Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Most people remember actor David Carradine, who passed away last month in Bangkok, as wandering Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine in the 1970’s television series KUNG FU (or as the character’s descendant in the 90’s syndicated sequel series, KUNG FU: THE LEGEND CONTINUES). Film buffs probably remember him as Woody Guthrie in the Oscar-winning BOUND FOR GLORY (for which Carradine also garnered a Golden Globe nom), Frankenstein in the original DEATH RACE 2000, or as the titular character of Quentin Tarantino’s paean to exploitation cinema, KILL BILL. There are over 200 acting credits listed on his IMDb page, so there's no question that the man made his mark in film and television.

Me, I’ll always remember him best for his appearances in dozens of B-movies and exploitation films, especially 1978's CIRCLE OF IRON – and why not? After all, Carradine assays no less than four roles in this mystical martial arts movie from 1978. Ironically, Blue Underground has just released a new version of this cult favorite, only weeks before its star’s death.

Based on a story by Bruce Lee (ENTER THE DRAGON) and Stirling Silliphant (THE TOWERING INFERNO, THE KILLER ELITE) for a unrealized project intended to star Lee and James Coburn, CIRCLE OF IRON (a/k/a THE SILENT FLUTE) was ultimately realized by exploitation producer Sandy Howard and star David Carradine.

The story is simple: in an unnamed, mystical land, a young martial artist named Cord (Jeff Cooper) competes for the right to go on a quest for The Book of All Knowledge. He loses, but prideful, goes on the quest anyway. Over the course of his journey he must face and defeat several champions (three of which are played by Carradine) and learn the true meaning of life from a blind man with a flute (also Carradine).

The movie, the only directorial credit of cinematographer Richard Moore, is beautiful to look at, with stunning, otherworldly settings shot on location in Israel, and features cameo appearances by cult favorites Roddy McDowell, Eli Wallach and Christopher Lee. But the final screenplay by Stanley Mann is somehow both banal and pretentious, and despite numerous martial arts sequences, the film moves at a surprisingly lethargic pace. The movie is also hurt by Jeff Cooper’s casting as Cord the Seeker – he’s a piece of wood in a blond mullet.

The movie is Carradine’s, though, and he acquits himself quite well. Though he was never quite the martial artist he wanted people to believe he was, he comes off impressively in CIRCLE OF IRON, playing all four of his roles – The Blind Man, The Monkey Man, a warlord named Changsha, and Death himself – with considerable enthusiasm. As the Blind Man, he delivers Zen wisdom with both dry wit and conviction, and that goes a long way towards keeping the movie watchable.

Blue Underground has re-issued CIRCLE OF IRON on Blu-Ray disc, incorporating all of the bonus features of their previous special edition DVD, and upgrading their beautiful 1.66:1 widescreen transfer to 1080p HD. The movie practically glows. Several audio options are provided, including 7.1 DTS-HD, 7.1 Dolby True HD, and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround.

There’s a commentary track by director Richard Moore, and long, interesting on-screen interviews with David Carradine, producer Paul Maslansky, and Martial Arts Coordinator Joe Lewis. There’s also an audio interview with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, and multiple TV spots and theatrical trailers.

CIRCLE OF IRON is deeply flawed, but appropriately enough, that makes it a fitting tribute to Carradine and his talents. It’s definitely worth checking out at least once, and if you’re a fan of the film – and there are many – then the new Blu-Ray presentation is absolutely worth getting, as it makes one of the movie’s true strengths – it’s cinematography – even better.

BUY: Circle of Iron [Blu-ray]