The Silent Flute-CIRCLE OF IRON


The Silent Flute

A spiritual Journey, A must see FILM.

Cord the Seeker, a powerful but arrogant martial artist, competes for the right to quest for the Book of All Knowledge held by a wizard named Zetan. He loses on a technicality due to his violent nature, but follows the winner along the path anyway. Along the way, he meets strange tests and challenges by enemies and allies. When the tournament’s winner is killed during the first test, Cord takes over the quest.

The finished film sits about half way between the meaningful, but still sappy brand of 'Zen Buddhism' that Lee taught in life, and the daft, everything and the kitchen sink brand of martial arts films the United States put out after the master’s death. Like Lee’s unfinished Game of Death, Circle of Iron (aka The Silent Flute) anticipates fighting style video games, but also features the afterglow of the insistently pointed philosophical films of the late 1960s.

On top of its ridiculous imagery, and shaky plotting, the film acts as an unintentional (or perhaps intentional?) parody of Confucianism and Taoism. It's even sub-Yoda at some points, but it's continuously charming and even intentionally funny on several occasions.

This symbol-laden drama explores the inner mythology of martial arts practice and is based on a Bruce Lee story idea. The original screenplay was written by Bruce Lee, with help from actor James Coburn and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. Lee was to take on the four-in-one role of guide in his film, leaving the hero's role to someone else. Following Bruce Lee's tragic death, the film was rewritten. David Carradine stepped in to play the mysterious guides to aspiring martial arts master Cord (Jeff Cooper).

Cord lives in a desert-like world where nearly everyone he meets practices or has practised a martial art. He seeks to find the place where the true inner spirit of the martial arts is being taught. In a story which is imbued with Zen maxims and Asian philosophy, when Cord finally arrives, he finds less (and more) than he hoped for. While there are many combat and fight scenes, the general tone of the film is meditative. Cameo appearances by Roddy McDowall, Eli Wallach, and Christopher Lee supply many of the film's highlights. ~ Clarke Fountain, All Movie Guide

The Silent Flute takes place somewhere "that never was but always is," i.e. in cheap, disparate Israeli locations, the first of which is the setting for a kung fu match whose victor will set off to find a mystic named Zetan and claim his Book of All Knowledge. Cord (Jeff Cooper) is the most promising candidate, although he makes the mistake of beating his felled opponent and is consequently disqualified.

Armed with a bit of wisdom from a blind fighter (David Carradine), Cord embarks on the quest regardless, encountering along the way an unbeatable fighter from a half-monkey race (Carradine again), a dissipated "Oriental" hedonist (Carradine again), and a black-clad beast-man (guess who?), providing him with many simplistic morals to learn, many trials to overcome, and many excuses to spring into action.

More on the SILENT FLUTE (Circle of Iron).

Be the empty vessel

This is the story and journey of a lone man, Cord (played by Canadian Jeff Cooper), who is in search of Zetan and his book of knowledge. Along the way he meets many people and has to overcome several trials.

The story was original conceived by Bruce Lee, with help from James Coburn. In the meantime Bruce left for Honk Kong (Golden Harvest) to make what would be his series of movies that would immortalize him. This movie was resurrected after Bruce's untimely death.

What would have been Bruce's role, as the blind mystic/martial arts flute player with a bell on his toe, went to the universal Bruce Lee role acquiring machine that is David Carradine. In David's defense he does play 4 roles in this movie and is the saving grace of the movie.

Jeff Cooper painfully interprets Cord, the hero. He almost lacks any emotion even when annoyed or angry his face is strangely serene and on the verge of a smile. He obviously spent time working out, but little to no time in a dojo. Also what's up with the hair? David's problem lies in his "martial arts" skills and his fortune cookie kung-fu babble. The movie seems like an extended version of the TV series that David was in (Kung Fu).

There are problems with this movie. Initially the movie was to take place in the East (China, Thailand, etc) to correspond with the various themes of the movie (Taoism, Zen Buddhism, etc). Instead the movie was filmed in Israel. The landscapes and backdrops are at times breathtaking, just out of place. This along with the crappy martial arts choreography (think Dolemite) and the repetition of extras gives the movie the feel of a Conan knock-off.

There are also some nice cameos by Roddy McDowall, Christopher Lee and Eli Wallach. The man in oil scene is priceless. Throughout all this if one pays attention, one can pick up a lot of Bruce's beliefs and philosophies. One can only wonder how good this movie would have been if Bruce would have been able to make it. I highly recommend this movie for fans of Bruce and the martial arts genre.

In 1970, a young martial arts instructor embarked upon an ambitious project. His goal: to teach America about the full potential of martial arts, as a vehicle for both physical betterment and spiritual evolution. His name: Bruce Lee.

With the help of two students, actor James Coburn and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, Lee wrote a script. This unprecedented project, tentatively titled The Silent Flute, would be the first Western movie about martial arts. Against the backdrop of personal combat, the movie would introduce its audience to Eastern concepts of self-mastery. Lee explained his approach in a forward to the script:

The story illustrates a great difference between Oriental and Western thinking. This average Westerner would be intrigued by someone’s ability to catch flies with chopsticks, and would probably say that has nothing to do with how good he is in combat. But the Oriental would realize that a man who has attained such complete mastery of an art reveals his presence of mind in every action. The state of wholeness and imperturbability demonstrated by the master indicated his mastery of self.

And so it is with martial arts. To the Westerner the finger jabs, the side kicks, the back fist, etc., are tools of destruction and violence which is, indeed, one of their functions. But the Oriental believes that the primary function of such tools is revealed when they are self-directed and destroy greed, fear, anger and folly.

Manipulative skill is not the Oriental’s goal. He is aiming his kicks and blows at himself and when successful, may even succeed in knocking himself out.

“Purposelessness,” “empty-mindedness” or “no art” are frequent terms used in the Orient to denote the ultimate achievement of a martial artist. According to Zen, the spirit is by nature formless and no “objects” are to be harbored in it.

True mastery transcends any particular art. It stems from mastery of oneself—the ability, developed through self-discipline, to be calm, fully aware, and completely in tune with oneself and the surroundings. Then, and only then, can a person know himself.

In The Silent Flute, James Coburn would play the role of Cord, a martial artist and seeker of truth. During his journey, Cord would encounter personifications of the obstacles to his enlightenment—form, ego, desire, and death—and ultimately triumph with the assistance of a realized master (to be played by Bruce Lee).

The Big Boss Changes His Mind.

Lee and Coburn became frustrated with the project, and with each other, during its pre-production phase. Biographer Tom Bleecker recounts their scouting trip through India and Pakistan:

To begin with, Bruce had taken to giving kung fu demonstrations that would invariably gather large crowds. This bothered Coburn, whose privacy was shattered once he was recognized by the crowd who had congregated around Bruce…

In addition, Bruce had been in the habit of humming pop tunes under his breath and would often do this for hours while the three men were driving through the scorching desert. Finally, Coburn couldn’t take it anymore, and he spun around and shouted at Bruce who was sitting in the back seat, “For Christ’s sake, man, would you cut that out! You’re driving me crazy!” Bruce said nothing, but when Coburn turned back around, he shook his fist at the star’s back in the same manner as he had earlier done at McQueen’s house.

Late that evening the three men checked into a hotel. Bruce felt affronted because Coburn had been given star-preference by the hotel staff, which resulted in Coburn having a more luxurious room. Furious, Bruce went to Stirling to complain that he was supposed to be the star of The Silent Flute, not Coburn, further adding that one day he would be the biggest movie star in the world—bigger than Coburn, whom he now added to his “I’ll-show-you” list just below Steve McQueen!

Coburn dropped out of the project, and Warner Brothers followed. A short time later, Bruce returned to Hong Kong, where his performance in Raymond Chow’s Fist of Fury made him a star.

When Silliphant approached Lee afterwards with the intent of finishing The Silent Flute, Lee declined to participate, reportedly saying “You can’t afford me now.”

Bruce Lee died in 1973, sealing the fate of The Silent Flute. Even if he had lived, however, the film he originally envisioned would never have been made. His script called for subtitled dialogue in Thai, Cantonese, Arabic and Japanese, and featured explicit Tantric sex and extreme violence. In a relatively tame scene on page 9:

A second thug rushes Ah Sahm from the side. Instantly Ah Sahm releases his throat grip, pushes the first thug to his right even as he left side-kicks the rushing second thud in the groin. Before Ah Sahm’s left foot has retouched the earth, he has lept higher and kicked the already groggy first thug in the head, snapping his neck and dropping him lifeless to the ground. The second thug writhes on the ground, doubled in upon himself, his genitals destroyed.

The Circle of Iron: Safe for Peoria

Circle of Iron

Five years later, Bruce Lee’s brainchild was resurrected. The X-rated script was sanitized and adapted by Stanley Mann, who added comic elements to leaven its otherwise austere tone. David Carradine stood in for Lee as the blind teacher Ah Sahm. The Master Yamaguchi character was renamed as Zetan, and the Thailand setting was removed in favor of a fantasy world. Finally, the entire movie was retitled, as the meaningless but imposing Circle of Iron.

Circle of Iron is now available on DVD. A fascinating look into Bruce Lee’s philosophy of martial arts.

Circle of Iron (1978)

advertisement Cord: How long have you been blind?

Blind Man: How long have you been blind?

Cord: I'm not blind.

Blind Man: Am I?

Cord: Do you answer every question with a question?

Blind Man: Do you question every answer?

Cord: Aww, talking to you is like talking to a wall.

Blind Man: Buddha once sat before a wall, and when he arose he was enlightened.

Cord: Do you compare yourself with Buddha?

Blind Man: (chuckles) No. Only to the wall.

The Blind Man: It's hard to kill a horse with a flute.

Chang-sha: Have you eaten? Where's your drink? Your hand is empty.

Cord: Peace.

Chang-sha: [laughs] Don't wish it on me. The whole world is in commotion and you wish me peace! I don't know what peace is, I don't want it. Don't you listen to the desert? Even when there's no wind the sand sings.

Cord: My name is Cord.

Chang-sha: Ha! You see? Cord!


Chang-sha: Play a Cord, strike a Cord? Even your name is a noise!

What do you want, Cord? You want us to play on you? My wives can make your skin sing.

Blind Man: Cord... each moment that passes changes you. You do not... cannot possess even yourself. How can you hope to possess anyone or anything else?

Blind Man: A fish saved my life once.

Cord: How?

Blind Man: I ate him.

Morthond: One year ago, I took a vow of silence!

Cord: And when did you break it?

Morthond: Now!

You're it! now CORD!

Who's laughing now?

1 comment:

KHuang said...

This is my favorite martial arts movie, and I’ve watched it continuously since it first came out in the 1980s.

Because no one has watched and rewatched this movie more than I have, my views are radically different from anyone else’s. Here they are:

1) I thought the movie was nearly perfect as it was.

2) I would not have enjoyed the movie as much if Bruce Lee had starred in it. He would not have been better than either David Carradine or Jeff Cooper in anything other than martial arts execution - and even that’s questionable (see later).

3) I LOVED Jeff Cooper. To me, he embodies what the role should’ve been about. I always felt that he grew as an actor and person throughout the film, and that is utterly key to the movie’s authenticity as a film about inner personal development.

3) David Carradine’s speech was overacted at times. This gave the impression that Carradine was so wrapped up in his character that he wasn’t engaged with Cord/Cooper as a person in a dialogue normally is.

4) I forgive the “bad” martial arts because in an ancient world, these moves would have all been authentic. I’ve been in too many fights myself and this is what real fights often actually look like. I’m so tired of FAKE martial arts scenes, INCLUDING in Bruce Lee’s own movies!

5) Everybody criticizes this movie because they automatically feel that Bruce Lee absolutely would have done a better job. NOT ME. I appreciate the movie just as it is, and I don’t negatively compare the movie to some imaginary vision of what Bruce Lee would’ve done with it. Everything that Lee would’ve done, including the “Silent flute” name, are things I would have disagreed with. Not to crap on Lee’s unfortunate passing, but I am the only martial arts movie buff who is glad Lee DIDN’T make this movie!

I loved Circle of Iron, always will. It will forever be probably my favorite movie. I’m the movie’s biggest fan and nothing before or since has been better in my eyes.

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