Wednesday, December 24, 2014


With talk of a new Doc Savage movie in the making, it's time to look back at the original...

by Don Stradley

Producer George Pal had high hopes for "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze" (1975). He even included a bold closing scene announcing its sequel. ("Stay tuned for The Arch Enemy of Evil, coming soon!") In Pal's mind, the adventures of Doc and his crew could be sold as a sort of James Bond for the kiddies, stripped of sex and given a G-rating.

Doc had originally appeared in magazines during the 1930s, and his escapades were regarded by many as the epitome of Depression Era pulp entertainment. Doc wasn't Batman, or Superman. He was something different, someone who didn't wear a cape or keep his identity a secret. He was called "the man of bronze" because his skin was "kilned by tropical suns and arctic winds" to that enduring shade. His eyes, furthermore, were "hypnotic whirlpools of flake gold." He fought against death rays and ghost ships and menaces from far flung locations.

The Doc Savage paperback books, reissued by Bantam during the late 1960s as part of a nostalgia craze, had become cult favorites among readers of sci-fi and adventure. Doc was even picked up by Marvel Comics for a brief run in comic book form. I remember my uncle Jack coming home one afternoon with a Doc Savage paperback. To me, it seemed terribly exotic and sophisticated. Yet, I puzzled over it, unable to stick Doc into a niche. He had the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes, but could break your face with one punch. He was also a scientist and inventor, with a swanky apartment high above Manhattan. In my pre-adolescent mind, he was superior to James Bond, if only because there were no women around to mess up his pad. Plus, he fought werewolves, which was important to me at the time.

Pal had produced a dozen or more sci-fi and adventure classics dating back to the 1940s, including War of the Worlds, and felt he could still thrill an audience. He assembled a good team for the Doc Savage project, including director Michael Anderson, and cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp, fresh off an Oscar win for The Towering Inferno. Pal helped write the screenplay, basing it on the first Savage story, with elements of a few others. Pal discovered the Doc Savage books while browsing in a bookstore. Struck by the cinematic quality of James Bama's cover art, he bought a few and read them. Pal was so impressed with Doc Savage that he spent more than a year acquiring the rights to all 181 of the Doc Savage titles, a process he boasted took nearly as long as shooting the movie. (Pal may have been especially motivated since a recent proposal, Logan’s Run, had failed to get off the ground. Pal felt Doc was surefire.) 

As for the title role, Pal and Anderson allegedly looked at over 1,000 actors before choosing Ron Ely, the tall and dashing actor who'd starred in 55 episodes of NBC's 'Tarzan' series. Filming took place during 1974, with various California locales standing in for Manhattan and Central America. The film could have been ready for a Christmas 1974 release, but was held it until the spring of 1975.

Ely was a trooper, making several personal appearances as the movie was slowly released across the country. The old-style whistle stop tour was geared to getting the word out, with Ely making passionate speeches in every town, praising the movie as entertainment suitable for all ages. "It is a truly G-rated picture," Ely said, which seemed to be the company line handed down by Pal and Warner Bros. 

At times, though, Ely let some anxiety drip through the cracks in his handsome façade. At a Hollywood party in Jan. 1975, he admitted to columnist Marilyn Beck that he felt unsure about his future. He'd been told about potential Doc Savage sequels, and even a TV series. Hence, he'd been turning down roles to keep his schedule open, an act he was regretting. "I made some stupid decisions," he said candidly, and admitted that he wasn't sure if "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze" would be a hit. Beck described the 6'5" Ely gamely handing out Doc Savage hats, balloons, and even aprons. Still, Ely openly wondered if it was too late to cash in on the campy hero craze started a decade earlier by TV shows like Batman and the BBC's Avengers. "That's the story of my life," Ely told Beck. "My career has always been one instance after another of bad timing." 

Ely's gravest fears were realized. "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze" bombed. Any plans for a sequel or TV show were immediately scrapped. 

Most major newspapers didn't bother covering the movie, but there were plenty of jabs from minor critics, such as this one from a Cedar Rapids reviewer: “…the film makers obviously wanted the actors to seem idiotic, and they succeed." 

The movie was simple enough: Millionaire adventurer Doc Savage learns that his father was murdered. After an assassination attempt on his own life by what looks like a Mayan warrior, Doc and his five assistants (Monk, Renny, Ham, Long Tom, and Johnny) set off to South America to solve the mystery. They end up in the clutches of Captain Seas (Paul Wexler), a third rate Captain Nemo wannabe who covets a legendary pond of gold once owned by Doc’s father. Seas’ posse includes some real weirdoes, highlighted by a mean little runt who sleeps in an oversized crib. Seas’ real weapon, though, is a mysterious green mist that wafts through the air like a floating snake, striking down anyone it touches. But never fear, Doc overcomes all obstacles, subdues the captain, solves the mystery, reclaims the pond of gold, and vows to continue fighting evil. He even turns back the advances of various beautiful ladies. When he explains to one particular beauty that he can’t allow himself to be distracted in his quest to rid the world of bad guys, she reluctantly accepts his philosophy. “Thanks,” Docs says, chucking her under the chin. “You’re a brick.” 

Funny, but where was the violence? 

What was most arresting about the Doc Savage books (most written by Lester Dent under the pseudonym 'Kenneth Robeson') was the viciousness of the fight scenes. True, the plotlines were often cartoonish, but if someone was punched in a Doc Savage story, their jaws would be shattered, their necks snapped, their teeth scattered across the floor. Of course, Doc could easily put you out with a Vulcan-like nerve pinch, but Dent’s stories were flavored with sadism, with particular attention paid to the maiming of faces. Pal and company missed this aspect of Doc Savage, for their hero, as played by Ely, is more of a swashbuckler than a breaker of bones. 

Pal erred badly in others ways. First, his inclusion of John Phillip Sousa marches as the musical score was a bad move. A ridiculous theme song practically sinks the movie before the opening credits have finished. Second, the casting of chubby Michael Miller as Monk is utterly baffling. Probably the most beloved of Doc's crew, Monk is supposed to be a brilliant chemist with simian features and the heart of a street brawler. Miller plays him like Lou Costello in a production of Showboat. Generally, the "Fabulous Five" are badly represented in the movie, though William Lucking is very good as big-fisted Renny, and Eldon Quick strikes the right cords as Johnny, the vulnerable geologist. Finally, Captain Seas is too much of a bumbler to strike fear into an audience. Even children want their villains to be dangerous. 

Yet, there are moments when the movie succeeds grandly. There's the impressive opening scene of Doc on a primitive snowmobile, blasting his way towards his North Pole headquarters, followed by a beautiful shot of him meditating under an Arctic sunrise. There’s another handsome shot of Doc and his crew on horseback, silhouetted against what is supposedly the desert of Hidalgo, plus a reasonably good fight scene aboard Captain Seas' boat. I also liked the scene where Doc pursued an assassin along the ledges of a New York skyscraper. These scenes are superb, and give the impression that a good movie was made, but was buried underneath some bad choices. It’s also fun to see early career appearances by character actors Michael Berryman, Robert Tessier, and Paul Gleason, and the movie’s ersatz art-deco design is eye-catching. 

As for Ely, he was a passable Doc Savage, doing his best in the framework provided by Pal. In a 2012 interview with FilmFax magazine, Ely described Doc as "a fun character to play," but added that the movie suffered from the changes going on at Warner Bros. As often happens when power shifts, the new regime wasn't interested in projects started by the old regime; when the film was ready for post-production work, WB wouldn't foot the bill. That's why, according to Ely, a lot of the special effects look cheap and amateurish. Ely also felt that Pal "lost his way," and pushed the film towards camp. "It got ridiculous," Ely said. "And stupid. When it wasn't ridiculous or stupid, the movie had a pretty good look to it." 

That the movie is remembered as a bust is probably fair, but it's not as bad as its reputation. Besides, Doc Savage isn’t alone. Many pulp heroes have failed to connect on the big screen including the Shadow, the Green Hornet, the Phantom, the Spirit, the Lone Ranger, and Dick Tracy. “Flash Gordon” became a cult favorite, but was initially a failure. Moviemakers, unsure of how to bring those characters to contemporary audiences, often cut their own throats by going the camp route, as Pal did. 

There has been talk over the years of a new Doc Savage movie with everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Chris Hemsworth attached. In my fantasies, a Doc Savage movie would have the grit of “The Dirty Dozen”, and the look of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. But if George Pal couldn't get it right, who can? 

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze turned out to be George Pal's last movie. He spent the final years of his life unable to get funding for various projects, including a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. In hindsight, it's easy to see where Pal went wrong. Pal was 66 at the time, hadn't made a movie in several years, and was perhaps out of touch with moviegoers. He thought they wanted an alternative to rough, dark films like “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist”. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Still, Pal deserves some credit. He was one of Hollywood’s old-time dream weavers, still dreaming big.

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze is available on the Warner Archive streaming service.


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