Friday, June 19, 2009

Guilty Pleasure


That would be this movie - Circle of Iron, or as David Carradine wanted it - The Silent Flute. His recent death brought the memory of this movie front and center. Since the trucking portion of my life is mighty slow, it seems there is time to watch an old favorite and justify why I enjoy it.

This movie was originally Bruce Lee's idea - he wanted to present a thoughtful movie that embodied the Zen concepts he believed in, with martial arts stirred in the mix. He wanted to play the four parts eventually played by Carradine, and he also wanted Steve McQueen to play Cord, the protagonist. McQueen turned Lee down, remarking that he wasn't prepared to make Lee a star. The part was offered to James Coburn, who with Lee and Sterling Silliphant worked out the story. Coburn wanted India as the location. The project was stalled, and then Lee died.

Silliphant and Stanley Mann completed the script. Carradine was interested and acquired the rights. Carradine was at the height of his popularity with the television show Kung Fu. Carradine took the four parts - the Blind Man, the Monkeyman, Death and Changsha. Carradine's friend Jeff Cooper finally took the part of Cord.

So, enough with the background. How about the movie? First, the plot - it's pretty simple. Cord wants to seek the knowledge contained in The Book of Enlightenment, which is guarded by Zetan (Christopher Lee). In order to be able to look in the book, prospective applicants must pass a series of challenges embodied by the four characters Carradine plays. The challenges aren't necessarily physical martial arts challenges - some are spiritual. Cord witnesses other seekers die going through the process, and is responsible for the death of a woman with whom he breaks his vow of chastity. This event is set up by this memorable scene with Eli Wallach:


I'd have to say that soaking one's lower body in oil to rid one's self of a certain organ might just be a bit extreme, but after all, the man in the oil is a doctor! Cord gradually learns his actions have consequences and enough about himself to not fear unnecessarily. He also learns patience. There are moments of humor interspersed - one of the opening quotes is: Two birds tied together have four wings but cannot fly, along with another pithy nugget offered later: You can't step twice on the same piece of water. The dialogue between Cord and the Blind Man is the real meat of Cord's and our learning process.
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.

Blind Man: A fish saved my life once.
Cord: How?
Blind Man: I ate him.

The humor is pretty wry at times - just what I enjoy. Character development isn't really on the list of things this movie wants to accomplish. Cord helps a fellow seeker "die with honor" after he is fatally wounded by the Monkeyman, then, after defeating the creature, is deliriously happy - he is now one step closer to his goal. That always seemed a bit discordant to me, and that isn't the only example. So, if you are wanting thoughtful, complex characters, well, ya ain't gonna get 'em here.

The acting certainly isn't Oscar worthy, either. Jeff Cooper is often maligned for a wooden portrayal of Cord. However, his character was more or less a caricature to begin with. I think he did alright. The various character actors (including Roddy McDowall - not previously mentioned) were entertaining. Carradine's characters were over or under played, depending on the requirements. Monkeyman really required him to be over the top, but the Blind Man needed a lighter touch.

The fight scenes won't (and haven't) impressed any martial arts movie devotees. That wasn't really the intended direction of the movie in the first place - I cannot imagine McQueen or Coburn being much of a kung fu expert, and Bruce Lee had to know that. The stylistic battles presented here are more for advancing Zen concepts rather than someone getting their butts whupped, although there is some of that, too. Using Israel for the location is somewhat jarring at times - it's hardly congruent with (my) preconceptions of Oriental philosophy.

Yep, it's a bit of a mish mash. For such a low budget flick, it's really pretty stylish, and that's part of it's success as a movie. If the concept of emergence can be applied to movies, well, it certainly fits here. The whole is greater than the sum of it's parts. Cord finally gets to look in the Book, and it's pages are nothing but framed mirrors. So, the secret to knowledge and enlightenment is already present within himself - he just needed to discover that in his trials. He goes back into the "world," presumably to be another step in challenging future seekers of enlightenment, and friend of The Blind Man.

My copy of the movie is a two disk set with extras. Carradine says in an interview that this is probably his favorite movie he ever made. It appealed to his desire to present a slightly different philosophy of life. I think it's a worthy effort, and it pays to remember this flick as well as Kung Fu and the Kill Bill movies.

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