Today would have been Christopher Reeve’s 69th Birthday. Here at SUPERMANIA, and similarly with Superman websites all across the globe, we honour his legacy by remembering him as a husband, father, actor, humanitarian and the actor who would forever personify the original comic book hero.
Over forty years since he set the standard by which all other comic-book based performances would be judged, his BAFTA-winning portrayal still resonates, his powerful influence still echoed in the many live-action interpretations produced since. For many fans though, his timeless combination of sincerity, physicality, compassion and overall righteousness have made Christopher Reeve virtually incomparable. The story of his casting is now as big a part of cinematic history as when Vivien Leigh was cast as Scarlett O’Hara as was his ascension to to Superstardom and ultimately, tragedy.
Such was the impact made on a generation that most refuse to consign his memory to history, instead honouring him through media for later generations to enjoy. One of the best recent examples is DC Comics Superman ’78, a six-part series with written by Robert Venditti and illustrated by Wilfredo Torres that perfectly echoes the Donnerverse by emulating the late Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography on paper accompanied by dialogue delivered in clear homage to writer Tom Mankewicz. At the centre, of course, is Reeve’s dual characterisation back in action again, delighting its core audience whilst appealing to the new. This, with new licensed merchandise appearing regularly ensures that the definitive Man of Steel remains at the forefront of popular culture and, through the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, a significant contribution to humanity left by a super man.
On paper the notion seemed sound. He wasn’t Richard Donner (Or indeed Lester) but nevertheless a tenured Director with an impressive resume littered with some notable titles, The Ipcress File, The Entity and more recently cult sensation Iron Eagle. Moreover he was keen, available and as this particular project was now Christopher Reeve’s baby, a shoe-in after Wes Craven’s vision was met with Indifference.
Unfortunately Sidney J. Furie had it all against him. Taking on a franchise that had already derailed, its future now in the hands of easily the most notorious producers of the age and a star looking to dominate proceedings wherever possible. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace was always going to be somewhat insurmountable, but nobody could have foreseen just what twists and turns lay ahead.
Indeed, according to producer Michael Kagan‘Nobody wanted to make a bad movie’ even though the script by Laurence Konner & Mark Rosenthal (with story input by Reeve) was considered to be in dire need of another draft. Reeve had already been served with a lawsuit from outraged would-be writers Barry Taft and Ken Stoller who claimed the Nuclear disarmament theme of the story was theirs. The case would eventually be thrown out but was the start of many obstacles to overcome. The Go-Go Boys, (having bought the series from the dejected Salkinds at a discount on a sunny afternoon in Cannes) were nothing if not keen to get the picture made and out to its built-in audience in order to help Cannon Films finance the 30plus projects shooting around the globe at the time.
In the above interview with Steven Simak taken from the Summer 1987 Issue of Galactic Journal Magazine, Furie at least seems to have a clear outlook, fighting for Margot Kidder to be reinstated and citing that heavy-handed auteurship (i.e. Dick Lester) could be detrimental to the truth of the character. Arguably the love-triangle described with the introduction of Mariel Hemmingway’s character that Furie seems so keen to explore were among the best scenes in a film otherwise consumed by the spectre of visual effects done on the cheap.
Details about the infamous test-screening were recently revealed by Visual Effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw, who stated that while he sat in with the audience, Furie patiently waited in a cafe across the road. When the showing, (and indeed, the rioting) was over, Ellenshaw reported back to Furie who allegedly asked ‘Was it that bad??’ Word soon got back to Warner Bros. who would issue a simple, yet damning directive before general release – ‘Lose two reels’.
The resulting cuts are well-documented but the fallout remains. The sub-plots, the runtime, the soundtrack. Clive Mantle’s entire part – the list goes on. At one time thought to be merely a rough cut, Ellenshaw did confirm the test screening was that of the full-length feature, warts & all – and despite long being thought destroyed, Warner Bros. have confirmed the print survived and is stacked among the multitude of cans rescued from the Pinewood Studios vault to facilitate the Richard Donner cut of Superman II.
So with all this information finally brought to light – and over three decades later – can there be closure on the enigma that is Superman IV? The choice, as ever, seems to rest with the fans. For all the furore that saw the eventual release of @thesnydercut people seem to forget that @releasethedonnercut was not only first, but revolutionary in terms of studios response to the DC fanbase. We (the Superman community) proved that it can be done. We know what it takes to be done. We also now have the benefit of knowing the footage exists so it could be done. I therefore beseech anyone with even the slightest interest in this film to make their feelings known to @warnerbros and @warnerarchive to #releasethefuriecut and see the full extent of his much-maligned vision. We owe it to ourselves as Superman fans but we also owe it to a Director who suffered the humiliation of having 45minutes cut from his picture, leaving an incoherent mess.
Alongside the campaign for the release, hopefully you will have heard my ramblings on the @thecapedwonderpodcast, #releasethefuriecut on Twitter, and the amazing restoration work done by @aaronprice. I will be writing a separate post on that topic shortly but meantime, all these efforts have not gone unnoticed by the man himself, who, at 88 is still going strong and recently posted in response to seeing what can be achieved with modern VFX with “This is wonderful – if only we had this kind of technology back then…”
As the very proud custodian of the ‘Big Red Book’, any follower of SUPERMANIA will be aware of my affinity for the UK national treasure that is Martin Asbury. Most notable for his long-running newspaper strip ‘Garth’, Asbury went on to storyboard some of the most popular movies of the last few decades, culminating in the as-yet-unreleased latest Bond film ‘No Time to Die’.
Last seen here in vintage footage working in his studio at Elstree, a catch-up with the man himself was long overdue and courtesy of Superfan Philip Hawkins, we finally got the chance to ask the burning questions in the Superman IV Live Watch Along Event. Laughingly referring to it as ‘The Greatest Film Ever Made’ Asbury’s candid and frank recollections are a fascinating insight into the production. As if this wasn’t enough, during the Zoom call another Hollywood legend logged on to contribute – Mr Harrison Ellenshaw! To hear the old friends reminiscing was a joy in itself but for Superfans there were revelations aplenty about the making of Superman IV. For example –
• Asbury was credited as concept and Matte artist but for not his main duties as storyboard artist.
• He designed the opening credits of the film under the direction of Sidney J. Furie – Clive Mantle’s credit as Nuclearman 1 was cut.
• Storyboarding was completed before the role of Nuclearman was cast, explaining why he’s drawn like the ‘Silver Surfer’
• Asbury was also the artist for the matte painting of the Volcano – it’s still in his possession and is currently used as a ramp for a catflap at his home(!) The Lava in the Volcano scene was porridge lit from below.
• Harrison Ellenshaw brought his father Peter out of retirement to help finish the Matte paintings due to the tight schedule
• According to Asbury, besides Lex Luthor’s lair, most of the sets for the film were ‘tiny’
• Sidney J. Furie couldn’t watch the test screening and sat waiting in a restaurant across from the theater. Harrison Ellenshaw said the audience were ‘throwing things at the screen’ in protest
• The test screening was a ‘rough cut’ of 134 minutes. Based on the audience response, Warner Brothers immediately ordered ‘whole reels be dropped’ to bring the runtime down.
• Even though he knew the picture was collapsing around him, Christopher Reeve ‘Never had a bad word to say about anybody’ and ‘was a very pleasant and approachable man – not grand in any way’.
• The production began shooting at Pinewood Studios as the first three had done – it was then re-located to Elstree
• Christopher Reeve suffered an allergic reaction to his new Superman costumes and came out in an uncomfortable rash all over his body
• Mark Pillow had twisted his ankle during filming so an insert showing Superman stamping on Nuclearman’s foot was shot to explain the limp.
• Nuclearman’s demise was filmed at the now-demolished Didcot Power Station and the entrance to the Boys School where Lenny is dropped off are the gates to Elstree Studios
Philip will be making an edit of the event available on Facebook shortly – I urge both Superfans and anybody with an interest in the movie business to give it a listen….