Review: James Batman, I’m not Kidding

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this: I’ve never seen E.T. I’ve picked it up of course. It’s a cultural touchstone, and the defining movie of the Spielberg era. I just figured Steven Spielberg didn’t need my eight bucks.

I think I might be a contrarian. Sometimes where everyone else Zigs, I Zag. It’s not a point of pride. I’m not out there in a black trenchcoat, pontificating about how much better I am than all the heathen masses. Sometimes I just don’t feel the need to follow the crowd.

And I find I’m interested in the hidden gems, the diamonds in the rough, the obscure beauties, flowers growing in the concrete. There’s a gentle sweetness to these discoveries, I want to share them, not crow over them.

Which brings me to one of the stranger things I’ve run across lately: James Batman, a full length black and white Batman movie, also starring James Bond, made in 1966, currently available on Youtube, in subtitles and everything.

Let me tell you, I was shocked at the existence of this movie, and I’ve watched the Mexican Batwoman, Turkish Star Wars and Turkish Star Trek, among many other cinematic oddities. But I’d, honest to god, never even heard of this. So I was thrilled to discover it, and to be able to watch it.

It continually amazes me the sheer volume of culture we have access too now. I remember watching Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein from 1910, and being astonished, because that had been a lost film for decades.

James Batman, like its brethren, amounts to a local cash in. In 1966, the Adam West Batman series was a worldwide camp sensation, as was the slightly more serious James Bond. So some Filipino entrepreneur decided to cash in on the crazes by mashing them together, and because the situation of copyright was rather more fluid in other parts of the world, he got away with it.

Simple as that. American culture spread across the world, and sometimes it got reflected back in distorted funhouse productions.

There’s a whole hidden world of illicit Batman movies, particularly in the Philippines: Alyas Batman and Robin was another Tagalog language movie that had come out in 1965, the year before. Batman Fights Dracula, also Philippines, came out the year after 1967. There was a late follow up, Batwoman and Robin Meet the Queen of the Vampires, from 1972. In 1991, triggered by the Tim Burton movie, there was a musical version of Alyas Batman and Robin, this one with the Joker and Penguin in 1991. A lot of these earlier movies are now lost, which is a shame.

Meanwhile, Mexico gave us Batwoman in 1968. I’ve actually seen that one. The Turks sprung Batgirl (Ucan Kiz) in 1972 and Batman (Bedman) in 1973.

Why was Batman so popular in the Philippines? Partly because the Philippines had been an American colony up to 1946, so they were likely exposed to and part of American comic book culture at its inception. Even after, the Philippines continued to have a lively comic book culture into the 1980’s, and many Filipino comic artists found success in American comics. So Batman and superheros have a legitimate claim to being part of Filipino culture.

The other part was of course the spectacular worldwide success of Adam West’s Batman series, whose combination of camp and action really set everyone on its ear.

Believe it or not, James Batman was a serious film. Not serious in the sense that it’s a flat out action comedy, but serious in the sense that this was a real production by people with a long history in the business who knew exactly what they were doing.

It was produced by Sampaguita Pictures, a Filipino film production company which appears to have been active between 1937 and 1980, primarily serving the local market. It starred Rodolfo Vera Quizon Sr., who also went by the name Dolphy, who had a fifty year career as one of the most popular comedians in his country. Dolphy played both Batman, Batman’s secret identity Dolpho and James Bond in the film, which I’m sure must have been complicated. Boy Alano who played Robin, as well as Robin’s secret identity, also named Robin, and Shirley Moreno who played the love interest, also named Shirley, are both very well established actors.

Okay, apart from goofiness with names, this was a professional piece of work, even polished in some ways. I think nowadays, we sometimes get a little too used to these sorts of movies being made on the narrow margins of poverty row productions shot in people’s backyards with a bare minimum of cast, crew and competence. In contrast, this was the product of a very competent and well established Filipino movie industry, they knew what they were doing and this was just something they did in the course of long careers.

Now, to be sure, this is not high art. It’s pretty lowbrow, slapstick comedy, the sort of thing you might see at a drive-in during the 1970’s. I can imagine my father’s wheezing laughter at some of the scenes.  And while some things are well done, there’s a lot of rough edges.

But it’s fun.

After a couple of quick intro action sequences with both Bond and Batman, the basic story focuses on one of those generic evil communist organizations called CLAW, led by a Fu Manchu knockoff called Drago. I’m not sure if CLAW is an acronym for something, but even if so, it probably doesn’t translate from Tagalog. CLAW’s headquarters features a giant hand that they use to execute people, when the finger curl up, it shoots lightning and disintegrates people to death. Personally, I’d just shoot them, but I suppose if you’re an evil organization, you have to keep up appearances.

Anyway, the Fu Manchu character makes some tedious speech about how he’s going to destroy the free world with atomic bombs or death rays or something, unless they surrender to communism. So the Chairman of the Free World, or the ‘NIB’ summons Batman and James Bond and assigns them a mission to stop CLAW.

And that’s about as much story as we get.

Honestly, it feels like it was written by an eight year old, because there isn’t actually a narrative per se. Now, normally, you would expect that would involve gathering clues, interrogating suspects, putting things together, and actually having events build towards a climax. We don’t’ really get that. Instead, we get a breathless succession of events, “And then Batman gets in a fight! And then James Bond kisses a girl! And then Batman gets in another fight!”   Okay, not quite that bad, but close.

The movie becomes a succession of events. Batman and Robin don’t have to track down the villains, because the villains are always finding and attacking them. James Bond doesn’t do any spying or seducing, because the femme fatales seek him out. So rather than progression, we get set pieces that alternate between slapstick comedy and surprisingly well done action sequences.

Obviously, since the same actor, Dolphy, plays both Batman and Bond, they don’t do a lot of teaming up. This version of Bond wanders around in a hideous plaid jacket, which at first I thought was just appalling 1960’s tastes. But then I realized it wasn’t plaid, it was tartan. Bond is Scottish, so of course to demonstrate that, they give him a tartan jacket. In fact, in the bedroom seen, everything is tartan, including the curtains and bedspread.

Apart from bad taste, Dolphy’s Bond is pretty typical – he meets the femme fatale, seduces her, and during a romantic clinch, she shoots him several times point blank. Luckily, he wears a bulletproof vest to bed, talk about safe sex. Later on there’s an idyllic scene at the beach, also with a treacherous femme fatale, where Bond is ambushed. Luckily, he escapes by sneaking away under a huge palm leaf but gets bitten in the ass by a centipede. Which leads to an awkward visit to the hospital, and eventually getting captured by the bad guys.

More of the movie is devoted to Batman and Robin. In this version, they’re brothers, which gets us away from the whole weird grown man and his teenage… partner thing that Charles Moulton got so excited about. This version of Batman has a black and white striped cape, which comes off better than it has any right too, and occasionally the bat ears on his cowl are floppy and bent. He’s got a fairly good Batmobile, a regular black convertible with extended tail fins.

This Batman is a bit of a goof, thin skinned and prone to one upmanship around Bond. His best scenes are when he and Robin are having lunch in the Batcave, using the bat gadgets for bananas and spicing things up, and communicating through an extendable fork. Dolphy’s comic skills are evident when he casually wipes his mouth on Robin’s cape.

Batman and Robin also have a couple of quite well choreographed fight sequences, as CLAW sends hordes of assassins. Well choreographed by 1960’s standards, of course, not by modern martial arts and wire work standards. But for it’s time pretty good, the action is lively, the actors are committed, the movement is fluid and it makes good use of the space.

Call out to one scene where Batman is hanging off a balcony, and Robin is hanging off Batman, where they apparently got Dolphy and Boy, or at least the stunt men, to do it for real, with a long shot of a pair of men dangling from the upper floors of a Manila apartment building. Philippines movie making was sometimes kind of wild west, where they made their stunts realistic by actually doing them, actually dropping buildings on people or setting them on fire. So there’s a good chance that people were actually risking their lives for that scene.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to call it a subplot, because that would imply an actual plot, but frustrated by the failure of his henchmen, the Fu Manchu wannabe who runs CLAW brings in a some high level operatives. There’s a guy who looks like a Young Elvis impersonator, with a metal hand and a machine gun instead of a guitar, who is called Joker, albeit no resemblance to the comics.. Another a gentleman in a tuxedo and top hat who is supposed to be the Penguin, but actually reminds me of the Monopoly Money Man. Finally, there is a fem fatale in a slinky catsuit with a boob window who goes by Black Rose, because… Catwoman was too obscure?

The Black Rose sends her army of fetishistic girls with hoods and amazingly low cut blouses to capture Shirley, the younger daughter of the Chairman of the Free World, after which Batman and Robin get caught. These scenes by the way, feature a lot of the iconic Bond ‘thigh shots’ where the camera image is framed between a woman’s thighs. There’s one shot where the woman actually lifts her dress for the shot, where I can’t decide if it was a gag, or just the exigencies of trying to get the fetish shot.

All of this culminates at the headquarters of CLAW, where the destruction of the free world is foiled, not by our heroes, but by an undercover agent who has infiltrated claw, played by what seems to be a Filipino matinee idol. This kid is good looking, he exudes ‘movie star.’ Unfortunately, I’m not knowledgeable about 1960’s era Philippine movie stars to tell you who he is, or what his oeuvre is. But just in his presence and the way he’s shot, you can almost hear the teenage girls in the audience gasping and swooning.

Anyway, he rescues our heroes, and this leads to the big epic final battle which takes up over 15 minutes of the 95 minute running time, literally a sixth of the movie, where literally every good character battles it out with literally every bad character.

This final battle is amazingly well done, they apparently found a cement factory to shoot at, and they shot while the place is running full tilt, so the action is going on with all these giant machines, drums, rotors, rotors and conveyers, all turning away. I’m sure if that if the Philippine movie industry had anything like health and safety going on, those guys would have had conniptions. Honest to god, some of those shots with live heavy machinery in action, the actors are so close it looks like they could have been killed if they’d stumbled the wrong way.

But as it is, you have these massive industrial machines rumbling away in ceaseless motion, plumes of dust, and this really complicated landscape of ledges, catwalks and chutes which make for really interesting camera angles, makes for a series of extraordinary action sequences. I think they clearly knew they had something special with the location. It’s not just long, the production really goes to town, not just shooting, but continually going above and beyond for interesting shots, and fights which incorporate the geography of the space and that are often prescient of Jackie Chan’s fluid battles. Characters dive in and out of shadows, clamber up stairs and ledges, ambush and duke it out, from every angle. It’s impressive.

Honestly, often when you seek out oddities like this, you have to have a certain amount of patience and be willing to meet the film half way. There’s often a forgiveness you have to bring to it. To be quite truthful I wasn’t expecting much.

I was surprised by how little I needed to forgive, and how much of it simply holds up well as a flat out entertaining movie. Sure it’s lowbrow, with the humour being the goofy sort where Batman’s super-computer hands him a banana, or James Bond is trying to get a doctor without explaining where the centipede bit him, or a scene where a femme fatale bends over in a police station and hypnotises everyone with her cleavage, in a scene that seems like a parody of basic instinct thirty years too soon.

But so what, this isn’t a Woody Allen movie, and this stuff worked just fine for its audience, it’s done with genuine comic timing. Hell, get a bunch of friends over to watch it stoned, and most of it will work today.

The pace is brisk, it never drags. There’s technical glitches, lighting and sound and stuff, but don’t worry about that. The action sequences are well done, inventively making use of scenery, employing lots of experts, and being shot with a bit of style. And as I’ve noted, the final battle royale is thoroughly epic. This is a genuinely good B-movie which adeptly combines humour and action.

So, if you’re jonesing for a caped crusader fix, you could do a lot worse. Check it out.