Fates Worse Than Death: Jungle Queen

A plane flies over the African jungle in darkness: aboard are two American hunters, Bob Elliot and Chuck Kelly, and Pamela Courtney, niece of the world-famous British explorer Alan Courtney. Although neither quite trusts the other yet, Bob and Pamela are both heading to the village of Tambosa for the same reason: Alan Courtney, known and respected by the Tongghili tribesmen, is the only white man who knows the secret to the Sword of Tongu, the emblem of office held by the head man of all the regional tribes, and the key to controlling the territory. Back in Nairobi, where the plane took off, the mechanic who readied the plane predicts that it is about to develop engine trouble; no one will question the plane’s disappearance, and there will be no survivors. When addressed as “Johann,” the mechanic quickly corrects his interviewer: he may be “Johann” back in Berlin, but here he’s “Jack.” Yes, the Germans have an interest in the Sword of Tongu and control of the jungle as well, and they have many eyes and ears in America and Great Britain to keep track of their rivals. The year is 1939, and the Nazis are making plans to conquer first Europe, and then the world, with central Africa an important part of their strategy. Sure enough, miles from any safe landing spot, the plane begins to sputter and smoke; a last-ditch effort is made to land in a clearing, but can anyone survive the crash and resulting fireball? Have our American and British heroes met their fate before their true purpose is even known to each other? So ends “Invitation to Danger,” the first chapter of Jungle Queen!

Along with the image of the helpless damsel tied to a railroad track or a conveyor belt leading to a buzz saw (a premise nowhere near as common in actual serials as in the popular imagination), one of the most common latter-day representations of the serials involves a strong-jawed hero clobbering a hapless Nazi (in full uniform, of course) for the good ol’ U. S. of A. As I’ve pointed out before, however, the serials I’ve reviewed so far were for the most part much less explicit in their politics than we tend to remember: usually, when a rival nation is the enemy, it’s presented in vague terms, clear enough to read between the lines but easy to ignore for those who, back then just as today, prefer to think of their entertainment choices as apolitical. Even Captain America, a hero explicitly created to fight Nazis (and famously shown punching Hitler on the cover of his first issue), was made into a crusading district attorney and crimebuster when he made the leap to the serials.

There are exceptions, of course: the first Batman serial is explicitly anti-Japanese, to the point of actively endorsing the internment of Japanese-American citizens, making it hard to watch without wincing today. And there is Jungle Queen, produced in 1945 but set in 1939, before the invasion of Poland, and depicting Nazi machinations in central Africa for strategic control of approaches to Europe. While American movie studios in the 1930s didn’t want to alienate audiences who preferred to stay neutral or may even have been sympathetic to Germany (a dirty little secret of American politics that was conveniently forgotten once war was declared), by 1945 there was no risk in being explicitly anti-Nazi. (Making Bob and Chuck “volunteers” also makes a point: “See, America was involved, we just couldn’t make it official!”)

The word “Nazi” is frequently used in Jungle Queen, the nationalities of the characters are stated out loud, and if the visual cues of polished black boots and references to Mauser rifles weren’t clear enough, the frequent appearance of swastikas, death’s heads, and stock footage of Nazi troops on parade in Berlin make this by far the most politically explicit serial I’ve seen (and a clear forebear of the Nazi-punching Indiana Jones movies). Note that while Jungle Queen makes it clear that the Nazis are bad guys, it only takes issue with their lust for power in the abstract and their violent methods, making no mention of the racism and anti-Semitism at the root of their movement. It’s the same kind of portrayal of Nazis as cartoonish thugs, without reference to ideology, that Steven Spielberg later disavowed (but as I said, it’s at least more specific in comparison to other serials of the time).

The (slightly) more realistic politics in Jungle Queen lead to a greater emphasis on the characters’ international background and support systems than is usual as well: while American adventurers Bob Elliot and Chuck Kelly carry most of the serial’s action, we also see events orchestrated by the British spymaster “Mr. X” in London and Commissioner Chatterton in Tambosa, and on the other side by an unnamed German officer in Berlin supervising the Nazi spies. Each chapter begins with one or more of these figures receiving reports that bring the audience up to date on the situation in Africa, also serving to remind us of the area’s strategic importance. It’s one of the more complex depictions of international relations I’ve seen in the usually action-oriented serials, and the degree of intrigue, espionage, and counter-espionage is like something out of a Carol Reed film.

But back to the action: before too long, Bob and Pamela come to accept that neither one is a Nazi spy, and they can work together. Bob and Chuck were sent by American intelligence to secretly aid the Brits, just as Pamela was sent by Mr. X to find her uncle, in the belief that she is the only person Alan Courtney would trust. They’re just in time, too, as the jungle region is practically overrun with German spies and collaborators, and their plan is already in motion.  A Swedish scientist named Dr. Elise Bork(!) runs an experimental farm outside of Tambosa; she is actually the local Nazi ringleader, overseeing Lang, her safari boss, and Danka, the farm’s foreman. Hidden in the farmhouse is a direct line to a Nazi listening post in the jungle, through which they relay their communications with Berlin. (There are three important female characters in this: Pamela Courtney, Dr. Bork, and Lothel, the mysterious “jungle queen” of the title. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually pretty good for a serial.)

The German plan is straightforward enough: the village of Tong-Gara is home to a Judge who controls the diverse villages of the Tongghili tribe; the current Judge, Tongu, is friendly with the British, but the Germans hope to replace Tongu with a tribesman whom they can control. When Tongu is slain, his successor, Godac, prepares to name his own successor, Maati. Unbeknownst to Godac, Maati is a traitor, secretly working with Lang, and he plans to kill Godac once he is named successor, after which he will cooperate fully with Germany. Maati is possibly the least sympathetic character in the serial, not only a traitor but an obvious fool, concerned only with taking power locally and quite uninterested in the Nazis’ larger ambitions.

However, before Godac can name Maati, a gong sounds in the temple, announcing the arrival of Lothel, “mysterious queen of the jungle.” Lothel appears from within the flames that only the innocent can walk through and delivers a warning: there are enemies among them, and Godac must choose wisely! Godac opts to delay his decision until the situation is clearer to him. Lothel (played by Ruth Roman, in her only serial role) is a white woman (we are told that her name means “white butterfly”), a “white goddess” in the tradition of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. (One could even trace such characters back to the medieval legend of Prester John, the potentate imagined to rule a Christian empire somewhere in India or the Far East).

Lothel is obeyed and trusted implicitly by the black tribesmen, and why not? She alone can walk through the flames that burn eternally within the temple, and her comings and goings all over the jungle are sudden and unexplained enough–she appears out of nowhere to deliver her messages or protect those she favors–to be the product of magic. She seems to know things that others don’t, as well: she is aware of the foreign interlopers in the jungle and has definite ideas about who is good and who is evil, regardless of their outer appearances. (Lothel is also frequently framed by archways, her arms raised, as if she were singlehandedly holding up the temple or was perhaps prepared, Samson-like, to tear it down.)

As in many serials, the characters are mostly stock types; Bob Elliot (Edward Norris) is blandly heroic, the better for audience members to project themselves onto; ditto for Pamela Courtney (Lois Collier). Chuck Kelly, played by Eddie Quillan, however, is the comic relief, so he gets to have a personality, mostly catty. He may be two-dimensional, but that’s twice as many dimensions as most of the other characters get: he’s an astrology buff, and he’s from Brooklyn (“The U. S. is the other half of Brooklyn,” he says). He refers to Lothel as “Queenie,” and is full of opinions, but mostly he’s a foil for Bob’s stoic manliness and Pamela’s stiff upper lip, giving them someone to explain things to and saying things out loud no one else will: a Thelma Ritter of the jungle.

The other colorful characters tend to appear in only a few chapters, such as Tambosa Tim (Cy Kendall), the shady operator of the local watering hole, and Captain Drake (Oliver Blake), a flinty seaman who has a few secrets of his own. Dr. Bork (Tala Birell) plays deception well, appearing warm and friendly to Commissioner Chatterton (Lester Matthews) and haughty and cold when among her fellow Nazis. The “spearhead villain,” Lang, who does most of Dr. Bork’s dirty work, is played by Douglas Drumbille in the same vein as Wheeler Oakman’s many henchman roles (he’s got a mustache, so you know he’s evil).

Finally, Jungle Queen gets partial credit for differentiating its African tribesman characters (and they are all men); there are still plenty of scenes of exotic jungle drums and attempted human sacrifice, but the scenes of the Judge in council with the heads of the tribes are treated seriously, and the internal politics of the Tongghili are given equal weight with the external maneuvering of the great powers. Most important among the tribal characters is the elderly, dignified Godac (Clinton Rosemond); the treacherous Maati (Napoleon Simpson); and Kyba (Clarence Muse), the rightful leader whose loyalties are torn between following Lothel and doubting the wisdom of her counsel.

In discussing the political dimensions of Jungle Queen or any other serial, of course I don’t mean to suggest that children (the primary audience for the serials) demanded absolute realism or fidelity to outside events in their entertainment: it’s called “escapism” for a reason. Still, even fantasy benefits from some contact with the real world, the addition of depth and complexity that comes from the feeling that the writers know something of the world and are willing to confront it in their work. Compared to the cardboard characters and storybook settings of something like Captain Africa, Jungle Queen has the breath of life in it (although characterization isn’t really Jungle Queen‘s strong point, either). However, once the real world is let in, it isn’t easy to cordon off parts of the story from implications we’d rather ignore. Like many of the serials I’ve examined, Jungle Queen engages with its African characters from a colonialist point of view. Some are good and some are bad; it’s not the worst example I’ve seen, but it’s not the best, either. It goes without saying that Lothel is a literal “white savior,” the “white goddess” trope being rooted in white supremacy, no matter how benevolently it is depicted. Perhaps this is why the racial ideology of Nazism is never brought up: the beautiful Lothel, lording over the black tribesmen, is a little too close to Nazi fantasy for comfort, and saying it out loud would raise the question of why the Tongghili need to be lead by outsiders at all. The British influence is depicted as peaceful and mutually beneficial, but that’s colonialism in a nutshell, isn’t it: at least our brand of exploitation is better than theirs.

Spoilers for the last chapter of Jungle Queen: Jungle Queen teases the audience throughout with the explanation of Lothel’s presence. Before he dies, Alan Courtney (Boyd Irwin) says cryptically, “The secret of the sword is . . . Lothel.” When Maati is about to take power, Lothel appears again and reveals that there are actually two swords, and Godac has given Maati the decoy, which she is able to prove; how does she know such secrets?

It turns out that the explanation for Lothel’s power over the Tongghili is . . . that there is no explanation! Usually, a “white god/goddess” character is explained as being the child of an explorer or castaway, or some such Tarzan-like origin; or the possessor of some mystic secret, like Haggard’s Ayesha; or perhaps they are a secret agent, sent by one of the Western countries to be an ally or protector (or, like the Phantom, it could be a combination of all three). Any of those explanations could be true of Lothel, but the filmmakers are uncharacteristically willing to let the mystery go unexplained. Perhaps she even has genuine magical powers?

During the climax of the final chapter, Dr. Bork, her spy ring destroyed, the Nazi plan failed, almost gets away . . . almost. After wiring her jungle mountain hideout to explode, taking the evidence of her activities with it, she is stopped by the appearance of Lothel, the first time the two have faced each other directly. The jungle queen’s fury is finally unleashed: “German weapons kill Germans!” she says when Dr. Bork shoots at her, to no effect. “Nazis kill Nazis!” Then the mountaintop explodes, seen from below by Bob and Chuck. The heroes never see Lothel again, but the last shot reveals her still walking through he flames in the temple at Tong-Gara, unknowable to the last.

What I Watched: Jungle Queen (Universal, 1945)

Where I Watched It: DVD released by VCI Entertainment

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Invitation to Danger” (Chapter One)

Best Cliffhanger: Most of the cliffhangers in this serial are a little abrupt. Almost all of them cut quickly to the come-on for the next chapter once the danger to our heroes is established, but the amount of preparation and foreshadowing is what really determines how sudden the peril feels, whether it comes out of the blue or seems like the logical outcome of an unfolding process. This serial follows the general rule that the chapter title foreshadows the nature of the cliffhanger that ends the chapter, so “Wildcat Stampede” (Chapter Four) ends with Maati and his tribesmen releasing captive leopards and lions in Alan Courtney’s camp as a distraction, with one of them attacking Pamela, and so forth. A few cliffhangers take more time to generate actual suspense by establishing the threat: the more the audience knows about the approaching danger, the more tension it creates. A lion leaping directly at the camera is a shock, but directors Ray Taylor and Lewis Collins would have to linger on the moment and (for example) show Pamela attempting to fight it off in order to generate more than passing surprise.

In “Trip-Wire Murder” (Chapter Seven), Chuck and Pamela have been captured by Captain Drake and tied up aboard his schooner, the Silver Star. Just in case anyone should think to nose around his ship, Drake has rigged a trip-wire in the hall outside his cabin, set to fire a machine gun through a hidden hole in the door at anyone in the hall. Not only do we see Drake lay the trap, we see Dr. Bork almost set it off, but then avoid it, when she enters the cabin, and Bob’s later entry (the one that sets off the trap and forms the cliffhanger) is liberally cut with shots of the wire and the gun hidden behind the door. The suspense isn’t in wondering what will happen–that is made extremely clear–but when, and how Bob will survive it.

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: Part of the reason so many of the cliffhangers seem abrupt is because of the way their resolution is put together. Several resolutions rely on an old trick that a purist like Annie Wilkes would probably consider a cockadoodie cheat. Late in the serial, at the end of Chapter Twelve (“Dragged Under”), Chuck is chased through the jungle by Maati’s tribesmen. Desperately, he plunges into a shallow river and swims across; Maati looks on in satisfaction, predicting that Chuck will be no match for the crocodiles that swarm the water. Sure enough, the chapter ends with a shot of thrashing crocodiles in a feeding frenzy.

However, as the next chapter begins, after Maati points out the crocs, a whole new sequence is inserted: Lothel appears on the riverbank holding a large hunk of meat. She throws it into the water to distract the crocs, and Chuck escapes while they devour the meat: the same footage shown in the previous chapter, but now with a totally different meaning. (Needless to say, Chuck is never actually onscreen at the same time as the crocodiles.) Throughout Jungle Queen, scenes are edited to show that the context of the cliffhanger wasn’t quite what it appeared, without outright contradicting a frame of what was shown before. (Because of this, it would probably be a challenge to preserve even the minimal suspense of these perils in a feature-length edit; the “trip-wire murder” described above is an exception.)

Sample Dialogue:

Bob: Look Chuck: if we can help the English, that’s okay. They don’t want it, we’ll just hunt lions.

Chuck: Well, here’s hoping the English can use some volunteer Americans, because I’d rather hunt Nazis!

(Chapter One, “Invitation to Danger”)

What Others Have Said: “The movie serial, of course, was involved symbolically in the struggle before it began. As World War II approached, those foreign powers bent on stealing the destructive ray gun or ultra-powered explosive began to look more and more like Axis nations. When hostilities began, it was necessary only to identify the spies or aliens of the ‘steal-the-secret’ serials as Germans or Japanese. . . . No doubt about it, in jungle, prairie, or metropolis, the cliffhanging heroes and heroines did their part in the war effort–though one must overlook their apparent aversion to ordinary service in the armed forces. Scenes of battle action were no more than inserts in tales of spy fighting or fifth-column activity.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: As I mentioned last time, earlier this year I bought a big box of serials on VHS. Reaching into the box to pull one out at random, my next installment will cover . . . the Dead End Kids in Junior G-Men! See you then!

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