Skip to main content

Have no fear! Doc Savage is here!

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze
(1975)

(SPOILERS) Forget about The Empire Strikes Back, the cliffhanger ending of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze had me on the edge of my seat for a sequel that never came. How could they do that to us (well, me)? This was of course, in the period prior to discernment and wisdom, when I had no idea Doc Savage was a terrible movie. I mean, it is, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t a great movie, but it has a certain indolent charm, in the manner of a fair few mid-‘70s SF and fantasy fare (Logan’s Run, The Land that Time Forgot) that had no conception the genre landscape was on the cusp of irrevocable change.


Doc Savage: Before we go, let us remember our code. Let us strive every moment of our lives to make ourselves better and better, to the best of our abilities so that all may profit by it. Let us think of the right, and lend our assistance to all who may need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let us take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let us be considerate of our country, our fellow citizens and our associates, in everything we say and do. Let us do right to all, and wrong no man.


Contemporary reviews – and the recent AV Club’s and the bulk of posthumous commentary – dismissed Doc Savage as campy, but the same might be said of Superman, three years later, so that doesn’t really explain its failure. Indeed, its more humorous elements are really what save it from being a complete slog, to the modern eye, from Doc’s twinkling eye in the opening scene, to the rousingly self-conscious theme tune and Ron Ely’s deadpan delivery, coming across as if he sat in a darkened room consuming nothing but Adam West Batman episodes for six weeks prior to principal photography.


One could easily imagine Ely playing Superman, in fact, and there’s a general sense that Doc Savage was a case of right time, wrong tone/sensibility. It even has the Fortress of Solitude (in the pulp novels prior to Superman; I’m not sure quite how Supes managed to purloin it without consequences, but there you go). Done differently – done by wunderkinds like Lucas and Spielberg – the movie might have tapped the vein of the also ‘30s-set Raiders of the Lost Ark half a decade early (the video sleeve was definitely selling the movie off the back of the first Indy). Instead, they speed-dialled the unimaginative Michael Anderson, who would helm the similarly flair-free Logan’s Run the following year.


Anderson’s one long death knell to action, pace, thrills. Another minus point is the pervading absence of budget. Embarking for South American? Film it on the backlot with minimal set dressing (anyone would think this was Spielberg making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). But Doc nevertheless has its moments in the dramatic stakes. The animated green snakes – The Green Death – appearing out of thin air and making swift, deadly work of their victims, were frightening as a bairn, and are quite effective even now (it’s also notable how much blood there is in the movie, which would likely be staunched somewhat today).


If you’re a Savage aficionado, the camp content is likely anathema, but I think the ideal for this movie would have been to retain the knowing humour of the too-impossibly-noble Doc while assigning a director with some actual chops; the comedy was purportedly foisted on the picture by studio execs, rather than at producer George Pal’s instigation, but the general shape of his screenplay (with Joe Morheim) doesn’t help matters any, further suggesting a style a couple of decades past its best.


There’s no urgency to the narrative, so it’s in the sedate asides that we have to be sated. Doc visits his fortress to study astronomy, the planets, the stars, the universe “Or work to invent something that one day might be beneficial to mankind”. His ESP abilities enable him to sense his friends in trouble (“I picked up your thoughts, came as fast as I could”) and this facility, and his scientific invention, pre-empt many an eventuality, including assassination attempts at his penthouse pad (refractive glass windows - everything appears to be five inches to the left – are no match for a stuntman in brown face) and fake-out plane deaths (he and the fabulous five weren’t aboard).


So focussed on virtuous deeds is Doc, he’s blithely unaware of the effect his uber-buff bod has on the ladies, be it maids ogling him as he works out on a diving board (two hours exercise every day) or failing to reciprocate Mona’s feelings for him (“Mona, you’re a brick!” he says upon letting her down, and fraternally biffing her on the chin). Apparently, he shuns alcohol (“I’ll have a coke please”; I’m not sure that will do his insides any good) and is an expert in all the different martial arts (Sumo, Gung Fu, Tai Chichuan, Karate, Bo Jijsu, and Fisticuffs, as subtitles helpfully inform us) when Paul Wexler’s Captain Seas takes him on in hand-to-hand combat.


Alarmingly, given the Aryan vibes Doc gives off, he also favours acupuncture surgery to “rid you of your evil nature”. Nothing quite like a benign lobotomy (as the previous year’s The Terminal Man pointed out, and A Clockwork Orange four years prior). Like much of the movie – the non-humorous parts – this derives from the novels, Doc having a Crime College in which he would imprison and rehabilitate felons.


Captain Seas: Basically, what I do is recognise opportunities and seize them.
Monk: Is that why they call you Captain Seas?
Captain Seas: Very good. Very good! No.

Wexler’s villain is entirely inappropriate to any suggestion of threat, coming across more like a hapless music producer Columbo is about to put the squeeze on for offing his assistant. He does have a particularly choice, extended diabolical laugh at one point, however, one that surely inspired Mike Myers.


There’s even less danger suggested by Don Rubio Gorro (Bob Corso), who listens to lullabies in an over-sized cot (he does end up being rather nastily turned to gold, though) and is accompanied by stereotypical comedy idiot La Cucaracha music.


Doc’s wacky pals (all of them war buddies) are less than convincing as brave defenders, but do wrestle a few laughs. Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett “Monk” Mayfair (Michael Miller) is a diminutive portly ginger with a pet piglet (Habeus Corpus, although obviously, it should have been called Habeus Porcus). The piglet is instrumental to an escape at one point by chewing through the ties that bind.


Monk is engaged in a running feud with the aristocratic Brigadier General Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks (Darrel Zwerling, Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown). Making up the rest are electrical engineer Major Thomas J “Long Tom” Roberts (Paul Gleason, who would soon become identified with rotter/tosser parts in The Breakfast Club, Die Hard and Miami Blues), construction engineer Colonel John “Renny” Renwick (William Lucking), partial to exclaiming “Holy Cow!” and Professor William Harper “Johnny” Littlejohn (Eldon Quick), given to excessive verbiage (“An absolute absence of ambulation”, “Well, I’ll be… super-amalgamated!”). 


Pamela Hensley is fairly non-descript as Mona (she would later take on more memorable roles as Princess Ardala in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and CJ in Matt Houston) but Robyn Hilton makes the most of Seas’ bimbo floozy Karen (“You like money, eh?”: “Sure, poopsie”).


I can’t deny Doc Savage’s drawbacks, much as I’d like to reclaim it as a neglected gem, but it isn’t completely devoid of charm. Ely gets Savage pretty much spot-on, and I can still see what my younger self saw in the picture, particularly its “Next Time” ending in which a Yuletide setting – we see the rehabilitated Seas wassailing on a street corner – gives way to a desperate answerphone message in which the absent Doc is warned “Millions of people are going to get killed. You’re the only one who–”. The Archenemy of Evil was never made, alas (or fortunately), although there were persistent rumours it had been shot at the same time (which wasn’t unheard of during this period, with The Three and Four Musketeers, and Superman 1 and ½, both Alexander Salkind productions, getting that treatment).


I would have first seen Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze in 1980, I suspect (its initial BBC screening, the same year as that of another childhood fave, The Land that Time Forgot), and was blissfully unaware of how crummy it was supposed to be. I didn’t segue to the books, but it did invest in me a desire to see more Doc. Will Shane Black get his long-mooted version off the ground? Well, Dwayne Johnson is purportedly on board, so I guess it just needs him to fit it in amidst the thousand other projects he has lined up (anyone would think he was Ridley Scott). I find it difficult to believe that there won’t be at least a certain level of self-conscious humour, with Black at the helm, even if it doesn’t turn to all-out camp (one thing’s for sure, Doc will require the services a really crummy tailor, one who makes shirts that disintegrate with the absolute minimum wear and tear). Which is probably as it should be (unless you’re a diehard fan) Never fear, The Man of Bronze is… coming back?





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

I think my mother put a curse on us.

Hereditary (2018)
(SPOILERS) Well, the Hereditary trailer's a very fine trailer, there's no doubt about that. The movie as a whole? Ari Aster's debut follows in the line of a number of recent lauded-to-the-heavens (or hells) horror movies that haven't quite lived up to their hype (The Babadook, for example). In Hereditary's case, there’s no doubting Ari Aster's talent as a director. Instead, I'd question his aptitude for horror.

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

Reindeer-goat cheese pizza?

Hudson Hawk (1991)
A movie star vanity project going down in flames is usually met with open delight from press and critics alike. Even fans of the star can nurse secret disappointment that they were failed on this occasion. But, never mind, soon they will return to something safe and certain. Sometimes the vehicle is the result of a major star attaching themselves to a project where they are handed too much creative control, where costs spiral and everyone ends up wet (Waterworld, The Postman, Ishtar). In other cases, they bring to screen a passion project that is met with derision (Battlefield Earth). Hudson Hawk was a character created by Bruce Willis, about whom Willis suddenly had the post-Die Hard clout to make a feature.

I love the combination of Gummi Bears and meat.

Despicable Me 3 (2017)
(SPOILERS) The Illumination formula is at least reliable, consistently and comfortably crowd-pleasing where DreamWorks often seems faintly desperate (because they are – who's their distributor this week?) Despicable Me 3 ploughs the same cosy, affirmative furrow as its wholly safe predecessor. When I saw Despicable Me 2, I mentioned that it reminded me of Shrek 2 in its attempt to continue a story that was complete in itself. Despicable Me 3 is similarly redundant, suggesting the most airless of brainstorming sessions – Gru has the kids, the wife, the job, how about now he gets a sibling? – although this time I was put in mind of the Lethal Weapon sequels and their ability to continue churning out/expanding on the family vibe long after Riggs had become a (relatively) well-adjusted member of society.

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway)
Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders Carry On, Jeeves but this time blends it with a tale from The Inimitable Jeeves for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.