Circle of Iron (1978)
September 7, 2020 10:06 PM - Subscribe

Now here's a koan for you. What is a movie named? Is it what it was released and promoted as, or what the dang thing actually says its title is right there on the screen? This movie, called Circle of Iron in theaters, on posters and in the IMDB, is everywhere within it titled "The Silent Flute." This movie, which was attached to Bruce Lee for a while, is a silly pseudo-intellectual fighting/wandering/picaresque/D&D quest kind of thing, about a shirtless guy named "Cord," (Jeff Cooper) traveling the shirtless wilderness searching for "Zeetan," (Christopher Lee) a guy who supposedly has a book of knowledge, while guided and opposed by various people all played by David Carradine. While it definitely has its problematic aspects, it's still MST Club approved!

Sometimes we at MST Club see bad movies that are still fun to watch, that make for good amateur riff-fodder. That's what I mean by "MST Club Approved," we've seen this movie and vouch that, while not great, it's good to watch with friends, and perhaps your favorite movie-enhancing substance, and an expectation that people will talk over the picture instead of keeping quiet.

The movie begins with a text scroll:
Prior to the death of the legendary Bruce Lee, he helped to create a movie story that might capture not only the spirit of martial arts but a part of the zen philosophy by which he lived by. He was aware that a film with these dynamics would cause controversy, particularly among those unfamiliar with zen beliefs, but it was this very uniqueness that he believed would enthrall the movie goer. Bruce set the story of The Silent Flute in a land that never was--and always is. It is to Bruce Lee that this film is posthumously dedicated.
A lot of this is pretty ridiculous, especially the random inclusion about being set in the "land that never was--and always is." If we abbreviate that we get LTNWAAI, but that's not easily pronounceable, so I rearrange the letters into Nailwat, it's the realm of Nailwat. ("Nail!" "Wat?")

The story starts out with one of those martial arts tournaments, the kind that, in a video game, will get the winner their heart's desire, or will save the Earth from an invasion by the Outworld, right down to the announcer who calls out "Morthon wins" in a disinterested tone. They use painted pebbles to track everyone's place in the standings. Protagonist Cord is entered, shirtless and with big wavy hair like Conan the Disco Barbarian, and does well in it, but in the final match strikes opponent Morthon while he's down, a real jerk move that gets the whole crowd booing him, and is disqualified. Morthon thus is given the Metal Honor Trinket that entitles him to go questing in search of "Zeetan," keeper of the McGuffin Book of Wisdom. Cord follows him annoyingly along, and inherits his Trinket when bandits kill Morthon. I guess that's one way to do it.

The quest involves overcoming trials, which presumably the folks who run the fighting tournament set up, but really were put there by a malevolent Dungeon Master. They all involve David Carradine in some get-up. The first involves a bunch of ape people, led by David Carradine with face paint doing a funny voice. The role is credited as "Monkeyman," like he's one of Skeletor's crew. Cord beats him up.

The second has to do with David Carradine running Burning Man, by the name of Changsha. He gives Cord one of his off-wives, and Cord breaks his vow of chasity in boinking, and Changsha seems okay with it. But when Cord wakes up the next day the party is gone, and they've gone and crucified his wife! Cord is distraught.

The third, Cord has a dream in which he fights David Carradine in black tights. This is credited as Death, but it's a short scene.

Throughout all of this, Cord follows a blind David Carradine with a big stick that's also a flute, who kind of serves as his teacher, but also hates him, or at least is annoyed by him. And who can blame him, as Cord is smug and obnoxious and won't shut up. There's an extended sequence in which Blind Carradine does a lot of nonsensical things like wreck a boat some folks let him use, and disfigure the face of a young boy, and putter around with stones while huns are attacking, and Cord is angry that he does all these silly things. But it turns out they all have a reason: destroying the boat keep the hunts from attacking its owners, the boy's beauty makes him a tyrant and a burden on his folks, and the stones cover a bag of coins so the huns won't find and steal it. But how does he know these things? Cord surmises, "You've been through here before!" Which is the kind of things that seems to make sense at first, but if you think about it for even a second makes you (okay, me) even more confused. The ultimate implication is that Blind Carradine is a past life of Cord's, or something, but why be elliptical about it when you could just say it? I mean, it took humans hundreds of thousands of years to invent language, it's generally a positive thing and has brought us many improvements to our lives, maybe use it in this instance?

Cord meets Changsha again, and isn't mad at him for killing his love, because Cord says he killed her somehow, despite the fact that it was Changsha who freaking crucified her! I mean, it's bad enough that this is like the 100th movie to kill a woman character for the development of its male lead, but it's not even a good lesson! The two fight, and Cord hallucinates both Monkeyman and Death while doing so, which we're supposed to see as being metaphorically significant somehow but I wouldn't even buy that for free.

Cord wins the fight, and Changsha shows him a boat to take him to Zeetan, who turns out to be Christopher Lee running a monastery. He leads an idyllic life of peace and contemplation, and he hates it. He brings out the book and suggests pushingly that maybe Cord could become its new keeper. The pages of the book--do I even have to tell you this?--are all mirrors set into thick framed pages, ha ha! The moral is that everything Cord needs for wisdom is in himself, ho ho! The real Zeetan was the friends he made along the way!

But he didn't make any friends, except... David Carradine! So the movie ends (over the protests of Christopher Lee, on vacation from being Dracula, who begs Cord to relieve him of his mirror-book-guarding duty) with Cord and Carradine bonding over being spiritual jerks. THEEND

The whole movie treats the adventures of Cord with slightly too much reverence, like his travails are supposed to be important on some level, and this is all supposed to be some kind of macho fighting fable, but Cord is too much of a jerk to really be identified with by the audience. At the end it's kind of implied that David Carradine actually is Cord somehow, but from a different life, or something? But his character is blind and Cord isn't, and plays a flute while Cord is unmusical, so maybe not.

Moments of note:
  • Morthon: (turning to confront Cord) "One year ago, I took a vow of silence!" Cord: "When did you break it?" Morthon: "Now! Why are you following me?!"
  • You can always tell when a movie wants you to think of a place as foreign and exotic when they have goats, and especially kids chasing herds of goats through city streets. I half expected one to come running up excitedly shouting "Atee-em! Atee-em!"
  • Theres a scene where Blind Man Carradine is assaulted by bandits. He beats them up with his whistling stick, of course. Theres one moment where a bandit, rushing hm from behind, screams as he approaches, allowing Carradine to just step to the side and avoid his ludicrous attack.
  • It factors not at all upon anything else in the movie (except to establish that Cords taken a vow of chastity), but theres a silly scene where Cord meets Eli Wallach in the middle of the desert, sitting happily in a big urn of oil, using it to dissolve away his neither parts, as if thats a thing that would happen. He says hes been in it for ten years, supported by his family trekking out daily to leave him uncooked rice and water. He claims hes better rid of his penis (which rooted him to the earth with impure thoughts) and his legs (which served to ferry it around). Dear glob, if someone told him about asexuality itd blow his freaking mind. Anyway, after ten years of eating uncooked rice the contents of that urn are bound to be considerably more than just oil. Its a weird scene, and Wallachs character is never referred to again. Its just a thing that happened.
  • David Carradines character (whether he exists or not) is supposed to be blind, and to demonstrate this has a bell tied around his toe. But, why? Presumably he still knows where his foot is.
  • Get a load of Changshas party, complete with writhing mostly-naked women, and a man pointing out the fight to his monkey. Someone should write a story about the culture of these throwaway desert soirées.
  • My favorite moment. Cord: "All I saw was a fool inviting his assassins to kill him!" Blind Carradine: "A fool is twin to the wise." Cord (sarcastically): "And you cant step on the same piece of water twice! And two bird tied together have four wings but cannot fly! And [...] a sword cant cut itself! [...] And a horse has no udders, and a cow cant whinny! And up is down, and sideways is straight ahead!"
  • During the sequence where were shown how wise Blind Carradine is, the moment where he slaps the kids face and breaks his nose (we assume), as he walks away his parents look at each other and smile. Like theyre saying to each other, "He disfigured our boy! Hooray, we are saved from our demanding offspring! Thank you, Blind Carradine, for your callous act of violence against our beloved son!"
  • At the very end, talking to Christopher Lee, Cord lets out the little secret that hes the only person who can hear Blind Carradines flute. This is the hint that he doesnt really exist, and explains the movies silly alternate title. But what purpose does it serve? We wouldnt even know that if he hadnt told us just then. How does he even know? Its poorly established, is what it is.
Anyway, while the movie has a bunch of flaws, and it sucks what happens to the lady, it's still fun to watch during most of the other scenes. And if you're of the orientation to derive enjoyment from seeing shirtless musclebound male bodies there's riches to be found here. Just don't take it seriously, as the "lessons" it teaches are really pretty shallow in the end, or so says I, Ancient Exalted Sage of the Internets. (Plays flute silently.)
posted by JHarris (13 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Cord. Ran all the way to Zeetan... with a trinket, and a bad attitude.

Oh wait, wrong Carradine.
posted by polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice at 12:32 AM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

I kinda like this movie. It's not what you'd call good, but it's more interesting than, say, pure trash like Ator, the Fighting Eagle. This post does it a little dirty imho.

"Spiritual jerks", however, does describe the 70s idealization of egotistic masculinity.

Obviously Cord's road trip encounters are all lessons, and happen in some kind of mythical journey realm. Cord is very dumb, though, so the biggest lesson for him is the idea that lessons have value — he's gotta learn to believe in learning, that things you learn can be applied later. That's why there's the bit where Carradine seems to have 'been through here before', which is a kind of interesting way to present that. So then Cord applies the idea of applying ideas, and so he applies some ideas when he has flashbacks to other fights. He's been through it before too.

Cord's dumb love affair is put up against the old guy he meets in a pot, to say something pretty dumb like, "Following your dick is bad, but not following your dick is pathetic denial of your human form." The pot guy is an interesting encounter, though.

I don't think the mirror at the end is played straight, like it is in like... Kung Fu Panda. Cord laughs at it and rejects Christopher Lee's paradise. "Believe in yourself" is like the one thing that Cord didn't need to learn.

Anyway the "huge headstrong rules-flouting shithead learns some lessons and applies them, but oh boy is it not easy" is a pretty common kung fu kind of storyline, and I think it is interesting how it is mashed up with the "glistening thews" strain of 70s fantasy.

This movie is like the boy version of Labyrinth.
posted by fleacircus at 1:56 AM on September 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thanks for presenting your take on the movie! Even though I was derisive, I do think the movie's fun to watch, and it's the second time we've seen it in MST Club. (It wasn't scheduled, most people had already left, we saw it on a whim.) I am happy to admit there's aspects of it I may be wrong about.
posted by JHarris at 3:05 AM on September 8, 2020

I don't think there's right or wrong, just tastes and modes of appreciation.

Like, if you'd written this same kind of review about Labyrinth and said that the ballroom scene / junk lady was just some random ludicrous nonsense that wouldn't happen, I'd be like: um ur giving it short shrift, it's fairy tale ish and making a pretty clear statement about like dolls are just dolls and fantasies are fake and can be harmful, very central to what the movie is about.

Maybe you think whatever's being said in this movie is boring and beneath interest, extremely old hat, doesn't tickle the brain at all, but maybe there's some okay parts. That's fair!; that's how I feel about Snowpiercer.
posted by fleacircus at 5:52 AM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

It sounds like the real treasure was the David Carradines we met along the way.
posted by Naberius at 8:07 AM on September 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

For years I have had a version of this film in my head that has Bruce Lee in the Carradine parts, as the Gods intended. Of course Lee, actually understanding the philosophy that this film is supposed to be conveying makes a very different film.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 8:48 PM on September 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

This movie is like the boy version of Labyrinth.

Funny I think of it more as the adolescent El Topo (maybe El Topo is the adolescent El Topo?) In anycase, I'm inclined to agree with fleacircus. Its no Ironmaster but I like it. It is definitely of its time and it often takes itself very seriously but it works. But I'd argue that a lot of allegorical films, especially the ones from the 70s, just don't work for a general audience. It kind of reminds me also of Born of Fire, which has less martial arts and more flute playing but is also just as opaque at times.
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:15 PM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have never forgotten the 'punching the pretty boy' bit of this movie or the ending even though it's been about 40 years since I've seen it.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:54 AM on September 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

This used to get shown on cable late at night, and I almost posted an AskMe trying to find out what the title is, because all I remember is "what's the name of that movie where the guy treks across the playa, finds a dude in a cauldron, and it ends with him finding a book of mirrors?"

That's all I remember about this movie. It's like a low budget Beastmaster.

Looks like Circle of Iron streams on Prime, tubi, pluto, and shout. Can rent on Fandango ($2 USD), Apple TV, and Amazon. Can buy ($8 USD) on Apple TV, amazon, Fandango.

Oh, didn't he have a bo staff? I feel like I probably went hard core star wars kid with a staff after watching this movie. Probably watched Blood Sport or Iron Eagles after this.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:06 AM on September 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Blind Carradine has a hollow staff that doubles as a flute, although shouldn't its tone be a lot deeper?
posted by JHarris at 3:37 PM on September 11, 2020

The staff doesn't have to be a hollow flute all the way down.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:23 AM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

It's like a low budget Beastmaster.

Beastmaster is already like a low-budget Beastmaster lol. I rewatched it recently, it's kind of worth watching if you like Rip Torn and/or ferrets. Not really the same kind of movie as this one despite the centrality of a topless blonde. I just don't think it goes in the same bin as BM or like, Sorceress, or Dark Crystal. There's nothing to be saved in this movie. Cord has no people to protect, barely any motivation except a brief dalliance of revenge, no magic inner power to unleash to fulfill any prophecies, etc.
posted by fleacircus at 12:57 PM on September 12, 2020

Oh wow, I just got a new (cheap) TV with a built-in Roku, and guess what movie is on the Pluto TV martial arts movies channel right now?
posted by JHarris at 1:47 AM on September 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

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