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Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze

Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze(1975)


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teaser Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze (1975)

Adventurer, explorer, physician, inventor, detective, and all around Renaissance man Clark Savage, Jr., aka Doc Savage, was a pulp fiction hero with extraordinary strength, supreme intellectual focus, mastery of the martial arts, and skin the color of bronze. Created by Lester Dent under the pen name Kenneth Robeson, he made his first appearance in 1933 in "Doc Savage Magazine" and went on to appear in 181 stories. Though he had no actual super powers, he was a veritable superman before Superman made his comic book debut, and he was assisted by his Fabulous Five, war buddies who became masters of their chosen professions (law, chemistry, engineering, archeology, and electronics) but remained stalwart allies whenever the call arose. The character's success in the pulps never crossed over to the movies, however, and after publication of "Doc Savage Magazine" ceased in 1949, he was practically forgotten. Until, that is, those original stories were republished as paperback novels beginning in 1964 and found a whole new audience.

More than forty years after the publication of the first issue of "Doc Savage Magazine," the character made its screen debut in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975). George Pal, producer of such science fiction and fantasy classics as The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960), bought the screen rights to all 181 stories. He originally planned to launch what he had hoped to be a series of adventure films with an adaptation of two Doc Savage stories, "Death in Silver" and "The Feathered Octopus," but realized that contemporary audiences needed an introduction to the character. So he put his first script aside and turned to the very first Doc Savage novel "The Man of Bronze" for the character's debut. Set in 1936, it straddles the line between nostalgia and camp as it calls Doc back from his Fortress of Solitude in the icy Arctic to his New York skyscraper headquarters. His father, a renowned scientist working with a remote tribe in South America, has died and Doc is now the target of an assassin. With his loyal Fabulous Five, he heads south to investigate the mystery. The screenplay by Pal and co-writer Joe Morhaim also drew upon the novels "The Green Death" and "The Mystic Mullah" and based the villain on Captain Flamingo from the novel "Mystery Under the Sea."

Casting was key--thanks to the paperback covers by artist James Bama, fans had come to see the character as a muscular strongman with an intense gaze--and after interviewing hundreds of potential candidates, Pal found his Doc Savage in Ron Ely. At six feet five inches and with an impressive physique he had the necessary physical stature and as star of the 1960s Tarzan TV series (where he had performed his own stunts) he had proven his ability to play a pulp hero on the screen.

Pal had envisioned a splashy, spectacular adventure. To direct, he hired Michael Anderson, a British filmmaker whose credits include the war thrillers The Dam Busters (1955) and Operation Crossbow (1965) and the all-star spectacle Around the World in 80 Days (1956), for which he earned an Oscar nomination. Cinematographer Fred Koenekamp was a veteran of big screen spectacles, earning his first Oscar nomination for Patton (1970) and an Academy Award for The Towering Inferno (1974). But according to interviews given by Pal in later years, the budget was cut at the last minute by the studio, which affected the scope and look of the film, much of which was filmed on the Warner Bros. studio backlot. Pal also blamed the studio for adding camp touches to the film (such as the animated twinkle in Ely's eye in two scenes), though much of the humor is clearly there in the conception, from the insult banter between the members of his team to the bizarre image of a comic villain rocking himself in a giant baby crib. Yet in other ways it is faithful not just to the novel but the whole Savage universe and at times evokes the paperback covers of Bama, who liked to feature the hero with his shirt in shreds, revealing the sculpted muscles beneath. Ely's shirt is similarly ripped to ribbons in the climactic fight of the film.

The film ends with "Watch for Doc Savage's next thrilling adventure The Arch Enemy of Evil" splashed across the screen but no sequel was ever made. Fans were upset with the campy aspects of the film and mainstream audiences in the summer of 1975 were gripped by a more contemporary thrill ride: Jaws. Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was, to put it mildly, a flop, but in many ways it anticipated the nostalgia for pulp fiction, cliffhanger adventure, and larger-than-life heroics from an earlier era that Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) captured just a few years later. It was the final finished film from legendary producer George Pal, who died in 1980, and the first and to date last screen appearance of the great golden age hero. And for that it still has a following.

A History of the Doc Savage Adventures in Pulps, Paperbacks, Comics Fanzines, Radio, and Film, Robert Michael "Bobb" Cotter. McFarland and Company, 2009.
The Films of George Pal, Gail Morgan Hickman. A.S. Barnes and Co., 1977.

By Sean Axmaker

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