Monday, June 17, 2019

Circle Of Iron

Circle Of Iron, by Robert Weverka
February, 1979  Warner Books

I was probably one of the very few 19 year-olds who had a copy of Circle Of Iron on VHS in the summer of ’94, and I certainly was the only one who got his girlfriend to watch it…several times! It’s a wonder she didn’t break up with me halfway through the first viewing, because Circle Of Iron is a bad movie, one that should’ve been roasted on Mystery Science Theater 3000 but for some reason never was.

The film, released in early ’79, started life a decade before as a script by none other than Bruce Lee, co-written with his student, screenwriter Sterling Silliphant. Then it was titled The Silent Flute and was envisioned as not only a vehicle for Lee but also for his Jeet Kune Do style. James Coburn was to star in it as “Cord,” arrogant but open-minded fighter who would serve as an empty vessel for Lee, who would play several roles in the film, from the old and blind Ah Sam to Death itself in the form of a panther-man. The movie, due to studio nonsense, was going to be filmed in India, with the trio even heading over there to scope out locations.

Ultimately the film fell apart and Lee ended up going back to Hong Kong, where of course he became a sensation. At some later point someone got their hands on the Silent Flute script and realized the now-dead Lee’s name could be exploited good and proper. Now it would star David “Kung Fu” Carradine in the role(s) Lee would have played…and instead of James Coburn as Cord we’d get unknown actor Jeff Cooper, who I always thought was the guy who played Rostov in Invasion U.S.A. but actually wasn’t. Oh, and we’d get Eli friggin’ Wallach in a cameo as a nude guy hanging out in the middle of the desert in a big vat of oil. Plus Roddy McDowell and Christopher Lee.

Years ago in one of the Bruce Lee DVDs the Silent Flute script was included as a PDF extra and someone sent me a copy. I read it and couldn’t believe how outrageous it was – full nudity, graphic sex, hardcore violence, the works. It would’ve been rated X at least. It was also written in the style of a novel; I recall a note in the intro stated that it was in the “European style” of scripts, so it intentionally read more like a book. But anyway no one could’ve made the film in ’69, it was too extreme then (and perhaps now, too, at least so far as the sex and nudity goes…but you can see gory corpses and heads blown off on TV shows, because that’s okay).

By 1979 films were already more conservative in tone than they’d been a decade before, so Circle Of Iron, as the property was eventually released, doesn’t nearly have the exploitative bite of the original Lee-Sillphant script. Nor does it have the quality. This is one of those movies where you’ve gotta wonder if the filmmakers knew they were shooting a turkey and just decided to go all the way with it. 

Veteran movie tie-in novelist Robert Weverka, for his part, treats everything on the level, save for one or two instances where he clearly mocks things. He doesn’t do much to elaborate on the plot, either, so like the Prime Cut novelization it’s sort of a case of what you see is what you get. The only “new” material is a bit of background on main character Cord, how he’s come from a temple; there’s an occasional flashback to some teaching he received there.

Otherwise the novel proceeds on exactly the same path as the film. As the back cover helpfully informs us, Circle Of Iron takes place “beyond Time,” as if this were a Zardoz sort of thing…and in fact, one could argue that Circle Of Iron is to martial arts movies what Zardoz is to sci-fi. There’s more of a fairy tale-esque vibe to this one, though, or at least fantasy; it takes place in some pseudo-ancient past in which all and sundry practice the martial arts and everyone wants The Book of Wisdom, which is owned by a legendary but never-seen warrior named Zetan.

Cord is an arrogant young fighter who when we meet him has come to an apparently-annual tournament in which fighters from various tribes compete for the right to seek Zetan. An interesting thing about Cord is that, even though he’s a top fighter and overly confident in his abilities, he’s still open-minded enough to change his methods when necessary and to learn from others. In other words he’s a top candidate for Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. So then Cord sits and watches other fighters, already knowing which will be the opponent he faces to win the entire deal: Morthand, a big but oafish fighter whose clear weakness is that he has no imagination and sticks rigidly to his style.

But in the inevitable fight Cord makes “hard contact” with Morthand, taking advantage of an opening when the other lets down his guard, and this is against the rules. This part is clearly inspired by Bruce Lee’s own criticisms of martial arts tournaments of the day, which were even more strict. Morthand is made the victor, but Cord argues that he was the true victor. When the judges don’t budge, Cord merely waits around and then follows Morthand when he begins his journey to find Zetan.

Here Cord has his first encounter with the man who will become his ultimate teacher: a blind beggar-type who plays a flute only Cord seems to hear. The bickering and bantering between Cord and this blind man is the highlight of Circle Of Iron, with the blind man, whom Cord dubs “Ah Sam,” bouncing Zen koan sort of teachings off Cord’s dense, bullish head. And Ah Sam is clearly a top fighter; his memorable intro has him taking out a group of nigh-primordial “assassins” who attack him in a ruined castle.

It quickly becomes apparent that Ah Sam’s riddle-ish teachings have import on Cord’s upcoming trials – there are a few trials the Zetan-seeker must overcome, and upon each victory he is given the info on how to proceed in his quest. The first trial, which Morthand faces, is against a group of “monkey-men” who tear Morthand apart off-page. Cord helpfully assists him in some hara-kiri ritual suicide. After this Cord takes advantage of the situation and dubs himself the true seeker of Zetan. However, in plot that’s not explored, other fighters seem to be on the same quest.

Cord’s fight with Jungar, leader of the monkey-men, is pretty cool. Ah Sam has already displayed to Cord how one fights a monkey – always keep your face to him. So when Jungar goes through all his chattering and jumping and moving around, ie psychological tricks to break his opponent’s concentration, Cord keeps facing the monkey-man and kicks his ass. He doesn’t kill him, though, even though the monkey-men are fond of ripping apart their opponents.

However one thing that’s not apparent in Weverka’s novelization is that the same actor playing Ah Sam also plays Jungar – David Carradine. Indeed Carradine plays all the opponents Cord must face. Here in the novel Jungar just comes off as a one-off opponent Cord must defeat, and thus misses the pseudo-mystical connotations of the film, that all the various opponents in the trials are really Ah Sam, testing Cord in a host of different guises.

Jungar tells Cord to look for a rose, which will lead him to the second trial. Thus begins more travelogue as Cord walks over endless stretches of tough terrain. A lot of Circle Of Iron is made up of Cord walking…and walking…and walking, only occasionally livened up. Like when Cord encounters a dude in the middle of the desert who stands in a big cauldron of oil to melt off his friggin’ dick so he won’t have anymore lustful thoughts and cheat on his wife!

As, uh, “memorably” portrayed by Eli Wallach, the Man in the Oil is one of the more bizarre figures in film history. Weverka himself struggles with the concept; as Cord trades “what the hell??” dialog with the man, who happily explains that he put himself in the oil ten years ago, Cord thinks to himself that he’s never seen anything so “stupid” or “ridiculous.” If that isn’t commentary by the author I don’t know what is.

The next trial is a little more belabored. Cord finds himself in the middle of a rioutous caravan that’s settled down in the desert, with orgies and drinking in progress. A Turk named Changsha runs the place, and the rose Cord seeks turns out to be carried by one of Changsha’s wives, a beautiful babe named Tara. Cord, despite his vow of celibacy, has some tame, mostly off-page sex with her (ie, “They once again affirmed their need of each other” and the like). Here the novel gets goofy because Cord immediately falls in love with her and wants to run off with her, to hell with the quest, etc.

Next morning Tara’s gone and Cord finds her corpse nailed to a friggin’ cross! This is the trial, as Cord realizes so quickly that it’s almost funny – that one cannot possess love. Cord might be a hothead, but damned if he doesn’t quickly absorb the most esoteric of teachings. More comical stuff ensues when, mere pages after Cord’s freaking out about Tara’s fate, he bumps into Ah Sam again and starts joking around with him! Anyway Cord’s also learned Changsha’s secret, even though he hasn’t yet fought him: he’s the “rhythm man,” using the beat of a drum and sinnuous movements to throw off his opponents.

Things get progressively goofy with the duo first encountering a guy and his nagging wife who have a boat for rent, followed by a random bandit attack in which Ah Sam calmly walks around despite the flying arrows, trying to rebuild a damaged house. All of which is later explained, sort of, though again Cord quickly accepts things, even though there’s no way Ah Sam could’ve known any of this stuff without the omniscient gift of foreknowledge. This is passed over in the text with yet more rumination courtesy Cord, in which he basically just decides to go with the flow.

The best opponent doesn’t come off as well here in the novel as it does in the film: Death itself, as personified by a Panther Man. Cord is confronted by the beast one night, and again in that comically-quick way he has of figuring things out, he immediately knows it’s Death. And just as quickly he’s like, life is a passing thing and death is inevitable, so come for me anytime you please. This ultimately leads to the finale in which Cord fights Changsha, who morphs into Jungar the Monkey Man and Death the Panther Man, but Cord is undeterred, and of course is victorious.

Which brings us, finally, to Zetan, who lives on a far-off island where he is surrounded by beauty. More like stifled by beauty. In a clever reveal it’s learned that Zetan, decades ago, decided to take ownership of the Book before first looking at it – and now he’s desperate for someone else to be as stupid. For the Book turns out to be “pages” that are really mirrors – another of Bruce Lee’s bits of wisdom. I’m not sure if the movie makes it as clear, but here in the book Zetan mentions that past seekers who turned down the offer of guarding the Book have gone back into the world as teachers. 

This of course would mean Ah Sam, and the novel ends with Cord meeting back up with him and the two going off into the world. And that’s pretty much all she wrote for the movie and for the book. I can’t say Weverka’s novelization had me raring to watch the movie again after all these years, but he does a passable job of conveying the pseudo-mystical vibe of the film without making it seem like the farce that was the movie.


gesuyarou said...

Excellent. Wow, never would have guessed this got a novelization. I'd like to check out that script, but that's the kind of stuff that depresses me, knowing what could have been!

Unknown said...

I am a worshipper of this movie as an artist and ZEN BUDDHIST and gay male. I thought no it is comedic and ZEN. If you think more or less you are neither ZEN nor Buddhist! CHEERS! The Cord character is sexy as sensual erotic pleasures required.

Felicity Walker said...

Sometime in the 1980s when my father was channel-surfing we saw just the scene with the guy in the vat of oil. I always wondered what that was about, and what the movie was.