In the Fabulous Thirties, Doc Savage and his five Amazing Adventurers are sucked into the mystery of Doc's father disappearing in the wilds of South America. The maniacal Captain Seas tries to thwart them at every turn as they travel to the country of Hidalgo to investigate Doc's father's death and uncover a vast horde of Incan gold. Written by
After Watergate, Vietnam and the dark days of the Nixon and Jimmy Carter eras, what the world needed was a good old-fashioned chapter-play hero taking on venomous serpents and evildoers in the America of 1936 or the jungles of South America in a series of fantastic cliffhanging adventures. Unfortunately what it got in 1975 was Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze. Perhaps the best that can be said of legendary producer George Pal's final film is that his often beautifully designed but sadly flat adaptation of Kenneth Robeson's pulp-paperback novels probably had George Lucas and Phil Kaufman leaving the theatre and saying to each other "We can do better than that," and adding a bullwhip, a battered Fedora and some much needed character flaws to the mix.
A big part of the problem is that Doc Savage is in many ways even harder to write for than Superman explorer, adventurer, philanthropist, a scientific and intellectual genius in the bronzed bleach-blonde bulletproof muscle-bound body of a Greek God (or rather the form of TV's Tarzan, Ron Ely, a rather dull Charlton Heston clone here), there's simply nothing he can't do and, more damagingly, nothing that can harm him. The man is the virtual incarnation of Hitler's Aryan ubermensch (no surprise that the DVD is only available in Germany!), albeit with all-American values. And just in case there should ever be anything he's overlooked (not that there ever is) he has not one but five sidekicks in his entourage, the (less than) Fabulous Five. A chemist, an electrician and even an archaeologist I can accept, and at a stretch I could possibly even go as far as to see the possible need for a construction engineer, but what kind of hero takes a criminal lawyer with him on his adventures? In reality Doc's brain trust were probably added because with the hero so tiresomely invulnerable and practically perfect in every way even Kryptonite wouldn't put a dent in him - there needed to be someone at risk in the stories, though with the exception of Paul Gleason they're all so horribly badly cast and overplayed (as are most parts in the film) you'd happily kill them all off during the opening titles. The villains fare no better, with Paul Wexler exuding all the menace of a geography teacher as Captain Seas, Scott Walker (no, a different one) delivering one of cinema's worst accents (is it meant to be Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Greek, Pakistani or some nationality no-one has ever heard of?) while Robyn Hilton's Marilyn Monroe-ish dumb blonde moll gives Paris (no relation) a run for her money in the untalented bimbo stakes.
Even with those drawbacks, this should have been much better than it is considering the various ingredients lost tribes, a pool of gold, a dogfight with a biplane and a deadly poison that comes alive, all wrapped up in a quest to discover why Doc's father was murdered. Unfortunately it's a question of tone: in the 60s and 70s pulp superheroes weren't brooding figures prone to state-of-the-art action scenes and special effects but were treated as somewhat comical figures of low-budget camp fun with action scenes quickly knocked off on the cheap almost as an afterthought, the films aimed purely at the matinée market: you know, for kids. There have long been rumours that the original cut was more straight-faced and certainly much of the camp value has been added in post-production, be it the Colgate twinkle in Doc's eye, the comical captions identifying various fighting styles in the final dust-up with Captain Seas or Don Black's gung-ho lyrics to John Philip Sousa's patriotic marches but plenty was in the film to begin with. After all, it's hard to see how one of the villain's underlings making phone calls from a giant rocking crib was ever intended as anything other than a joke that falls flat, while Doc's explanation to Pamela Hensley of why he never dates girls could be a scene written for Adam West's Batman. Instead, the funniest moments are usually purely unintentional, such as Doc displaying his sixth sense by, er, bobbing his Adam's apple.
Perhaps an even bigger problem is that, while promising on paper, the action is handled in an almost relentlessly mundane fashion, be it chasing a native assassin on the rooftops of New York skyscrapers or escaping from a yacht full of bad guys. Even the winning notion of animated glowing green snakes swirling through the air as they poison their victims fails to raise any enthusiasm from director Michael Anderson: having demonstrated their own invulnerability a couple of scenes earlier, Doc manages to dispatch them with no more than a chair and an electric fan by simply pulling the curtains on them.
Still, aside from Doc's various vehicles all stamped with his logo and looking more moulded plastic than bronze, the production design is often rather handsome even if it is very obviously L.A. standing in for New York while Fred Koenekamp's cinematography ensures the film often looks good despite the low budget. And it's good to see a superhero movie that doesn't spend most of its running time on an origin story, though one is left with the suspicion that Doc sprang fully formed from the loins of Zeus himself.
It's a film I'd really like to like more, but it just feels like 100 minutes of lost opportunities. No wonder Doc Savage, The Arch Enemy of Evil, the sequel so optimistically promised in the end credits, never happened.
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