The Dark Knight is setting cinemas alight all over the world, but, as Kim Newman discovers, there are other Batman movies that aren’t quite so well known… James Batman – which crosses the caped crusader with suave spy James Bond – probably didn’t attract much Oscar buzz, nor was the word “masterpiece” mentioned in its reviews, but for completists, is it worth seeing? Does the Filipino film industry’s flouting of international copyright law deliver a treat? Read on to find out…
So, riddle me this, trivia-hounds, can you name all the actors who’ve played James Bond or Batman in the movies? Including the likes of David Niven in the first Casino Royale and Lewis Wilson in the 1943 Batman serial? Well, dynamic dunderheads, did you know one actor has not only played Batman and James Bond but did so in the same film?
Step forward Rodolfo Vera Quizon (always billed as ‘Dolphy’), the Peter Sellers or Roberto Benigni of the Philippines. Or maybe the Benny Hill or Don Knotts. Dolphy takes the two roles (three, if you count the ‘Bruce Wayne’ part separately) in the 1966 Tagalog-language multi-hero spoof James Batman — which, with apologies to Christian Bale and Daniel Craig, is one of the darnedest things I’ve ever seen.
Evidently the Filipino film industry of the 1960s deemed itself outside the reach of international copyright lawyers, and laughed maniacally at the cold-eyed franchise guardians of Eon Productions, 20th Century Fox and DC Comics, not to mention the Performing Rights Society folks collecting royalties for composers Monty Norman and Neal Hefti — the familiar ‘Bond’ and ‘Batman’ tunes are played many times in James Batman in what sound like garage band arrangements.
As the title suggests, director Artemio Martez is managing a quick-off-the-mark combined parody of the ‘Sean Connery is Ian Fleming‘s James Bond’ saga initiated by Dr No and the Adam West–Burt Ward pop art/camp Batman TV series which debuted in 1965. The runaway world-wide successes inspired filmmakers everywhere to try and get in on the action with imitations and parodies.
Of course, the funny fellows blithely ignored the fact that the 007 films stopped taking themselves seriously around the time 007 wore a duck decoy hat (Goldfinger, 1964) and the Batman show was always a send-up of the comic book and movie serial hero. So, this means that parodies have to go really broad in search of laughs. When Dolphy’s Batman gets his tights pulled down during a cliffhanger, he is accompanied by the da-na-da-na-da-na Batman theme with a mocking ‘wah-wah’ instead of the traditional ‘Bat-man’; and when his Bond gorily stabs an arch-villain, he pokes his tongue out rudely at the dying crook.
My Tagalog is a little rusty, but the plot is fairly easy to follow. A bearded Chinese criminal representing ‘the Organisation’, who could as easily be Fu Manchu or Dr No (though he looks most like Iron Man’s comics nemesis, the Mandarin), strides into a meeting of a Pan-Asian United Nations-type set-up and reads out a list of demands and threats from a scroll. He illustrates this with stock footage from 1950s atomic tests and what I presume is newsreel material of the aftermath of a Pacific typhoon or hurricane, cackles in the approved master-fiend manner, and zaps someone with an electrical arc from his fingernail.
Weirdly, this promising baddie fails to reappear, though the Organisation also employs the Penguin (or a thinner, tougher, cigar-smoking variation thereof), a Catwoman lookalike who is apparently a Chinese movie villainess called the Black Rose, a sunglasses-sporting sniper with a mace for a hand, a hooded and partially metal-headed nasty called Drago whose chair is a giant hand with raygun fingers which can be slowly aimed and fired at those who displease him, and a horde of cowled, machine-gun-toting babes with plunging neckline mini-dresses.
The venerable Chairman, whose younger daughter Shirley (Shirley Moreno) has a crush on Batman (a picture of Adam West), is so concerned at the threats of the Organisation that he calls in Bond and Batman, who one-up each other in a split-screen shot and each childishly insist they should be given the solo mission. Later, in a frankly bonkers plot twist, the Chairman himself turns out to be behind the Organisation’s nuclear plot, which allows for a poignant moment as Shirley pleads with him not to pull the lever that sets off the big bomb but begs the question of why he bothers to order the two comical but surprisingly efficient superheroes to defeat his own plan.
The heroes wear parody-of-a-parody outfits: Bond isn’t in the tux usually associated with the character but a hideous check suit and hat (in one bedroom scene, they match a quilt) which riffs on the tweedy Brit-abroad outfits Connery occasionally sports in the early films; and Batman has baggy tights, a chest symbol which seems to be a silhouette of a girl with a feather boa and a floppy cowl/stripey cape combo which isn’t that much sillier than the ’40s look. Robin (Boy Alano) looks as if he’s wearing a commercially-available Burt Ward costume, but hasn’t got much to do in a movie where the hero can play his own sidekick. The budget runs to a fairly cool four-door stretch Batmobile with spindly fins, gadgets like a fork with a radio aerial and a computerised bat-device from which a Thing-like disembodied hand dispenses pre-crimefight snacks (bananas, mostly).
Most of the film consists of knockabout action comedy — Bond is canoodling with a slinky villainess but doesn’t notice her shooting him several times in the chest because he is wearing a bullet-proof vest, and later loses his swimming trunks while fleeing hordes of gunmen and is bitten on the bum by a centipede in the palm-leaf he uses to cover himself. He then pretends he’s hurt worse than he is to get sympathy from a nurse and the other good guys. In fact, both Bond and Batman are such whiny dolts that a cooler, better-looking agent (the real James Bond?) and Robin’s karate expert girlfriend show up to help in the busy climax.
After it’s over, everybody gets a girl but Bond, who is pursued by a goofy-looking character in a Batwoman outfit and comically hops off as if chased by Pepe le Pew (‘ugly’ women with ‘ridiculous’ desires for frankly equally gruesome-looking men remain figures of fun in gross-out comedies of all nations to this day, so this instance of horrible misogyny isn’t really unusual).
From a non-Filippino point of view, the strangest thing about James Batman is that it keeps turning oddly serious. After the comedy murder attempt, this goofy Bond roughs up a hit-woman in a sexualised way even Sean Connery would have thought ungentlemanly, stopping only just short of rape. The villainess is then taken to a police station where her low-cut dress excites Basic Instinct-like interest from goony cops who absent-mindedly shove cigarettes up their noses or drink from saucers while ogling her breasts (along with the camera).
Because the melées are shot in black and white on real locations (with thump noises but no ‘Zap Pow Bam’ captions) makes the karate fights seem more like the straight action of the ’40s serials than the stylised silliness of the camp crusaders — Bond vs the Penguin is especially brutal, but a pile of thugs drop a net on and then kick the helpless Batman and Robin as if acting out the wish-fulfilment fantasies of all those bonked, zapped and powed extras in the TV show. The mood swings take the edge off the Third World-level production values, and it’s all bizarrely fascinating. I can honestly say I enjoyed it more than two Joel Schumacher Batmans and most Roger Moore–Pierce Brosnan Bonds.
For the record, there’s more out there. Dolphy played ‘Agent 1-2-3’ in a string of films (Dr Yes, Dolphinger, etc) and remains a major star in his home territory (unlike, say, Adam West), but he wasn’t in the 1993 Filipino musical comedy Alyas Batman y Robin. Sadly, Batman Fights Dracula (1967), a perhaps-serious Filipino cross-genre movie which vaults to the top of my ‘must see’ list, seems to be as lost as Andy Warhol‘s similarly-titled Batman Dracula (1964).
Meanwhile, if you need a bigger bat-fix, there’s La Verdadera Historia de Barman y Droguin, Superbatman vs Mazinga V, La Mujer Murcielago, Bat Bitch, Splatman (which features a villain called the Pornguin), Buttman and Throbbin, Rat Pfink and Boo-Boo, The Wild World of Batwoman (aka She Was a Hippie Vampire), Bathman dal Pianeta Eros, the short Robin’s Big Date (with Sam Rockwell as Batman) and Scooby-Doo Meets Batman, which is the only entry in this list authorised by DC Comics.