Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze
(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.