Monday, 27 June 2011

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was envisaged as the first of a cycle of movies based on the Doc Savage pulp novels. Sadly the rest of the series never materialised.

George Pal, the legendary producer of 1950s and 1960s science fiction films, co-wrote the screenplay as well as producing. It was in fact his last completed film.

It was based on the first of the Doc Savage books. Clark Savage Jr, known as Doc Savage, returns to New York to find that his father,the famous adventurer and philanthropist, has died. The cause of death was reported as a tropical disease contracted on an expedition to Central America. When a mysterious assassin makes an attempt on Doc’s life and his father’s papers are destroyed in a deliberately lit fire Doc starts to suspect that Clark Savage Sr was the victim of foul play.

The would-be assassin is an Indian, a member of a tribe believed to no longer exist. Doc and his five faithful companions set off to the Central American republic of Hidalgo to try to pick up the trail, surviving another assassination attempt on the way.

They become suspicious of the activities of a certain Captain Seas whose luxury yacht is in the harbour at Hidalgo. With the help of the beautiful Mona they eventually find the fabled Valley of the Vanished. This land had been bequeathed to Doc by his father. The deeds had been stolen and it’s soon clear why someone didn’t want Doc to take possession. There is gold there. Lots of it. The villains, led by the sinister Captain Seas, are mercilessly exploiting the locals. Doc and his friends are determined not just to gain his inheritance but to save the tribespeople of the valley.

The difficulty with this sort of movie is knowing just how camp to make it. This may well have been the reason for this particular movie’s commercial failure. It was perhaps too comp for serious Doc Savage fans but not camp enough to satisfy those hoping for a pure spoof.

1975 saw the commercial failure of another movie based on a series of immensely successful cult novels, a movie that was also intended to be the first of a movie series -Royal Flash, based on the Flashman novels. I suspect it failed for the same reason - adventure film fans weren’t really prepared for a film that approached the genre in such a tongue-in-cheek manner, but it didn’t go far enough to succeed as a comedy. I happen to like Royal Flash, and I like Doc Savage as well.

The use of John Philip Sousa’s martial music in Doc Savage, with lyrics socially added, works quite well.

Ron Ely, better known from the 1960s Tarzan TV series, make a fine Doc Savage. There’s no problem with the rest of the cast but a slight weakness is that Doc has too may sidekicks. This works well enough in the books where each of his followers manages to contribute something to the plot by making use of their special skills - one is a great chemist, one an electrical wizard, one an engineer, etc. The movie doesn’t make much use of these special abilities so that while Monk, the archeologist Johnny and the lawyer Ham are reasonably memorable characters, and well (if rather broadly) acted, the other two sidekicks are completely forgettable.

The best decision made by the producers, in my view, was keeping the 1930s setting. The early scenes in New York look fabulous. They look more like a comic-book vision of New York in the 30s than the reality but that’s a major plus and gives these scenes a wonderful flavour. Overall the the movie is very impressive visually. The telephone answering machine using vinyl disks is a very cool touch!

The balance between adventure and camp is well maintained, and the tongue-in-cheek element never becomes annoying. This is a hugely enjoyable movie.

It’s been issued on DVD-R in the Warner Archive series. Picture quality is extremely good. Well worth picking up.

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