I couldn’t be more excited with the recent announcement that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Shane Black are teaming up to bring Doc Savage back to the big screen. Doc is one of my all-time favourite characters, and it’s delightful to hear that these two are going to highlight the humour of the stories.
The only bad news is that we’ll have to wait patiently for the movie to be made, marketed, and released.
Don’t despair, though! Apart from being able to read all one hundred and eighty one issues of the original Doc Savage Magazine, you can check out Doc’s short-lived radio adaptation, his comics, and the 1975 film Doc Savage: Man of Bronze starring Ron Ely.
The movie is a compromise in a lot of ways.
In the 1960’s, gameshow moguls Mark Goodson and Bill Todman announced that they were making a film version of “The Thousand-Headed Man” with Chuck Connors as Doc. I’m confident in saying that this would’ve been the best movie ever, but it was sadly not to be. Legal issues regarding the estate of Lester Dent – the writer most responsible for Doc Savage – held up production, so everybody involved made a Western called Ride Beyond Vengeance instead. (And I do mean everybody. If you watch Ride Beyond Vengeance, you can amuse yourself by connecting all the cast members to their Doc Savage counterparts.)
By the time the 1975 film rolled around, adventure films were a completely different ballgame. Adam West’s Batman had been unexpectedly popular, and spy spoofs were more successful than straight spy films. This reality was even affecting the James Bond franchise, hence the Roger Moore period of weirdness mingled with flashes of brilliance.
Producer George Pal, known for his sci-fi hits When Worlds Collide and The Time Machine, secured the rights to Doc Savage from Lester Dent’s widow, but he also had some pretty significant story problems on his hands.
Before Tarzan’s Ron Ely was attached to the project, Pal was in talks with Hercules star Steve Reeves. In an interview with George Helmer, Reeves explained:
“George Pal wasn’t really a writer, he was a producer and he had good ideas. At that time all the Hollywood writers were on strike. George Pal put this together the best he could with his ability, but he was not a top professional writer. So the director and I looked at the script and thought we needed to make some changes; a lot of things weren’t sounding very realistic on paper.”
Despite their efforts to smooth out the script, Reeves and the director he mentioned ran into a scheduling conflict and both of them dropped out of the picture.
So, okay. Lots of times we’ve seen films with troubled productions turn out just fine, sometimes even great!
This is not one of those times.
This is not one of those times.
The absolute best thing about it is Pamela Hensley. Hensley would later play Princess Ardala in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and C.J. Parsons on Matt Houston, and she’s always a delightful mix of earthiness and glam. (Plus, totally superficially, she routinely sports some of the best eye makeup I’ve ever seen. Her shadow/liner/mascara game is on point.) In Doc Savage, she plays the mandatory exotic love interest who falls in love with Doc, but his heart and body belong only to Lady Justice.
Helping Doc avoid sincere human interaction are his team of experts and friends, The Fabulous Five. Paul Gleason is Long Tom, an electrical genius named after a canon; William Luckman is Renny, an engineer with a vendetta against doors; Michael Miller is Monk, an industrial chemist with a pet pig and a general dislike of lawyers; Darrell Zwerling is Ham, legal expert, snazzy dresser, bane of Monk’s existence; and Eldon Quick is Johnny, an sesquipedalian archaeologist with the worst catchphrase of all time, “I’ll be superamalgamated!” He tends to gasp it in surprise, too, so it’s a crazy mouthful and an exercise for the lungs.
They all have nicknames instead of regular names because they come from 1930’s adventure stories.
Doc Savage was raised by his father, Clark Savage Sr., to be the perfect specimen. He grew up in a highly controlled environment, not unlike Errol Flynn’s character in the 1937 comedy The Perfect Specimen, which is a vastly superior movie if you’re in the mood to watch a gorgeous dude raised by science cut loose. Man of Bronze is based off of the story of the same name, and features that old chestnut of the Mayan death cult and the secret rivers of gold.
Mesoamerican death cults were pretty standard fare for adventure fiction of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and it’s strange to have to report that the Mayan gods were more accurately represented in the radio serial “The Temple of Vampires” than they are here. Also, rivers of gold were the original crystal skulls. By the ‘70s, the Mayan cliché had given way to the Voodoo cliché, and Man of Bronze mixes tropes from both.
The story is basically a quest to discover who murdered Doc’s father. At the heart of the mystery is why a man who decided to turn his only son into a freakish social experiment wasn’t murdered sooner. It soon becomes apparent that the senior Savage wasn’t the only one on the hit list – soon Doc himself is in the crosshairs of a truly bizarre assassin with red-stained fingertips, a tattoo of Kukulkan the feathered serpent of war, a liberal coating of bronzer, and bright blue eyes. He’s supposed to be a member of the “lost Mayan tribe” of the Quetzamel.
Doc’s father stumbled across this tribe, as well as their exploitation by an evil sea captain who likes to wear velvet dinner jackets with bejewelled lapels. Doc thinks that this information might be a clue as to why his old man was killed, and he follows the lead to Hidalgo, where things just keep getting more awkward and more bizarre.
There’s a villain who spends all his time having temper tantrums in a giant crib, cartoon snakes (called in the original press “the green wigglies”) killing a man through supernatural means, the aforementioned rivers of molten gold, and the worst break up line in the history of film:
“You’re a brick, Mona.”
The reason why Doc Savage: Man of Bronze doesn’t make the usual rounds of cult favourites and campy classics is because it wants to have its cake and eat it. It’s always got one foot in being a serious adaptation, while trying to pull off some wink-and-nudge humour at the wrong times. Everything about it is a slight misstep, and it makes for a weirdly respectful irreverence that’s hard to enjoy one way or another.
And then there’s the score. It’s all rousing John Philip Sousa pieces, some with new Doc Savage themed lyrics. The filmmakers were trying to capture the feeling of The Sting, which had used ragtime hits to evoke a back-dated 1930’s. Big surprise: the Sousa thing doesn’t work. It mostly serves to remind the audience how blusteringly out of place a hero of pure goodness is in ‘70s cinema. Or it makes you want to go to a parade and maybe get a twist cone. Either way, it’s a sudden and compelling urge to abandon the film.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every now and then, it’s good to watch things that are honestly just bad. It helps us know what makes good things good, great things great, and mediocre things mediocre. Man of Bronze is one of those movies that goes so wrong in so many ways, it has to be seen to be believed.
You have to watch it.
I didn’t even tell you about the lobotomies or the arctic fortress or all the bronze-painted vehicles.