Friday Fisticuffs: Circle Of Iron (1978)

I think the story of the movie Circle Of Iron is probably a much more interesting one that what you see on screen. Bruce Lee wrote the movie as an martial arts film that would explore the differences in Eastern and Western philosophy. Basically, the story’s about a guy named Cord trying to track down a master fighter in possession of a book filled with all knowledge. Along the way he gets help from and fights various characters, four of whom are played by the same person. The original plan was for Lee to play the roles with offers going out to Steve McQueen to play Cord (he denied) and eventually James Coburn who agreed to do it and helped write the screenpaly. They were going to film the movie in 1969, but there were some problems, the production fell apart and a few years later, in 1973, Lee passed away. Some other folks purchased the rights to the screenplay, rewrote it, got David Carradine involved to play the Bruce Lee parts and also hired Christopher Lee, Roddy McDowell and some dude named Jeff Cooper to play Cord.

Here’s the rub, though, Carradine’s no Bruce Lee and, well, aside from Carradine, it doesn’t look like anyone in this movie actually knows how to fight, including Cord. He’s got a few moves, but he’s no martial arts master by any stretch of the imagination. The opening scene involves Cord and a bunch of other fighters throwing down in a tournament to see who gets to go after and fight Zetan, the dude with the book. The choreography feels stiff and a bit awkward right from the beginning, but to make matters worse, they insert these strange shots of the two combatants fighting against a cloudy sky background. But they’re fighting in a high-walled arena, so it just pulls you out of the movie right away. Not a good start and it doesn’t get much better from there.

The scenes with Carradine fighting are good, though it’s kind of a let down when you realize that all the good fight scenes involve the same dude in various states of make-up. Sure he mixes up his fighting styles a bit, but it feels a little cheap to always be going up against the same guy. Had it actually been Bruce Lee, that would be an entirely different story, but that’s not how this one played out.

The flick also seems LOOOONG, which is strange because it’s run time isn’t even 100 minutes. At one point, I turned the Xbox controller back on and was shocked to see that I still had 30 minutes to go. I guess it’s good that the movie feels more robust than it actually is with Cord visiting all kinds of different places and people, but the problem is that none of them are super interesting, so it just feels like yet another delay in his inevitable show down with, wait for it, martial arts master…Christopher Lee. Of course, being a kind of Zen movie, it turns out that SPOILER Cord has learned everything he needed to learn and Zetan winds up not being a fighter, but a kind of monk. Wah wah. I was almost hoping to see some really poorly put together fight scenes that would insert Christopher Lee into a stunt double doing all kinds of crazy kicks and what not, but it wasn’t to be.

Oh, also, this happens:

I get that I’m probably missing some of Bruce Lee’s surviving points from the original story/script in my Western impatience, but the movie doesn’t really make me want to learn from it. It seems to just spout of the usual stuff I’ve seen a million times on TV, in movies and on comic pages. Part of the problem is that I got the message pretty early on and felt like much of the rest of the movie was just beating that into my head. I don’t usually say this, but I think Circle Of Iron (a.k.a. The Silent Flute), should be remade, not just with more competent and skilled martial artists, but also to be more faithful to the original story and script written by Bruce Lee, James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant (who also wrote a favorite of mine The Poseidon Adventures). Basically, Bruce Lee’s vision deserves better.

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