THE HISTORY OF DC COMICS ON FILM
PART 2 – BATMAN:THE MOVIE (1966)
For anybody born as a child of the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s, there was just one live action Batman to call our own. Being born in 1979, I was right in the middle of that time period. Before the release of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, starring Michael Keaton as the titular Dark Knight, the DC fan base had a very different take on the Caped Crusader to enjoy. Adam West’s “Bright Knight” was, and still is, many people’s gateway into the world of Batman. For the first ten years of my life this film was everything to me, as a well-worn VHS tape will bear witness to! Utterly compulsive viewing 52 years after its initial release date, this film continues to find new audiences with each new generation of Batfans that come along. A combination of comedy, action, high camp, sixties kitsch and unforgettable performances, this 1966 release is a joyous, fun watch that will always be considered one of the very best of the DC film releases.
Coming in at an estimated budget of $1.37 million dollars, with Leslie H. Martinson on directing duties, a screenplay from Lorenzo Semple Jr and a magnificent score from Nelson Riddle, the film only performed moderately at the box office, coming out a mere two weeks after the final episode of the first season of the television series has been aired on US TV. The film does play like an episode of the TV show writ large, with everything dialled up to eleven to be bigger and better. More villains, more bat-vehicles, more hand to hand combat, more one-liner zingers and more shark-repellent batspray, it really does not let up for the duration of its 104 minute running time.
Four of the Dynamic Duo’s greatest villains, Catwoman, The Riddler, The Joker and The Penguin, joining forces as the United Underworld, steal a dehydrator that can turn human beings into dust. Their plan is to break into the United World Organisation and kidnap the Security Council in order to hold the world to ransom, by means of turning the members to dust form, only to be re-hydrated once the ransom is paid in full. There to foil them along the way are Batman and Robin. There begins a feature length game of cat and mouse, taking in exploding sharks, disappearing yachts, a honey trap for Bruce Wayne, bomb-disposal struggles, Polaris missiles that write riddles in the sky, penguin submarines and batcopters, batboats and batcycles.
A quite magnificent ensemble cast that reprised their roles from the TV series, with the exception of Lee Meriwether as Catwoman, drafted in to replace Julie Newmar who had existing commitments that could not be avoided. Every actor in the main cast delivers a performance that is iconic in its own way. Several fine actors have since played these characters on both the big and small screen, each delivering great work, but these portrayals remain synonymous with the characters. Adam West is on fine form at Batman, playing the character deadpan and straight, despite the absurdity that surrounds him. Utterly charming as Bruce Wayne, suave and debonair, it is easy to see why he was briefly considered for the role of James Bond for Diamonds are Forever. Providing he had a passable English accent in his arsenal, West definitely had the good lucks, charisma and athletic build that would have made a good Bond, we shall never truly know. Burt ward is typically vociferous as Robin, full of enthusiasm and earnest dialogue. To this day, he remains the definitive Dick Grayson in live action. The Rogues Gallery are all excellent too, Burgess Meredith is eloquent and spiteful as the aristocratic Penguin, Frank Gorshin manic and loud as The Riddler, Lee Meriwether is great as Catwoman and even better with the Russian-accented artificial alter ego of Kitka, set up to break Batman’s heart. Cesar Romero is great fun as The Joker, his version containing none of the psychopathic tendencies of the character that we tend to expect from portrayals now, but he does have the best laugh ever offered up, and a great moustache that is always clearly visible beneath his white make up! (Romero utterly refused to shave it off). A big shout out to Alan Napier as Alfred Pennyworth too, his refined English gent is not afraid to get out into the field, slipping on a domino mask to drive the Batmobile on a covert surveillance operation.
It is very easy to dismiss this film is overly comedic and a bit of a parody, but the writers do it all with a self-aware knowing wink, tongue very much planted firmly in cheek. Every time our heroes escape from a fiendish death trap, it tends to be down to luck and circumstances rather than Batman’s ingenuity. The tip of the iceberg is a porpoise throwing itself into an underwater missile, sacrificing itself to save Batman and Robin, trapped as they are in the grip of Penguin’s magnetic buoy! There are some slightly satirical moments in there too, as the writers subtly take shots at the US government, international politics and the Pentagon. Slotted in there amidst all the fun and jokes, they show a more intelligent side to the film, making it clear that Batman too could be a part of the 1960’s counter culture movement, despite being a stoic enforcer of the law! (No vigilantism here, Batman and Robin are fully deputised “agents of the law”, working hand in hand with the GCPD).
The film is an absolute treat, more than fifty years on. An explosion of colour, music and vibrancy, fans young and old should be able to enjoy this. Adults will get the jokes and the satire, whilst children will enjoy the fist fights, accompanied by many a “biff” and “pow” graphic on the screen each time a villain is punched squarely in the face by our favourite heroes. It is a film that can be watched on repeat after repeat, with endlessly quotable dialogue and perfect casting. A must see for any self-respecting DC Comics fan, it’s a light, fun, romp of a film, and very much a contrast to the serious tone to come…….
In the next History of DC Comics on Film…….Superman The Movie!!!!!!