Today, the box office is driven by superhero movies, but before 1978 there was no such thing as a “serious” superhero movie. The biggest thing to happen to the genre was the 1966 Adam West “Batman” TV series--which I love with the passion of a thousand suns--but no real attempts at doing anything beyond “kiddie fare” with the genre existed prior to the landmark “Superman” movie of ‘78. A few years back, I talked about the 1994 Alec Baldwin starring film adaptation of “The Shadow,” a pulp hero and precursor to Batman. Much of modern superhero fare has it roots in the hero pulp fiction that peaked in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Along with The Shadow, one of the most popular heroes to come from the world of pulp is Doc Savage, created by the same publishing house as The Shadow, Street & Smith, and driven largely by writer Lester Dent. No less an authority than Stan Lee has called Doc Savage the forerunner to modern superheroes. In the 1960s the Doc Savage stories were republished in a series of paperback books that became hugely popular.
Naturally, this caused Hollywood’s ears to perk up and go “We gotta get this on the screen!!” In the mid ‘60s, the screen rights were optioned by producers Mark Goodson and Bill Toddman--who had never made a film before, but were giants in the game show world (If you’ve ever watched Family Feud or The Price is Right, you have them to thank). Their film was slated to a 1966 release--which could have been dead on target for a hit as that was the year “Batman” took over TV and the culture.
Legal issues with the rights to the character caused that film to be abandoned, and it wouldn’t be until 1975 that Doc Savage appeared on the silver screen. Produced by pioneering sci-fi film producer George Pal, and directed by Michael Anderson (“Around The World in 80 Days”), “Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze” came to theaters in June of 1975--and came to blu-ray last week thanks to Warner Archive. If you’re scratching your head and wondering why you’ve never heard of this movie, let me answer that for you. “Doc Savage” flopped at the box office, released just two weeks before Steven Spielberg's “Jaws” would change Hollywood forever by bringing in the reign of the blockbuster.
I knew nothing about the world of Doc Savage, never read a book, or anything before I sat down last night to watch the movie--which the folks at Warner Archive were kind enough to send me a copy of. It was the best way to go into the film, really. The reputation the film holds online is one of being just bad--but it’s not “Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze” is a fun, super entertaining movie. A film that holds its 1930s setting and pulp roots up high, while keeping the tongue firmly planted in cheek, and winking at the audience with an “Hey, we know it’s a movie, just sit back and have fun with us” attitude.
This film is like a lost bridge between the Adam West Batman and Indiana Jones--while also having tones of being a super beta version of Buckaroo Banzai! “Doc Savage” stars Ron Ely, who played Tarzan on TV for two seasons in the ‘60s, as The Man of Bronze. He’s introduced traveling to his arctic fortress of solitude (Doc’s publication and fortress predates Superman’s, FYI), when Savage comes into frame, he looks off heroically while an animated twinkle appears in his eye.
That should give you an idea of the tone of the film. It’s little fun winks like that which really make it what it is. More examples include doc’s clothing all having tones of Bronze to them, the film’s score being adapted from John Philip Sousa marches--with the last three letters, USA, being accented in red, white, and blue. Like I said, the film embraces those 1930s pulp roots and runs with it while saying “gee-whiz!”
The plot is about Doc and his brain trust--The Fabulous Five--heading to a remote village to find out what exactly happened to cause the death of Doc’s father. Along the way Doc has to deal with the power hungry Captain Seas, who has one government official on his payroll--who is literally seen rocking himself to sleep in a giant crib, it’s amazing. There was hopes this would spawn a franchise, and a sequel is even announced in the end credits much like a James Bond film. Unfortunately, this wasn’t meant to be. Even without “Jaws” nipping at its heels, I’m not sure this would have found the right audience in 1975. The trailer, which is included on the blu-ray, doesn't really do a great job of seeking the film. Warner Brothers did release “Doc Savage” in the early days of home video, commissioning special art with that Indiana Jones vibe, which is what the blu-ray reproduces for its cover art.
On blu-ray “Doc Savage” looks good too, there’s nothing dynamic happening with the film visually, but it’s vibrant and colorful. The Mono soundtrack is sharp and clear. But anytime a small cult film gets on blu-ray is a win. “Doc Savage” is so much fun, so delightfully different that I’m really shocked it doesn’t have more of a following. Anyone who has gone to see a Marvel film will find plenty to enjoy here “Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze” is too much fun to ignore, and hopefully now that it’s out in HD on blu-ray more people will give it a chance. It deserves one.