“I’ve had this idea for a movie a long time now. Its just a very general thing right now, but I know what I want. I’d like to do something that captures the heart and soul of the martial arts on film. It’s going to be a team effort. Stirling Silliphant and Jim Coburn are making tremendous contributions. They’re doing the martial arts the greatest credit ever.
“In Hollywood films in the past, the only things highlighted are the typical furniture-breaking stuff. Not once have they really gone into the true spirit of the martial arts.
“Of course, it won’t be strictly about the martial arts. It will bring together several forces, but we are using the martial arts as the basis of the story. The arts will be used as a tool to portray the evolution of a man. In the story, they will be his means to that end.
“The three of us began coming together informally at first with this idea in mind. We want to do a film that has never been done before within the framework of the martial arts – a movie that gets away from the ridiculous stereotype of performing meaningless stunts with skilled fists and legs.
“We will not confine the story to any one style of karate or kung fu. We intend to use the film as a stage where various styles and schools of fighting arts will be presented.
“I first wrote the idea down in Hong Kong; but I feel with the help of Stirling and Jim, we can have a final draft of the script completed very soon. The final will be a combination of our three personalities. The main idea is to show the various styles of the martial arts authentically.
“It will not only be entertaining to the public, but educational too. It will show an entirely different view of the martial arts, getting into the feeling and the soul of the martial artist himself.
“I’ve already started to scout around. We want the best possible men available to play parts in the film. They will demonstrate the way – a way not towards tranquility and peace but towards vanquishing the inner foe through complete external violence. ”
-Bruce Lee, June 1970
Fog is the habitational hazard of Malibu. Residents can hear the ocean pounding below, so they know it’s there; and that must be enough to justify the exorbitant property rates of this tiny community on the extreme northern shore of Los Angeles County.
Only successful artists can afford to hang their hats in Malibu. Over the last few years, it has become the place for famous rock musicians to live – Bob Dylan, The Band, The Beach Boys. It’s a remarkably homogenous community, the tie that binds its people being that they are – one and all – more organic than thou.
David Carradine does not live in Malibu. He lives in Laurel Canyon. But a fire and heavy repair work has caused him to stay here at a friend’s on this particular day.
The ocean fog is so thick you have to grope for the doorbell and then stand back, wondering if it will be Basil Rathbone, the Werewolf of London or even John Carradine who bids you welcome.
The living room of this hilltop home is, in the language of the community, a kaleidoscope of karma. Guitars are strewn here and there, signs of an all night practice session. David Carradine is a night person.
Two young ladies converse in French on the couch. Key passageways on the rug are claimed by sleeping Newfoundland dogs, their heads as big as watermelons. David’s three-and-a-half-year old son, Free, is in perpetual motion without a stitch. No matter.
He would wear out clothing in 20 minutes anyway. Another child lumbers about the room in a snowsuit.
When David Carradine emerges, the rugged, photogenic features that seem to run in his theatrical family are immediately recognizable. He seems possessed of an inner calm, but it’s hard to tell whether it comes from too much Oriental philosophy or too little sleep.
All of this sharpens the strange workings of chance – how the finishing of Bruce Lee’s most precious project, The Silent Flute, has fallen to the hands of a man he had never met.
“I feel almost possessed by the spirit of Bruce,” said Carradine, thoughtfully.
“Seeing Enter The Dragon was the only passing I had with him, and I didn’t see it until after he was dead. But I really feel possessed by him. It’s weird.
“I saw the film at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and sat in the first row. I just sort of sneaked in, figuring it would be really freaky. But as I sat and watched it, I was just totally exhilarated. It was like seeing a religious experience.
“After the lights went up, there were two or three people who came down in front and asked, ‘What do you think of this movie?’ They had seen it six times. These weren’t people out looking for blood, but just far out people. They wanted to know what I thought of it and they had the same feeling I had.
“I realized there is something there, like James Dean is alive again. I understand there’s really some kind of meaning – something very deep.”
These words expressed Carradine’s initial response to the same phenomenon that has gripped so many others. And he remembered it when first handed a copy of the finished script for The Silent Flute only months afterward. The project was a dead issue at the time, but John Barrymore Jr. thought his friend David Carradine might be able to bring it off. Carradine read it once, and the story has been on his mind ever since.
“It takes place in a desert about a hundred years ago, says Carradine of the story that was meant to do so much for the martial arts. “It’s set in, I guess, a mythological time. It’s an exotic place that has camel caravans, but I guess it could be any desert.
“What it basically consists of is a contest where the martial artist has to perform five trials, and if he survives the trials – which no one ever does – then he will confront the person who is ‘Keeper of the Book.’
“The person who has to perform these trials is not the person we are concerned with, though. The person we’re concerned with is one who has been kicked out of the competition because he doesn’t have the right spirit. But since he’s a great martial artist, he won’t be put off. The man in charge of the competition tries to shake him off, but he can’t lose him.
“The lead character tries to stay half a step behind but he’s eventually lured away from his path by this blind man character who is a great martial artist himself. He sees proof of this when the blind man is attacked by robbers and he fights them all off. The blind man then goes up to the central character and says something like, ‘If two birds tried to fly while hanging on to one another, neither would leave the ground.’ Then he disappears and leaves the hero standing there.
“This happens many times. He’s always being led astray by the blind man, but where he’s left always seems to be adjacent to the next path. Meanwhile, the first guy who is set to perform in the competition fails in his first trial and dies. The five trials are, in essence, five martial confrontations with forces.
For instance, one confrontation is with his own rhythm. The opponent actually makes him lose his own rhythm and adopt the opponent’s rhythm, where he can best defeat the hero.
“On his way to the final trial, with the Keeper of the Book, there are other things that turn him astray. Not just the blind man, but a woman who abuses him. The hero’s last battle is with death itself.”
When David Carradine first saw this story line, laid into proper screenplay form by Stirling Silliphant, he admits that he didn’t know what to do with it.
The story is ambitious in its concept and form, fulfilling Bruce Lee’s original desire for “something that captures the heart and soul of the martial arts, something that has never been done before.”
Admittedly, it still hasn’t been done; but for the first time since Lee passed away, there is someone willing to put all the fine pieces together – an actor who knew nothing at all of the martial arts until the filming of his Kung Fu teleseries was well under way.
“I would say Silent Flute is going to be done,” says Carradine. “We’re going to do it. It’s still premature to talk about it, but it’s definitely going to be done.
“It seems to me that, as I look at it, there’s almost no way to make the movie unless I make it. Who else is there? There are lots of martial artists, but not too many actors among them. If you don’t have both an excellent martial artist and an experienced actor in this role, you’d need two or three people to bring it off.”
David Carradine certainly has the credentials he’s seen fit to lay down for the leading men of The Silent Flute. He was practically weaned on the acting trade, born to a solid Shakespearian actor who eventually achieved fame in scores of movie roles. His father, still appearing in films and countless commercials, lives within earshot of him.
David started in much the same way, working into the industry through a San Francisco Shakespearian repertory company. He tried to jump too quickly into Hollywood, however, and wound up settling for off-Broadway productions in New York and Ohio. A brief stint in the Army stuck Carradine on the boondock stages of Virginia, but he returned to New York immediately afterward to appear in plays like The Deputy and The Royal Hunt of the Sun.
A man named Jerry Thorpe was in the audience for the latter production and it was the same Jerry Thorpe who would remember Carradine’s performance five years later when he was piecing together a television series called Kung Fu. Before that, you might also remember Carradine in a short-lived TV Western series called Shane and a special entitled Johnny Belinda.
Aside from his television work, Carradine has also had major roles in 15 movies to this point – including Cannonball, Death Race 2000 and Boxcar Bertha. But what about his martial arts background?
“It all started when I kidnapped Kam Yuen and took him to France,” he smiled. “That’s where we really started working. See, Kam wasn’t with the Kung Fu show at the beginning. It was David Chow who acted as technical advisor. But I was running into martial artists out on the street who were putting down the show because there wasn’t really any kung fu on the show. It was all judo forms.
“I started discussing it with people on the show, why we should start putting some kung fu into it so people would stop saying that. Then I sort of took over the series for a couple of days and recommended that David Chow be replaced by Kam Yuen, who was suggested to me by Jeff Cooper. It’s funny but now I’m looking for Jeff to play a one of the lead characters in The Silent Flute.
“Toward the end of the series, I finally got hooked on kung fu as an art. One of Kam’s assistants would come to the set and work me out just about every day. When the series ended, I took a one year break where I didn’t study at all. It was a strange period, so I finally showed up one night at Kam’s class in Torrance. Now Kam comes up here and we work out all the time – anywhere from four to seven days a week.”
With his strong acting credentials and solid experience in the martial arts, Carradine would seem like an obvious choice for the hero’s role, a choice that will eventually be made by casting director, David Carradine. But he thought better of it.
“The picture calls for two stars,” he advises. “One will play the guy performing all the trials and the other performing as just about everybody else, all the different forces. The problem arose that if I played the martial artist, who would play all the other forces? It isn’t a question of martial arts, but one of philosophy and dramatic experience.
“I suddenly got the idea of playing the other part – that of the forces, which was the role Bruce Lee was going to play anyway. Coburn was going to be the martial artist.
“Understand that, at this point, it’s all conjecture. But I’m thinking in terms of using Jeff Cooper, a martial arts star in South America, for the other role. Jeff has a long-standing relationship with Stirling Silliphant.
“We still have to get the proper assurances from James and Stirling Silliphant, since they still own a piece of the project.
James is certainly not an obstacle, but I think it’s a little late for him to play that role. The other thing is that I felt it was a little late for me to play this martial artist. The guy is supposed to be like out of school and I’m a couple of months short of forty. It seems to me the role should go to somebody we don’t know, whose face is new. That sounds like Jeff.
He’s as old as I am, but he’s well preserved.”
No definite shooting date has been set for the reincarnation of Bruce Lee’s The Silent Flute. In fact, it’s even a little early to get into the pre-production stages of picking the crew, scouting locations, and rounding out the cast.
Carradine likes to stress that he’ll have to work out details with James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant even before looking for financial backers. He’s confident, however, that once The Silent Flute is finished and released, it will be a tremendous success. But he has to get past step one before going on to that.
“One of the problems with doing The Silent Flute,” he says, “is to convince Stirling Silliphant that it’s a good idea.
Stirling just isn’t your regular writer. He’s independently wealthy and an excellent producer, and he has his own ideas about the property. He doesn’t want to see it made into just another low-grade martial arts movie, and I have to agree with him.
“That’s why I’m trying to convince him now that he should have a hand in it. I think he would be invaluable.”
As he stretched out on his couch, his son using him for a set of monkey bars, Carradine lapsed into thought over what he had just said. He fingered his beard, looking as though a fresh idea about the film had come to him. The project really is important to him, in spite of a schedule that is busier than ever.
For one thing, he’s just finished what may be his finest dramatic effort on film to date, a biography of folk singer Woody Guthrie, called Bound For Glory. It was this same Woody Guthrie who inspired Bob Dylan, Carradine’s new neighbor a mile or so up the pike.
“It’s funny,” he smiled. “When Guthrie was dying, he wouldn’t allow Dylan in his room to visit. They thought he was just some crazy kid at the time. I don’t know Bob at all. I tried to meet him once; and he wouldn’t talk to me, which is just what Guthrie did to him. I feel Bob is a little like Bruce Lee, though. You feel that same kind of charismatic thing – that evangelical thing that Bruce was doing.
“And that’s the essence of The Silent Flute,” he snapped, as though reminding himself. “It’s bringing a message to bear instead of just portraying fight scenes and bad acting.”
Carradine agrees that a project like that would take time, especially since that’s become a shrinking commodity in his own life. New World Pictures, for instance, is after him for a sequel of the campy Death Race 2000, which will merit the appropriate title of Death Sport. And his Kung Fu series, now in international syndication, should put him in demand with filmmakers overseas; since it has held the number one ranking in Japan, France, Germany and Italy.
The TV series has been the apex of his career to this point, which will no doubt change with the release of Bound For Glory. Still, David Carradine doesn’t look upon it as his happiest days.
“In the last semester of Kung Fu it was really difficult,” he confides. “Everybody knew the show was going no further than that season. The pressure was really bad and I found myself sneaking a little brandy from the prop truck every day. They have it there for when an actor does a scene in the water and he gets chilled. When a guy goes in the water, he’s supposedly entitled to a shot of brandy.
“I got pretty crazy and angry all the time. I was always fighting with somebody, so I used to go out and take a shot of brandy from the truck every day. That was as close as I’ve come to being a habitual drinker.”
He wants to stay away from that kind of situation in the future, where the pressure of a television series can affect his personal life. It may be easier now that the film offers are coming his way.
But what of he Silent Flute?
“It will be done,” he confides. “The script, the story, the true philosophy of Bruce Lee – It’s all there and it’s too important not to do.”
We think that says it all.