A fantasy martial arts film written by Bruce Lee, with James Coburn and Stirling Sillphant; and intended to be an exploration of Eastern philosophy and martial arts. Originally titled The Silent Flute, Lee died before he could film it. Silliphant re-wrote the story, and filmed with David Carradine playing the lead (the second time Carradine would play a role originally intended for Lee).
The main character is Cord (played by Jeff Cooper, better known for his roles on soap operas The Young and the Restless, and Dallas), a martial arts practitioner who rejects the restrictions of a formal school, but prefers to develop his own martial arts style; mirroring Bruce Lee's own work on Jeet Kune Do. At the opening of the film, Cord is competing in a martial arts tournament to earn the right to set off on a quest for the legendary Book of Enlightenment, a book that contains all the wisdom of the world, and is guarded by a master named Zetan. Though Cord wins the contest, he does so by violating the highly restrictive rules, and his opponent, Morthond, is granted the quest. (Though not made clear, it is apparent that information on how to find Zetan and the Book of Enlightenment is only supplied to the contest winner). Cord tags along with Morthond, insistent on finding Zetan and the book.
Along the way, he encounters a number of "trials", physical conflicts which serve as metaphors for Cord's spiritual journey to enlightenment, as well as furthering his education in the martial arts. Not all of Cord's trials involved combat; in fact, at least half of them require resisting various temptations, both hedonistic and ascetic. Passing each of the trials earns Cord further information on how to find Zetan and the Book. Morthond fails the first trial and dies, leaving Cord alone to pursue the quest.
Along his travels, Cord encounters a blind beggar played by Carradine, who plays a flute that only Cord is able to hear; and who displays a level of skill far beyond Cord's despite his blindness. Reluctantly the beggar becomes Cord's teacher and guide, helping him with both his physical and spiritual development.
Ultimately, Cord reaches Zetan and is permitted to view the Book of Enlightenment; only to find not a book of wisdom, but reflections of himself.
All of the combat-based trials involve defeating a specific person, each one of which is also played by Carradine.
The philosophy behind the movie is based heavily on the Chinese Chan Buddhism, which is better known in the West in its Japanese form, Zen Buddhism.
Not a critical or popular success, it was widely criticized for both the poor quality of the martial arts, and the poor quality of the acting. Since then, it has achieved a moderate cult status.
This film provides examples of:
- Action Prologue: The film starts during a martial arts tournament.
- Anti-Climax: An in-universe example with Cord's final encounter with Zetan. After all Cord's efforts to improve his martial arts mastery for his final showdown against Zetan, the latter has no intention of fighting him, but happily hands over the Book of Enlightenment, and even offers to step down as guardian of the book and give the position to Cord.
- Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Cord is very much this at the start of the film.
- Blank Book: The Zen Buddhist variation of Type 4. Once Cord finally reaches Zetan and the Book of Enlightenment, he opens to find nothing on any page but mirrors. "There is no enlightenment outside one's own self."
- Bloodier and Gorier: Bruce Lee's original version was much more graphically violent than the version which was eventually filmed.
- Bloodless Carnage: By contrast, there is almost no blood in the film, even during the most brutal combat scenes.
- Boss Battle: Each of the combat trials is treated effectively as one of these.
- Facial Dialogue: After sobbing about his attempted castration, the Man in Oil gives Cord a split-second look of tortured desperation before narrowing his eyes in mad conviction.
- Fanservice: Tara, the Rose of the Desert; who seduces Cord and convinces him to break his vow of chastity.
- Cord's constant shirtless state is clearly intended to be this as well.
- Frequently-Broken Unbreakable Vow: Every character who has taken a vow of some sort (chastity, silence, etc.) breaks it eventually. The Man in Oil tells Cord that he himself had repeatedly broken his own vow of chastity, and encourages Cord onto the path of asceticism to avoid doing so as well.
- Handicapped Badass: The beggar is blind; but is still far and away the most skilled fighter in the entire film.Cord: With all my training and both my eyes, I wouldn't last one second against you.
- Heroes Fight Barehanded: Zig-zagged. While Cord fights predominantly with his bare hands, the beggar fights with a long bamboo staff that also serves as a flute.
- Cord does use shuriken in a couple fights, both of these are against mobs of Mooks; he only fights barehanded during his trials.
- Hero of Another Story: The beggar turns out to have started much like Cord when he was younger, and experienced similar trials.
- I Did What I Had to Do
- Instrument of Murder: The Blind Man has a staff/walking stick that is also a flute. And he fights with it. It has its limitations, though, as he once remarks, "It's hard to kill a horse with a flute!"
- Never Bring A Knife To A Fistfight: Both Cord and the beggar repeatedly fight off much better armed opponents.
- Old Master: The beggar; though less old than the usual example, he is still clearly older than Cord.
- Super Fly Reflexes: The beggar demonstrates his mastery by casually catching a bee in two fingers, then releasing it unharmed.
- The Unfettered
- Trickster Mentor
- What the Hell, Hero?: Cord has a few moments of this under the beggar's tutelage; most notably when the beggar strikes the Beautiful Boy, breaking his nose and spoiling his beauty. Of course, since the beggar is a hidden Zen Master, The Complainer Is Always Wrong.