“They’re a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. That is why I’ve sent them you, my only son,” says Jor-El to Kal-El/Superman.
With the upcoming release of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, I thought I’d take a look back at Richard Donner’s Superman (now celebrating its 35th anniversary). This year also marks the 75th anniversary of the Man of Steel as well, so everything Superman-related feels more special right now (except for 1983’s Superman III, of course). The behind-the-scenes info about the making of the first two Superman films is well-documented by now, so I won’t be going over that.
To recap, the film starts on the planet Krypton, where the scientist Jor-El informs Krypton’s leaders that the planet is doomed. After rejecting his pleas, he prepares a spacecraft for his infant son, Kal-El. The ship escapes as the planet explodes, and it makes its way to Earth, where he’s adopted by the Kents and raised in Smallville, Kansas. After his adopted father dies, Clark Kent/Kal-El sets outs out to discover who he really is. He eventually becomes Superman, a fighter for truth, justice, and the American way. He soon crosses paths with Lex Luthor, a criminal mastermind who sees Superman as the only obstacle in his grand criminal scheme.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this film was Kal-El’s journey of self-discovery. He lands in Smallville as an outsider in a strange new world. He grows up, knowing that he’s different from others and has to conceal his special abilities. No matter how much comfort his adoptive parents give him, there is still a loneliness he must endure as the last of his kind. When he finally sets out north, he knows his journey will be filled with hardships along the way. Once the Fortress of Solitude is created, he’s finally able to get the answers he’s been looking for and is given the chance to become something more than he ever thought possible.
For years I had seen this film on TV, but I never really got a chance to see it on the big screen until late September 2006. It was playing at the Ziegfeld theater in Manhattan (the last movie palace in NYC). A number of superhero films were playing there that month, and tickets were around $7. Seeing Superman on the giant screen at the Ziegfeld was truly amazing. The film was epic in its scope and story, but it also felt epic (something I had not felt with Superman Returns, which I saw on Fourth of July weekend earlier in the summer). What made the screening at the Ziegfeld more special was that it was the director’s cut (something that was NOT advertised; who knows why?) that was being shown (eight minutes were put back into the film by Richard Donner when the film was being remastered for the 2000 restoration). I had never seen the director’s cut before, so it made the screening extra special (among the added footage was an additional scene with Jor-El in the Fortress of Solitude after Superman has revealed himself to the world and a trial by fire, bullets, and ice sequence underground near Lex Luthor’s lair).
The cast (Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Marc McClure, Glenn Ford, Terence Stamp, Trevor Howard, etc.) were terrific. Richard Donner’s directing was top-notch, as was John Barry’s production design, Stuart Freeborn’s makeup design, Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography, Stuart Baird’s Oscar-nominated film editing, and John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score. The special effects (recipient of a Special Achievement Oscar) delivered the goods, making us believe that a man can fly. Credit must also go out to Tom Mankiewicz, who had to revise the draft of the screenplay written by Robert Benton, David and Leslie Newman (who in turn had to re-write Mario Puzo’s original draft) in order to make the story and its characters workable and believable.