Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Movie Review: Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)

With our BIG anniversary show just a couple of weeks away, I thought it would be appropriate to review a movie that maybe . . . just maybe . . . will find its way into the lineup. For years back in the 80’s I saw this movie on the shelf in my local mom n’ pop video store, and for whatever reason time and again I passed it up. The box cover art looked amazing, and this was around the same time Indiana Jones was still big, so it is somewhat of a miracle that I never checked it out. Well for years Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze has been unavailable on video, and now Warner Bros. has released it through their archive program. Before sitting down to watch it I did a little homework, and the film was produced the legendary George Pal (The Time Machine, War of the Worlds). That alone would recommend a viewing, however it was also helmed by Michael Anderson (aka director of Logan’s Run). Has to be quality right? Well let’s just say it’s neither of these gentlemen’s finest hour.

In a nutshell, the Doc Savage character is indeed an Indiana Jones, adventurer/explorer type of character. However he also shares a good deal in common with Batman. He has trained to the limits of human perfection and is a brilliant scientist/inventor (as the cheesy theme music lets you know on several occasions). This superhero quality also extends beyond his physical and mental capabilities. Doc has a loyal bands of sidekicks, each with their own special abilities, as well as a “fortress of solitude” in the far north, and a penthouse that includes a variety of vehicles (including a helicopter that launches out of a giant eagle’s head). Better still his official logo appears on all of his vehicles, clothing, and accessories. The logo looks just like the lettering in the poster, and you almost expect to see a little tradmark insignia on his various pieces of property. I have to admit, being a comic book fan, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. Had Doc Savage taken off I’m sure I would have owned all of the toys!

The film opens with an attempt on Doc’s life, as a Native American marksman takes a shot with a sniper rifle. No problem though because the windows in Doc’s penthouse are all designed to refract the interior such that everything appears 3-inches off from where they actually are. Doc and his gang give chase only to find that the whole thing was a distraction. While they were out a secret map sent to Doc from his murdered father gave details of a hidden jungle oasis with a lake of gold. Undeterred Doc and company head to the far reaches of Hidalgo, where they encounter the villainous Captain Seas. Seas has teamed up with some locals of Mayan ancestry in order to gain access to the gold. Doc sets out to defeat Seas who, with the help of the Mayans, has harnessed the power of The Green Death (cheesy animated snakes) to do his bidding.

There are worse superhero movies than Doc Savage, let’s get that out of the way first. Captain America (1990), Batman & Robin, Superman IV, The Fantastic Four (any incarnation), Steel, etc., come immediately to mind as examples. Those barely manage to be watchable, whereas Doc Savage is non-stop fun from the word go. The problem with Doc Savage is that it doesn’t live up to what it could be. It has all the ingredients necessary to fire on all cylinders including a wealth of source material, a great producer and director, and a cast who appears fully game for the proceedings. Honestly this should be a perfect hybrid of Raiders and Batman, yet the ball is dropped so completely it boggles the mind. Instead of high adventure we receive high camp that makes Adam West’s Batman seem like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight by comparison.

First off let’s talk about that cast. Ron Ely (TV’s Tarzan) cuts a dashing figure as Doc. On a visual level he is just about as perfect as one could hope. He’s a little wooden in the acting department, but honestly his performance worked for me. Just the right combination of overconfidence and machismo. His band of sidekicks were also well-played, with the most recognizable being Paul Gleason (The Breakfast Club, Die Hard) as Long Tom. Each has their own distinct personality and skill set which are highlighted on various occasions. My personal favorite was the brick character of Monk, who has a piglet companion named Habeas Corpus. Yep. Paul Wexler plays like a Christopher Lee substitute, but he is adequate as the villain. Making more of an impression is Pamela Hensley (Buck Rogers) in her screen debut as Doc’s leading lady. Everyone seems to be having a great time with the material . . . and that’s just the problem. It’s like the cast was told to set the volume to 11, and as a result the performances give new meaning to the word goofy. Yes this quality does make the film enjoyable to watch, but it destroys any chances of Doc Savage being a decent superhero movie.

The performances are perhaps the least of the problems derailing Doc Savage though. Coming from George Pal you would expect this to look very cool and colorful. Guess again. Crude matte paintings, cheap special effects and sets, and bland 70’s era costumes are the order of the day. The opening action sequence really sets the tone for the film, as the matte painting of Doc’s penthouse is nothing short of subpar. I am a huge fan of matte paintings in classic films. Sure they are fake looking, but they can be absolutely beautiful. This is a movie that screams for a high level of artistry. Unfortunately what’s on display is lackluster. The special effects are just as bad if not worse, with the highlight being The Green Death attacks. I understand animation was necessary given the limitations of the time, but the animation here is not good even for the period. They should have brought in Disney talent for something like this. Every time we’re treated to a Green Death sequence, what should be terrifying is instead laughable. Finally the sets look like a few steps above an Ed Wood production, with the most disappointing being the lake of gold. I kept thinking they must be saving the best for last, but it was easily the worst of the film.

There’s another element that cannot go unmentioned, and that is the unfortunate choice of music. The score is an adaptation of John Philip Sousa, theoretically designed to emphasize the patriotic aspects of Doc’s character. Sousa’s music is even given lyrics which are all completely ridiculous and over-the-top. Whenever the music kicks in the silliness of the film is ratcheted up to even higher levels, and it actually manages to detract from sequences that might otherwise be moderately exciting. In a way this would be a great soundtrack to own due to the silly songs championing Doc’s abilities, but I can’t imagine this is what the filmmakers intended. I could find no references to a soundtrack CD ever being released, but my guess is that it would do well among cult movie aficionados!

From my comments you might think that I don’t care much for Doc Savage, but the truth is that I found its many shortcomings endearing. Much like a Gymkata or a Mighty Peking Man it is so wildly ridiculous that it never ceases to be entertaining, qulalifying it as a perfect example of a good bad movie. Any disappointment stems from the fact that the character could be adapted in a way that would lead to a great superhero film, and it’s a shame that this initial outing derailed that possibility. Apparently a reboot was planned in the late 90's starring Schwarzenegger and to be directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Walking Dead), but once the former entered politics those plans were off the table. Perhaps the saddest repercussion of the film was that it effectively ended Pal’s career. I’ve recently been reading a book of non-fiction articles by Harlan Ellison, and in one he mentions how Pal spent the last years of his life desperately trying to get another project off the ground. Thanks to Doc Savage, and the perception that Pal was out of step, this never happened. Questionable stylistic choices in Doc Savage aside, it’s a shame that Pal wasn’t given a chance to give us one more final epic, as clearly he was a talented fellow.

One final bit worthy of mentioning is that a franchise was in the works for Doc Savage. At the end of the film we are told that Doc will return in Doc Savage: The Arch Enemy of Evil. This reminded me a great deal of Buckaroo Banzai Vs. The World Crime League. Actually Doc shares much in common with Buckaroo, although the latter is more successful across the board in my opinion. Interestingly details on the always reliable Internet suggest that a fair amount of the sequel was filmed simultaneously with The Man of Bronze (foreshadowing Superman 1 & 2). Because the first outing bombed so badly it was never completed and released. Boy would that footage have made a great extra on the DVD (assuming it still exists in a vault somewhere)! After the success of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, I want to know where is the Internet campaign for Michael Anderson to complete his original vision?!?

Be sure to join us at Fantasmo for our anniversary show on April 1st, and you may just get your chance to see Doc Savage on the big screen . . . the way it was meant to be seen!


Daniel said...

Wow this movie sounds like a ton of fun! I might have to track this one down. The fact that the beautiful Pamela Hensley stars is worth it for me. I might have to wait till after April 1st just in case!

Jim Blanton said...

It is a blast - in an unintentional sort of way : ) Very much looking forward to seeing it on the big screen - you may even get to see the trailer this Friday!

Daniel said...

Woo hoo! Looking forward to Friday. I'm all set to heckle the screen with "Christmas Story" references.

Jim Blanton said...

Yes : ) For yet another great Darren McGavin film (of the B variety) check out Hangar 18! Great, cheesy UFO cover-up outing. Very Kolchakian.

Clay said...

I saw this at Tower Mall as a summer kids matinee... man, I haven't thought of that place in a while.

Jim Blanton said...

A mall cinema on a summer afternoon in my mind is the perfect venue for Doc Savage. Many a cheeseball, low-rent action film did I see at my own version of the Tower Mall as a kid. I can only imagine what seeing Doc Savage was like with little warning as to what one should expect!

Anonymous said...

There is a soon-to-be-released fanedit of DS:TMOB that removes much of the "cringeworthiest" stuff from George Pal's Grand Finale:


Jim Blanton said...

Wow! You know it had a surprisingly good crowd reaction (overall) when we screened the film. Losing some of the worst bits might make it slightly better, but it's still hard to imagine the film being anywhere near salvageable : )