Review Date: September 26, 2004
Released by: Blue Underground
Release date: 9/28/2004
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
When Bruce Lee was merely a struggling martial arts instructor he conceived of a kung fu film with the help of James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant. Lee’s vision was to make popular his Zen vision and philosophical outlook through the medium of film. The Silent Flute
would be his opportunity, and together the three fished around the script to various companies. Everyone passed, and eventually the three pursued other projects. Lee of course became a star, and upon being approached to make the film again, he declined, saying he had outgrew the material. His death of course made it impossible for him to revisit his opus, but that did not stop producer Sandy Howard from finally getting made. A name change to Circle of Iron
and an actor swap from Lee to David Carradine later, and the film was released to little, but strong press. Thanks to the success of Kill Bill
, this martial arts epic is now being released by Blue Underground. Bruce Lee never lived to see the film, but is that a shame or a blessing?
The film begins with stunning landscape shots of the rising sun, scored to the sound of the silent flute. The Blind Man (David Carradine
) plays with elegance, giving the visuals a poetry to match the philosophical advice he gives to his apprentice, Cord (Jeff Cooper
). Cord is an aspiring martial artist, who competes at the beginning in a tournament to determine who gets to see Zetan (Christopher Lee
). Zetan is the guard and creator of a sacred book of enlightenment that, when viewed, brings the viewer to a heightened sense of consciousness, able to understand all there is to know in the universe. The book is much lauded, and over the years nobody has ever successfully made it back from their journey to describe the contents. Sheathed in myth, the book becomes Cord’s fascination, so much so that even when he loses the tournament due to a biased technicality, he decides to go on his own to see the book’s contents.
Along Cord’s journey he must complete a number of tests in order to prove his worth to Zetan. In his first trial, he must duel with the Monkeyman, working on the suppression of one’s ego in order to defeat him. His next trail is decidedly less violent in nature, it is the meaning of love. Cord must find out what it means to love a woman, breaking his disciplined vow of chastity. The woman is offered as a gift by Chang-sa (also David Carradine
), with whom Cord will later have to battle. The third trial Cord must endure is that of death, fighting the Pantherman and looking into the soul of darkness. Cord’s final test is with Chang-sa, who is one with music and rhythm. Upon completing each quest, Cord will ultimately be able to learn the wisdom of Zetan in his ultimate pursuit of knowledge.
Cord meets up with a couple significant characters throughout his odyssey, including the curious “Man in Oil” (Eli Wallach
). The man is stranded in an empty desert, where he embeds his body in a jar of oil, hoping to whither away his genitalia to avoid the allure of sexual temptation. The man’s mission directly contrasts with Cord’s trail of love, providing a layer of uncertainty to the film’s philosophy. Cord’s other major meeting occurs with The Blind Man, who serves as a philosophical voice that promotes an altered way of thinking and seeing within Cord. Upon being asked by Cord how long he has been blind, The Blind Man responds “How long have you been blind?” It is through Cord’s journey that he hopes to one day be able to see the world as vividly as The Blind Man has and will continue to do forever.
Circle of Iron
is a mystical and probing look into the pursuit of the ultimate state of being. The visuals are at times breathtaking, as the high peaks and valleys of Israel are brought out with a visual lyricism. Directed by Richard Moore, it is no surprise that Circle of Iron
has visuals as magnificent as paintings, since Moore was a pioneering technician in the creation of camera lenses (having won a special Oscar for it in 1960) and himself a seasoned cinematographer. The sun drenched photography gives the film an eastern mysticism that complements the Zen philosophy advocated throughout the film.
The philosophy behind the film is often as beautiful as the images themselves, as the message of the film ultimately promotes “the self-evolution of man” through inner contemplation and a thorough understanding of one’s body and one’s spirit. Each character that Cord meets throughout his journey helps to cultivate and broaden his understanding of the world, with each one providing a different and intruiging insight on existence. Wallach’s Oil man is particularly interesting, as he suggests that man must overcome his physical limitations and desires in order to free the mind. As long as a male has a penis, they will forever have the physical temptation of sex, and the Man in Oil argues that when it is removed the mind may focus entirely on true understanding. The Blind Man is equally insightful, serving as a Morpheus to Cord’s Neo, instructing him on looking beyond the surface and contemplating different realms of seeing. Frail and introspective, The Blind Man uses his mind to triumph over adversary, rather than strength. Although The Blind Man can fight along with his flute to easy physical victory, he reaches enlightenment only through personal discussion, whether it be with Cord or himself. The men Cord meets all contribute to a spiritual pool of life, all helping to educate both Cord and the viewer on the possibilities of the mind.
The film’s focus on the mental over the physical is interesting, since the martial arts genre has long been one burdened by fixation on the thrill of the fight, the excitement generated by the kinetic battle sequences. Circle of Iron
contains plenty of fight sequences, but the fights are irrelevant compared to how Cord mentally deals with each situation. Most martial arts films, certainly the ones to achieve mass popularity, are founded on their fight sequences, but martial artists will continue to profess that the importance is not on the fights themselves, but instead how one uses his/her body to better their mental state. Circle of Iron
strips the fights of their power, bringing excitement instead to the mind. With the benefit of hindsight on a genre nearing its saturation, Circle of Iron
is an attempt to return the genre to its origins, as one true to the Zen teachings of martial artists. The fights themselves are no longer exciting in Circle of Iron
, but instead just another stage in Cord’s more interesting journey through his own mental understanding. Circle of Iron
transcends the pleasures of the fight, making each battle seem more like poetry than pulp.
David Carradine’s tour de force acting in the film also aids the film in rising above its genre limitations. Taking on the multiple roles of The Blind Man, Chang-sa, Monkeyman, and Death, he connects each role with a spiritual familiarity (since we all come from the same mind pool in Eastern teachings) but infuses each performance with a distinctive character and usefulness. The Blind Man is frail and unable to see, but through Carradine’s eyes there is an all knowing strength that is channeled through. Conversely, Carradine’s Chang-sa is strong and arrogant, living through excess rather than insight. Both performances, as well as his other two, could not be more different, but each remains entirely effective. Having Carradine play multiple roles brings out the interconnectivity of humanity that Eastern prophets teach, which brings out the spirituality laced throughout the film’s screenplay and cinematography.
Carradine gives the visuals and story an emotional weight, and his work here was no doubt one of Tarantino’s primary influences for Kill Bill
. Not only did Tarantino cast actors in multiple roles throughout his epic (Gordon Liu as Pai Mei and Johnny Mo or Michael Parks as Esteban and Earl McGraw) to give the films a spiritual interconnectivity, but Tarantino also incorporated the silent flute as a major character piece of Carradine’s Bill. In both Bill
, the flute takes on a mystical significance, giving Carradine’s characters a respect for simplicity and the powers of the earth, as the earth’s wind helps make the instrument sing. Both Bill
center in on the odyssey of skilled warriors and naïve thinkers, and in both films Carradine serves as the guiding intellectual force that helps develop both to a higher level of understanding. Although he is never the explicit lead character in either film, both are entirely about his philosophy, and had it not been for Carradine’s work in Iron, Bill would be significantly lacking the intellectual weight that it has today.
Both influential and insightful, Circle of Iron
is a beautiful film that cares more about the mind than it does the body. There are fight scenes within, but the importance lies ultimately in how Cord grows to understand himself as the master of his own spiritual destiny. While the title, Circle of Iron
, may seem macho and focused on physical conquest, the original title, The Silent Flute
, is much more fitting. Like the echo of the flute’s music, the film is not constrained by the focus on the physical, whether it be through fighting or training. The flute music exists without constraints, just like the philosophy of the film reverberates throughout the picture. This is a film that inspires thought, mind over matter, whereas most martial arts films shut it off in favor of glorious battle sequences. It is a journey as rousing and beautiful as the sounds of the silent flute.
Blue Underground presents the film in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, and the resulting transfer is for the most part good. The major problem with the transfer is an inconsistent source print quality, as the picture fluctuates between sharp and deep to grainy and flat numerous times. Close-ups in the opening battle sequence are rendered so nicely, with excellent skin toning and minimal grain, but longer shots in that same sequence are ridden with grain and lacking the vibrancy of the rest of the print. This inconsitent switching happens a countable number of other times, and can be at times distracting. There is also a fair bit of dirt present, which is somewhat puzzling considering how nice their Cannonball
transfer is. Dust and scratches aside, the print is for the most part very good, with an aforementioned toning and clarity that satisfy though out other than the few instances of wavering print quality. It is not a perfect transfer, and uncharacteristically inconsistent for Blue Underground, but it is still overall fairly well done.
A mono mix is all that is included, which is a shame considering how beautiful the music is, and how many sound effects could have been matrixed throughout a 5.1 setup during the numerous fight scenes. The track here is just fine, but it could have been so much more.
Although only a single disc, this is one of Blue Underground’s more elaborate DVDs. There are a number of supplements throughout, and even some DVD-ROM extras. First off is the audio commentary by director Richard Moore. Moore is moderated by Blue Underground’s David Gregory and comes off very kind and sincere. He is sure not to put words in other people’s mouths, but is still very honest about his recollections on the film and those involved. He speaks on how it was like to work with a cinematographer after having made a career for himself in the same field. He also talks about the challenges of making a martial arts film despite not being well versed in the genre. There are a bit of silent gaps, but overall he is a very warm speaker and easy to listen to.
Next up is a 14 minute interview with David Carradine entitled “Playing the Silent Flute”. Carradine speaks very fondly of the film, citing it as one of the best movies he’s ever made, and perhaps even his favorite. He also gives some interesting background on the making of the film, with some surprising non-idolatry remarks about Bruce Lee. Like Carradine’s interview for Cannonball, it is good entertainment.
A bevy of other smaller special features are included, such as a theatrical trailer, three TV spots, a poster and still gallery and an alternate title sequence. The sequence is interesting since it uses the “Circle of Iron
” title, while the actual film uses the “The Silent Flute
” title. Given that the DVD has been marketed as Circle of Iron
, one would think it would be the other way around. A well-written essay on Bruce Lee and his involvement in Circle of Iron
is also included, and provides key information about the history of the film.
Last, but certainly not least, is the entire first draft screenplay of the film included as a DVD-ROM extra. Written by Bruce Lee, James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant, it is a great read and much different than most film scripts, as it has little dialogue and elaborate narrative description. It becomes obvious when reading it how tough it would have been to shoot this script as it was written. Overall, there is a fine number of supplements on this release that will be sure to answer all the questions one would have regarding the film and Bruce Lee’s history with it.
Circle of Iron
is a unique martial arts film that lays more importance on the philosophy of the craft rather than the fighting mechanics behind it. The film is told through stunning visuals, deep poetry and a wonderful four tier performance by David Carradine. The video transfer is a tad inconsistent, but overall still pleasing, while the audio is a routine mono. The supplements are numerous and diverse, with a commentary, video interview, promotional material, essay and an entire script included. Fans of Kill Bill
will surely appreciate Circle of Iron
, and martial arts fans looking for a more introspective look at the genre and the art will no doubt be pleased by what Blue Underground has to offer. Bruce Lee would have loved this film, and you probably will too.
Movie – A-
Image Quality – B
Sound – C+
Supplements – A-
- Running Time - 1 hour 37 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- Audio commentary with director Richard Moore
- “Playing the Silent Flute” featurette
- Alternate title sequence
- "Bruce Lee's The Silent Flute: A History by Davis Miller and Klae Moore" essay
- Theatrical trailer
- TV spots
- Poster & still galleries
- Screenplay (DVD-ROM only)