It was probably early in 1976 or late in ’75 when John Drew Barrymore dropped a script by my house, The Silent Flute, A Martial Arts Fantasy, telling me to read it over the weekend and get it right back to him, so he could sneak it back into James Coburn’s library without him finding out that he’d sneaked it out. “And,” he said, “You can’t tell anyone you’ve seen it.” I didn’t understand the need for secrecy, but John Drew is a strange and secretive person. I read it, and immediately decided this movie absolutely had to be made. It could be the essential martial arts movie, and a living legacy for Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee had told the story to two of his students, the actor James Coburn, and Sterling Siliphant, a writer, best known as the creator of the TV Series Route 66. Sterling wrote the script, planning to make the movie with James as The Seeker and Bruce as Ah Sahm-The Blind Master, and ‘The Three Trials’: The Monkey King, Changsha-The Earth Force, and Death. They had tried to get it made without success, until Bruce surfaced in the Shaw Brothers movies in Hong Kong. Then, Sterling’s Hollywood agent called up Bruce (in Hong Kong). He said excitedly, “I’ve got a deal to make The Silent Flute! And, guess what! They’re offering you a million bucks!” Bruce, now a big star, answered, “Do you know what time it is here?” And hung up! Then, of course, Bruce died, and the picture was never made.
I was sure I could get the project done. I called up Sterling’s agent, who said, “Look, we’re in the middle of a deal with Sandy Howard. Don’t you screw it up!” Screw it up? No way! I immediately called Sandy Howard, who said he was about to call me, to play The Seeker. I said, “I’ve been playing The Seeker for four years on TV. I want to play Bruce’s roles. The Seeker will be easy to cast, but where would you find someone to play all of Bruce’s parts?” Sandy said he’d get Lawrence Olivier for Ah Sahm, Oliver Reed or Omar Sharif for Changsha, etc., and use stunt doubles. I told him, “You can’t do that. In a martial arts movie, the audience has to know the actor is really doing the moves.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said, “But, how could you play all those parts?” I did a demonstration for him, what Jeff Cooper called ‘My Blowfish routine.’ I puffed out my chest, pulled in my stomach and flexed my biceps for Changsha, scrunched down and distended my stomach, letting it all hang out for The Monkey King, loomed very tall and dark for Death, and just relaxed and magically turned into skin-and-bone for Ah Sahm, accompanying all these manifestations with different voices: an animal growl for The Monkey, an oily Arab for Changsha, a hollow whisper for Death and pretty much myself as Ah Sahm. Sandy started to see the light. Somebody in the room mentioned that I could get an Oscar for this. That got Sandy’s ears pricked up, though I took that one with a grain of salt. The folks at The Academy have to like you, and I’m the eternal Outsider.
I arranged a meeting with Kam Yuen at his Kwoon. There, Jeff and I gave a demonstration, and really got into it. When we parted, I had drawn blood. I think that’s when Sandy went for it. Jeff Cooper as The Seeker and me as everybody else. It was a deal.
I left them all to work it out while I went off to Germany to do The Serpent’s Egg with Ingmar Bergman. When I got back from that ordeal, I visited the Warner Brothers lot, where I had planted a lot of bamboo a few years back. It had become a forest. I dug up three nearly identical saplings, to make the flutes out of them: a little over 5 feet long, useful as The Blind Master’s ‘cane,’ and as a fighting staff.
While the bamboo was curing, I made Deathsport for Roger Corman, a futuristic motorcycle picture. During that shoot, I ruined a ligament in my knee. The doctor called it a permanent injury. Told me I’d have to give up kicking. Not likely. I went to Leo Wang, my Wing Chun Master, and he assembled a group of Chinese healers, who treated me with herbs and meditation. I threw some horse-medicine into the mix, and I was on the mend.
I had another bike flick to do in Oklahoma, where I managed to get Mike Vendrell into The Stuntmen’s Association, being very careful to avoid further injury to my knee, though there were a few life-threatening moments, notably the ‘David as A Ball of Fire’ incident, and getting run over by an airplane.
In the fall of ’77, we all shipped out to Israel to shoot the movie. I tried to get James Coburn to direct, but that never worked out. Instead, we had Richard Moore, an award winning cameraman.
My wife, Linda, came along to help with Ah Sahm’s blind eyes, hard plastic lenses which covered the whole eye-socket, a bitch to get in; and a bitch to wear, especially during a desert sandstorm. I worked out every day with Kam Yuen, learning the fights, one of which I rate as the best I’ve ever done, where Ah Sahm takes on eight attackers, armed only with The silent Flute, in the courtyard of an ancient fort at night, lit by a bonfire. The best of the flutes shattered that night. Without skipping a beat, the prop man threw me another one. Anthony De Longis played the main man in that gang, as well as the designated Seeker, who fails in his first trial, with The Monkey King; to be replaced by Jeff. Jeff got clipped in the cheek during his fight with Tony, leaving a permanent scar and a life-long vendetta between them. Word of advice: stay away from elbows.
The Israeli locations were supreme: Biblical sites, Roman ruins, gorgeous desert vistas, and the shores of The Mediterranean. I swam in the Jordan River and ate a fish I’d caught in The Sea of Galilee. (It was awful) I visited Bethlehem and Nazareth. Saw Peter’s house, and walked the route through Jerusalem which Christ traversed carrying the cross.
In Bethlehem, I was mobbed by three thousand Arabs, almost the entire population of the town. In Golgotha, I got permission from the Abbot to play my flute at the site. In Jerusalem, I watched Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel on television, in the basement of a restaurant with a family of hookah-smoking Arabs.
I would never have strayed out of my hotel to have all these adventures, except for my driver, who told me that a man who eats in a hotel should sleep in a restaurant.
I managed the fights with my funky ligament, employing various braces; although, while executing a flying double-front-kick, I broke the meniscus, adding to my troubles.
We spent Thanksgiving in the Sinai Desert. The Israeli caterers provided us with a whole canned turkey. They stewed it! Well, what did they know? And, it’s the thought that counts. It wasn’t so bad. No cranberry sauce, though. We washed it down with Arak and Turkish coffee.
The movie went off like clockwork, with excellent performances and great photography, though the final fight was disappointing. Richard Moore fixated on his camera and forgot to direct. He spent the whole day shooting mob reactions and scenic vistas, and was left with just two hours for the fight before sun would set. Even so, it’s a great picture.
When we finished, I wanted to visit the pyramids, but couldn’t get into Egypt with an Israeli stamp on my passport, so I made do with a visit to Athens. I played The Silent Flute in The Acropolis. That was cool, though It got me kicked out of The Temple of Theseus by the caretaker.
Back in California, I returned my fee to finance some extra footage with Joe Lewis and a bunch of stuntmen dressed in Chinese armor on horseback. Joe was remarkable. Strong, precise and incredibly fast.
It took over a year, but the film made enough money to pay back my fee, and my ligament healed completely. I still kick ass, as anyone knows who has seen Kill Bill, Volume 2. Both Bruce Lee and James Coburn are gone now. Sterling has retired and moved to Vietnam, where he lives with a harem, who cater to his every whim. Jeff Cooper gave up his harem in Hollywood and moved back to Ontario, Canada, where he was born.
The movie lives on. I hope we did right by Bruce. I know I gave it my best shot.
The distributors changed the name of the film to Circle of Iron; I never understood why. For me, it will always be The Silent Flute.