Thursday, October 12, 2017

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze

As a boy growing in the Great Depression, my father loved to read pulp magazines. His favorites were The Shadow and Doc Savage. I also became a fan when, beginning in the late 1960s, Bantam Books released paperbacks featuring these heroes. Thus, my Dad and I had high expectations when Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was released in 1975. Yes, we had our reservations when we learned it starred Ron Ely, best known as TV's Tarzan. But it was produced by George Pal (The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds) and I knew he wouldn't let me down.

We hated Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. It took our beloved hero and turned him into a camp figure with a (literal) twinkle in his eye. Thanks to Warner Archive's streaming service, I recently watched this movie for the first time in 42 years. Perhaps it was my tempered expectations, but I found it to be reasonably entertaining tale of derring-do this time around.

For those unfamiliar with Clark "Doc" Savage, Jr., he is a physically-gifted genius who might one well qualify as one of the first superheroes. He lives in a metropolitan skyscraper, but spends most of his time roaming the world on his various exploits. When he needs to do some serious thinking, he retreats to his Arctic Fortress of Solitude (which pre-dates Superman's same-named abode).

Ron Ely as Doc Savage.
Doc is assisted by the Fabulous Five, which consist of: Ham Brooks, a Harvard-educated lawyer; Monk Mayfair, a renowned chemist who also possesses great strength; Renny Renwick, a construction engineer; William "Johnny" Littlejohn, a geologist and archaeologist; and "Long Tom" Roberts, an electrical engineer.

At the start of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, Doc (Ron Ely) learns of his father's sudden death from a South American tropical disease. The elder Savage's possessions included some important documents, but before Doc can read them, they are destroyed...and Doc nearly gets assassinated by a mysterious native with a green snake painted on his chest.

Doc and the Fabulous Five head to the Republic of Hidalgo in South America, where they encounter the nefarious Captain Seas (Paul Wexler). It turns out that the Captain murdered Doc's father to prevent him from telling others about a "lake of gold" and a tribe called the Quetzamals that disappeared 500 years ago. But Captain Seas and his cronies turn out to be no match for Doc, of course!

Doc fends of the "Green Death."
It's a pretty straightforward yarn and anyone expecting a typical George Pal movie will be disappointed. The only special effects are some nifty green "air serpents" that kill their victims with electric nibbles. Veteran director Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days) keeps the action moving and that disguises a lot of the film's weaknesses. 

Indeed, the only boring scenes are when Doc delivers an overly-sincere pep talk to the Fab Five and any scene featuring the ridiculous "Doc Savage" song (which is set to John Philip Sousa music). One assumes that these elements were intended to be camp. (Let's be honest, it's hard to intentionally make a camp film...Buckaroo Banzai being an exception).

Pamela Hensley.
Ron Ely does what he can in the title role, though one suspects he wanted to play the part straight. Supporting acting honors go to Pamela Hensley as a plucky young woman who helps Doc find the "lost" ancient civilization. Doc Savage could have benefited mightily from a villain more threatening than than the one played by the chunky Wexler. His climactic fight scene with Ely is absurd and not in a funny, campy way. 

Although the closing credits announce a sequel (The Arch Enemy of Evil), that production was scrapped when Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze flopped at the boxoffice. There have been numerous attempts to mount new Doc Savage films, the latest being an announcement in 2016 that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson would play Doc.

11 comments:

  1. It's too bad, cuz there was a huge new generation waiting for a new (old) breed of heroes - Star Wars and Superman just a few years away. Will Murray has been writing new Docs for the last few years.

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    1. It may have come out just a little too early.

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  2. It was a real pleasure to read your unexpected review of Doc Savage.

    Your memories of the Man of Bronze and of this film are similar to my own. My dad used to read The Shadow and Doc Savage pulps as a boy while I became familiar with Doc in my Junior High years with the cover of Brand of the Werewolf.

    I never realized that the Doc Savage of the pulp magazines looked different than the covers of the Bantam paperbacks painted by James Bama (loved those covers and always looked forward with wonder each time the next one was published)--or that the pulp magazines even existed--until I read Jim Steranko's History of the Comics. The first Shadow story I read was also from the Bantam paperback.

    In fact, one precious memory I have of my dad is when he took me to a comic book convention in New York City and the dealer's room had some Doc Savage pulps on display. My dad exclaimed something like, "That's what I used to read!"

    When he saw Roger Kastel's painting of Ron Ely as Doc he remarked, "Well, at least he has the build for it." But I remembered Ely from his Tarzan days and he wasn't that muscular.

    I loved George Pal's previous films and had high expections when I read he was producing Doc Savage and that he had a personal interest in the character.

    What I disappointment when I finally got up to see it on late night TV! From the opening score and the narrator's voice I felt a huge let-down. I was expecting something totally different.

    Like yourself, I have different thoughts viewing it in more recent years. To be fair, George Pal was very faithful to the Doc Savage world in many respects (the skyscraper headquarters, the Fortress of Solitude, Doc riding on the running board, Monk's pig Habeas Corpus, Renny's "Holy Cow" expression and smashing his fist though doors, Johnny's expression, "I'll be Superamalgamated", etc.) How often has another producer "improved" on a big screen adaptation of a character from print media by removing or changing the original elements when no "improvement" was necessary? In Pal's film it was just the way they portrayed the characters that was insulting.

    Incidentally, TV missed the opportunity to get the ideal actor for Doc Savage at the height of his popularity in the 1960s during the Bantam paperback revival. The actor? Clint Walker. In addition to having the Doc Savage height and build, compare his face to one of Walter Baumhofer's cover paintings during the pulp run. Wasn't he the pulp Doc Savage come to life?

    Anyway, thank's again for your enjoyable review and your memories.

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    1. Yes, Clint would have been a fine choice. Thanks for sharing your memories. My Dad had an inexpensive hardcover of the first book and I, too, was surprised at how different Doc looked from the Bantam covers. Of course, these days, some people collect the books because of those covers!

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    2. Chuck Connors starred in a proposed DS tv series. Abandoned when they found they didn't have the rights. Connors sports a very Doc-like haircut in first season of Branded.

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  3. Page to screen is not always successful, is it? I have never watched any film adaptation of Emma precisely because it is my favourite Austen and I don't want that to be marred.

    Keeping my fingers crossed for The Rock's version.

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  4. "Saying nothing, merely as if he wanted to see if the bullet was stuck as tightly as Renny said, Doc reached into the safe.

    "Great muscles popping up along his arm suddenly split his coat sleeve wide open. He glanced at the ruined sleeve ruefully, and brought his arm out of the safe. The bullet lay loosely in his palm." (Actual text from the original novel, The Man of Bronze.)

    When I saw this scene in the movie I groaned inwardly because it was so over-the-top ridiculous. Little did I know until I re-read the novel how over-the-top faithful to its source material it was!

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  5. I told this story on Bill Crider's blog a few years back.
    ... but it's s good story, so what the hey ...

    I actually saw Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze - in a theater!

    Back in the '70s, there was a strip mall in the Chicago suburb where I lived.
    The Hometown Shopping Plaza was located at the conjunction of 87th Street, Pulaski Road, and Southwest Highway.
    Some doughty local soul bought a franchise from Jerry Lewis Cinemas and built a little box of a theater in the back parking lot of the plaza - where it was all but invisible from any of the three streets I named above.
    The Hometown Cinema was a ten-minute walk from my home, so on a Monday evening I set forth to see Doc Savage on the (sort of) Big Theater Screen!
    This is 40+ years ago, and my memory is subject to change, but I'm fairly sure that I was the only paying customer in the Cinema that Monday night (To be fair, Doc Savage hadn't gotten much in the way of promotion [what's the old joke? "It wasn't released - it escaped."])
    But I was still comparatively young (almost 25) and kind of an optimist, so I dug in for the whole picture -
    - well, it could have been worse ...
    End of Part One.

    Part Two:
    A couple of weeks later, Doc Savage managed to score another theater booking!
    This time, it was the Marquette Theatre, at 63rd Street and Kedzie Avenue. This was an old "neighborhood house" that had seen better days (by which I mean it was disintegrating a bit at a time).
    This was a Saturday afternoon; the "crowd" was larger, sort of; maybe a couple of dozen patrons in a theater with 500 seats (and that may be a lowball estimate).
    Well, people in the house helped a little (very little), but cheese is still cheese.
    Even so, I still harbor a bit of affection for Doc Savage after all these years.
    I'm typing this as TCM is showing the picture to whatever part of its audience is still up at 2:45 am CDT, so there too.

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    1. I always enjoy your stories, Mike. I saw DOC SAVAGE on first run, too, at the Reynolda Manor Cinema in Winston-Salem, NC. "Reynolda" comes from Reynolds, as in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company which was headquartered in Winston-Salem in those days.

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  6. Doc Savage is new to me, as is this movie, as well as news of a possible re-boot. (Really, I do lead a sheltered life.)

    Thanks for keeping me In The Know, Rick!

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