Monday, January 2, 2012

Movie Monday: Doc Savage

This week's movie is the 1975 action adventure Doc Savage!

Doc Savage, of course, is a legendary pulp hero, a contemporary of The Green Hornet and The The Shadow, both of whom received film adaptations in the wake of the massive success of 1989's Batman. But poor ol' Doc Savage's timing was off--but more on that in a moment.

Doc Savage was released in 1975, a production of the legendary George Pal (in what would be his final completed film). Directed by Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days, Logan's Run), the film announces its tone right from the very beginning:
Under a John Philip Sousa score (whose last three letters are spelled out in red, white, and blue), we see Savage (Ron Ely) approach his Fortress of Solitude hidden in the Arctic. Ely takes off his hood, and turns toward the camera. He smiles, and an animated twinkle in his eye appears, complete with matching sound effect. Oy vey.
Luckily, this moment is the most in-your-face piece of "camp" humor. After this, Doc Savage maintains a slightly more serious feel than the 1960s Batman TV show, but not by a lot. Doc learns that his father has died under mysterious circumstances, and heads back to his HQ in New York, where he meets up with "The Fabulous Five", his specialized team of agents (Long Tom, Renny, Ham, Monk, and Johnny, as played by Paul Gleason, William Lucking, Darrell Zwerling, Michael Miller, and Eldon Quick, respectively). Doc is almost assassinated by some sort of loincloth-wearing jungle warrior, who dies in the attempt.
Doc's fathers papers have been destroyed by intruders, so Doc and his team travel to the Republic of Hildalgo, where Savage Sr. was killed. On the way they meet Captain Seas (Paul Wexler), who tries to kill them all on the voyage to Hidalgo, but fails.
Doc learns about a secret cache of gold hidden in a remote valley, and discovers the existence of The Green Death, an airborne plague that killed Doc's father and keeps the locals in line, who believe it is some sort of supernatural curse. Captain Seas kidnaps The Fabulous Five and Mona, a local woman who wants to help Savage. Doc and Seas have one last fight, leading to the latter's capture.
Some of Seas' men try and steal the gold, causing an explosion that melts the gold and covers them all in molten metal. Doc performs brain surgery(!) on Seas to cure him of his criminal ways. Shortly thereafter, we learn that this has worked, and Seas now does charity work. Lobotomies: not all bad!

At the end of the film, Doc Savage gets another message about a grave threat to the world, and takes off for another adventure. Doc Savage will be back in...Doc Savage: The Arch Enemy of Evil!
...okay, not really. Apparently Producer Pal was so sure this film would be a hit that they filmed a large chunk of the sequel simultaneously, only to see this film get ripped apart at the box office and become a massive flop. Plans for the sequel were scrapped, and Doc Savage has not been seen on movie screens again.

Doc Savage, the film, was the last gasp of the dreaded "camp" approach that was pioneered by Batman and engulfed every comic book project that followed it. In just two short years, director Richard Donner and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz would completely reject that approach with Superman, ushering a new era of superhero comic book movies, ones that (for the most part) respected the characters and didn't think of the thing as a big joke.

That said, Doc Savage isn't all that bad--the art direction is pretty nice and there are some fun sequences. Ely is pretty bland as Doc, but he's miles ahead of blocks of wood like Miles O'Keefe (Tarzan) and Reb Brown (the Captain America TV movies). One of the areas the film is surprisingly weak in is the effects--when The Green Death attacks, for instance, its just some animated snakes that look mighty lame:
...considering this came from George Pal, you're expecting something a lot more interesting.

The film, overall, looks fairly cheap, like it was shot in California on standing TV sets (which it mostly was). The actors playing The Fabulous Five acquit themselves well enough (Quick and Lucking both appeared in guests spots on M*A*S*H, so I kinda enjoyed seeing them together here), but they mostly run around like a goofy mob. With Doc supposedly being a genius-level expert at almost everything, its kinda hard to believe he feels the need to hang with these guys.

It's been almost forty years since Doc Savage, so its high time the character got dusted off and tried again. I've read that Sam Raimi has been working on an adaptation, but I haven't heard much other than that. Let's hope The Man of Bronze gets his chance to, er, shine once again!


Butch said...

I remember watching Doc Savage back when it came on. Someone told (much younger) me that "he's a super hero". Well, I was set and ready to watch. Thing is, while maybe in layperson's view, Doc is "like a super hero" but when you grow up reading Superman, Batman and the Justice League, well.. This Doc is kind of tame. And that opening sequence... I was getting old enough that the Batman tv series was embarrassing to watch. I grew up on Denny O'Neal and Neal Adams (and Jim Aparo and Dick Gordiano) Batman. So, needless to say "Doc Savage The Movie" was a big disappointment. I wonder now, being older and knowing more about Doc if I would like this better? Like you Rob, I hope Raimi gets hold of Doc Savage and does it up right.

rob! said...

Thanks for the comment Butch!

Yeah, when you're a kid DS seems a little...tame compared to live-action Superman and Batman. He definitely could be done as a movie if the right people were involved.

Caffeinated Joe said...

I honestly never even knew that this existed! If they made it now, wouldn't it seem like a totally new idea, to most non-genre viewers? Doc Savage seems so obscure as opposed to other pulp heroes that have stayed more or less in the pop culture sight.

Not sure if that even makes sense now. Need more coffee.

Neal P said...

Everyone has swiped so much from Doc Savage over the years, I'm afraid younger viewers unfamiliar with Savage might just think he's a knock-off of Indiana Jones or even the new Sherlock Holmes movies. Case in point, for one of the John Carter trailers posted on IMDB, some whippersnapper commented that JC was just a rip off of Avatar! Good grief!!

Robert M. Lindsey said...

This is one of my favorite movies! I think it was the first movie I saw in a theater and I couldn't wait for the sequel, which never came. I never saw it again until I found it at a funky video store in about 2001. Then a few years ago I bought it for $15 on VHS off eBay. Literally 10 days later, the Warner Archives made it available on DVD for $20.

It is a little campy, which is too bad. I'm going to list this as one of my top 50 movies at my blog.

rob! said...

Joe--Yeah, this movie has sort of fallen through the cracks. Its not a great movie, but it makes me happy I tipped you off to its very existence!

Neal--Ye Gods. The IMDB message boards are a swamp of foul language and staggering ignorance.

Robert--Hard to believe that the sequel footage has never surfaced--it would make a great bonus to a Doc DVD, if WB ever decided to do anything real with it, not just throw it out there via the Archives.

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