Fates Worse Than Death: Raiders of Ghost City

At the end of the Civil War, Secret Service agent Steve Clark is assigned to investigate a series of Confederate raids on gold shipments from the town of Oro Grande, California. Clark is the Service’s most experienced agent, and a target of assassination attempts. Aboard a westbound train under the name “Chuck Mason,” Clark is singled out by Alex Morel, proprietor of the Oro Grande saloon the Golden Eagle, and the singer he is bringing west with him, Trina Dessard (in reality both covert leaders of the gold-raiding operation): Steve Clark must not be allowed to reach Oro Grande! Clark is lured into the rear carriage of the train by one of Morel’s thugs posing as a railroad detective, with the intention of killing him, but the pair are followed by a stranger on the train, a good-natured fighter who takes it upon himself to protect Clark. During the fight that ensues, Morel uncouples the car from the train, sending it careening back down the mountainside to derail and crash! Have Clark and his new ally had it? Is the adventure over before it has even begun? Of course not, but audiences had to return the following week to find out how they escaped in Chapter Two of Raiders of Ghost City!

I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about serials anymore: not that I’ve seen them all, far from it, but over fifty or sixty articles I’ve probably said everything I have to say about them without devoting my life to researching them full-time. And to be honest, I haven’t found the serial community that welcoming. Without naming names, there is a level of gatekeeping within this hobby just as there is in so many, and an orthodoxy that, when combined with the conservatism that often comes with an interest in older film genres, has meant that other fans don’t seem to be looking for the same things in these movies that I am. That’s okay: different strokes, and all that. But it didn’t really encourage me to keep going.

But I still enjoy serials, and Raiders of Ghost City is a good one, fast-moving with likeable characters and a variety of locations and action set-pieces. The wartime espionage theme, combined with the Western setting, has some juice, and although it is a product of its time, it’s nuanced enough to be satisfying to a modern viewer, or at least this modern viewer. (But if I don’t go into as much detail with this one, forgive me; it’s been a busy year.)

Steve Clark, played by Dennis Moore, is a typical stoic, can-do leading man, but the characters around him complement his approach and bring some color to the proceedings: most important is Idaho Jones (Joe Sawyer), the stranger who came to Clark’s rescue on the train. Jones is a detective investigating the murder of Oro Grande’s Wells Fargo agent; he wears a big grin and an even bigger cowboy hat, and he’s the kind of Mark Twain creation that can’t resist a good brawl and leads the bad guys on a chase around the countryside for “a little fun.” He’s basically the co-lead, and while there is never friction between Clark and Jones once they reveal their identities, it does suggest a mismatched buddy cop comedy at times, and following the pattern set by the first chapter, most of the cliffhangers involve one of the pair in deadly peril, only to be saved at the last minute by the other.

There’s also Cathy Haines (Wanda McKay), daughter of the murdered agent and now acting Wells Fargo agent of Oro Grande herself; in her first appearance, she seems to be sweet on Jeff Logan, a cavalryman connected to nearby Fort Loma and its commanding officer, Colonel Sewell. When Logan is caught riding with the gold raiders, Sewell suspects him of being a Confederate spy, but he turns out to be Steve Clark’s brother Jim, working undercover, and upon Steve’s arrival in Oro Grande he’s able to vouch for him. The brothers’ reunion is short-lived, however: Jim promises an explosive revelation, saying “it’s bigger than North and South,” but he is shot to keep him from talking, and is dead by the beginning of Chapter Four.

Many serials have only One Female Character; Cathy is ripe for pairing up with the hero (once the hero’s brother is out of the way, of course), but strictly in a platonic way as Confederate-fighting partners and then as friends, because ew, cooties, but if you’re an older member of the audience and you want to read between the lines, go ahead. As it happens, Raiders of Ghost City isn’t so formulaic that it only has one female character: it has two female characters, so take that, smart guy. The previously-mentioned Trina Dessard (Virginia Christine) is the Bad Girl to Cathy’s Good Girl. In her deep, haughty voice and show-biz worldliness, Trina is implied to be a femme fatale, but in the sexless serial world, implication is as far as it goes.

Trina pairs nicely with Morel, played by sneeringly British Lionel Atwill, and their evil machinations are known to the audience from the beginning, long before Clark and company are able to pin anything on them, as opposed to the common serial formula of unmasking an unknown mastermind at the end, so if you enjoy duplicitous villains, this is a good serial. What is their big secret, and what is the meaning of the various coins dated 1752 that they and others of their ring carry? Despite being played by the Most British Person Alive in 1944, Morel and his gang are actually Prussian! Morel is in reality Erich von Rugen, and Trina is Countess Elsa von Merck (haughtiness factor +10). (The ignominious end of Atwill’s once-stellar career is discussed in my review of Lost City of the Jungle.)

Other operatives are similarly disguised and passing for American, including an unknown traitor in the Wells Fargo office who is shown passing notes to the Prussian spies through a hidden drop in the wall of the Golden Eagle (at least until he is later caught). The coins are a secret means for agents to identify one another, the 1752 stamped on them referring to the year Frederick the Great (supposedly) wrote a detailed set of instructions for political domination for his sons. The Prussian scheme is to raid Union gold shipments, which will be blamed on Confederate forces, but are actually diverted to Prussia, and which will be used to buy Alaska from the Russian Empire before the United States finds out the Czar is entertaining offers. First Alaska, then the world!

In addition to Steve Clark’s investigations, the Prussian scheme is complicated by the end of the Civil War in Chapter Five: Braddock (frequent heavy Jack Ingram), the leader of the outlaws conducting the raids, headquartered at the abandoned Ghost City close to Oro Grande, thinks he’s working for ordinary Confederates, so he and his gang start wondering why they shouldn’t just keep the gold for themselves now that the war is over, or at least get a bigger cut for their trouble. Similarly, Confederate agent Clay Randolph (a former West Point classmate and rival of Steve Clark’s) is ready to surrender to the United States as soon as he hears of the peace, but not until he can confront Morel about the treachery he suspects, a display of loyalty that doesn’t end well for him.

Virginia Christine as Trian Dessard, slinging tunes and serving looks

Randolph, played by Regis Toomey, is an interesting character: in addition to being a Southern spy, he’s also blamed for the death of Cathy’s father and a Union agent in Washington. Toomey plays him as a charismatic and even honest figure, however, at odds with the double-dealing he’s accused of. By the time we learn he didn’t kill the victims he’s accused of murdering (Cathy’s father was killed by the traitor in the Oro Grande Wells Fargo office) and he’s telling off Morel and attempting to reveal the truth to Clark with his dying words, it’s clear that we are meant to see him as one of those honorable but misguided individuals who are an essential part of the Lost Cause myth, whose true loyalty is to the spirit of America even if they felt the need to turn against her government. Such portrayals in the name of national healing and unity were, and are, common, and while they were probably seen as a necessary step following the divisions of that war, it’s not hard to see the persistent lionization of Confederates and erasure of the war’s root causes as one of the sources of problems we’re still dealing with. (The lack of any black characters almost goes without saying, as their presence is more exception than rule in the serials, and in any case it was rare to have their viewpoints centered in pre-Civil Rights-era productions.)

Needless to say, however, the serial’s choice of villains is even more telling: Bismarck-idolizing German expansionists would have been a pleasure to root against during the height of World War II. In its way, Raiders of Ghost City engages with the contemporary war as much as Secret Service in Darkest Africa’s Nazi-fighting hero Rex Bennett. The alt-history territorial premise is similar to The Vigilantes Are Coming, although Raiders is far superior as a film. In writing about The Vigilantes, I noted similarities to 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, to which the Prussian scheme in this movie also bears some resemblance. It’s also worth pointing out that between its title, Idaho Jones’ name, and the haughty German Elsa, Raiders of Ghost City was surely one of the serials that had a direct influence on George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in creating their own updated serial hero Indiana Jones. Coincidence? Perhaps, but if the hat fits . . .

What I Watched: Raiders of Ghost City (Universal, 1944)

Where I Watched It: This was on Amazon Prime, but only up until the end of August, sorry! As of this writing, it is on YouTube, however (and the screen caps are from YouTube).

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “Calling All Buckboards” (Chapter Twelve)

The title refers to a sequence (presumably borrowed from a land rush sequence from some bigger-budget Western feature) in which the gold miners head for Ghost City to take on the outlaw raiders while the cavalry is occupied with an Indian uprising. It leads to a pitched battle between the miners, raiders, cavalry and Indians that ultimately burns down Ghost City.

Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven, “Trail to Torture,” Idaho has been captured by the restless Modoc Indians. The Modocs have been agitated by renegade Joe Berk, working for the Prussians, and after a telegraph conference between the chief and “Great White Father” Abraham Lincoln falls through due to Lincoln’s assassination, the tribe is convinced that the white man has screwed them over again. (They even turn against the raiders and kill Berk in the next chapter.) In a scene that emphasizes Hollywood’s take on Indian “savagery,” Idaho’s legs are tied to a pair of saplings bent to the ground; when the ropes holding the trees down are cut, Idaho will be ripped apart! It’s one of the more gruesome perils in a serial that includes train derailings, shootouts, stabbing, and drowning as cliffhangers. Fortunately, in the next chapter, Clark arrives at the last moment and shoots through both ropes just at the moment the Indians are about to cut them, an incredible feat of marksmanship that is par for the course for serial heroes.

Sample Dialogue:

Randolph: Yes, I understand German, but I speak good old Tennessee English too. I suspected Richmond wasn’t getting all the gold from our raids, but what you’ve stolen for Prussia, Washington is going to get.

Morel: You would help the enemies of your country?

Randolph: No, Morel. You’re my country’s enemy. As of today there is no North and South, only United States!

Chapter Five, “The Fatal Lariat”

What’s Next: I don’t know, nothing? Your guess is as good as mine, but thanks for reading!

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