Jack’s Bad Movies – Circle of Iron (1978)

IMDB Description:

A young martial artist embarks on an adventure, encountering other martial artists in battle until one day he meets an aging blind man who will show him the true meaning of martial arts and life.

The opening scroll of this movie says it was drafted by Bruce Lee, and it has some controversial views on Zen. We’ll see how much this movie relates to Zen, or how much they are simply trying to trade on Bruce Lee’s name.

The movie starts us off at a tournament, and already I feel bad for everyone in the movie. The martial arts performance is not great. Off to the side is a huge white guy with blonde hair and no shirt named Cord (Jeff Cooper). Sans a medallion, he could be Yor. Several people who apparently don’t matter lose their matches, and now it is between shirtless Cord, and Morthond. They fight for a minute or so, then Cord knocks him down and  uses that classic double fisted strike they teach every cadet at Starfleet Academy. Cord is the winner, but no, the silly judge declares he cheated and disqualifies him. Morthond is declared the winner.

Cord is upset by this, and says he wants to fight Zetan and obtain his magic book of knowledge. The judge says they only select the best to face Zetan, then Cord says “how come none of those guys ever come back?” The judge has no answer for this. The next day, Cord has packed all his belongs and is ready to leave town. The sum of his belongs appear to be a knapsack and a vest. He waits for Morthond to leave and then follows him. He doesn’t even try to pretend he isn’t following him, because he walks like five feet behind him. At one point Morthond gets fed up and confronts him, breaking his pathetic one-year vow of silence. Cord says he just wants to help, and that Morthond can’t get rid of him anyways.

As the two stop for the night, an old man (David Carradine) who is blind and walks with a staff wanders by. Cord decides to follow the walking stick guy, probably completely confident he can catch up to Morthond. Blind guy dominates a bunch of thugs who attacked him, though I would think the flute-like sound from his staff would distract his hearing, which I assume is a critical part of his fighting prowess, and he wins. In fifteen minutes we’ve seen three guy get punched in the gut and go down hard and now I’m wondering if this will be a recurring theme throughout the film. Cord doesn’t lift a finger help the blind guy, but when everything is done he pulls out a throwing star and kills the last dude. Cord might be the only one in history to take a guy down with a single throwing star. As Stephen King described in Rose Madder “the throwing star, an effective weapon, if you ever have to go up against a blind quadriplegic.” The Blind Man (literally his character’s name in credits and on IMDB) made good his escape while Cord was distracted for like 2 seconds.

The next morning Cord is practicing his katas while aimlessly wandering around the desert, when he hears the flute of The Blind Man (TBM). He finds him shirtless in a cave. Is this some kind of weird erotic seduction on TBM’s part? Fortunately not, although the costume designer either had a very small budget or pocketed everything they could. TBM and Cord eat apples. Cord asks about Zetan, and then assumes TBM is Zetan. TBM just gives him a bunch of nonsensical answers. Cord isn’t impressed with the confusing riddle making of TBM. He professes his ability to be quiet in order to learn from TBM, and of course fails immediately. As they are walking, a weird monkey creature comes along. TBM refuses to let the monkey get behind him, much to the agitation of the monkey. TBM explains to Cord how to beat the monkeys, but Cord is too thickheaded to listen. TBM disappears.

Cord suddenly sees Morthond staggering down a hill. Cord runs up to him and sees that Morthond is mortally wounded. When questioned, he says he failed in the first trial and that the monkeys got him. Remember when I said Cord was Yor without a medallion? Well Morthond then gives him a medallion, and the transformation is complete. Maybe this is a prequel. Morthond asks for an honorable death, and Cord helps him commit suicide. Is suicide honorable? I guess it is in this place. Cord takes the medallion, which he obviously earned by cheating in the tournament and then enraging Morthond by following him and then by stabbing him in the stomach.

Cord finds the monkey cave, with a fight currently in progress. The monkey king is also played by David Carradine. Incidentally, David Carradine was in Kill Bill, but not in Netflix’s Daredevil, which is Scott Glen. Those two guys are basically interchangeable, both in appearance and the types of roles they play (old martial artists).  As the fight plays out, Cord remembers TBM’s advice about how to beat the monkeys. The monkey king kills generic martial artist #5. Cord then comes down to enter the circle. It has now been mentioned twice that Cord does not come from a martial arts school, but is instead self taught. After a lot of pointless blabber they finally fight. Cord demonstrates that a weird monkey hybrid thing is no match for a six-foot well muscled man. Cord then learns the information to find the second trial. And in order to fill minutes, the movie is intermittently broken up into scenes of TBM playing his flute.

In the middle of a bleak desert, Cord comes upon a man in a large cauldron next to a tree. He says it is filled with oil and he has been in the pot for ten years, hoping to dissolve his manhood off himself. He desires to rid himself of carnal lust in order to achieve enlightenment. He said he took a vow of chastity, he took ten vows, but vows aren’t strong enough. And here is the funniest line in the movie. “You are obviously mentally disturbed, you should have seen a doctor.” “I am a doctor.” Cord leaves this nut job to his dissolving waste.

He arrives that evening to a camp near an oasis which is setting off all manner of fireworks. A man offers him water and he takes it. All around him is riotous living, drinking, dancing, and fornication. Suddenly Cord spots a woman in robes enter a tent, and large black man enters after him. The head of this caravan is Changsha (David Carradine, yet again). Apparently Carradine plays four different roles in this movie. Changsha offers his ninth wife to Cord, but Cord has taken a vow of chastity. The black guy is ready to fight Changsha now, so they go outside. Cord is fortunate that he always gets to observe his opponents fighting and defeating someone else before he has to fight them. As incredible as it sounds, this guy is defeated by getting punched in the stomach. It is apparently fatal. Cord is anxious to fight, possibly to get a benefit of an already winded opponent, but Changsha defers until the morning.

Changsha sends his 9th wife Tara to seduce Cord. Cord’s vow of chastity is about as strong as Morthond’s vow of silence. After the sexy times Cord falls asleep on a bed, and awakens on the sand in daytime. Changsha has disappeared, and was able to move Cord down onto the sand without waking him up. He finds Tara strung up on two pikes, presumably dead. Cord is pretty upset over a woman he literally met just last night. No doubt he will make a vow to kill Changsha, but vows don’t really stick in this movie, so I’ll bet he doesn’t go through with it. And Cord is left to aimlessly wander the desert.

Cord finds a couple of frogs and places them near his camp and beds down for the night. No explanation is giving for this. He then enters into an intense dream. Perhaps he licked one of the frogs? Within the dream he confronts a man-cat creature. He challenges the thing, but then it disappears. Cord awakens to the sound of a wolf in the distance and wanders off.

Still wandering Cord finds a waterfall, and while frolicking in the water, TBM shows up and tells him you can’t step twice on the same piece of water. Classic TBM, just spouting nonsense to Cord. He is possibly the worst mentor ever. Cord admits to breaking his vow of chastity in one year. Same time frame as Morthond. Anyways, TBM agrees to mentor Cord if he doesn’t ask any questions. They pay a man to use his boat to cross the river, then TBM ruins the boat. Then bandits come out of nowhere and start chasing them (no reason given). TBM periodically stops to fix a broken stone wall. Eventually they evade the bandits, and Cord is fed up with riddle making. TBM has a vision of a spoiled boy, and then encounters the boy and breaks his nose. Cord is upset. TBM explains himself. This is when we learn this whole time TBM gets precursor visions of the future about events happening to and around him. All his insane behavior is justified by these visions he sees, though he doesn’t tell Cord about the visions, just says “this would have happened, or that would have happened.” Because of this lack of explanation, Cord gets fed up and leaves.

Cord somehow finds Changsha again. He doesn’t come in anger (yet another vow broken I suppose), and he insists on fighting him right away. They fight, Cord hallucinates previous opponents. Eventually Cord wins, and immediately a boat appears to take him to Zetan. It is an amazing castle on an island.

On the island, Cord is dressed in robes and presented to Zetan, who is apparently Christopher Lee. Zetan explains the final place is a place of peace and harmony. Cord insists on seeing the book, which pages contain only mirrors reflecting his own image back at him. Zetan all but begs Cord to take over running this obviously dull place, but Cord isn’t interested. Cord meets back up with TBM and they are now friends. Cord takes the flute and begins to play, and the camera pans away as the two dance to a tune which is clearly not the one we are hearing.

Just recap, were there controversial ideas of zen discussed in this film? I have no idea. Perhaps the dissolving away of manhood to remove thoughts of lust. According to Wikipedia (and its one reference), the original draft for the movie was written by Bruce Lee, with Lee intending to take the role The Blind Man, but there were conflicts during filming and Lee left the project. After Lee’s death, the script was rewritten and a number of elements were changed, including the introduction of what they think is comedy. At least they got to claim this was a movie coming from the heart and soul of Bruce Lee from beyond the grave in order to profit on his untimely death. So I guess a win-win, except it wasn’t a money maker, so a lose-lose.


4 thoughts on “Jack’s Bad Movies – Circle of Iron (1978)

  1. This movie is awesome! And RE: The frogs; I think Cord could hear the man-cat (who I believe is supposed to be a “death” figure) whispering to him while he was trying to sleep, so he put those frogs next to him so they would make croaking sounds and cover up the whispering. It’s like when you need some white noise to help you sleep, Cord was being very practical!

  2. I agree completely with Mike. I have seen it at least 10 times and still love it. Each time I pick up something new.

    “Just recap, were there controversial ideas of zen discussed in this film? I have no idea.”
    Could that be the reason why you didn’t understand the film and thought it was bad? I mean, if I were to watch a film in Russian, it might be the best film of all time but I simply cannot understand it and think it’s bad. On the other hand, the philosophical/zen/taoist issues jump right out at you. Well, assuming that you have an open mind and are not expecting this movie to be simply inane, pointnless fighting as with Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal. I picked up a lot of them when I saw it twice in the theater when it was first relaesed and many more subtle things after reading various aspects of taoism.

    “with Lee intending to take the lead role of Cord”
    Uh, nooo….Lee was intended to play the same roles as Carradine with James Coburn playing Cord. Pretty easy to figure out if you think about it.

    “You are obviously mentally disturbed, you should have seen a doctor.”

  3. Jim, you are right about Lee’s role, and I clearly misread that information from the dubious Wikipedia and its reference. It has been corrected. It is also true that I am ignorant of Zen and their teachings, so anything relating to that probably went right over my head.

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