‘Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze’ (1975): Classic pulp hero finally hits the big screen

Summer’s almost here, right? Can you feel it?

By Paul Mavis

As a pre-teen, one of my favorite things to do on a lazy, hot summer day was amble down to Ned’s supermarket and spin the comic rack, looking for an afternoon’s read worth that quarter cover price: any Archie comic, Batman, The Fantastic Four, any Army/war comic, or a Disney title (in that order). Now, of course, DVDs and women (in that order) occupy my central interests, and what passes for “comic books” today—harping, unfunny, P.C.-twisted grotesqueries shoehorned into a stylized graphic novel schematic I still can’t abide—leave me cold. Nostalgia may be artistically inert…but you know you’ll be entertained.

…or at least most of the time you will. In our further efforts to court an unresponsive Warner Bros. Archive Collection (look at me, WB…loooook at meeeeeee, you bastards!), I dug up their Blu-ray release of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, the 1975 sci-fi epic from WB, produced and co-scripted by legendary fantasy movie maker George Pal, directed by Michael Anderson, and starring TV’s Tarzan, Ron Ely, Paul Gleason, William Lucking, Michael Miller, Eldon Quick, Darrell Zwerling, Paul Wexler, Pamela Hensley, Bob Corson, Janice Heiden, and Michael Berryman.

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A significant critical and audience failure in the late summer of 1975 (…when a little fish story called Jaws dominated local movie houses), Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze’s decidedly shaky production and goofy camp tone have only added to its small cult among admirers of pulp fiction legend Savage, of producer Pal, and of pre-Star Wars 1970s motion picture sci-fi. Warner’s has delivered up a beaut of a Blu transfer (reportedly a new 2k scan of a newish interpositive), with an original trailer as a bonus (when are you going to learn that nobody is going to love you, WB, like we do at Movies & Drinks? When, goddammit! Now, see? See what you made me do, baby!?….).

The Arctic Circle, 1936. Crime-fighting ubermensch Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr. (Ron Ely), a brilliant scientist/inventor/martial artist/doctor/detective, has arrived at his frozen Fortress of Solitude (yes…Superman stole that five years later), where he has come to recharge his intellectual and physical batteries through reading, exercise, meditation and scientific experimentation. However, his chilly idyll is interrupted when finely-tuned Doc picks up negative thought waves from his cohorts, The Fabulous Five, stationed in New York City.

Those five, former WWI Army buddies of Doc, include Brigadier General Theodore Marley “Ham” Brooks (Darrell Zwerling), a brilliant attorney, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett “Monk” Mayfair (Michael Miller), a world-famous chemist, Colonel John “Renny” Renwick (William Lucking), the world’s top engineer, Professor William Harper “Johnny” Littlejohn (Eldon Quick), a renowned geologist and archeologist, and Major Thomas J. “Long Tom” Roberts (Paul Gleason), an electrical wizard. Racing back to his 86th floor Empire State Building penthouse suite, he discovers his beloved father has died of a mysterious disease in the Central American Republic of Hidalgo.

Doc, however, believes his father was murdered, and sets off with the Fabulous Five to find out what happened. Once in Hidalgo, he meets tempting local beauty Mona Flores (Pamela Hensley), who will guide Doc to a secret land deeded to Doc’s father, but also international criminal Captain Seas (Paul Wexler), who knows more about Doc Sr.’s death than is good for his health.

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Considering Doc Savage’s pulp fiction pedigree, and the character’s subsequent influence on comics’ development—particularly the superhero genre—it’s surprising that it took over forty years for the first cinematic incarnation of the character to hit the big screen. According to various sources, Savage’s co-creator and the author of over 160 of the 181 published Doc Savage stories, Lester Dent (writing under Street & Smith Publications’ house name, “Kenneth Robeson”), had control of the movie rights to the Savage character, with the aim of scripting his own Doc Savage movie—a sticking point with Hollywood suits who didn’t want screenwriting novice Dent writing any potential movie adaptation (translation? He wanted more money than they were willing to pay him).

After Dent’s death in 1959, game show producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, in conjunction with Doc Savage brand owner Conde Nast Publications, announced in 1966 that they were going to star TV’s The Rifleman, Chuck Connors, as Doc Savage in The Thousand Headed Man (Bantam Books’ paperback reprints of Dent’s Savage stories, graced by illustrator James Bama’s sensational cover art, had moved big numbers during those Bondmania mid-1960s). Someone, however, forgot one small detail: Dent’s widow still owned the movie rights, so…no Chuck Connors Savage movie.

Fast forward to 1971, as legendary fantasy producer/director George Pal (When Worlds Collide, The Time Machine) buys the movie rights, with the initial intention of starring Hercules muscleman Steve Reeves, under old pro Gordon Douglas’ (Them!) direction. Production delays eventually saw English director Michael Anderson hired, with Ron Ely headlining.

Pal and Warner Bros. envisioned a Doc Savage big-screen franchise, leading to a TV series, with the studio upping the initial paltry $1.5 million budget to $4.5. That amount very possibly was cut back, though, during principal photography in 1974 (among the budgetary casualties was a crucial score commission for composer Walter Scharf). Warner Bros. then sat on Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze for over a year (never a good sign…), before releasing it in the summer of 1975 (various sources state it was either a June or August premiere). Reaction was mostly dire from the critics, while mainstream audiences, either unfamiliar with the material, or not suitably drawn to the big star-less production—or still busy with that damned fish—didn’t show up.

I don’t remember them now, but I’m sure I must have flipped through a couple of Doc Savage books when I was kid, because my older brothers always had a bunch of those Bantam paperbacks with the irresistible James Bama covers laying around their room (a golden age for hooking in young readers with eye-catching paperback cover art). When, as a 10-year-old, I saw Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze at the drive-in, it didn’t leave the same impression with me that I had with another period fantasy/adventure I saw that year—The Land That Time Forgot—probably because of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze’s wavering, goofy camp tone and its serious lack of action.

No doubt Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze‘s “G” rating also caused concern for me. Unless it was a Disney movie, where the “G” wasn’t perceived as a drawback from those experts at movie entertainment, that rating probably meant no action, no babes, and no swearing. Quite frankly, to any savvy moviegoing kid back then, a “G”-rating on a non-Disney action movie like Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze translated into: “What’s wrong with this thing?” (of course there were a few exceptions…like the classic drive-in spookums: The Legend of Boggy Creek).

Watching Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, I’m a little more forgiving towards it—it gives you the same safe, pleasant, pass-the-time lull of watching a first season episode of TV’s Wonder Woman…although its faults are many and plainly seen. Tone is the number one problem, as even its most ardent cult defenders acknowledge. Intentional camp on the order of the old Batman TV series demands either genuinely funny gags or a resolutely straight face (or the luxury of both, in that classic’s case). Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze has neither. It isn’t nearly as funny or ironic or spoofy as it thinks it is, nor does it have the discipline to tone things down and let the ridiculousness of its situations carry the laughs. When Doc jumps on the running board of his Cord and points his finger majestically forward as it speeds off into the rainy night, unless we’re ardent Savage fans, we don’t get the literary reference, and as regular viewers…we just don’t think it’s funny enough to warrant the big “har har har” musical cue.

The movie is all over the place in terms of tone. The opening scene—Doc arriving by snowmobile to his Arctic “Fortress of Solitude” igloo—best illustrates this back and forth uneasiness. Big, handsome, in-on-the-joke Ron Ely fits damn nearly perfectly those Bama illustrations, and the recognizable “Doc Savage” logo on the snowmobile gets a solid laugh. The igloo set looks cheap, but at the same time it’s nicely appointed…yet the lighting is depressingly TV flat (even though it’s Patton cinematographer, Fred J. Koenekamp, you can tell everyone was yelling, “dollar! dollar!” and running from set-up to set-up). Worst of all, the music—cheap, public domain John Phillip Sousa marches punched up by dire De Vol—is a corny nightmare, beating to death with painful obviousness any attempts at with-it, ironic humor (that wretched, cringe-inducing theme song with Don Black’s lyrics, is truly god-awful).

And that’s the way the rest of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze plays. Some elements work; talented, handsome Ron Ely is the best thing in the movie—he’s big and funny in a straight-faced, light comedian way, and he’s in on the ridiculousness of his own perfection (a pity he wasn’t considered by Spielberg for Indy…). But those successful elements clash against the obvious boners.

Some purists were outraged that a comedic element was introduced to the character in the first place, but since it was, if and how often Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze gets laughs are valid points of discussion. As for apologists who claim WB and their budget-cutting was to blame for the movie’s flatness: a dollar pie in the face can get you a chuckle. Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze’s reduced budget could have been a plus, actually, in the right hands (a cheap-jack epic laughing at its own chintziness), but it’s hard to see a sustained sense of humor in the screenplay by George Pal and Joe Morhaim.

Director Michael Anderson’s work swings erratically from accomplished crowd pleasers like Around the World in 80 Days and Logan’s Run, to stiffs like The Shoes of the Fisherman and Jaws rip-off, Orca: The Killer Whale. Here, his pace is leaden, with the few bright moments—Ely’s hilarious romantic kiss-off to future TV Buck Rogers villainess Hensley (“Mona…you’re a brick!”), or the quite funny fighting finale with Wexler, with various forms of combat helpfully labeled for us—forgotten amid the long, dull stretches and misfires (that fight on the boat and underwater escape…amateur night in Dixie). Adults like myself who saw Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze as kids are going to be the best audience for this super-sharp, cleaned-up presentation…but why do I suspect commercial interruptions would have helped even more?

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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