Thursday, April 28, 2016

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

Historically-speaking, the science fiction and fantasy cinema has battled high camp -- a form of art notable because of its exaggerated or over-the-top attributes -- for over five decades. 

That long battle is definitively lost in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), a tongue-in-cheek film adaptation of the pulp magazine hero (or superhero) created by Henry W. Ralston and story editor John L. Nanovi (with additional material from Lester Dent)  in the 1930s.   

The seventies movie from producer George Pal (1908 – 1980) and director Michael Anderson brazenly makes a mockery of the titular hero’s world, his missions, and even his patriotic belief system.  That the film is poorly paced, and looks more like a TV pilot rather than a full-fledged motion picture only adds to a laundry list of problems.

First some background on high camp: when camp is discussed as a mode of expression, what is really being debated is a sense of authorial or creative distance.  When a film is overtly campy, the author or authors (since film is a collaborative art form…) have made the deliberate decision to stand back and observe the property being adapted from a dramatic and in fact, critical distance.  They find the subject matter humorous, or worthy of ribbing, and have adapted by that belief as a guiding principle. 

Notably not all creative “standing back” need result in a campy or tongue-in-cheek approach, and instead can help a film function admirably as pastiche or homage.  In movies like Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and even Scream (1996), there is a sense of knowing humor at work, but a campy tone is not the result.

In short, then, the camp approach represents sort of the furthest artistic distance a creator can imagine him or herself from his or her material.  Worse, that great distance often seems to emerge from a place of genuine contempt; from a sense that the adapter is better than or superior to the material being adapted…and thus boasts the right/responsibility to mock said property. 

Although Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong (1976) and Flash Gordon (1980) are often offered up on a platter as Exhibits A and B for “campy” style big-budget science fiction or fantasy films, those examples don’t actually fit the bill very well. 

Rather, close viewing suggests that Kong and Flash boast self-reflexive qualities and a sense of humor, but nonetheless boast a sense of closeness to the material at hand.  In both films, in other words, the viewer gets close enough to feel invested in the characters and their stories, despite the interjection of humor, self-reflexive commentary or rampant post-modernism.  When King Kong is gunned down by helicopters…the audience mourns.  And when Flash’s theme song by Queen kicks in and he takes the fight to Ming the Merciless, we feel roused to cheer at his victory.  We may laugh at jokes in the films, but we aren’t so far – distance-wise - that we can’t invest in the action

However, a true “camp” film negates such sense of meaning or identification, and instead portrays a world that is good only for a laugh, no matter the production values, no matter the efforts of the actors, director, or other talents. 

Doc Savage: Man of Bronze is such a campy film, one that, post-Watergate, adopts a contemptuous approach to anyone in authority, and, in facts, makes heroism itself seem ridiculous and unbelievable.  There are ample reasons for this approach, at this time in American history, but those reasons don’t mean that the approach is right for the Doc Savage character.   After all, who can honestly invest in a hero who is so perfect, so square, so beautiful that the twinkle in his eye is literal…added as a special effect?

Although many critics also mistakenly term Superman: The Movie (1978) campy that film revolutionized superhero filmmaking because it took the hero’s world, his powers, and his relationships seriously.  Certainly, there was goofy humor in the last third of the film, but that humor was never permitted to undercut the dignity of Superman, or minimize the threats that he faced, or to mock his heroic journey. 

Again, Doc Savage represents the precise opposite approach.  The film plays exceedingly like a two-hour put-down of superhero tropes and ideas, and wants its audience only to laugh at a character that actually proved highly influential in the World War II Era.  The result is a film that might well be termed a disaster.

"Let us be considerate of our country, our fellow citizens and our associates in everything we say and do..."

International hero Doc Savage (Ron Ely) and his team of The Fabulous Five return to New York City only to face a deadly assassination attempt upon receiving the news of the death of Savage’s father. 

After dispatching the assassin, Savage decides to fly to Hidalgo to investigate his father’s death.  He and his Fabulous Five are soon involved in a race with the nefarious Captain Seas (Paul Wexler) to take possession of a secret South American valley, one where gold literally bubbles-up out of the ground…

"Have No Fear: Doc Savage is Here!" 

With a little knowledge of history, one can certainly understand why Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was created in full campy mode.

In 1975, the United States was reeling from the Watergate Scandal, the resignation of President Nixon, the Energy Crisis, and the ignominious end of American involvement in Vietnam.  The Establishment had rather egregiously failed the country, one might argue, and so superheroes – scions of authority, essentially – were not to be taken seriously.  You can see this quality of culture play out in the press’s treatment of President Gerald Ford.  An accomplished athlete who carried his University of Michigan football team to national titles in 1932 and 1933, Ford was transformed, almost overnight, into a clumsy buffoon by the pop culture. It was easier to parse Ford by his pratfalls than by his prowess.

High camp had also begun to creep into the popular James Bond series as Roger Moore assumed the 007 role from Sean Connery, in efforts like Live and Let Die (1972) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  And on television, the most popular superhero program, TV’s Batman (1966  - 1968) had also operated in a campy mode

But, what films like Doc Savage fail to do, rather egregiously, is take a beloved character on his or her own terms, and present his hero to an audience by those terms.   Instead of taking the effort to showcase and describe why Doc Savage’s world exists as it does in the pulps, the film wants only to showcase a world that easily mocked.  The message that is transmitted, and which, generously, might be interpreted as unintentional is simply: this whole superhero world is silly, and if you like it, there’s something silly about you too.

In some sense, Doc Savage is a reminder of how good the British Pellucidar/Caprona movies of Kevin Connor are.  Their special effects may be poor by today’s standard, but the movies take themselves and their world seriously.  You can see that everyone involved is generally working to thrill the audience, not to prove to the audience how silly the movie’s concepts are.

Alas, camp worms its way into virtually every aspect of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze.  An early scene depicts Savage pulling an assassin’s bullet out of a hole in his apartment wall, and knowing instantly the caliber and the make of the weapon from which it was fired.  In other words, he is so perfect (a scholar, philosopher, inventor, and surgeon…) that his skill looks effortless…and therefore funny. 

Yet the pulp origins of the character make plain the fact that Doc Savage achieved his knowledge through hard work, and rigorous training.  When you only see the end result in the movie, his intelligence and know-how is mocked and made a punch-line.  The movie-makers didn’t need to do it this way.  Savage could have undertaken an investigation, but it’s funnier just to make him all-knowing, to exaggerate his admirable qualities as a character.

Another example of how camp undercuts and mocks the heroes of the film occurs later in the action.  Doc and his team of merry men (The Fabulous Five) are invited aboard the antagonist’s yacht for a dinner party. While the bad guy, Captain Seas, and his henchmen drink alcohol, Savage and his men drink only…milk.  Again, this touch is so ludicrous when made manifest on screen that it only succeeds in stating, again, the essential “silliness” of the Doc Savage mythos.  Worse, Batman had done this joke, and better, in its 1966 premiere.  So the milk joke isn’t even original.

Perhaps the campies aspect of the film involves the atrocious soundtrack.  The movie is scored to the work of John Phillip Sousa (1854 – 1932), the “American March King.”  Rightly or wrongly, Sousa’s marches have become synonymous with Americana, Fourth of July parades and firework displays, with the very archetype of patriotism itself. To score Savage’s silly adventures to this kind of stereotypical “American” march is to say, essentially, that one is mocking that value.

I have nothing against mocking patriotism, if that’s your game.  I can’t pass judgment on that or you.  For me as a film critic, the question comes back to, again, the sense of distance created by the adapters, and whether that distance serves the interest of the character being adapted.  In the case of Doc Savage, I would say that it rather definitively does not serve the character.   The choice of soundtrack music essentially turns all action scenes -- no matter how brilliantly vetted in terms of stunts and visuals -- into nothing more than grotesque, unfunny parody.

Why do I feel that the character Savage is not well-served by this approach?  Consider that all five of Savage’s “merry men” are important, philosophically not in terms of raw strength or athleticism, or even super powers. 

Indeed, one is a legal genius, one is a chemist, one is a globe-hopping engineer, one is an archaeologist and one is an electrical wizard.  Throw in Savage -- both a man of action and also a surgeon, for example – and consider the group’s original context: post-World War I. 

These men survived the first technological war in human history, but a war – like all war – spawned by irrationality and passion.  Their quality or importance as characters arises from the fact they are a modern, rational group of adventures, dependent on science, the law, medicine, and other intellectual ideas…not emotions or super abilities.   In 1975, the world certainly could have used such an example; the idea that being a superhero meant rationality and intelligence.  But the movie completely fails to deliver on the original meaning of the characters it depicts.  Instead, Doc Savage makes a mockery of these avatars of reason, and fails to note why, as a team, they represent something, anything of importance.

Some of the camp touches in Doc Savage are also downright baffling, rather than funny. One villain sleeps in what appears to be a giant cradle, and is rocked to sleep.  The movie never establishes a reason  -- even a camp one -- for this preference.

Although it is great to see Pamela Hensley -- Buck Rogers’ Princess Ardala -- in the film, I can think of almost no reason for anyone to re-visit Doc Savage.  Who, precisely is this film made for?  Fans of the pulps would be horrified at the tone of the material, and those who didn’t know the character before the film certainly would not come away from the film liking him.

In 1984, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai successfully captured what was funny about characters like Doc, while at the same time functioning as an earnest adventure.  Indeed, though I often complain about all the doom and gloom superhero movies of today, and what a boring drag they are, they are, as I have often written, a valid response to the era of Camp.

What is needed for the genre now, I think, is some kind of judicious middle ground.  The humorless, joyless, mechanical, special-effects laden superhero movies of today are a drag on the soul (and the patience), and yet I am so glad to be rid of the mocking humiliation of high camp. 

At either extreme -- camp or angst -- the superhero film formula proves almost immediately tiring and unworkable, it often seems. 


  1. The scene of the villain sleeping in the crib is the one that always stands out to me. I suppose the scene was to emphasize his weakness as a human being (he's essentially a baby), but we already understand his weak character, so it's pointless and quite hard to believe. Even David Lynch couldn't make that moment work.

    I like your point about how those characters fit into the context of the time period. It's another reason why I would hope Shane Black's Doc Savage movie is set in modern times. I think characters like Savage and his sidekicks would be an appropriate counterpoint on our current state in the country where emotion and brute force are seen as strength and righteousness. I really think the only way to make Doc Savage work successfully on screen is to update him for the present as they've done with Sherlock Holmes.

  2. The great movie critic Gene Siskel once said that you can't review the movie you wish they'd made; you have to review the movie that actually got made. I try to keep this in mind when I watch movies, but when it comes to "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze", I just can't.

    Timing is everything. If only this movie had been made in the mid-1960s by a director who wanted to give it a James Bond-like outrageousness, it would have been epic. If it had been made in the 1980s by someone like Steven Spielberg or Joe Dante, it would have been a thrill ride. Instead it was made right between those two eras, at a time when heroes were passe.

    Every so often I read rumors about a new Doc Savage movie, and I hold out hope for that. Doc Savage is one of the great pulp characters, and he deserves an epic adventure to honor his legacy... not this embarrassment.