand, and he’s helped by company commentator David Gregory. Together they explore the film’s rocky origins and offer up speculation on where, in Lee’s overall canon, this movie would rate. Star David Carradine also adds his introspective two cents worth, and he’s not ashamed of labeling Lee an arrogant, self-important man. Producer Paul Maslansky complains about the difficulty in finding financing for a marital arts movie in the Me Decade, and fight coordinator Joe Lewis admits that, because of a certain actor’s inexperience with fake fighting (cough – Carradine – cough), the film’s tête-à-tête’s are not quite up to snuff.
All agree on one thing, however – Lee was obsessed with this project – and if you can remove yourself from all the mindblowing Matrix-like fisticuffs of recent years, you will recognize the passion at the center of this story. Lee was devoted to the karmic elements of his craft, the yin and yang of being a man of peace who made his living pretending to abuse and even kill people. He wanted to prove that age old adage that the reason you learn a technique like karate is to be taught how and when NOT to use it. The simplistic philosophizing peppered throughout the film (“two bird tied together may have four wings, but still cannot fly”) is meant as baby steps to understanding the basics of the Zen conceit. By downplaying the physical and emphasizing the cerebral (or in some cases, the spiritual) Lee was looking to take the genre to another level. For that alone, the film is very important.
However, Circle of Iron will definitely rise or fall based on the expectations you bring to it. If you’re expecting a rollicking nonstop spectacle of flying fists, roundhouse kicks, and expertly wielded weaponry, you’ll be disappointed, and maybe even a little disgusted. This is not Hero, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Instead, it’s more like a loincloth version of Five Easy Pieces with throwing stars. We are supposed to respond to both the introspection and the arm breaking, the parable-like approach to life and its lessons, and the ludicrous love scene between Cooper and newcomer Erica Creer. When cobbled together like this, it can seem quite silly. But when given the added perspective of Bruce Lee and his devotion to the project, obvious flaws become almost invisible.
Granted, in an ADD hampered cinematic society which thinks films like Crank and The Transporter are too restrained, The Silent Flute/Circle of Iron will appear almost comatose. But if you get into the mellow mood being presented, and actually listen to the many maxims offered up, you will definitely be engaged both visually and metaphysically. While Bruce Lee continues to be batted back and forth, marginalized and sanctified by critics on both sides of the conversations, it’s clear that his impact on martial arts in the movies remains as strong as ever. No film featuring kung fu, karate, or any other form of Eastern training can make it into theaters without bowing to the man who more or less formed their commercial viability. While Circle of Iron won’t diminish his earnest reputation, it also won’t amplify it. Instead, it remains an individualized endeavor lacking its true inspiration.