Director: Michael Anderson
Tagline: “Have no fear, Doc Savage is here!”
Plot: When people say “pulp hero” these days, they mean Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr. Created in the 1930s by a magazine publisher and editor, Doc Savage is the quintessential pre-Superman adventurer: brilliant, resourceful, multi-talented, and idealistic. With the help of his sidekicks, a group of men at the top of their fields in engineering, law, electrics, awkwardly erudite vocabulary, and owning small pigs, Savage seeks to improve himself in ways that will help him improve the world at large. His name is synonymous with a time when great men were taken at face value, at least in fiction, and when a rich white dude didn’t need personal trauma or a secret identity to spread his wealth for the betterment of mankind. Sure, the strains of white imperialism and sexism may be difficult to ignore today, but Savage represents a kind of storytelling that’s easy to get nostalgic for in concept, when villains were one-note, and brave men were always worth following.
Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze tries to recapture some of that nostalgia, and fails miserably. The 1975 action-comedy was the final film produced by George Pal, and it demonstrates none of the charm or thrills of Pal classics like The War Of The Worlds (1953) or The Time Machine (1960). Savage is hampered by budget woes, weak acting, a sluggish script, and some painfully forced attempts at camp. It bombed at the box office, opening in June to be buried by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and while it’s possible that the Doc’s adventures might be a better fit in today’s comic-book cinema, there’s no denying the movie itself got just what it deserved—which isn’t much.
Still, there are delights here for the bad-movie fan. Check out the introduction to the man himself (Ron Ely, best known for playing the title role in the 1966 TV series Tarzan):
The John Philip Sousa score runs throughout the film; whenever the narration by Paul Frees takes a smoke break, the score rushes to fill the void, often with lyrics even more relentlessly cheery then the ones heard above. Get used to the facial expression Ely displays in his first close-up, as it’s the one he’ll be sticking with throughout the picture.
Savage’s plot largely comes from the source novel that gave the movie its subtitle, The Man Of Bronze. While meditating in his Arctic Fortress Of Solitude (he and Superman presumably time-share), Savage senses trouble and heads back to New York to assemble his crack team of sidekicks, The Fabulous Five. The Five give Savage the sad news that his father has been murdered, but before he died, the old man sent his son an envelope full of important papers. Before Savage can open the envelope, a Native American assassin (stuntman Dar Robinson in a lot of bronzer) disrupts the reunion. Savage and the Five give chase, in a painfully protracted cat-and-mouse sequence that ends with the assassin falling to his death. Back at Savage’s apartment, our heroes find someone has set fire to the precious papers, inspiring Doc to reveal this stunning discovery:
Now it’s time to head to Hidalgo, Mexico, where Dad Savage was murdered—but first, a brief interlude in which Doc uses a radio-controlled decoy plane to draw out another assassin, who shoots down the decoy and leaves, satisfied with a job well done. While Doc and the Five are congratulating themselves on their cleverness, restating their oath (quoted below), and boarding the real plane, the villain of the picture makes himself known: Captain Seas, played by Paul Wexler, a tall man with a deep voice and penchant for jazz-choir vests. Seas learns that Savage and his men are “dead,” then tries to put the moves on a nearby blonde (Robyn Hilton, notable for playing the red-headed object of Mel Brooks’ lust in Blazing Saddles). The blonde’s first line is the first intelligible utterance from any female character in the movie, and it leads, ultimately, to this bizarre bout of Evil Laughter:
In Hidalgo, Doc learns that his father got the deeds to some supposedly worthless land from a tribal group long thought vanished. He also learns that his suspicions about his father’s death were well-founded when a coroner (Michael Berryman) gives him a strange substance that coated Dad Savage’s corpse. One quick check under the microscope reveals the substance is venom from the animated snakes Captain Seas’ native henchmen send after Seas’ enemies. The snakes attack Savage, and he repels them, forcing Seas to get a little more personal—he invites the group to his yacht, where, after some charming dinner conversation and the contractually obligated “Under different circumstances, we might’ve been friends” exchange, Seas’ goons attempt to murder our heroes in a fight scene that can only be described as “ill-advised.”
One quick swim home later, Savage decides it’s time to get to the heart of the mystery. With the help of Mona (Pamela Hensley), a local who serves as Savage’s tepid love interest, Doc and the Five head off into the wilderness, determined to solve the mystery of Dad Savage’s death, and presumably bring Seas and his men to justice.
Meanwhile, a man in a giant crib bed is upset:
Key scenes: That man is Bob Corso, and he’s representative of one of the movie’s biggest weaknesses: terrible, terrible jokes. The inexplicable crib bed is bad enough, but throughout the film, Corso overacts like a man desperate for a Laugh-In walk-on. Even his death is played for laughs. Only he’s never funny, and neither is anything else. The Fabulous Five (including Paul Gleason, who went on to become an even more ineffectual authority figure in Die Hard and The Breakfast Club) are squabbling idiots, left to fight among themselves and pull incredibly lame practical jokes. The final fight between Savage and Seas is mostly just crummy slapstick, as Savage soundly whups the villain through a variety of combat styles.
The romantic subplot (what there is of it) isn’t safe either. Mona falls for Doc and begs him to let her accompany him, whereupon:
Had Doc Savage had been more of an outright spoof, or had it stuck to its guns and done a straight-up adventure story, it might’ve worked better than the compromised mess it turned out to be. But it’s hard to imagine any version in which “Mona, you’re a brick” works as a brush-off line.
Can easily be distinguished by: Much of Savage is given over to padding, with chase scenes and comic-relief bits lasting longer than they need to, but the movie still manages to pull out the occasional moment of striking weirdness. There’s the perpetually rousing Sousa score, which seems more and more desperate to claim attention as time goes on. Or this scene, in which the pilot who failed to successfully shoot down Doc and the others is murdered by animated snakes:
Then there’s the ending. Savage and the Five discover Seas killed Dad Savage for his land—there are pits of molten gold in the mysterious valley, and Seas is exploiting the local natives to transport the gold out of the valley and back to his ship. There’s some fighting, and various bad guys get their various comeuppances, but Seas survives and is taken into Savage’s custody, to be brought to the Doc Savage Rehabilitation Center. There, through the magic of acupuncture, Savage removes the criminal impulses from Seas’ brain, and trains him to be a productive member of society. The last we see of the former villain, he’s calling for donations to the Salvation Army.
This is all played very straight, as if Clockwork Oranging the bad guy into accepting Savage’s rules is an undeniable good. It’s pretty creepy, if you’re still awake enough at this point to think about it.
Sign it was made in 1975: Well, the movie is set in 1936. But there is a lot of brown and orange, which is pretty ’70s.
Timeless message: “Have no fear / the man of bronze is here! / Peace will come to all who find / Doc Savage!” (Because he has a special hospital where he lobotomizes anyone who disagrees with him.)
Memorable quotes: The Doc Savage guarantee: “Before we go… let us remember our code. Let us strive every moment of our lives to make ourselves better and better to the best of our abilities so that all may profit by it. Let us think of the right and lend our assistance to all who may need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let us take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let us be considerate of our country, our fellow citizens, and our associates in everything we say and do. Let us do right to all—and wrong no man.”
Available on DVD from the Warner Brothers Archive.