As a kid, I was obsessed with superheroes. And in the late 1970’s, there was an abundance of them on the small screen after 1978’s Superman. Captain America, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Wonder Woman and Dr. Strange all got their own TV movies or shows. And then there’s all of the non-comic book heroes, like Gemini Man, Man from Atlantis and Exo-Man. Since Doc Savage was already made, it was perfect to air again in this era.
At least Doc got a movie made this time.
The co-creator of Doc Savage, Lester Dent, was smart enough to have the rights to any radio, film or TV show made from his stories. When he died, his widow retained the rights, which Mark Goodson and Bill Todman (many a game show) didn’t get in time to produce their Doc Savage movie. Thanks to the James Bond craze and a little bit of Batman, any old pulp novels were back in print. Chuck Connors would have played Doc in the 1966 film, which even had a 1966 Gold Key comic tie-in for a movie that didn’t exist!
Producer George Pal (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine) made sure that he had the rights, as he saw Doc as a film franchise and TV series. He originally wanted Steve Reeves (“if you want something visual, that’s not too abysmal / we can take in an old Steve Reeves movie,” like his Hercules films) to play Doc, but a writer’s strike and a change of directors put the film on hold.
The movie is based on Doc’s first adventure, The Man of Bronze, with elements from several other stories. It’s remarkably faithful to the source material, unlike so many of the 1970’s (and even today) adaptions. From Doc’s Fabulous Five (Monk, Ham, Renny, Long Tom and Little Johnny), which would go on to inspire superhero teams and the Hong Kong Cavaliers, to his Fortress of Solitude (which inspired Superman’s), Mink’s pet pig, Doc’s gadgets and more, there is so much taken from the original pulp stories.
The hard part of the film comes from how campy it gets, from patriotic theme songs dedicated to Doc with lyrics telling us how great he is to him having an animated twinkle in his eye. The TV Batman style died hard in Hollywood. Witness 1979’s Legends of the Superheroes TV movies.
The movie opens at Doc Savage’s (Ron Ely, Tarzan) Fortress of Solitude, where our hero learns his father died under a cloud of mystery. While he looks at his father’s papers, a Native American assassin with red fingers and a tattoo of a Mayan god tries to kill him. Doc gives chase, but his would-be murderer falls to his death.When he gets back to his apartment, his father’s notes have been destroyed.
Throughout the film, Captain Seas tries to kill Doc and his friends. Of note, Long Tom is played by Paul Gleason, Richard Vernon from The Breakfast Club.
Meanwhile, Doc finds out that his father received a land grant in the interior of Hidalgo from the Quetzamal, a Mayan tribe that has disappeared. Despite government corruption, Mona Flores offers to lead Doc and his friends to the land.
It turns out that Captain Seas is using the Green Death, an airborne plague, to keep the natives under his control (and he also used it to kill Doc’s father). Most of the bad guys get covered in molten gold, while the chief of the natives offers the gold and land to Doc, who pledges to use it for the cause of justice.
Unlike other pulp heroes, Doc doesn’t kill. He rehabilitates with acupuncture and education, a fact that we see in action as Doc finds Captain Seas and his henchwomen ringing the Salvation Army bell for charity.
As Doc gets back home, he gets a message that he’s needed. He rushes out for his next adventure, which was to be titled Doc Savage: The Arch Enemy of Evil.
Oh yeah — Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) shows up here as a coroner!
As helmed by Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run, Orca, Around the World in 80 Days), this is a big, bombastic film. It flopped hard when released, though Norma Dent was said to have loved the film. How much you’ll enjoy it depends on your love of silliness, John Phillip Sousa and the superheroes of the past. Me? I have a spot in my heart for this film and dreamed of having a shirt like Doc’s that would be all ripped and cling to me when I sprung to action. However, I was a chubby six-year-old and had no villains to battle outside of the bullies who routinely kicked my ass. That said, as I grew older, I gave them all acupuncture, forgiveness and education, just like Doc Savage taught me!