America and the UK have a ‘special relationship’ when it comes to making movies. In the late 1980s, Stanley Kubrick turned London’s Docklands into a battle-scarred Vietnam for Full Metal Jacket. Then the crime-ridden Gotham City was erected on the backlot of Pinewood Studios in the county of Buckinghamshire, for Tim Burton’s Batman.
Around the same time, in a different part of the county, another U.S. location was being faked. This time the effect was less impressive. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace had landed in the town of Milton Keynes, bringing with it stars Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Gene Hackman.
Clark Kent’s Metropolis was a throbbing urban center. Milton Keynes was a “garden city” known for its sculptures of concrete cows. Nevertheless, producers The Cannon Group, Inc. wanted to pull off an optical illusion on a massive scale. The company was ridiculed for the decision, but then Cannon bosses (and cousins) Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were known for taking risks.
Interviewed in 2013 for the A.V. Club, actor Jon Cryer (Lenny Luthor) talked about his time on set for the unique production:
“They were running out of money, but I didn’t know that. I just noticed little things, like the craft-service table got more and more meager. And they took less and less time every day. We would get props that were especially, uh, crappy. But I was still having a blast, and working with Gene Hackman was so much fun.”
Their style was more akin to the great budget-jugglers of filmmaking, such as Roger Corman. Numbers tended to go down on a Golan-Globus production, not up. The spare cash would then be channeled into other big screen projects.
Reeve had also experienced the Group’s approach while filming the thriller Street Smart. He criticized Golan over his cutting of corners. The flamboyant movie mogul did not appreciate being pulled up by his lead actor.
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Cannon’s most ambitious gambit was to convince cinema goers that an industrial complex in England was actually the UN Plaza in New York. The sequence was key to the storyline, which Reeve helped devise, and involved Superman imploring the leaders of the world to give up on nuclear weapons.
This anti-nuke message was important to Reeve, who was never that keen on making Superman IV in the first place. Golan and Globus had attracted him by offering to fund Street Smart.
Unfortunately, the thoughtful subject matter was lost in a muddled narrative which suffered in the edit suite. Villain Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) failed to match up to adversaries of old and Reeve was left disappointed at the lack of genuine locations, as he recalled in his 1999 memoir Still Me:
“(Instead) we had to shoot at an industrial park in England in the rain with about a hundred extras, not a car in sight, and a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere. Even if the story had been brilliant, I don’t think that we could ever have lived up to the audience’s expectations with this approach.”
Despite the critical mauling and commercial underperformance, the film has its admirers. The Milton Keynes filming was celebrated in 2016 by artist Richard DeDomenici, who marked the 30th anniversary by reshooting key scenes, including that at the UN. Even original bit part players were featured.
This positivity is reflected on the website of the Milton Keynes Citizen: “The movie is much maligned by critics and was once named in Time magazine’s Top 10 Worst Superhero Sequels. But it will always have a special place in MK’s history and very much helped put us on the map.”
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These days low budget film is helped immeasurably by CGI, and if Cannon had access to such resources they may well have salvaged their imaginary city. As it stands, Superman IV is an amusing relic of a bygone era, where the emphasis was on putting on a show, no matter how threadbare the circus tent.
Steve Palace is a writer, journalist and comedian from the UK. Sites he contributes to include The Vintage News, Art Knews Magazine and The Hollywood News. His short fiction has been published as part of the Iris Wildthyme range from Obverse Books.