I was fourteen years old when Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze opened in the theaters back in 1975, and I couldn't have been more excited about it. I had been reading the paperback reprints of Kenneth Robeson's 1930's pulp action stories for years by that point, and was anxious to see the fantastic visions they had produced in my young head splashed across the big screen.
When my Dad took me to see the movie, I was practically frothing at the mouth like a mad dog. We bought our tickets, bought our popcorn and took our seats. The lights went dim, and the music of John Phillips Souza filled the theater as the film began. The opening scene was set in a frozen wilderness, perhaps the North Pole. Ron Ely, as the title character, appeared at the peak of a snow dune, riding a snowmobile bearing the "Doc Savage" logo from the books. Ron didn't have the widow's peak that the heavily-muscled guy on the paperback covers did, but.well, maybe that would look stupid on a real person anyway. And I came to this conclusion without having seen even one Jack Nicholson movie. "This is ok so far," I told myself.
Then a Gary Owens-ish voice-over boomed from the screen, announcing: "This is Doc Savage: the Man of Bronze." Ron Ely smiled, and his perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth glistened with a goofy, animated glint just like the effeminate pretty-boy Tony Curtis had played in The Great Race. Before my young mind could even come to terms with this blasphemous incongruity, the soundtrack broke into a male chorus right out of a Dudley Do Right cartoon:
Peace will come to all who find, Doc Savage! Doc Savage! He's a friend to all mankind, pure of heart and mind! Who will make crime, Disappear? Doc Savage! Doc Savage! Conqueror and Pioneer, Thank the Lord he's here! Doc made a vow, that helps us all! Our hero has come! Let's all join in the big parade! Go bang your drum, and raise your flag, 'cause history is being made!"
When that song was over, I felt sick. What had they done? Oh my god, my Dad is going to think I'm a homo for making him take me to this! Once the story actually began, however, I was able to breathe a bit easier. The action of the first few scenes was great. The period look was right. The apelike Monk, natty attorney Ham, and the rest of Doc Savage's adventurous crew had been perfectly brought to life by a superb cast of character actors.
But after that first sequence, involving Doc and his crew chasing after a mysterious Indian assassin (taken almost verbatim from the original novel), the whole movie took a huge nosedive into painful TV-quality mediocrity. Then, about halfway through, I cringed in my theater seat as "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze" got even worse. What had been a mere disappointment quickly devolved into a painfully campy comedy that made the goofy opening seem like Eugene O'Neal. At one point, one of Doc's foes, an evil assassin, is shown sleeping in a gigantic rocking baby's crib and sucking his thumb.
Since the 1930s pulp adventure "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was such a huge hit only five years after "Savage" was released, it's popular to for film buffs to say that "The Man of Bronze" was simply ahead of its time. Well, for the most part, that's simply bulls***. George Pal and company had a chance to beat Steven Spielberg to the punch, it's true. Unfortunately, neither Pal nor Director Michael Anderson had access to the resources (or talent) that the post-Close Encounters of the Third KindSpielberg would enjoy five years later. As a result, Pal and Anderson cranked out a half-assed, mixed up piece of junk that couldn't decide whether it was trying to be a revival the adventure serials of the 30s, or of the "Batman" TV series of the 60s.
Still, as bad as it is, the film does hold a bizarre kind of fascination for me now as an adult. I always catch it when it's on TV. I've seen it many more times than I have any of the Indiana Jones movies. When people ask me why I love bad movies so much, I explain the phenomenon this way: you can only watch a train chug by without incident so many times before you get bored, no matter how powerful the locomotive pulling it is or how cool the cars look. But how many times could you watch one derail, crash, burn, and explode into a million useless pieces?
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