A strange blend of martial arts and philosophy that can’t be discounted because of its craftsmanship and sincerity, and yet can’t be taken seriously because much of the picture is patently ridiculous, Circle of Iron has an interesting backstory. The legendary Bruce Lee conceived the movie in the late ’60s, and he originally intended to co-star in the flick with his friend James Coburn. When the project got mired in development, Lee and Coburn moved on to other movies, and then Lee died. David Carradine, who by that point was a martial-arts icon thanks to starring in the TV series Kung Fu (1972-1975), took over Lee’s role in the project. More specifically, he took over Lee’s roles (plural), since Lee was originally slated to play the four parts that Carradine performs in the final film. It would be pleasant to report that all of this fuss was worthwhile, and that Circle of Iron is a great movie full of deep thoughts, but the film is instead a mixed bag.
On the most superficial level, it’s a very silly adventure story set in a fantasy world that exists outside of time. Cord (Jeff Cooper) is a martial artist who wants to fight his way to the temple of Zetan (Christopher Lee), a wizard who possesses something called “The Book of All Knowledge.” During his travels, Cord meets and learns life lessons from a string of eccentric characters, many played by Carradine. The dialogue is pretentious (lots of Zen-lite aphorisms), the fights are exciting-ish, and the production design is goofy, so, as an action picture, Circle of Iron is weak. As an exploration of Lee’s philosophical beliefs, however, it’s interesting, even though the final screenplay is probably quite different from what Lee envisioned. (Lee, Coburn, and Stirling Silliphant wrote the story, Silliphant wrote the original script, and Stanley Mann wrote the final draft.)
Many scenes in the picture are fanciful and provocative, like the vignette of Cord meeting the “Man-in-Oil” (Eli Wallach), a sad creature who has spent ten years sitting in a vat of oil in order to dissolve the lower half of his body and free himself from animal urges. Carradine is effective in his largest role as “The Blind Man,” a flute-carrying enigma who roams the land helping lost souls who don’t even know they’re lost. Unfortunately, Cooper is a non-entity whose campy costume, robotic performance, and surfer-dude looks add a distractingly comical element to the picture. Oddly, the picture explains nearly all of its mysteries with explanatory monologues during the climax; some viewers will find this clarification helpful and others will find it patronizing.
Handsomely photographed by Ronnie Taylor and imaginatively edited by Ernest Waller (presumably under the supervision of director Richard Moore), Circle of Iron is far too well-made to dismiss as a standard B-movie, but when the story gets mired in segments like the fight scene during which Carradine is dressed as “Monkeyman,” it’s hard to see beyond the absurd visuals.
Circle of Iron: FUNKY