Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)

          Between the end of the campy TV series Batman in 1968 and the arrival of the reverent feature Superman in 1978, cinematic treatments of superheroes tended toward buffoonery. Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze is a prime example, because it’s a failed attempt to create an ironic live-action cartoon. Although an awful movie by any rational criteria, Doc Savage is so wall-to-wall kitschy—one doesn’t get the impression anyone involved with the project had illusions of creating art—that the picture offers a mix of intentional and unintentional amusement. The title character is an international adventurer who first appeared in pulp magazines in 1933, then expanded to comic books and radio (though his popularity waned in the late ’40s, he’s still kicking around thanks to sporadic revivals in various media). An unfailingly virtuous good guy who fights crime from his gadget-filled headquarters inside the Empire State Building, aided by a quintet of colorful sidekicks called the Fabulous Five, Doc is such a straight arrow he makes Superman seem edgy by comparison, and he’s not so much super-powered as super-realized: He’s a paragon of mental, moral, and physical perfection.
          In Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, the character is presented with his original ’30s trappings intact while Doc and the Five trek to South America and investigate the murder of Doc’s father, a saintly missionary who uncovered a scheme to rob a Native tribe of its riches. The characterizations and plotting are painfully thin, the dialogue is cringe-worthy, and the production values seem intentionally artificial, as if brightly lit sets will sell the idea of a comic strip sprung to life. In the title role, Ron Ely is physically impressive—he played Tarzan in a ’60s TV series—though his performance style is closer to posing than acting. The rank-and-file character actors surrounding him are saddled with lame comic-relief bits that undercut any attempts to create credibility, and the film’s special effects are terrible, notably the animation for sequences of supernatural snakes floating through the air.
          What saves Doc Savage from being an unwatchable mess is an undercurrent of outright weirdness: One of the villains sleeps in an oversized crib and sucks his thumb; Doc’s slick logo is emblazoned on everything from his belt buckle to his private plane; and the film’s score comprises bombastic John Philips Sousa marches. Understandably, all of this Batman-style camp is a sore spot with hardcore Doc Savage fans—but even adherents must admit Doc Savage is such a silly property that the camp approach made sense. (After all, Doc’s verbose motto includes such easily parodied proclamations as, “Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.”) So whether this picture “honors” its source material or not, it has several audacious moments, like the ridiculous scene in which the various fighting styles used by Doc and an opponent are identified by onscreen text. (Available at

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze: FUNKY


Kevin Mac said...

The basic elements of Doc Savage that could please fans of the pulps are right there. The 30's trappings, the faithful sidekicks (each with a particular skill that can be tapped - clearly Doc chooses friends who have some use for him). Even some set pieces such as the action on the outside of the Empire State Building, and even the multi-style combat scene, would have worked amazingly well in the hands of somebody with the mind of an early 80's Spielberg. With serious action but with the occasional snarky gag, it could have been Indiana Jones several years ahead of it's time. Alas.

It's funny; as a kid and as an adult I find the pulp stories of the last century to be ripping good fun. But also with stone-faced death-defying and serious action. But the best of them rarely get the treatment they deserve. Genius-level Tarzan from the books always portrayed as a barbarian lunkhead. Doc Savage a cartoony Adam West ripoff. Disney did wonders with an animated Tarzan; probably the most faithful adaptation of the character (Rosie O'Donnell chimp pals aside). Maybe that's what's need for the Doc. I understand they are trying to get another live action version of Doc in theaters. They'll probably get Seth Rogan or Jack Black to play him. Sigh.

DrCasbahJazz said...

No, now it's Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Well, at least he is bronze...

Chris said...

I've heard stories of the movie for years, but I finally got around to seeing it only recently. While it plays more like a TV movie (Ron Ely is a fine actor, but he was a TV star instead of someone like Steve McQueen or Paul Newman or Clint Eastwood, and the rest of the cast are stalwart character actors... And I suddenly wish Charles Bronson could have played Monk), it's definitely a fun watch. And that is enough of a recommendation.