If someone was to talk about a movie featuring an alcoholic who has superhuman powers, you might think of the 2008 Will Smith vehicle Hancock. Should mention be made of a superhero-themed musical, what presents itself could be Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, or perhaps Rogers: The Muscial, which was a running joke in Hawkeye, before taking on a life of its own.
Very few people would likely have the first thing springing to mind being a relatively niche and unfairly overlooked darkly satirical superhero musical comedy which brought together the Prince of Darkness and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, hailing from the antipodes, and penned by the future writer of Commando and Die Hard. Yet over the four decades since its somewhat faltering theatrical run, this particular feature has built up a cult following, and has recently received some of the care and attention which it so richly deserved. This is the story of The Return Of Captain Invincible.
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In the motion picture industry, producers are always looking for the next big thing, that wave to catch or a trend to chase, and in 1978 it looked as though caped crusaders and men in tights would likely be that, given all the buzz around Richard Donner’s forthcoming Superman: The Movie. An Australian movie producer named Andrew Gaty had a notion of doing a superhero feature of his own, and approached American film and TV producer Martin Poll, who liked the idea, and they set about seeking a screenwriter who would be able to develop the concept further.
Steven E. de Souza – who, at the time, was working on the shows The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman – got a phone call from Lauren Shuler (who would later marry Richard Donner). Shuler was then working in development for Poll, and she asked de Souza to come in and meet herself and Gaty. After an initial discussion, de Souza went away and brainstormed for a couple of days, before going back with a pitch, which they liked. At that stage, our hero was known as ‘Captain Incredible’, and it was agreed de Souza would work with Gaty on the script (although, in actuality, the majority of the writing would be done by de Souza).
The story would begin during World War II, and see our hero fighting Nazis for Uncle Sam. However, come the aftermath of the hostilities, the ‘Reds under the bed’ witch-hunt being carried out by Joseph McCarthy would see the Captain being accused of harbouring Communist tendencies. It would see the Captain becoming disillusioned, with a total withdrawal from public life and disappearance into obscurity, before his descent into alcoholism. However, what the Captain didn’t know was that the mastermind behind this was actually his arch-nemesis, Mr. Midnight, who had plotted the Captain’s fall from grace.
Flash forward to the present day of the early 1980s, and Mr. Midnight would be working on a plan to ethnically cleanse America of all immigrants, in line with his Nazi ideals of pure Aryanism. The US President – who met the Captain as a Boy Scout – searches out his hero to help find a stolen military superweapon. Police Officer Patty Patria (Latin for ‘love for one’s country’) realises the real identity of a drunk vagrant on her beat, and has to help the Captain sober up and learn how to use all his powers again, if there is any hope of saving the world from the machinations of Mr. Midnight.
So taken with the idea was de Souza, he even worked on an idea for a possible sequel – ‘Captain Incredible And The DNA Fiend’. Patty Patria would be looking into the disappearance of the nation’s top scientists, artists and important figures, with some of the cases dating back many years. It would be revealed that Mr. Midnight is behind it all, holding them as captives and nutritionally fattening them up, in preparation to feed them to each other, eating the last survivor himself, ingesting – like a flatworm – their total knowledge. Posing as a health food guru, the Captain would then release all of Midnight’s various captives (including people like Einstein, whose deaths had been faked, before being frozen).
Gaty sent a copy of the finished script for the first movie to Blake Edwards, with a view to him directing. Edwards was said to have loved the script, and had been thinking about casting Michael Douglas and Kirk Douglas as the younger and older Captains respectively. However, the idea sadly fell through, perhaps due to the fact that the project had stalled after Poll’s contract with Columbia Pictures came to an end. It was suggested to Gaty he could get $250,000 if he were to sell it as a spec script, and an accountant informed Gaty if he made the film in Australia, then they thought they could get Gaty the necessary funding.
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Division 10BA (1981) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 meant that investors in Australian productions could claim a 150% tax concession, as well as only having to pay tax on half of any income earned from their investment. This scheme of tax relief is felt to have contributed in part to the huge boom in production of Ozsploitation films, which was a trend that had already gotten underway in the 1970s. As a result, Gaty made changes to the script, to relocate a significant chunk of the action to take place in Australia, and also looked to have the film made over there too, in order to qualify for the 10BA incentive, with a view to securing investment.
In order to ensure additional Aussie bona fides, Gaty also set about contacting every Australian director, but it transpired that virtually all of them were already busy on other projects, ironically due to those same 10BA tax benefits of which Gaty had hoped to take advantage. The only Australian director to be available at that point in time was Philippe Mora, whose debut feature film – Mad Dog Morgan – had been released in 1976, and starred Dennis Hopper, alongside an Australian character actor, Frank Thring. Mora would consider Thring to play Mr. Midnight, but he proved to be unavailable.
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Whereas Gaty had intended his superhero film to be comedic but ultimately serious, akin to Dr. Strangelove, Mora aimed to do something closer in tone to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, so he set about identifying places in the script where songs could be inserted. Mora also wanted to have each song written in a different style or genre. With Mora also knowing Jim Sherman, who had worked on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it led to his making contact with Richard O’Brien and Richard Hartley, with the duo contributing three of the film’s nine original songs – ‘Captain Invincible’, ‘Mr. Evil Midnight’, and ‘Name Your Poison’.
In addition, Mora also had to make direct contact with Irving Berlin, in order to get the composer’s permission to use ‘God Bless America’ in the film. Having explained the storyline, in addition to the context in which the song would be used, the composer granted his consent, on the proviso of a $10,000 donation being made to the Boy Scouts of America, who he had supported since 1940 by giving all the song’s royalties to the God Bless America Fund. Having set about securing songs for his musical, Mora had to cast the actors who would be singing the tracks between them.
Whereas Gaty had considered Paul Newman to play the lead role, Mora’s agent introduced him to another client – James Coburn – who was interested in the part. However, a sticking point unfortunately came when Mora was unable to explain to Coburn’s satisfaction why there was a scene in which our hero was attacked by killer vacuum cleaners, so he passed on the opportunity. Luckily, salvation was to come in the form of veteran Hollywood publicist Dick Guttman, given the title of ‘starflacker’, in a phrase which was originally coined by his daughter.
One of Guttman’s clients was Alan Arkin, who had begun as a part of the improv troupe The Second City, before moving to Broadway, and then into feature films, appearing in Catch-22, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and Inspector Clouseau (replacing Peter Sellers as the bungling policeman). A copy of the script was given to Arkin, and within the space of three hours, he had agreed to play the hero – now named Captain Invincible. Arkin felt a personal connection to the material, as his own parents had been accused of being Communists in the 1950s, with his father having been fired from his job as a schoolteacher after refusing to respond to questions over his political leanings.
With Frank Thring being unable to be his Mr. Midnight, Mora invited Gaty to his place for dinner one night, with one of his guests being Christopher Lee. Mora had seated Gaty and Lee together, and then afterwards he started to tell the producer why he felt Lee should be Mr. Midnight. Lee was drawn to the part, as he had never been asked to sing in a film before. The irony was also not lost on them that Lee – who had tracked down Nazis, and been the assistant hangman at Nuremberg – would be playing a character who was a Nazi. Mora would later work with Lee on The Howling II, as well as making the documentary Dracula: Nazi Hunter, all about Lee’s real-life exploits.
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Principal photography on The Return Of Captain Invincible got underway on November 23rd 1981, with the majority of the filming taking place in Australia, a repurposed industrial facility acting as a makeshift studio. During production, both Arkin and co-star Kate Fitzpatrick (who played Patty Patria after first choice Wendy Hughes got pregnant) would end up being temporarily blinded after an oil contained in a smoke used on set burned off the top layer of their eyes, holding up proceedings until they’d both recovered. Relations between the director and producer also became rather strained during production, to such an extent that the pair would end up only communicating via Mora’s agent.
Creative differences would spill over into post-production, with a test screening in Los Angeles ending up with half the audience walking out. Gaty understandably became jittery at this reaction, and – without Mora’s involvement – did a re-edit of the film, cutting 10 minutes from the feature, on the advice of his American distributor. This course of action would lead to a legal dispute, with Mora lodging an objection which would ultimately see the matter come before Minister of Home Affairs, Tom McVeigh, in 1982. The issue focused on whether or not the final cut of the film – carried out at Gaty’s instruction – still qualified for the 10BA benefits.
In order to be eligible, a production would need to receive a pair of certificates – a provisional one stating it qualified as an Australian film under the scheme; and a final certificate, issued when the film was complete and ready for release. In June 1982, Gaty applied for the film’s final certificate, but in November he was informed it had been denied by McVeigh, due to concerns over the movie having undergone extensive re-editing work in America, as well there being a perceived increase in non-Australian elements since original granting of the provisional certificate. Gaty challenged this decision, and managed to have it overturned.
However, the film’s woes unfortunately were not over. Gaty negotiated a deal with Jensen Farley Pictures, an American independent film distributor, with a view to them handling the release Stateside. Founded by the former heads of Sunn Classic Pictures, Rayland Jensen and Clair Farley, the Jensen Farley company had The Return Of Captain Invincible set to launch in 800 screens across America. The day before it was due to open, however, Jensen Farley Pictures ended up filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which scuttled the film’s release, and tied up the rights in a legal red tape nightmare for years to come.
The Return Of Captain Invincible would eventually reach an audience by making its way to home video, as well as being shown on television, with its British debut being on BBC Two on December 14th 1988. A 7” single of ‘Name Your Poison’ as sung by Christopher Lee would be released in Germany in 1984, with a re-recording of it included on Lee’s 2006 album Revelation. The movie would start to garner something of a cult reputation amongst those who were exposed to it across the decades, including no less a figure than Terry Pratchett, who would describe Captain Invincible as being “a series of bad moments pasted together with great songs and a budget of fourpence”, while proclaiming it “a regularly-viewed video in the Pratchett household”.
Arkin would go on to win an Academy Award, a BAFTA and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Little Miss Sunshine, as well as garnering numerous other nominations for these awards, along with many others. In addition, Arkin would also pick up the San Diego Film Festival’s inaugural Gregory Peck Award at ‘Variety’s Night of the Stars: A Tribute’ event in 2014. The legacy of Captain Invincible was not quite so noteworthy, at least not until it finally received some much-needed TLC, all courtesy of Severin Films, who announced in March 2022 it would be releasing a 3-disc Blu-ray set, containing both the theatrical and ‘Director’s Cut’ versions of the film, plus a raft of special features, including the full soundtrack.
Given Arkin’s recent passing and the attention being drawn to his eclectic back catalogue, now is perhaps the ideal time for audiences to discover The Return Of Captain Invincible, particularly with superhero-themed live action media being rather en vogue. The opening sequences, which are done in a ‘40s newsreel style, look completely authentic and so easily trumps the efforts of Watchmen and Captain America: The First Avenger. It also manages to evoke hope and patriotism, without ever lapsing into jingoism. The songs – in particular the contributions from O’Brien and Hartley – are ridiculously catchy. Arkin and Lee are both on top form, with the latter so clearly having the time of his life, chewing the scenery with a relish and aplomb.
“What the world needs now is a shining hero!”, proclaims one of the film’s taglines. The Return Of Captain Invincible may well be just that, proving the perfect camp, satirical, larger-than-life antidote to so many corporate, cookie cutter, CGI-heavy superhero affairs clogging up the multiplexes. In the spirit of the lyrics of the main title song, it’s time to become trapped and wrapped in Captain Invincible.