Circle of Iron(Blue Underground, 9.28.2004)
Combining Islamic parables with Zen ideas, Bruce Lee felt that his controversial dream project The Silent Flute would make him a star. Unfortunately, he became a star before the film was made and, in the wake of his newly enormous ego, he lost interest in the project and told his collaborators that they could no longer afford him. Not long after this, Bruce Lee died and the movie went ahead with David Carradine in the four roles originally intended for Lee. The resulting film is significantly different from Lee's original vision -- the religious ideas were toned down, the humor was increased, and the title was changed (much to everyone's confusion) -- but the result is an enjoyable, if extremely silly, exercise in mystical, genre filmmaking.
Although there are some impressive martial arts displays, this isn't really a martial arts movie. Circle of Iron has more in common with pulpy, mythological, sword-and-sandal odysseys like Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster than any of the films Bruce Lee made.
Little known Jeff Cooper is oddly compelling in the lead role, while David Carradine gives four extremely entertaining performances in four very different roles. In a film full of bizarre characters and sequences, however, the prize for weirdest contribution goes to Eli Wallach whose character spends a decade in a tub of oil, struggling to -- I'm not making this up -- dissolve his penis. In any case, Circle of Iron is a visually beautiful and surprisingly likable film.
In spite of the film's modest stature, Blue Underground is generous with supplements. The main attraction is a commentary by director Richard Moore. Best know as a cinematographer -- he worked on several John Huston films, including The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Fat City, and Annie -- Moore admits that he was hard on cinematographer Ronnie Taylor (who shot Ken Russell's Tommy the previous year). Moore also discusses the process of shooting in Israel and acknowledges that it helped him achieve a "timeless, placeless, nameless quality."
Blue Underground's David Gregory -- who also moderated the commentary on Blue Underground's recent Smithereens DVD -- is again on hand and appears to be preoccupied with "the monkey people," asking Moore about them repeatedly (their makeup, their acting style, etc.). Also at the urging of Gregory, Moore expresses some concern that Roddy McDowall appeared in such a monkey-intensive movie, without wearing monkey makeup himself. I couldn't agree more. You're a damn, dirty ape, Roddy. Accept it.
Equally enjoyable is a 14-minute interview with David Carradine who proudly claims that, of all his films, this is probably his favorite. In spite of this enthusiasm, he re-counts tales of destructive, unnecessary re-writes -- yes, the Eli Wallach scene was a re-write -- and explains that he broke his nose twice in four days during the shoot. Nonetheless, he appreciates the film for its teachings, which he accurately describes as both "wise" and "silly."
The DVD also includes two significant features regarding the origins of the project: "Bruce Lee's The Silent Flute" -- an enlightening onscreen essay explaining the development of the project -- and, as a DVD-ROM supplement, the original treatment for the film, written by Bruce Lee, James Coburn (who was originally set to star in the film), and Stirling Silliphant, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of In the Heat of the Night.
If that's not enough, we also get poster and still galleries, 3 TV spots, and a theatrical trailer that heralds the arrival of "the first mystical martial arts adventure." Overall, this is another terrific disc from the Criterion Collection of genre films, Blue Undeground. -- Jonathan Doyle