Fates Worse Than Death: Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion

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A rash of hijackings and acts of sabotage plagues the trucking industry. Because these crimes are disrupting not only regular business shipping but the transport of sensitive military technologies, the government steps in to investigate. The heads of the four big trucking lines that make up the Interstate Truck Owners’ Association meet in their office with special agent Hal Duncan (Walter Reed). With his assistant Sam Bradley (John Pickard), Hal tries to get to the bottom of the mystery by riding along, tracking the hijackers, and gathering evidence.

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Little does he know that the mysterious “Chief” to whom the hijackers report is one of the four bosses of the Association! The Chief meets with his henchmen behind a mirror of one-way glass in an anonymous office: even they do not know his real identity (and neither do we, until the last chapter, although it isn’t hard to guess). Hal soon realizes what is going on when the hijackers are able to coordinate attacks based on information that only the four bosses have. He can only trust his partner Sam, the Association’s secretary Kay Roberts (Mary Ellen Kay), and his gut, but he’s determined to find out the truth in the 1951 serial Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion!

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Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion is on the shorter side (under three hours), which seems typical of the serials Republic was producing in the early 1950s. I’ve compared the serials from the ’50s unfavorably to those from the ’30s for being simplistic and routine, even when dealing with fantastical concepts, but Government Agents held my interest with well-done action and effects. Stuntmen Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel are onboard to coordinate some excellent fights, including an inventive, acrobatic brawl that takes place on a dock; without overstating it, this and other fights reminded me of the choreographed, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink fights of Jackie Chan’s oeuvre. The effects and miniatures are courtesy of the Lydecker brothers, those workhorses of Republic’s model shop, showing why they were legendary in the business (although water effects continue to be one area in which the small scale is clear on screen: below a certain size, waves and splashes just don’t look right, even when slow motion is used). And although there isn’t a cast of thousands, the number of characters isn’t so small that the world of the story feels too small.

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I enjoyed Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion well enough, but it’s hard not to detect a bit of bait-and-switch in its gloriously clumsy title (not to be confused with 1949’s Federal Agents vs. Underworld, Inc. or 1953’s Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders) and the proto-Drew Struzan-style poster, which suggests sci-fi with a side of superheroics. Well, there are government agents in the serial, and the atom-age symbolism is justified by the presence of refined uranium, radar equipment, and electronics being among the goods the truck hijackers are stealing, but that high-tech equipment is for the government: it never actually sees use on screen. The real meat of the action–car chases, fist- and gunfights, traps and cave-ins and explosions–could have been filmed at any time in the previous two decades. (Even the perils that could be termed science-fictional–capsules of poison gas, hidden radio transmitters for eavesdropping, a truck driven by remote control–were being featured in the serials of the 1930s.)

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And what of the “foreign government” the Chief is selling his plunder to? I wonder which government that could be? Like the pre-war serials, Government Agents is coy about naming names, or even ideologies: the uranium, hand grenades, and other goods are necessary for American “defense,” but the Chief’s interest in it is purely monetary. What his foreign customers plan to do with it isn’t his problem. The two main thugs, Regan and Cady (played by Dick Curtis and Fred Coby), might as well be working for the invading Lunarians of Radar Men From the Moon for all their activities reflect any real-world context. On the other hand, of course it wasn’t necessary to name names for the audience to get it, and more explicit references would have both detracted from the serial’s escapist quality and dated the material quickly.

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Although the villains’ organization is never referred to as the “Phantom Legion” within the story, it’s an accurate description of the group, so shadowy that even its members don’t know who their leader is, their actions cloaked in mystery so that the heroes never know from which direction the next strike will come. It’s also worth calling attention to the frequency with which that word, “phantom,” is used in serials and pulps: how fitting that entertainments that reflected popular unease and political paranoia, but rarely named their targets specifically, would cast their villains as invisible, pervasive, and essentially unknowable sources of evil. A serial could tease fears that villains were out there, perhaps hiding behind the faces of friends or acquaintances, but that by their nature they would eventually be conquered by goodness, law, and order. I’m certain that it was with an awareness of the word’s connotations and history within the genre that George Lucas chose the much-ridiculed title “The Phantom Menace” for his Star Wars prequel, which also delved into the political conspiracy at the root of his imagined Galactic Empire.

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Finally, the rather mundane plot makes some of the crazier set pieces all the more surprising: in Chapter Three (“The Death Trap”), Hal needs to stop a train before it rolls over a section of the track that has been rigged with dynamite. He has little time to spare, so he . . . charters a plane? Yes! And then when he has Sam buzz the train to convince the engineer to put the brakes on, the engineer waves them off, thinking they’re joyriding, so he . . . jumps out of the plane in front of the speeding train! Well, what would you do? The cliffhanger at the end of the chapter shows the train rumbling over the parachute laid across the tracks. Other chapters include a mine tunnel race on handcars; an out of control speedboat; and a stolen gas tanker used to create a trail of fire on the road. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but it’s rarely boring.

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What I Watched: Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion (Republic, 1951)

Where I Watched It: A DVD from Cheezy Flicks

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: There were several good chapter titles, including “Doorway to Doom,” “Sea Saboteurs,” and “Perilous Plunge” (what can I say, I’m a sucker for alliteration), but I’ll give the award to Chapter Five, “Deadline for Disaster” (alliteration!).

Best Cliffhanger: There’s quite a bit of vehicular mayhem in this serial, fitting for a case involving hijacked trucks. It’s a tough call, but I’m going to single out Chapter Six, “Mechanical Homicide” (another great chapter title, weakened only by the fact that it doesn’t involve a robot). One of the trucking bosses, Crandall (Arthur Space, whom we last saw in Panther Girl of the Kongo) is planning to defend all of his shipments with armed guards, a decision that puts him in the crosshairs of the Chief and his criminal organization. The Chief has Regan and Cady attach a remote control device to one of the trucks they’ve stolen, with instructions to fill it with explosives and ram it into Crandall’s home, killing him. Hal spots the pair testing the remote control truck and confronts them; after a struggle he is knocked out and locked in the truck’s cab, so that he will be eliminated at the same time as Crandall. With Regan controlling it from outside, Hal can’t stop the truck even after he comes to and realizes what is happening. Through shots from the speeding truck’s POV, the audience sees what Hal sees, swerving through Crandall’s upscale neighborhood, straight toward his house. The chapter ends with the truck bomb slamming into Crandall’s house (or does it?), resulting in an enormous explosion (one of many in this serial).

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Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: No one chapter stands out, but the resolution to “Mechanical Homicide” is typical: in the next chapter, a shot of Hal jumping out of the cab just in time is included, and it’s revealed at the next meeting of the Association that Crandall is alive and well, the truck having only hit his garage. As I said, several cliffhangers involve crashes or explosions of one kind or another, and inevitably Hal is saved by leaping out of the way at the last minute. This was standard operating procedure for Republic by this time.

Sample Dialogue: “This is the soap powder you boys have been looking for, but I don’t think you want it–it really is soap!” –Sam, after Hal has tricked Regan and Cady into hijacking a shipment with disinformation that uranium has been disguised as soap (Chapter Nine, “Peril Underground”)

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What Others Have Said: “Almost always in serial fights, the stuntmen wore hats, fastened to their heads by elastic bands, screening their faces so that telling them from the actors they represented was difficult. (That also answers the question: Why don’t their hats fall off during a fight?)” –Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s Next: As promised, next week I’ll look at The Green Hornet Strikes Again.

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