1975’s DOC SAVAGE: A Promising Movie Buried Under a Pile of Camp

REEL RETRO CINEMA: New looks at old flicks — and their comic-book connections…

UPDATED 6/1/23: Ron Ely’s cult-fave Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was released in June 1975 (the closest we could find to a release date) and with today the first of the month, it seemed like a good time to re-present this 2017 piece by Rob Kelly. You can also check out Rob’s episode of The Film and Water Podcast about it too. Click here. — Dan


Doc Savage was Superman before Superman. Possessor of a brilliant intellect, enhanced strength and a remote base of operations called the Fortress of Solitude, the man known as Clark(!) Savage Jr. was a creation of three men: Henry W. Ralston, John L. Nanovic and Lester Dent. Dent was the man who wrote most of Doc’s adventures for various pulp magazines of the 1930s and ’40s, and built the world that Savage would inhabit.

Despite the character’s popularity in the pulps, his owners Street & Smith couldn’t drum up much interest in the character when it came to other media, outside of a short-lived radio show. Hollywood didn’t attempt any live-action adaptations for decades. A set of producers, Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, got close in the mid-1960s, trying to capitalize on the re-issued pulp novels (featuring staggeringly beautiful painted covers by artist James Bama) and the growing James Bond craze. But legal issues thwarted them and it would be another decade until the Man of Bronze finally hit the silver screen.

Film poster

In 1975, legendary producer/director/animator George Pal succeeded where Goodson and Todman did not, and got Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze made, with the help of Warner Bros. Directed by Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days, Logan’s Run), the film starred Ron Ely (TV’s Tarzan) as our hero, with William Lucking, Michael Miller, Eldon Quick, Darrell Zwerling and Paul “You mess with the bull, you get the horns” Gleason as Doc’s team of highly-skilled, brave compatriots, The Fabulous Five: Renny, Monk, Johnny, Ham and Long Tom.

Nostalgia for 1920s and ’30s culture was sweeping the nation in the 1970s, and that feeling is present in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze from the first frame. Set to a score by John Philip Sousa (patriotically spelled SoUSA in the credits), the film opens with newsreel-style narration over shots of the Arctic Circle. Doc is making his way to his Fortress, but he has time to stop and look into the camera, where an animated “twinkle” in his eye appears, complete with a “ding!” on the soundtrack. Uh-oh.

After being introduced to the Fabulous Five, the plot gets under way: In 1930s New York, a man wearing a loincloth and carrying a rifle is seen scaling the skyscraper that is Doc’s official headquarters. He fires off a shot, which misses thanks to specially designed refracted glass that distorts the view from outside. Doc confronts the would-be assassin, but before he can get any info, the man slips and falls to his death. He has fingertips that look dipped in blood, and is bearing a strange snake tattoo on his chest.

When they return, Doc and the team see that their office has been ransacked, and the research papers of his father, Clark Savage Sr., have been destroyed.

The trail leads to the unexplored region of Hidalgo, where Doc’s now-deceased father was given a large land grant. The international criminal and smuggler known as Captain Seas (Paul Wexler) subjects Doc and his team to repeated murder attempts, but of course our heroes survive them all thanks to their courage, bravery and wits. Also involved is a corrupt government official named Don Rubio Gorro (Bob Corso) and Gorro’s comely assistant Mona Flores (Pamela Hensley), who of course takes a shine to the Man of Bronze (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

Throughout its 100-minute running time, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze toggles uneasily between straightforward, pretty decently staged adventure sequences and embarrassingly unfunny subpar camp gags reminiscent of the Batman TV series. That series’ quirky tone was deceptively hard to pull off (sometimes even the show itself couldn’t do it). There really hadn’t been any superheroes done in live action between Batman going off the air in 1968 and Doc Savage, so it’s almost as if George Pal and his screenwriters simply didn’t know there was any other way to approach this material.

In particular, the Gorro character is played entirely for comic relief (in theory), sleeping in a giant baby crib, mugging furiously and scurrying about to the tune of La Cucaracha. During a scene between Doc and Mona where she expresses her feelings for him, Doc tells her “Mona, you’re a brick.” (I still don’t even know what that means.)

The campiness reaches unbearable levels during the final fight scene between Doc and Captain Seas, where they engage in an assortment of fighting styles, each one helpfully listed on screen, complete with sound cues. During what should be the film’s climactic battle, I longed for the relative dignity of Surf’s Up, Joker’s Under. And don’t even get me started on Doc Savage performing brain surgery on Captain Seas so he’s not evil anymore. Ick.

That said, I find it difficult to completely dislike Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. It moves along at enough of a clip that you don’t get too bored, the James Bond-esque gadgets are fun, the opening scene at Doc’s NYC HQ is superb (with the help of a great matte painting), and any movie that casts cult actor Michael Berryman in a non-psycho role can’t be all bad.

Despite all the superhero films that have come down the pike since, Doc Savage has built up a bit of cult following, earning itself a Blu-ray release from the fine folks at Warner Archive just last month. It’s got a certain something that keeps it from being entirely dismissed and thrown onto the superhero-movie junk pile along with Howard the Duck, Man-Thing and Batman and Robin.

Marvel must have thought the film was going to be a huge hit, for they obtained rights to the character and that same year released Doc Savage as part of their black-and-white magazine line, complete with a cover taken from the movie’s poster.

Strangely, the magazine never adapted the film during its eight-issue run, instead offering brand-new adventures written by the always-inventive Doug Moench and John Buscema. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze bombed at the box office, crushed by the unexpected juggernaut that was Jaws, released the same month. It would be the final film of George Pal’s career, even though he felt confident enough about its chances to promise a sequel (Doc Savage: The Arch Enemy of Evil) at the final scene. But it was not to be.

Could a live-action Doc Savage have worked with a different approach? It would have been interesting to see what the 1960s version might have looked like, and we can get something of an idea thanks to the one-shot “adaptation” Gold Key Comics published in 1966. The story, The Thousand-Head Man, was to be plot of the film, based on one of the original pulp novels.

Sporting a typically beautiful cover by James Bama, the story centers around three keys that lead to the titular many-noggined man. A mysterious figure tosses one of the keys to Doc Savage as he arrives at a London airport, leading to numerous attempts on Doc’s life to get it back.

Aside from some unfortunate racial stereotypes, The Thousand-Headed Man isn’t a bad adventure at all, and since it came before the Batman TV show, there’s no attempts at camp humor. Curiously, artist Jack Sparling draws Doc as looking pretty wrinkly and weathered, not exactly the glowing pillar of manliness we’ve come to expect. Lantern-jawed actor Chuck Connors was penciled in to play Doc in the aborted film, and you can see a bit of his likeness in Bama’s cover.

Doc Savage will get another shot at movie stardom, when movie mega-star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson takes over the role in a film directed by Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys), two men who have shown they can handle action and comedy with a light touch. Will this film effort turn the Man of Bronze into a household name like Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and Groot? Hard to say, but casting the effortlessly charming Johnson seems like a step in the right direction.

Somewhere, I bet Lester Dent got a twinkle in his eye when he heard the news.

If you want to hear more about Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, check out The Film and Water Podcast, part of The Fire and Water Podcast Network!


— The TOP 13 SUPERHEROES Inspired by the Pulps — RANKED. Click here.

— WHAT IS BEST IN LIFE? 1982’s Gleefully Lusty CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Click here.

Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of Aquaman and Firestorm: The Fire and Water Podcast, the host of The Film and Water Podcast, and the host of TreasuryCast, a show devoted to the greatest comics format of all time, the treasury edition. His dream Doc Savage casting would have been Charlton Heston circa 1955.

You can read more of his REEL RETRO CINEMA columns here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. My memory may be off but I’m pretty sure the first issue of the doc savage magazine adapted the novel that the movie itself was based on

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    • Yeah, Marvel had done 8 issues of standard-size, color adaptations of some of the pulps first, starting with The Man of Bronze. The beautiful John Buscema B&W issues came after its cancellation.

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  2. Doc Savage will only work if the series is treated with the same “reality” and look of the Indiana Jones movies. Done that way, it could be a huge success.

    And yes, leave it in the 1920’s – 1940’s era, preferably mostly pre-WWII.

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    • Yes! 100% agree. Somehow I fear it will be more about showcasing the actor than the story. I’d love an after credit scene showing Doc meeting up with The Shadow.

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  3. Someone once sent me Phillip Jose Farmer’s treatment for the sequel and while Farmer would have seemed the perfect choice for a straight version of Doc, it was still campier than I would have expected.

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  4. For what it’s worth, the “you’re a brick” line comes directly from the original novel “The Man of Bronze.”

    A few years back I wrote an essay about this movie that was later reprinted in Issue No. 1 (2020) of the magazine “Cinema of the ’70s.” (Here’s a link to the original version of that essay: https://bardofthelesserboulevards.yolasite.com/blog/doc-savage-in-hollywood-what-might-have-been). I also contributed some bonus material to the deluxe hardcover 40th Anniversary edition of Phil Farmer’s “Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life” 10 years ago, and have written and spoken about the character at various pulp and pop culture-related events over the years, so I guess it can rightly be said that I have more than a passing acquaintance with the character…

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  5. The 75 Doc movie like the 2012 John Carter was way too campy, so much so that it looked stupid to the public which is why they barely lasted a couple of weeks in the cinema. The above writer who said if it was more like Indiana Jones is dead on, Especially with Dwayne Johnson playing the lead role

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  6. It isn’t mentioned enough, but Doc Savage was directly based on Silent Film actor (and literal archtype of the Golden Age Superhero, besides being the creator of the Swashbucker/Adventurer genre) Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Fairbanks was so known for his extreme tan that it was often commented on from his childhood into adulthood and fame; his famous pose in a torn shirt in THE BLACK PIRATE (which also is where Siegel and Shuster got Superman’s famous pose, per them and The Golden Age Green Lantern’s costume is based, per Nodell) directly inspired Doc Savage’s famous torn safari shirt.

    Fairbanks Sr. was restless and routinely traveled the world (it’s one of the reasons Mary Pickford and he divorced) and he studied various languages and was internationally curious. He also hired private instructors on almost every known weapon to man and was proficient in everything from the bullwhip to fencing. More comic fans should know about him.

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