Fates Worse Than Death: The Adventures of Sir Galahad

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After a friendly joust between Camelot and Cornwall, an unknown knight rides forward and challenges the victors, Sir Bors and Sir Modred of Camelot. After defeating them, the stranger requests to be made one of King Arthur’s knights, and reveals that his name is Galahad. Impressed by the young knight’s skills and candor, Arthur agrees to put Galahad to the traditional test: he must stand guard over the sword Excalibur through the night. Through treachery and drugged wine, however, Galahad passes out, but not before seeing a suit of armor move! The mysterious armored knight takes the sword and escapes the castle through a secret passage. The next morning, Galahad is discovered asleep. No one believes his wild story, and Merlin himself accuses Galahad of perpetrating the theft. Even worse, the invading Saxons, led by King Ulric, are attacking! While Arthur defers punishment and Galahad is allowed to ride with the knights, he vows to find the sword and return it to Arthur to clear his name and earn his place at the Round Table.

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Thus begins the twisting plot of The Adventures of Sir Galahad, the 1949 serial from veteran director Spencer Bennet. Along with Sir Bors (also under suspicion because it was he who served the wine that incapacitated Galahad), Galahad infiltrates the Saxon camp, fights against outlaws, and must even overcome Merlin’s magic, all while trying to win over the suspicious knights of Camelot. Ultimately, the villain is the “Black Knight,” the traitor within Camelot who seeks to manipulate the Saxons and outlaws into defeating Arthur in order to claim the throne for himself. He who wields the invincible Excalibur can stand against any foe, so of course the Black Knight keeps it for himself, even while pretending to aid Ulric.

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The legends and romances that make up the Arthurian cycle are so rich and varied that film adaptations inevitably borrow what can be used and discard the rest. Often the forbidden romance between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere is featured, and the quest for the Holy Grail is another popular subject for film, tackled by both Monty Python and John Boorman. In some versions of the story, Galahad is Lancelot’s son, determined to prove himself before he reveals his identity to his father. The Adventures of Sir Galahad doesn’t deal with any of those plots, but it does an impressive job of creating an original story, combining the source material with the formal demands of a serial.

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In fact, The Adventures of Sir Galahad is unusual in its choice of setting: there are very few serials that deal with medieval or mythological settings (but see Jerry Blake’s comments below). Film studios were regularly releasing features about Arthur, Robin Hood, and other legendary figures, so sets and costumes would have been available for serials (Columbia’s The Green Archer features a castle and a Robin Hood-like character, but is set in modern times), but Galahad remained an outlier. It’s largely a successful hybrid, however: the struggle of the knight and his partner to solve the mystery and prove his innocence lends itself to the episodic rhythm of a serial; there are plenty of opportunities for fight scenes, both skirmishes and full-on battles, and the abundant swordplay makes a nice change from fistfights and shoot-outs; the disguised villain is very typical, comparable to such bad guys as the Scorpion or the Dragon (it ends up being exactly who you think it is, but still); and the frequent magical interference of Merlin (as well as Morgan le Fay, who has a few spells of her own) provide opportunities for unusual and inventive special effects and camera tricks.

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To cite just one example of the serial and fantasy worlds colliding, the cliffhanger of Chapter Eight (“Perilous Adventure”) features Galahad and an outlaw fighting in a wagon pulled by a runaway horse. The scene is identical in blocking and editing to similar fights atop trains or trucks in other serials, down to the use of rear projection, but the medieval setting puts it into a novel context.

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From a story perspective, writers George Plympton, Lewis Clay, and David Mathews also make some smart decisions: by setting Galahad against Merlin and the knights of Camelot at the beginning, the story upends expectations about good guys and bad guys: like Galahad, the audience is unsure who to trust. Merlin appears to be the villain at first; Morgan le Fay offers her own magical help, but what’s her agenda? Arthur (Nelson Leigh, seventh billed) is a distant figure, far from the center of the story. Galahad is left to his own resources, with only the dogged Sir Bors (Charles King) to provide both comic relief and the occasional voice of reason. If these versions of the characters ultimately conform to our expectations of them, it’s not without enough twists and turns to make them feel lived-in, the resolution to the story earned.

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The Adventures of Sir Galahad boasts a large cast for a serial, but the difference between serial and feature shows in the battle scenes, where one might expect hordes of extras: a dozen men on horseback is large enough to make a convincing posse or Indian war party in a Western, but when such a group is meant to represent the entire Saxon army, it’s a little puny. Galahad‘s fight scenes are more impressive when staged in close quarters (such as several fights that take place in an inn, or in mountainous terrain), hiding the small number of men involved and making the fight look more crowded. In many ways, The Adventures of Sir Galahad bears a close resemblance to the low-budget fantasy features that would become popular in the 1950s, such as Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword or the many films about Hercules or Sinbad.

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As Galahad, George Reeves (who would go on to play Superman on TV) makes a convincing hero, eager and brave, but at 35 he is more boyish (at one point a discouraged Bors calls him a puppy, “barking at nothing and chasing his own tail”) than boy (apparently a common pitfall in serial casting). Charles King plays Bors as an over-the-hill Falstaff, accustomed to big meals and the wenches who serve them, but he also becomes Galahad’s most loyal companion and, like all the knights of Camelot, will do what must be done to combat evil.

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The MVP of the cast is William Fawcett, who plays Merlin. Fawcett was the crotchety scientist Professor Hamill in Batman and Robin; he’s just as crotchety here, but with the robes and long white beard of a wizard. He’s clearly having a ball chewing the scenery, throwing flash grenades to mask his magical comings and goings, and waving his hands to cast spells. It’s no wonder Fawcett had such a long career: he’s the quintessential character actor, breathing life into a stock character and stealing every scene he’s in.

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If I could add one thing to this serial, it would be to have Galahad fight a dragon; the only monsters the knight faces are ultimately human ones. Other than that omission, there’s as much Dark Ages atmosphere as you could hope for in The Adventures of Sir Galahad, with secret passages and dungeons, sword fights, magic spells, and mighty feasts. There is even a giant crossbow! The Adventures of Sir Galahad is highly recommended to both serial and fantasy fans.

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What I Watched: The Adventures of Sir Galahad (Columbia, 1949)

Where I Watched It: I bought a batch of privately-burned DVDs of serials from a dealer on eBay, along with several others I’ll be writing about this summer. The transfer is pretty raw, but the price was right. The Adventures of Sir Galahad doesn’t appear to be available to view online.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: Not since The Perils of Pauline has a serial emphasized the perils of its cliffhangers this much: in addition to “Passage of Peril” (Chapter Six) and “Perilous Adventure” (Chapter Eight), there’s my favorite, “Castle Perilous” (Chapter Twelve).

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Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter One (“The Stolen Sword”), Morgan le Fay has directed Galahad to find answers in the Enchanted Forest; this is Merlin’s domain, from which no man has returned. As Galahad and Bors enter, they are accosted by strange voices and sounds. Merlin appears and bewitches Galahad so that he can’t move; then Galahad is grabbed by a suddenly mobile tree, while flames dance around him. It’s a pretty intense and strange cliffhanger that lets us know we’re going into the deep end of fantasy here. Alas, my hope that all of the cliffhangers would be magical or fantastic wasn’t lived up to. Some are, and there are a few medieval-specific cliffhangers, like one in which Galahad is strapped down beneath a swinging spiked ball, à la The Pit and the Pendulum; but most are the typical falls or brushes with death common to all serials. But man, that first chapter: it’s a doozy.

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Sample Dialogue:
Bors: Have you never heard it said that rashness is the father of disaster?
Galahad: True, but too much caution is the blood-brother of cowardice.
–Chapter Five, “Galahad to the Recue”

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What Others Have Said:Adventures of Sir Galahad represents its producer Sam Katzman’s second and last attempt to combine the serial and medieval-swashbuckler genres; it’s a huge improvement over Katzman’s previous effort in the same line, the shoddy and tedious Son of the Guardsman–even though Galahad and Guardsman have many sets, costumes, and actors in common.” —The Files of Jerry Blake
(I haven’t seen Son of the Guardsman yet, so I can’t make a comparison.)

What’s Next: X marks the spot! Join me next time for the generically-titled Pirate Treasure.

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Fates Worse Than Death: Captain America (1944)

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A bizarre series of deaths, some accidental and some obvious suicides, strikes at wealthy and influential men. The only connection between them is their involvement in an expedition to Central America in search of Mayan ruins, and the jeweled scarabs found in the victims’ possession. The mastermind behind the deaths, revealed to the audience in the first chapter, is Dr. Maldor, a member of the expedition who feels cheated of the glory and wealth that others have claimed. As the Scarab, Maldor is determined to take down his rivals, one by one, all the while posing as the friendly and helpful director of the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences.

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Maldor’s plan might very well succeed, but for the industrious District Attorney, Grant Gardner, and his assistant Gail Richards, who stand in Maldor’s way and get far too close to the truth in their investigations. Even worse, Maldor’s henchmen keep running afoul of the costumed crime fighter known only as Captain America. Could Gardner and Captain America be one and the same? The audience knows, but will the Scarab learn the truth, and what will he do with it?

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These days, when one reads about the 1944 Captain America serial, the focus is on its lack of fidelity to the comic books created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 and published by Timely (now Marvel) Comics. Instead of being Steve Rogers, a runty Army volunteer turned into a titan by the Super Soldier serum, the serial Captain America is Grant Gardner (played by Dick Purcell), a crusading district attorney who dons the costume to bring criminals to justice; no reference is made to his origin. Instead of wielding the iconic shield, Grant Gardner carries a gun, and he gets a lot of use out of it (in fact, considering how many bad guys Gardner kills in his civilian identity without anyone batting an eye, it’s not exactly clear why he needs to step outside of the law and put on a costume at all).

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This Captain America doesn’t even fight Nazis, all the more surprising considering the character’s explicitly patriotic concept and the serial’s wartime production. As in the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, Captain America’s foe follows the serial formula of a far-reaching (but apolitical) criminal mastermind: no Red Skull here, folks. Timely publisher Martin Goodman gave Republic the right to use the character for free (according to Marvel executive Tom Brevoort, speaking in the promotional documentary Captain America: 75 Heroic Years), likely expecting the film to boost sales of his comic books. Whether it had the desired effect, I don’t know, but one wonders what Simon and Kirby, not to mention their loyal readers, thought when they saw “Grant Gardner” going through the paces of a typical Republic adventure.

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I was aware of all that before I watched the serial, but I tried to keep an open mind: although this is an extreme example, it wasn’t unusual for serial producers to change details of their source material to fit into their standard formula, and perhaps the serial would be a success on its own terms, even as it missed the mark as an adaptation. Unfortunately, I ultimately found it tedious and repetitive, even though it had some good performances and some individual chapters that worked well. Like many fifteen-chapter serials, Captain America can’t quite sustain its length, and might have been more effective cut down.

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As both Gardner and Captain America, Dick Purcell has some personality and makes for an engaging central character, and there’s quite a bit of action (much of it supplied by longtime stunt man Dale van Sickel, who actually wore the costume for many of these sequences). He’s not really anything like what I think of as Captain America, being closer to a “cop who bends the rules” type rather than a boy scout, but free of other associations he held my attention. The sheer number of the Scarab’s henchmen that he blows away or throws out high windows, in either identity, would satisfy Charles Bronson.

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Even better is the supporting cast: played by Lorna Gray, Gail Richards is Grant Gardner’s capable assistant, and the only person who knows he’s Captain America. Although she sometimes ends up as the damsel in distress (the memorable cliffhanger in Chapter Five, “Blade of Wrath,” has her tied up and threatened with beheading by the guillotine-like blade of a paper-cutting machine), she also takes the initiative, and clearly takes after her boss. In one chapter, she catches someone tampering with Gardner’s car; when the man pulls a gun in an attempt to abduct her, she whips out her own heater and shoots him dead!

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As Dr. Maldor/The Scarab, Lionel Atwill is the very model of a plummy, cultured villain, complete with monocle. Using the “Purple Death,” he can make men do his bidding or drive them to suicide. Like most serial masterminds, he works through his disposable henchmen, keeping himself at a distance from the violence until the very end. His right-hand man (and also the most active in the field) is Matson (George Lewis), but John Davidson (whom we just saw in Tailspin Tommy) also lends his deep voice to the cause of evil as the henchman Gruber.

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Maldor possesses a cutting wit, often directed at his bungling helpers. In one scene he sarcastically congratulates his henchmen: “You should be proud of yourself. Captain America has made a fool of you in every job you’ve attempted.” In a late chapter, when Maldor starts getting his hands dirty himself, he honest-to-God says “There are ways of making you talk” to the only man who knows how to decipher a Mayan treasure map, before flogging him with a cat-o-nine-tails.

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Later in the same episode, when Maldor learns that Gardner is on his way to the Scarab’s farmhouse hideout, he uses an airplane to personally drop bombs on the house in the hopes of destroying evidence of his presence and (even better) killing his nemesis at the same time (it is in fact the fifth building destroyed directly or indirectly by the Scarab in this serial, a showcase of special effects masters Theodore and Howard Lydecker’s genius). It would be nit-picky to question the efficiency or timeliness of this method. Rather, it points to the ways in which Maldor exemplifies the criminal mastermind: the true master criminal works through others, keeping the dirty work at a distance, as long as necessary; he always has multiple escape routes and alibis; and most importantly, he has the resources and the will to do whatever it takes to remove any obstacle that keeps him from his goal. If that means getting in a plane and blowing up his own hideout, so be it.

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The thread of Maldor’s vengeance against the members of the Mayan expedition is really the only thing that ties together the various episodes, giving the serial a somewhat choppy rhythm: in several chapters, Gardner/Captain America is charged with protecting or rescuing a scientist or executive whom the Scarab threatens. In some cases, that involves recovering or destroying a new invention that the Scarab wants for himself (a “vibrating engine” shakes apart a building in the first chapter; an “electronic fire bolt” allows the Scarab’s gang to cut open bank vaults to finance his operations in the next, and so on). Unfortunately, too much time is spent explaining and talking, or with anonymous henchmen setting up traps without much happening. When Purcell, Atwill, or Gray aren’t on screen, the film lags.

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What I Watched: Captain America (Republic, 1944)

Where I Watched It: The serial is on YouTube in its entirety.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: All the bases are covered by Captain America‘s chapter titles: from the poetic (“Blade of Wrath”; “The Toll of Doom”) to the bluntly literal (“Skyscraper Plunge”), the alliterative (“Triple Tragedy”; “Horror on the Highway”) and the lurid (“The Dead Man Returns”). But before Captain America was “The First Avenger,” there was “The Avenging Corpse” (Chapter Ten), my pick for Best Chapter Title.

Best Cliffhanger: Sometimes simple misdirection makes for the most effective cliffhanger. At the end of Chapter Eleven (“The Dead Man Returns”), Captain America has tracked the Scarab to an electrical laboratory, where Dr. Lyman’s Life Restoring Machine is to be used to revive Matson. As he fights with one of the Scarab’s henchmen, the two of them end up inside of the generator room, which generates the million volts necessary to charge up the machine. Another of the Scarab’s men, Dirk, throws the switch to turn it on: we see a shower of sparks and then the camera cuts to Dirk’s horrified face and we hear a chilling scream. (Of course at the beginning of the next chapter we see our hero leap out of the generator room just in time: the scream belongs to the other guy.)

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Sample Dialogue: “Mister Gardner is a brave man; I’d feel much happier if Captain America were with him.” –Professor Dodge, Chapter Three, “Scarlet Shroud”

What Others Have Said: “Sadly, Purcell died of a heart attack shortly after completing this serial at the age of 35. It was a tragic end for the man who originated the role of a nearly immortal hero (in the comics, Captain America’s died and come back to life at least three different times). Purcell’s Cap isn’t the strongest or most physically fit, but there’s something to be said for the human dimension he brought to the role.” –Matt Singer, The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies

What’s Next: Join me in two weeks as we get medieval with The Adventures of Sir Galahad!

Purple Prose, Purple Death

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In watching the 1944 Captain America serial (for which I’ll have a full write-up next week), I was struck by the title of the first chapter, “The Purple Death,” a title shared by the first chapter of the 1940 serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. In Captain America, the Purple Death refers to the extract of a rare orchid that makes its victims susceptible to hypnotic control (the “death” part comes when the victims are ordered to kill themselves, helpless to resist); in Flash Gordon, it’s a mysterious, fatal disease spread from Mongo to Earth that leaves its victims marked by a purple spot.

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The pulps (as well as comic strips and serials) were known for lurid, vividly-drawn stories with larger-than-life heroes and impossibly wicked villains to match. Purple is an attention-getting color, to the point that we speak of “purple prose.” I was also reminded of the Purple Empire, one of the enemy nations that Operator #5 fought against in the 1930s. (I thought there might be some significance to that, but the Operator series included a rainbow of enemy nations, possibly influenced by the color-coded War Plans developed by the U. S. military during the 1920s and ’30s.)

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In reading and watching stories from the 1930s and ’40s, I’ve encountered the phrase “purple death,” or uses of purple as a dangerous and dramatic color, enough times that I wondered if there was an underlying connection. So, in the spirit of Philip J. Reed’s Pop Questions, I’m asking: what’s the significance of the color purple in the pulps, and why particularly is death purple? Does it refer to the livid color of a bruise or the marks left by strangulation? Is it the association with royalty, by extension gaudy and powerful? I have a few leads that seem likely, but if anyone reading this has a specific answer, I’d love to hear it.

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Purple is associated with death and mourning in many cultures, including the Victorians of the nineteenth century, for whom purple was the color of “demi-mourning,” to be worn after a period of wearing black. It was also the color of royalty, originally due to the rarity and high cost of purple dyes in the ancient world. It would certainly match both the dramatic style and frequent (if shallow) references to history and classic literature in the pulps if that were the reason. I don’t have statistics at hand, but my hunch is that as comic books became the dominant medium for pulp storytelling, more villains than heroes had purple uniforms or color schemes.

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However, the most likely answer goes back to the 1918 influenza epidemic: the disease killed quickly, and often left its victims purple in color as their lungs filled with blood and starved the body of oxygen. One book on the subject is even titled Purple Death. According to some estimates, as many as 50 million people worldwide died during from the disease. Just as pulp heroes were often veterans of the Great War, so the memory of the epidemic would have resonated with writers and readers in the decades that followed. In Flash Gordon, the Purple Death was also a disease, and the scenes of public panic and the scramble to find a cure hearken directly to the 1918 epidemic; by comparison, the use of the phrase in Captain America is almost poetic, but would likely have still induce a twinge of fear for those who remembered it. Even today, with no direct memory of the influenza epidemic, it sounds ominous.

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So perhaps that’s the answer. If any readers have more details to offer, or facts to contradict my speculations, I’d love to hear them. Any other examples of purple as a color marking death or danger are, of course, welcome.