Forgotten New Hollywood Part 1: The Silent Flute

            It’s a martial arts-based Zen parable choc-a-bloc with Eastern philosophy punctuated by fight scenes set in a mystical (and vague) time and place.  The Silent Flute (a.k.a. Circle of Iron), unlike most films to be written in this series of forgotten gems of the New Hollywood movement, is exactly what one would call “good”.  It is fascinating, though. I would also challenge anyone to come up with a film like it in terms of setting, themes and performance. 

            The history of The Silent Flute is a convoluted and contradictory one.  The agreed facts are this: In the late 1960s, Bruce Lee and James Coburn concieved a story about a warrior who seeks enlightenment. On his quest, the warrior faces three martial trials and is aided by a flute-playing blind man.  Depending on whom you believe, Coburn would play the warrior and (what IS agreed by most) Lee would play the three fighters at the trials and the blind man.  Lee felt this actor’s showcase would catapult him to American stardom, and Coburn felt it wouldn’t be too bad for his career either.  The two joined forces with Oscar-winning screenwriter/Bruce Lee pupil, Sterling Silliphant (In The Heat of the Night), and turned the story into a screenplay.  The script was bizarre and languished despite the Silliphant pedigree. Or, Lee, Coburn and Silliphant secured funding, traveled to India for location scouting and, unable to agree, the project dissolved.  In any case, the script lied dormant, and Lee went to Hong Kong where he became an international star.  Reportedly, during Bruce Lee’s ascension, Coburn contacted Lee about The Silent Flute and Lee rebuffed Coburn, declaring he was “too big” for the movie.  In 1973, Bruce Lee would die (the circumstances for which are even more heavily debated than the history of this movie), and everybody with a nickel and a movie camera would try to bilk money from his corpse.

            One gravedigger was producer Sandy Howard (A Man Called Horse), who decided to resurrect the script and hired screenwriter Stanley Mann (Conan The Destroyer) to flesh out the original’s seventy-seven page length.  As Bruce Lee was (and likely still is) very dead, Howard hired the next best thing: David Carradine. To a set of Bruce Lee fanatics, this is a supreme irony as Carradine played Caine in the Kung Fu television show, believed to have been created by Lee (this, too, is heavily disputed). Howard hired cinematographer Richard Moore (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean) to direct, slab of beef Jeff Cooper to play the warrior (named Cord), and Israel was chosen as a shooting location.

            The result?  The film has problems.  The fight sequences are so-so at best, cobbled together with close-ups and quick edits, which leaves the impression of production tricks disguising a lack of ability.  Shots do not match, the dialogue is a mishmash of (likely half-understood) Zen, Tao, and Sufi teachings, and the spiritual and philosophical parables make it clear that intellectually and spiritually, The Silent Flute has a problem with regard to its reach/grasp ratio. The film sets up three martial trials (the Monkey-man, Chang-Shaa, Death), but the film only manages to show two of them- allegedly due to the costume for Death (a panther-man) not being up to the “standards” of the film. Artistically, the film has failings.

            These myriad flaws are hard to ignore, but this does not mean The Silent Flute should be forgotten, if for no other reason than David Carradine.  Though not a martial artist, his background as a dancer and years of playing Caine in Kung Fu makes him an interesting on-screen physical presence.  Carradine gives each of his roles individuality: there’s a resigned wisdom to the blind man, an aggression matched with cowardice for the Monkey-man and a joie du vie to Chang-Shaa (who I believe is meant to represent worldly possession, maybe).  Unfortunately, what little we see of Death is mixed in shadows and film-processing tricks, Carradine has earned the benefit of the doubt— he was fine as a panther-man, too.

            David Carradine was a unique presence in seventies cinema.  He was neither a method actor nor classically trained, and his unique looks positioned him somewhere between leading man and character actor.  He had a natural ability and a general weirdness (the technical term) that makes him hard not to look at when he’s on screen.  He managed an ultimate respect for the craft of acting with a total lack of pretension.  It is a pity that pop history remembers him as Caine in Kung Fu, for throughout the 1970’s there tons of odd, meaty roles where he is riveting to watch.

            The Silent Flute is a showcase for Carradine,  but there are several other character actors that brighten the whole affair, including Roddy McDowell as a stick-in-the-mud combat judge, Eli Wallach as a delusional holy man hoping to dissolve the lower half of his body (the best non-Carradine scene in the movie), and Christopher Lee as Zetan, the keeper of the book of enlightenment. The Israeli locations are lovely, and accurately create the otherworldliness the movie aims for. 

            The fight scenes are sloppy, the understanding of Eastern spiritualism is muddied, and it is not a particularly kind film to women.  The Silent Flute is a hard film to defend, but it exists. A meditation on Eastern philosophy meant to be a vehicle for a dead icon of martial arts cinema exists. In-and-of itself, that is something of an artistic accomplishment.