Captain America on the Silver Screen: Flying the Flag & Throwing the Shield

PrintE-mail Written by Robin Pierce Thursday, 14 July 2011

Future Imperfect - by Robin Pierce

As the world gears up for the long awaited, highly anticipated Captain America: The First Avenger, we at Starburst thought it was high time we took a closer look at the good Captain’s previous screen appearances. Although the hero himself is clad in a star spangled costume - his screen appearances have to date, been somewhat less than stellar...

The 1940s were the Golden Age of comic heroes. A vast profusion of colourful masked vigilante characters in primary coloured strips vied for space amid the lurid crime pulps in news-stands all over the United States. This material emanated almost exclusively from New York City, where the industry was largely dominated by National Periodicals who would later become popularly known simply as DC Comics.

A rival publisher was Timely Comics, who were struggling to compete with the likes of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash and Wonder Woman. Timely’s portfolio consisted of characters such as an android, capable of self combusting when exposed to air, called The Human Torch, and a mysterious aquatic hero called The Sub Mariner.

By the spring of 1940, the U.S. Congress were openly encouraging publishers to promote national patriotism as the realisation was dawning that America’s involvement in World War 2 was inevitable.

Soon, the superheroes were being used in war effort drives and propaganda. Over at DC, Superman covers often depicted the hero in a wartime setting, dealing out justice to the Axis powers, who were usually seen cowering in fear as The Man Of Steel swims toward a U-boat, or is holding Hitler by the scruff of the neck. These, however were promotional messages only and didn’t feature in the content.

Timely Comics - soon to become Marvel similarly had their character propaganda, but felt they needed something more tangible than a mere cover. They took matters a step further by frequently teaming up the Human Torch and the Sub Mariner and pitting them against the Axis. Then, in 1941 - the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created what would be the ultimate patriotic superhero.

As Joe Simon said in his biography "There had never been a truly believable villain in comics. But Adolf Hitler was alive and hated by more than half the world". Seeing Hitler as perhaps the ultimate super-villain, Simon needed to create a worthy hero who could fight for democracy and humiliate the Nazi menace.

He added exaggerated musculature on a basic drawing of a human body, and began to design the iconic outfit. "I drew a star on his chest and coloured the costume red, white and blue". The finished costume was unmistakably a loving salute to the stars and stripes of Old Glory. Simon’s first notion was to name his character "Super American" but thankfully, either sanity or the fear of litigation from DC prevailed and the name Captain America was adopted instead.

To increase the appeal of the new character, his real identity would be that of a meek and timid Army private, forever on the receiving end of scorn and derision by his commanding officer for his ineptness at even the simplest of tasks. In many respects, Steve Rogers was the Clark Kent of the battlefield. But thanks to a secret super-soldier serum delivered in "Operation Rebirth", Rogers became stronger, more agile and faster than anybody else. Armed with only a seemingly indestructible shield, he would fight alongside the troops with his young sidekick Bucky. Interestingly, the first version of the shield in the early comics was triangular, but this was changed to the circular version after complaints from a rival publisher, MLJ Comics, that it resembled the one carried by their OWN patriotic star spangled hero called The Shield. A good thing that came of this design change was that the new one could be thrown like a disc in a manoeuvre that would become Cap’s trademark and was first mentioned in a two page story by a young Stan Lee in his comics writing debut in the third issue of Captain America Comics.

The comics were a hit, but obviously having Captain America pursue Hitler himself in every story would soon get old as the war wore on. In true comics style, there would be an arch villain within the Nazi structure that even Hitler himself would eventually fear: The Red Skull, in many respects the Anti-Captain America; a twisted, demented Nazi evil genius super soldier trained by Hitler himself. And so the battle raged.

Over in Hollywood, movie serials were all the rage among the Saturday morning matinee crowd. In this pre-TV era, kids would descend on cinemas for their fix of cartoons, westerns and a serial. The serials were as a rule, 15 episode chapter plays with each episode running approximately 15 minutes. These Chapters would invariably end on a cliffhanger, with the hero in dire, life threatening peril from some kind of inescapable death trap, which the audience would have to wait a week to see resolved. The popular graphic heroes of the day were prime fodder to be turned into serials, as they already had a fan following from the kids who read the syndicated "funnies" in the daily papers and bought the comic books. Some of these characters made a spectacularly successful transition - notably Universal Studios’ Flash Gordon serials, from 1936 - 1941, Republic Studios’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941 and Columbia’s "Superman" serial in 1948.

Other established comic strip characters just didn’t seem to work out as well. Sadly, Captain America’s screen debut in the 15 part serial of the same name in 1944 paid scant regard to the character’s history and none to continuity. An oversight by Timely meant that Republic could use the likeness of the costume but weren’t obliged to observe any other part of the character’s established back story or continuity.

There is no origin, no super-soldier transformation, no Steve Rogers, no Bucky, no Red Skull - actually there aren’t even any Nazis despite the war still raging. Oddly, there isn’t a shield either. What we have is B-movie actor Dick Purcell looking overweight and downright puffy in a suit that looks at times uncomfortably tight in strange places (the mask seems to be cutting off vital circulation at times, making Purcell or his stunt double’s eyes bulge) By day, District Attorney Grant Gardner, by night... and sometimes day, Captain America - the mysterious crime fighter whose secret identity is known only to his assistant Gail Richards.

Dick Purcell as Captain America, 'nuff said...

In watching the serial for this article, the first thing that struck me was that Captain America (also as the D.A.) and his assistant seem to rack up a considerable body count with no accountability. Shoot first and ask questions later seems to be the order of the day in this two fisted tale. The hero racks up an impressive half dozen kills in the first two episodes without giving either a warning shot or a chance to surrender. In episode 3, Gail Richards shoots a gangster down at close range in cold blood on a street in broad daylight then steals his car to pursue her boss whose own car has been sabotaged. She gets pulled over by a cop, shows her credentials and is allowed to carry on - with nobody caring that she may have committed first degree murder and grand theft auto. She doesn’t think to mention it in passing either. It was a simpler time, I guess.

By the time the publishers realised that their patriotic American flag clad Axis buster was a gun toting lawless vigilante - tough - it was too late. Filming had already started and there was no money for re-shooting.

The villain is "The Scarab" played by Lionel Atwill. It’s obvious from his first appearance that he’s evil - he’s an upper crust Brit with a monocle. Dead giveaway every time. In an attempt to be futuristic and to add some science fiction into the proceedings, initially the story revolves around The Scarab’s scheme to get his hands on (and feel free to giggle here) a Dynamic Vibrator. Originally developed as a mining tool, the "Giant Vibrator" (as it’s sometimes called) is now a weapon of mass destruction. Its power has been increased so it can (and does) topple buildings. By the second episode, the focus has shifted to The Scarab’s use of an "electronic firebolt" which can melt through walls. I guess we’d call that a laser beam these days and use it as a pointer in presentations and training courses. We also have "robot controlled" trucks which can be driven remotely and monitored on a TV screen by the villains - without the use of any cameras to relay the image. As the serial continued week after week, the perils faced by our hero ranged from the super-scientific weaponry detailed above, to a "Life Restoring Machine". There were runaway tractors, bottomless pits, guillotines, explosions, collapsing skyscrapers, death rays (sorry - that was just the electronic firebolt again) shootings and more for the good Captain to contend with as he fought unerringly for truth and justice while racking up a personal body count to rival Jason Voorhees.

Morality and questionable ethics aside, and despite being primitive in execution and made on a shoestring budget (as were all of Republic’s serials of this era), Captain America does have a certain undemanding charm in its naiveté and simplistic plot. To be fair, it was never intended to be dissected, merely to be enjoyed.

The rigours of filming essentially a four hour movie in six weeks proved too much for the out-of-shape leading man, and sadly Dick Purcell succumbed to a fatal heart attack shortly after filming, just as the serial was unfolding in front of enthusiastic kids all over America.

The late Forties and Fifties were a lean time for superhero comics and a lot of the popular titles folded as sales plummeted. Captain America found himself with nobody to fight at the end of the war.

The comics industry faced the threat of censorship following the dubious "findings" of Dr Frederic Wertham which were sensationalised in the media following the publication of his book "Seduction of the Innocent". In his book, he put forward his case that comics were to blame for the sudden onrush of juvenile delinquency, and that they promoted homosexuality and deviant behaviour. DC Comics managed to keep their main three stalwarts of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman going, but with much tamer story lines. There was a brief revival of Captain America in the Fifties fighting the new enemy - Communists, but this was short lived and later tweaked to reveal that it was another operative assuming the code name of Captain America. Steve Rogers was still Missing In Action.

The industry introduced a self regulating code of ethics, and for a while, blandness reigned.

Stan Lee would re-ignite the industry in the early sixties with his creation of The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor and the self proclaimed "world’s greatest comic book" The Fantastic Four under the banner of Marvel Comics. In The Fantastic Four, he recreated Timely Comics’s Human Torch in the guise of young teen Johnny Storm, and within a few issues had reintroduced The Sub Mariner as an anti-hero, seeking revenge on the land dwellers who had accidentally destroyed his kingdom while testing atomic weapons.

It was time to revive Captain America, and he was discovered encased in ice perfectly preserved in suspended animation having bravely thwarted one last attempt by the Nazis to win the war with a remotely guided missile. Once again, the character, drawn by his original artist Jack Kirby, rode tall in the saddle and high in popularity, not only as a costumed superhero - but there was also the tragic angle of being a man out of his time.

In 1966, Marvel committed several of their stable of superhero characters to animated cartoons. This was "The Marvel Super Heroes" by Grantray-Lawrence Animation offering the exploits of Thor, Iron Man, the Sub Mariner, Hulk and Captain America on a five day rotation. Each character had 13 weekly episodes in the original broadcast format of the series. The animation was extremely limited, but extremely effective. Panels from the original comic strip would be used extensively with only an animated arm moving or the camera closing in for emphasis. This allowed the stories to be told literally as they were in their original print format - there wasn’t the budget for new scripts. This same method would be used by rivals DC to retell the Watchmen graphic novel on DVD in 2009 prior to the release of the live-action film.

Kicked off with a typically and annoyingly catchy theme song Captain America’s exploits were broadcast in colour straight to American living rooms. Starting off in the present day, Cap’s origin would be told - though curiously not until the fourth episode which flashed back to WW2 and the story of his revival in the present day was kept until episode 8. These cartoons still attract a cult nostalgic audience today.

You'll be humming this for the rest of the day...

It would be thirteen years before Cap would return to TV screen and when he did - it was dull and short lived. Captain America was, thankfully a failed pilot for a TV series which was never made. Reb Brown took the role of ex-marine Steve Rogers, a present day drifter and artist who, in the parlance of the times, just wants to kick back and stay loose.

His father was the original Captain America, though once again there would be a drift from the source material. Steve Rogers senior took the FLAG serum (Full Latent Ability Gain) to enhance his abilities to nearly 100% (the rest of us scrape by on 33%) and was mockingly called "Captain America" by his enemies who eventually murdered him. There’s no hint whether he was involved with the war effort.

Predictably for TV movies of this period, Rogers is reluctant to have his nomadic lifestyle interrupted by becoming a costumed hero, but following an accident, reluctantly has the FLAG serum injected and then reluctantly foils a plot to steal a billion dollars worth of gold from the International Gold Repository in Phoenix, Arizona. While doing this, he wears a red, white and blue costume that looks nothing like the familiar one we’re used, to with a shield made out of jet age plastic.... until one shot before the credits roll. All in all, a dull and plodding non-event.

Reb Brown returned to the role in a sequel that same year called "Captain America 2: Death Too Soon" which seemed to prophesise the chances of the concept ever going to a full series alongside fellow Marvel creations the long lived Incredible Hulk and the short lived Spider-Man. Further plans to develop the series were thankfully dropped.

The "Patriot's Pizza" chain never did take off...

Let’s fast forward to the end of the Eighties. 1989 to be precise. Tim Burton had directed Batman, which was the "must see" blockbuster of that summer, out grossing even James Cameron’s The Abyss, and was the lynch pin of the Dark Knight’s fiftieth anniversary. Superheroes were once again bankable box office. Marvel had an easily identifiable character who was coming up to HIS fiftieth year, and after an era of being the lesser company when it came to cinematic adaptations Marvel decided to go all-out on a proper Captain America movie to be released theatrically in 1991.

This production was troubled from the very start. No big companies like Warners or Paramount involved - just the humble and cash strapped 21st Century releasing. No Richard Donner or Tim Burton in the director’s chair - but Albert Pyun, a director frequently compared to Edward Wood Junior, whose completed movies (which were few and far between back then) usually went straight to video.

Writing the script was Stephen Tolkin, who openly admitted he was no fan of superhero stories. With this attitude, he constructed a story line which dispensed with Captain America for the bulk of the film. Steve Rogers is only seen in the uniform at the beginning and end of the movie. However downplayed the comics angle is, though - the film was the most faithful enactment of the source material to date. However despite its accuracy, there are glaring problems in the movie.

Opening in Italy in the mid Thirties, a young child prodigy is kidnapped by the Nazis and experimented upon, becoming the disfigured Red Skull. The origin of Captain America a few years later is also, by and large the same as in the comics. Matt Salinger (son of reclusive author J.D.Salinger) takes the role of Steve Rogers. It was originally planned to have the part of Captain America played by a more muscular double (as had happened with Michael Keaton as Batman in all the action scenes and long shots) but Salinger’s 6’4 frame was deemed as fitting the bill (as well as the costume). Even to the point of using his Frisbee skills to throw the shield with accuracy.

One problem with the costume was the ears - Cap’s ears are exposed at the sides of the full head mask. This made Salinger’s ears stick out comically. A fix was put in place where prosthetic ears were stuck to the side of the mask over Salinger’s real ones. The effect is hilariously distracting. Once you notice them, you just can’t stop.

All the better to hear you with my dear...

Captain America’s first mission is to foil the plans of the Red Skull, who at this point is a grown adult, despite being a child seven years earlier. This would make him history’s stroppiest teenager. The Skull plans to destroy Washington with a large guided missile, bringing victory to the Axis. Cap is caught and tied to the missile, which he manages to divert to Alaska where it lands safely (or so we assume because we don’t hear any more about it). Our hero is frozen in the ice until the (then) present day. So, in the film, Captain America’s first wartime mission is also his last. As far as we know, no search was ever made for him.

Despite it’s miserably low budget, the film attracted some genre names to the cast. Darren McGavin, Bill Mumy, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox all featured. The role of the Red Skull was taken by Scott Paulin and he, despite some superb prosthetics to give him the requisite comic book look during the wartime years, in line with Tolkin’s script and "none of that comic strip nonsense" sensibilities has had reconstructive surgery so he essentially looks just like any other gangster with scars.

The film has as it’s plot - and I’m not kidding here - The Red Skull kidnapping the President of the USA as part of a sub plot designed to ram home a politically correct message about environmental awareness issues.

Despite teaser poster campaign promoting the impending release of the feature in the summer of ‘91, it never came to pass. Stan Lee as executive producer was anxiously writing damage control editorials which assured everybody that everything was fine, in fact, they were improving on perfection. As Lee said at the time: "Director Albert Pyun did it so well and excitingly that everyone in the preview audience kept clamouring for more". It is, of course, improbable to say the least that reshoots would be ordered to improve something that didn’t need it, despite Stan "The Man" Lee’s enthusiastic tact and diplomacy. Lee has since understandably distanced himself from this production.

Many have deemed it unreleasable, and it was thus quietly relegated to a direct to VHS release. There has been an official DVD release, but sadly this seems to have been taken from the VHS release, with a washed out picture and a mono soundtrack. There are no plans for an upgraded release of the film at the time of writing.

Captain America: The First Avenger roars into cinemas, hopefully with the character not only righting the wrongs in wartime Europe as he faces the forces of the Red Skull, but also the wrongs done to the character himself on film since the war years.

The New Cap - Check out the other posters here

Optimism is high for justice to be finally done. We know the origin story will be told and we know the first film is set in the proper time. A well timed "pause" on the deleted scenes of The Incredible Hulk DVD hint that he will be frozen. A scene set in the frozen waste very briefly shows the familiar uniform in the ice. Whether this reveals there was an idea to have The Hulk unwittingly release Cap from his icy tomb remains to be seen, but it’s fun to speculate. What we do know is that he will feature in The Avengers in a year’s time, which is already tipped to be the biggest superhero blockbuster ever.

So, we can look forward with confidence to better times ahead for the good Captain. All together now, from the cartoon series... "When Captain America throws his mighty shield, all those who chose to oppose his shield must yield".

scroll back to top


+1 #1 Mr Cheese 2011-07-17 02:09
Goddamnit! If I don't stop humming that infernal theme tune in the next half hour I'm coming for you Pierce! :) Only joking, great article, never realised that Cap' had been in so much drivel (loving the "Freedom Mobile"). Thanks again Robin one of the highlights of my month

Add comment

Security code

Sign up today!