Fates Worse Than Death: The Vigilantes Are Coming

California, 1844, “The Last Days of the Dons”: A young Don Loring says farewell to his father and brother as he prepares to join the expedition of Captain Fremont exploring the Pacific Northwest. While he is gone, Don Loring Sr. confronts General Jason Burr for trespassing on Loring’s property, not realizing that Burr has secretly discovered gold on the land and is already mining it, using conscripts Burr has abducted from nearby villages. After the tense meeting, Burr has Loring and his other son killed. As it happens, Burr’s plans go beyond secretly enriching himself: he is in contact with the Russian emissary Count Raspinoff, and he has proposed turning California over to the Russian empire with himself installed as dictator over the territory.

Raspinoff (Robert Warwick) and Burr (Fred Kohler)

Later, after young Don Loring’s return to the Sonoma Valley and his discovery that his family has been murdered, he declares vengeance. His crusade will require secrecy: he vows to adopt the persona of the Eagle until justice is achieved! In a short montage, the Eagle strikes down a series of henchmen, working his way up to the boss, each time leaving an eagle feather as a calling card. It’s not long before General Burr notices this hindrance to his plans, so he invites the Eagle for a parley–actually a trap, of course, but one that the Eagle cleverly evades. Face to face with Burr, the Eagle gives him a whipping, literally, before making a narrow escape. It’s going to take more than one man to bring down the would-be dictator, especially now that Count Raspinoff has provided him with a battalion of Cossacks from the Tzar’s army, so the Eagle sets about organizing a Vigilance Committee made up of the ranchers in the Valley. All is set for a confrontation of historic proportions in The Vigilantes Are Coming!

It should be obvious that the Eagle is a dead ringer for Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, right down to the friendly village padre who provides a hiding spot in his church, and if this were billed as a name-brand Zorro adventure no one would bat an eye. Star Robert Livingston, who plays the Eagle, would actually play Zorro by name in The Bold Caballero for Republic the very same year; Republic would make several Zorro serials, beginning with Zorro Rides Again in 1937, and there would be more feature films and televison series as well, but in 1936 all of those other adaptations lay in the future, with the major exception of Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 silent take on the character in The Mark of Zorro. (With its scheme to separate California from American rule and its hidden gold mine dug by slave labor, The Vigilantes Are Coming has some resemblance to 1998’s The Mask of Zorro starring Antonio Banderas.)

Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and Raymond Hattan played Don Loring’s comrades.

But it’s the mash-up of California colonialism with Western tropes (mostly in the person of Salvation and Whipsaw, a pair of mountain-man scouts who split off from Fremont to accompany Don Loring home) and the Russian (or “Roosian,” as characters repeatedly say) bad guys that really makes this serial distinctive. It’s not quite as strange as it was made out to be, at least not while The Phantom Empire is right there, but for a serial rooted in a historical time and place it has an unusual premise. How plausible is it?

While the Russian plot to take California is an obvious alternate history conceit, it makes sense as a story hook, considering that Alaska was still Russian territory until 1867. Moreover, Burr’s attempt to set himself up as dictator mirrors those of real-life adventurers who hoped to carve their own fiefdoms out of the still-open frontier, including Aaron Burr’s much-debated attempt to conquer former Mexican territory and William Walker’s campaigns in Sonora and Nicaragua. More notable is the avoidance of the Mexican-American War: in the serial, Raspinoff demands secrecy because Russia has no desire to go to war with Mexico or the United States, but by the time it’s all over the Russian flag over Burr’s fort has been replaced with the stars and stripes, the Americanization of the territory a fait accompli.

Captain Fremont’s role as commander of the military troops who ride in to save the day also glosses over the real Frémont’s more controversial role in wresting California away from Mexico in the years leading up to that war. Like Frémont’s real-life associate Kit Carson, who also took part in the territorial conflict, the heroism and genuine accomplishments of his career tended to overshadow his grislier reputation as an “Indian-killer,” especially in popular entertainment like this. The sleight-of-hand by which it’s the Russians who stand in the way of Manifest Destiny, and not the clashing ambitions of neighbors Mexico and the United States, is a variation on the popular Western trope in which a malevolent white man (like Burr in this case) turns whites and Indians against each other for his own gain, preventing the peaceful settlement of the territory that benefits everyone. The whiteness of “Don Loring” and his family, while the peasants are presented as more stereotypical Mexicans, is another sign of their preemptive Americanization. It is a truism that Western movies say more about the time in which they are made than the era in which they are ostensibly set, and The Vigilantes Are Coming is no different.

Leaving such issues aside and taken on its own terms, this is an entertaining and fast-moving serial. Robert Livingston makes for a fine hero, convincingly brash when he needs to be; when he poses as a mere organ student to hide his identity, he appears meek, but reveals the calculation that goes into his deception to the audience. (He’s not the only one with a penchant for disguises: Salvation disguises himself as a Mexican peddler, and Whipsaw takes a captured Cossack’s uniform–and beard!–to infiltrate Burr’s fort in a humorous sequence.)

Of course, a leading man needs a leading lady: Kay Hughes plays Doris Colton, whose mining engineer father is held captive by Burr to run his gold mine. She is mostly held prisoner herself (communicating with the Eagle through carrier pigeons), but when she gets the opportunity she does her part, helping the Eagle set the fort on fire and leading the Vigilantes to the gold mine.

A brief misunderstanding

Preceding Republic’s adaptation of The Lone Ranger by two years, The Vigilantes Are Coming cast the mold for a whole slew of masked Western heroes to come: allowing for the similarities to Zorro already pointed out, the Eagle settles disputes with his six-shooter and bullwhip much more than with a blade (there is only one swordfight sequence in the whole thing), and despite the Southwestern setting much of the action and characters are clearly indebted to the traditional Western. Set pieces include a siege of the fort, with guns blazing; a fire that nearly burns down the Mission; a stand-off in which the vigilantes hold the gold mine against Cossack artillery; and a rousing “here comes the cavalry” ending. What more could you ask for?

What I Watched: The Vigilantes Are Coming (Republic, 1936)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Pictures Home Video

No. of Chapters: “Foreign Fiendishness in 12 Saber-Rattling Episodes”

Best Chapter Title: There are a number of stock chapter titles that reappear frequently in different serials (Chapter Seven’s title, “Wings of Doom,” seems like one I’ve seen before), but I can’t imagine any other serials have a chapter called “Condemned by Cossacks” (Chapter Three).

Best Cliffhanger: A number of strands come together for maximum suspense at the end of Chapter Ten (“Prison of Flame”): after Don Loring and Doris Colton are both captured, Burr having finally figured out who the Eagle is, Doris offers to reveal where Count Raspinoff is being held in exchange for the Eagle’s life. Taken to the Mission, she demands that the Eagle be locked somewhere safe, and the key given to her, in order to guarantee his safety. Still bound, the Eagle is locked in the sexton’s room at the base of the bell tower. While Doris stalls, the Eagle manages to pull the rope to ring the Mission’s bell, the prearranged signal for the gathered Vigilantes to come to the Mission. While pulling the rope, he knocks over a lamp and starts a fire. Cutting between the approaching Vigilantes and their confrontation with the Cossacks, Doris’ increasingly desperate attempts to stall Burr’s men, and worst of all the sexton’s room filling with smoke, the chapter ends with burning rafters falling from the ceiling into the room in which the Eagle is trapped as the bell tower threatens to collapse on him!

Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: As I have frequently noticed in Mascot and early Republic serials, there are a few clear-cut classic cheats in The Vigilantes Are Coming, the kind that seem to rewrite history rather than simply providing a new context or having the hero wriggle out of danger at the last second. The most obvious is at the end of Chapter Four, “Unholy Gold,” set in Burr’s gold mine the first time the Vigilantes attempt to take it. When the Vigilantes enter, they find the main chamber empty except for Doris’ injured father and a waterwheel-driven pile driver used for crushing rocks. Once the inevitable fight breaks out between Burr’s men and the Vigilantes, the Eagle is punched out and falls into the shaft supporting the pile driver; before he can recover, the weight descends on his chest, crushing him! At the beginning of the next chapter, however, when the same punch sends the Eagle beneath the pile driver, Salvation quickly pulls him out of danger before the weight descends. It doesn’t get much more revisionist than that!

Sample Dialogue: “I see you have all the qualities of a dictator.” –Count Raspinoff to Burr, after Burr has ordered the killing of Don Loring Sr. and his son, Chapter One (“The Eagle Strikes”)

What Others Have Said:The Vigilantes Are Coming was a reworking of The Eagle, Rudolph Valentino’s silent film. It served as a showcase for Robert Livingston, one of Republic’s popular leading men. . . . He is best remembered for his role as Stony Brooke, the lead cowboy in the well-liked Three Mesquiteer films. Livingston played in twenty-nine of them between 1936 and 1941, except for a stretch in 1938-39, when he was promoted to romantic melodramas and replaced by John Wayne.” –Raymond W. Stedman, The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment

What’s Next: Another VHS classic from the big ol’ box of videotapes–let’s go with something a little spooky and watch Bela Lugosi in The Phantom Creeps!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Painted Stallion

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Westward! The trail to empire! From Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe dogged pioneers fought to penetrate a wilderness of savage Indians, massacres and death. Even worse were the white renegades, outlaws and bandits unscrupulous in their greed.

So begins The Painted Stallion, a 1937 serial set along the Santa Fe trail in the early years of the nineteenth century. With some stunning Southwestern scenery, exciting and arduous physical stunts, and a streamlined plot, The Painted Stallion is a prime example of what Republic was bringing to its productions in the late 1930s. It even tops off the entertainment with a minor historical gloss: I wonder how many Depression-era school kids tried to get away with cribbing the preamble text above for writing assignments, or the shorter dedication that preceded subsequent chapters:

To the heroes of yesterday! Those pioneers who braved the perilous trek Westward, defeated a hostile wilderness, and blazed a glorious trail across the pages of American history!

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The Painted Stallion gets underway with several plot threads converging: in Santa Fe, the Spanish colonial government has just been overthrown by Mexican revolutionaries. Dupray, the Spanish-appointed governor (LeRoy Mason), conspires with his right-hand man, Zamorro (Duncan Renaldo), to hold onto his power (and the plunder he is able to collect through taxation and graft) by abducting the incoming Mexican governor before he can arrive in Santa Fe. At the same time, American Walter Jamison (Hoot Gibson) is preparing a wagon train heading to Santa Fe from Independence, Missouri, with the goal of establishing trade between the United States and the new Mexican government. Dupray reasons that if he and his men can destroy the wagon train or force it to turn back, the blow to legitimate trade will strengthen his own position.

The first chapter thus establishes this conflict and puts the characters in their starting places. Although Jamison is the leader of the wagon train, the real hero is Clark Stuart (Ray “Crash” Corrigan, star of Undersea Kingdom), a government agent sent to protect the traders and carrying letters empowering him to negotiate with the Mexican governor. An all-around athlete and stuntman, Corrigan has plenty of opportunities to perform physical acts of derring-do, but they’re a little more organic than the wrestling and high-wire walking he performed in Undersea Kingdom. (Worth noting is the presence of Yakima Canutt in the cast, and you’d better believe his signature stunt–climbing beneath the chassis of a runaway wagon to take control of the reins–is included among the many spectacular set pieces.)

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Stuart is first seen on a riverboat, where a young stowaway (Sammy McKim) saves his life from an assassination attempt by one of Dupray’s men. In return for the boy’s help, Stuart assumes responsibility for him when he is caught by the Marshal; it turns out the boy is a runaway, heading west in hopes of becoming a scout. When asked his name, he answers, “Christopher,” and Stuart muses, “That’s too long a name, we’ll change it to . . .” (dramatic pause) “. . . Kit.” Holy heck, it’s Kit Carson, future scout, Indian fighter, and Western hero!

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That’s not all: young Kit is at first left in Independence to help the storekeeper run things in Jamison’s absence, but he stows away again, hiding in one of the covered wagons. Recognizing an ambition that will not be denied, Stuart accepts Kit as part of the trading expedition and entrusts him to legendary frontiersmen Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, who also just happen to be riding with the wagon train. Between these three role models, young Kit begins learning the ropes of scouting and wilderness survival.

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Also along are Elmer and Oscar, a pair of comic types; in the tradition of comic relief, their characters on screen have the same names as the actors. From what I can tell, the pair frequently worked together, bringing their established personas into the film with them like the Three Stooges (or much as Dan Whitney is usually credited in films under his better-known alter ego, Larry the Cable Guy). Elmer stutters. That’s it: it’s his only defining trait. Like Porky Pig, Elmer struggles to get out a sentence, only to give up and spit out a much pithier paraphrase. Elmer (real name Lou Fulton) is no Mel Blanc: most of his scenes are excruciating, and it only gets worse when he is given a mule with a polysyllabic Spanish name. Oscar (Ed “Oscar” Platt) is slow of speech and wit (yes, that means he has even less characterization than Elmer) but translates for Elmer when the scene is going on too long.

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Finally, Dupray has a number of his men planted in the wagon train as saboteurs. None of them are very interesting or deep, but they need to be mentioned, as their treachery provides the danger in the first few chapters as they attempt to halt the wagon train and/or murder Stuart. Later, after they’ve been discovered and escaped capture, several of them form the gang that supports Dupray in his increasingly desperate maneuvers to hold onto power.

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The titular Painted Stallion belongs to a mysterious Indian rider who appears at opportune times to warn the wagon drivers of trouble or protect them. Although Stuart and the other characters don’t find out for a few chapters, the Rider is a beautiful blonde woman (Julia Thayer) wearing a feathered chief’s headdress; appearing on the top of a ridge or other cinematic vantage point, she fires “whistling arrows” (the sound effect is like a long glissando on a violin) to warn the Americans, send messages, or (sometimes) kill hostile Indians or Mexicans. Speaking only a few words of English, she is shown having the power to command animals (her own horse and a panther, which she sets to guard Stuart after he has been knocked out at one point), and she knows the land intimately, including secret entrances to Dupray’s mountain hideout. Who is she? Why does she ride alone, and why do even the local Indians defer to her? Other than Stuart’s brief expression of surprise when he first meets her, no one has much time for that question until it’s resolved at the very end of the serial.

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Even after the wagon train makes it safely to Santa Fe and Dupray’s plot is discovered, there’s trouble. The new governor won’t sign the trade agreement until the Americans can catch Dupray and the bandits who have been under his leadership all along, and with Dupray having fled Santa Fe, the second half of the serial turns into a series of sieges of both the Presidio in Santa Fe and the gang’s hideout. Any historical animosity between Mexico and the United States is wiped away by their mutual foe, the dastardly Spaniard Dupray. “We’re holding them off successfully, thanks to you Americans!” says the new governor during a fire fight. At one point, Jim Bowie is captured. When asked where he is after the fight, Crockett says, “I don’t know, but those bandits had a prisoner that sure looked like him.”

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After the main conflict has been resolved, and all the villains get their comeuppance (even the Painted Stallion gets to face off personally against Zamorro’s black steed), a bunch of loose ends are tied up in literally the last two minutes. (Spoilers follow if you actually plan on watching this, as if you couldn’t guess these developments.) As the new governor signs the trade agreement, he casually notes a story told of a white child raised by the Comanche, the sole survivor of a massacred settlement, and worshiped as a “Goddess of Peace” by the Comanche because of her blonde hair. I was beginning to think the filmmakers were never going to get around to explaining this, but it’s exactly what it seems, a variation on the “White Goddess” trope as seen in She and Green Mansions, the romantic “best of both worlds” fantasy seen in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a far cry from the complexities of something like The Searchers.

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In addition to this explanation, Kit is taken under the wing of Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, who, like everyone else in the serial, foresee his future as a great Western scout. Elmer gets kicked by his mule and finds that his stutter is gone: he rails at the mule with a stream of articulate invective: “You bothersome beast! I denounce you henceforth!”

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Finally, Stuart and the Rider are shown riding off together after watching the now-successful wagon train head back up the trail. Unlike some of the conclusions of other serials, it’s unclear what their relationship is. In general this is a boy’s affair, like many serials (Thayer is the only woman in the film), but Corrigan and Thayer have real chemistry in their scenes together, so a romantic ending is possible. On the other hand, they don’t so much as hug, so they could just be platonic friends, celebrating their victory over the corrupt Dupray. Even the complication posed by their obvious cultural differences could go either way. I’ll admit that The Painted Stallion has challenged my preconceptions about characters pairing up in formulaic fiction: it’s subtle enough that you could read Clark Stuart as asexual, a progressive representation before its time, or it could just be that the presumed audience of preteen boys wouldn’t want any icky kissing or stuff. And if you wanted to believe that he and the Rider get married and have ten children, you could do that too. Or perhaps I’m overthinking this.

What I Watched: The Painted Stallion (Republic, 1937)

Where I Watched It: A DVD from (ahem) Cheezy Flicks

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Tunnel of Terror” (Chapter Eleven; this is a favorite chapter title, used in many serials.)

Best Cliffhanger: Dupray’s mountain hideout includes a trap door that spills out onto a rugged cliff face, spelling certain death for anyone unlucky enough to fall through it. In Chapter Eight (“The Whistling Arrow”), Stuart is captured by the renegades, but manages to turn the tables on them, holding them at gunpoint as he walks backward through the cave. The tease is a little more artful than usual as we are first shown the trap door, and Stuart almost steps on it, but then doesn’t, but then finally does, giving the bad guys the split second they need to dispose of him (cue footage of a ragdoll-limbed dummy falling down the rock wall).

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Sample Dialogue: “The West is too big for those hankerin’ to spoil it, Kit. They may try for a while, cause a lot of trouble, maybe kill a lot of good men. The West’ll win out. This wild country we’re travelin’ across will someday be settled. There’ll be railroads, pushing all the way across to the Pacific. The land will be covered with farms, ranches, and homes. Youngsters like yourself, Kit, might even be going to school somewheres close by. Heh, heh. Ah, I wonder how many of them’ll be knowin’ a young fellow named Kit Carson, who first became a scout in these here . . .” –Clark Stuart, Chapter One (The scene simply fades out in the middle of Stuart’s speech, implying that he goes on like this for some time. Give the kid a break, Stuart!)

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Sample title cards illustrating the "Chosen One" theme decades before Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter

Sample title cards illustrating the “Chosen One” theme decades before Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter

What Others Have Said: “Several historical personages assisted Corrigan throughout–among them a young runaway named Kit Carson, who was played by Sammy McKim. The young Carson, as befit a future Western legend, was written as less of a ‘kid tagalong’ than as a genuinely helpful junior frontiersman, and McKim’s hardiness and spunk suited the role perfectly.” —The Files of Jerry Blake, “Sammy McKim”

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Point of Connection: While watching The Painted Stallion, I was continually reminded of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., the short-lived but fondly-remembered Western TV show starring Bruce Campbell as the title character. While Brisco County drew from many sources, Corrigan was clearly playing the kind of strong-jawed, wholesome (and completely white-bread) hero that Campbell has, in his own winking way, made a specialty. No one would deny that Campbell is more charismatic than Corrigan (not to snark, but compared to Corrigan, Buster Crabbe is Laurence Olivier), but there’s a resemblance. It didn’t hurt that The Painted Stallion is full of the kinds of pulp bric-a-bric–chases, traps, Western lore, and flamboyant characters–that The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., lovingly indulges in.

What’s Next: Next week I’ll be looking at the Republic serial Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion, again courtesy of (sigh) Cheezy Flicks.

Fates Worse Than Death: The Miracle Rider

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Tom Morgan, Texas Ranger, has been a friend to the Ravenhead Indians since his father, also a Ranger, died protecting the Indians’ land from “reservation jumpers,” and has even been made an honorary chief of the tribe. But now the Ravenhead face a threat that has even Tom Morgan stumped: attacks by the legendary “Firebird” have some members of the tribe agitating to leave their land. Morgan doesn’t believe in native superstitions, but who could gain from forcing the Indians off their land? Could it be merchant Emil Janss, who depends on the Indians for trade but who is also hoping to sell a large parcel of land to the government for use as a new reservation? Is it Longboat, a disgruntled member of the Ravenhead who hopes to usurp the rightful chief? Or is it Zaroff, an oil baron who appears to have an unusual interest in the reservation land? These questions and more are answered in The Miracle Rider, starring beloved Western icon Tom Mix!

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Actually, it doesn’t take long for the audience to find out that it is Zaroff (Charles Middleton, Flash Gordon‘s Ming) behind the attacks; posing as an oil man, Zaroff is secretly mining “X-94” on Indian lands, an incredibly powerful explosive which he plans to sell to an unnamed foreign power. In addition to refining and finding applications for X-94 (which later include a super-fuel), Zaroff’s chief scientist Metzger (Niles Welch) has created the high-tech gadgets that have the Ravenhead convinced that they are under attack. An Archimedes’ mirror-like heat ray causes fires to “spontaneously” ignite on the reservation, and a remote-controlled rocket glider with a whining electric siren is the Firebird itself.

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The Miracle Rider was Mascot’s follow-up to The Phantom Empire, and because of its infusion of the modern Western with up-to-the-minute scientific speculation, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut considered it as part of the “zap-gun Western” fad in their book The Great Movie Serials. However, as I argued in a recent look at science fiction Westerns, The Miracle Rider isn’t nearly as fantastical as The Phantom Empire. Although there is some novelty in seeing Tom Mix in his giant cowboy hat ride the bat-winged rocket glider, Zaroff and his weaponsmith Metzger are not very different from the criminal masterminds and spies that other serial, pulp, and comic book heroes were facing in the mid-1930s.

Most of the super-scientific inventions the writers of these stories came up with were just refinements of existing technologies (communication and remote control by radio; ever-more powerful explosives) or inventions that were widely regarded as just around the corner (television). Plot-wise, X-94 is less important as a scientific discovery than as the MacGuffin that motivates the plot: in the inter-war years, as in the Cold War, espionage often took the place of actual combat, so a new invention or discovery in danger of being stolen by the enemy was a reliable story starter. Finally, the rocket glider, which is genuinely eerie, crashes in only the second chapter, snuffing out any potential for airborne thrills.

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Modern viewers will also recognize quite a bit of Scooby-Doo in the basic plot, with one meddling Texas Ranger the only thing standing between Zaroff and his goal to be “the most powerful man in the world” (as he says out loud several times). At first, Zaroff throws suspicion on Janss, the merchant (Edward Hearn), but when Janss figures out what’s going on he demands to be cut into the deal. Longboat (Bob Kortman), the treacherous Ravenhead, is also under Zaroff’s thumb: in addition to his desire to be chief, Longboat is secretly a “half-breed,” making him vulnerable to Zaroff’s blackmail. With the addition of Zaroff’s gang of interchangeable henchmen and his right-hand man Carlton (Jason Robards, Sr.), that makes for quite a few villains Tom Morgan must get through before he can accuse and apprehend Zaroff.

The Miracle Rider begins unusually, with a fifteen-minute prologue dramatizing the shrinking of the Indians’ land in the face of white incursion. (I suspect this prologue was cut off in at least some markets; I’ve seen versions of The Miracle Rider that omit it, and it adds only background information not vital to the plot.) From 1777 up to Custer’s Last Stand, the struggle for land is dramatized as a series of historical figures including Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Buffalo Bill Cody stand up to white poachers and claim jumpers to whom government agreements with Indians mean nothing. The invaders say things like “The sooner we kill off the Indians, the better it’ll be for all of us!” and “The Indian thinks he can keep land once the white man wants it!” Despite the efforts of the “friends of the Indian,” history is not on their side, as an animated map shows the spread of white settlement, with Indian territory squeezed into ever smaller spaces. By the time the U.S. government is shown granting the Ravenhead tribe a reservation twenty miles long “for all time,” it’s both pathetic and obvious that this will be just the latest in a long string of broken promises, but the filmmakers evidently intend it to be taken in earnest.

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There’s much in The Miracle Rider that modern viewers could take issue with: most (though not all) of the Indians are played by white actors, and the Ravenhead are dependent on their “white brother” (or even “white chief”) Tom to protect them from those who would exploit them. But The Miracle Rider is surprisingly frank about the injustices suffered historically by Native Americans without making unrealistic saints out of them. Early on, the Ravenhead chief Black Wing (Bob Frazer) is killed by one of Zaroff’s men, leaving an opening for the corrupt Longboat to argue that the reservation land is cursed and they should migrate elsewhere. Black Wing’s daughter Ruth (Joan Gale) pleads with Tom to convince the tribe to stay; as the son of a Ranger who gave his life for the Ravenhead, Tom grew up among them and knows their ways (there’s that “best of both worlds” trope again). There’s no question that he would do what he can to help, but unlike more modern depictions that feature a corrupt or unreliable government, Tom is backed up by a solid and dependable Indian Agent, Adams (Edward Earle). Despite the presence of bad men like Zaroff, the forces of law and order haven’t given up; The Miracle Rider doesn’t claim that history could have been any different, but it does suggest that it’s at least possible to treat people, Indian or otherwise, with dignity and fair play.

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As for leading man Tom Mix, The Miracle Rider was both a beginning and an ending: Mix had made dozens of films (mostly Westerns, in many of which he played characters named Tom) and had been a huge star in the late teens and 1920s, famous for his flashy Western costumes and ten-gallon hat and his “million-dollar smile;” one of the first multi-media stars, Mix was at home in the circus performing Wild West routines and would later have a successful radio show. But Mix’s films in the ’20s had been silent, and the talkies he made in the ’30s were seen as something of a comeback, to varied success. Mix was in his fifties when The Miracle Rider was made, and while he still rides and shoots like a pro, he’s no longer the youthful romantic hero of his earlier films: at the end, after he’s been promoted to Director of Indian Affairs, he asks Ruth to come to Washington with him . . . as his secretary. “And here’s the contract,” he says: it’s a handshake. The Miracle Rider would turn out to be his last major film and his only sound serial.

Despite some draggy sections (it’s gotten to the point where I inwardly groan when I see that a serial has 15 chapters), The Miracle Rider is the work of a man still innovating. In the very last chapter, Tom Morgan is held at gunpoint by Zaroff and two of his henchmen; when asked if he has a last request, Morgan asks to make a cigarette. After he takes too long, Zaroff impatiently bats the rolling papers away, sneering, “An old trick, Morgan! Trying to blow tobacco in our eyes, so we couldn’t see, eh?” At that moment, Tom’s horse (Tony Jr.) sticks his head in a car parked outside and honks the horn, distracting Zaroff and his men long enough for Tom to turn the tables. “That’s another old trick, Zaroff,” he says, “but you’ve got to have a good horse to do it.”

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What I watched: The Miracle Rider (Mascot, 1935)

Where I watched it: I watched the whole thing on YouTube, which is why I haven’t included very many screen shots. My apologies; you can pretend it’s a radio program if you like.

No. of chapters: 15

Best chapter title: “Danger Rides With Death” (Chapter 12)

Best cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter 2 (“The Firebird Strikes”), Tom Morgan has infiltrated the Indian Cave hideout in which the “Firebird” rocket glider is stored; during a fight with Zaroff’s men, he climbs inside it and is stuck inside when it takes off. The chapter ends with the glider, remote-controlled by Zaroff, crashing to the ground in a fiery explosion. (Needless to say, Tom survives, in this case by parachuting out before the crash.)

Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: In my discussion of Undersea Kingdom, I noted that Republic seemed to cheat its cliffhanger resolutions more frequently than other studios, but I think that habit began at Mascot, the studio that later became Republic. The resolution of the cliffhanger that ends chapter 6 (“Thundering Hoofs”) isn’t quite as mind-bending as the Annie Wilkes Award winner for Fighting with Kit Carson, but it plays pretty fast and loose, as do some others in this serial. In this one, Tom is riding with his captive, Sewell, tied up behind him, chased by one of Zaroff’s men on a motorcycle. Passing under a tree branch, Sewell reaches up and catches it with the ropes that bind him, hanging himself in the tree and pulling Tom to the ground, where he is in imminent danger of being trampled by horses. However, as the scene is reset at the beginning of chapter 7 (“The Dragnet”), the gang on horseback is distracted by Sewell hanging from the tree and simply stops riding. They don’t come anywhere near Tom, who is able to pick himself up with no problems. I can hear Annie Wilkes screaming about this one from here.

Sample dialogue: “Today the Ravenhead tasted the tongue of the Firebird–tonight they’ll fell its claws!” –Zaroff, Chapter 1 (“The Vanishing Indian”)

What others have said: “The present writers lack the psychic insight of some reviewers to know whether Tom Mix was bored with the serial or not, but certainly, what appears on the screen in private showings is a quiet professionalism. Tom Mix had ridden these familiar trails many times before, but nobody knew how to ride them better.” –Harmon and Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s next: The Green Archer

Cowboys & Aliens: A Reappraisal

Following last week’s look at the odd history of the science-fiction Western, I offer a more detailed defense of 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens (warning: spoilers ahead). Like my article on Addicted to Love, this was written as an entry for Lovefest, an ongoing series organized by commenters on film website The Dissolve. The only requirement for Lovefest is that it is an appreciation of a movie that flopped, was panned by critics, and/or is generally forgotten.

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The title Cowboys & Aliens promises a high-concept romp. In interviews featured on the Blu-ray, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and director Jon Favreau mention that the title alone of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic book series got them excited, and perhaps Universal’s marketers assumed that audiences would be similarly turned on by the prospect of B-movie thrills in a genre mash-up. Further, the involvement of Favreau, known for witty banter and a slyly comic approach (whether directing Will Ferrell in a Christmas comedy or setting the template for Marvel’s superhero franchise with Robert Downey, Jr.), probably fed expectations that this would be more of the same.

Instead of the fun promised by the title, however, audiences got a fairly serious, even grim, drama that was surprisingly gruesome for its PG-13 rating and included moments of outright horror. (In the same featurettes, the filmmakers mention the inspiration they drew from Alien, but I don’t remember that being highlighted in the trailers.) There is some comic relief and plenty of action, but it’s not really a lighthearted movie. One never really knows how a movie will perform, but considering the talent involved and that audiences and critics claim to want original* blockbusters, a less generic title and more accurate marketing might have given the film a better chance. While a viewer might agree with everything I have to say and still not find this movie to their taste, fans of other maligned films like John Carter and The Lone Ranger will probably find something to enjoy in Cowboys & Aliens.

*In this case, “original” is a fuzzy concept: Cowboys & Aliens is original in the sense that it is neither sequel nor remake (even the comic book on which the film is based is hardly a well-known property, and appears to have been optioned solely for the name and concept), but it treads in well-worn pathways, featuring characters who are familiar by type if not by name.

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Set in 1875 New Mexico, Cowboys & Aliens begins with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert, injured and with no memory of who he is. On his wrist is a strange metal shackle; in his pocket, a picture of a woman (Abigail Spencer). After brutally fending off an assault by three highwaymen, this literal Man With No Name makes his way to a depressed mining town called Absolution. He makes the acquaintance of a pragmatic preacher (Clancy Brown) and a strange woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde), who recognizes the shackle and says she can help him recover his memory. An obvious man of action, the stranger can’t help but insert himself into a scene caused by Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), a bullying, loudmouthed twerp who takes advantage of the protection of his father (Harrison Ford), the local cattle king whose business keeps the town alive.

Provoked by the take-no-shit stranger, Percy fires his gun carelessly, hitting a nearby deputy in the shoulder. The sheriff (Keith Carradine) has no choice but to lock Percy up, but he quickly realizes that the newcomer is Jake Lonergan, wanted for stealing a shipment of gold that belongs to Colonel Dolarhyde and for the murder of a prostitute; Lonergan gets locked up, too.

As night falls, the sheriff prepares to deliver both Percy and Lonergan to a judge in Santa Fe, and Colonel Dolarhyde and his men show up to stop him. Dolarhyde is first shown torturing a man whom he suspects of killing one of his herds (actually the work of the titular aliens, of course), and he has no qualms about using force to free his son or enacting rough justice on the man who stole from him.

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Just as all of these strands of plot are coming together, the aliens attack from the air, causing explosive mayhem with their lasers and pulling townspeople into the air with lasso-like snares. When the aliens’ ships come in range, the bracelet on Lonergan’s wrist lights up, and he finds that he can use it as a powerful blaster; he shoots down one of the gliders, but it is too late to halt the attack completely. In the chaos, Percy is among those captured, as are the sheriff and the wife of Doc (Sam Rockwell), the town’s meek doctor/barkeep.

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From here, the main plot is set in motion: Dolarhyde takes command of the situation and plans a rescue party, believing that the townspeople were taken alive for a reason. (“If they wanted ‘em dead, they’d be dead,” he says. “This was a round-up.”) Joining the search party are the tenderfoot doctor, who doesn’t even own a gun, and a young boy, Emmett (Noah Ringer), the sheriff’s grandson; Ella also joins for her own reasons, but Lonergan chooses not to go, even as Dolarhyde urges him to add his strange weapon to the search.

Where Cowboys & Aliens is most successful is in taking the premises of classic Westerns and alien-invasion stories seriously. The Western townspeople, while stock character types, are neither fools nor gifted with period-inappropriate knowledge. The film begins with several mundane plots in motion: there are no cardboard slasher victims, standing around waiting for the action to start. Further, they behave as any nineteenth-century person of average education might when faced with something beyond their understanding: when the aliens strike, some wonder if they are being attacked by demons, and they probably wouldn’t seek out trouble if they weren’t trying to retrieve their kidnapped loved ones. The film doesn’t count on the characters to relay exposition about aliens: we see the action through their eyes and fill in the details with our own genre experience.

As Lonergan’s memories gradually return, he visits an abandoned cabin, where he remembers bringing the stolen gold to his lover (the woman whose picture he had, and whom he is accused of killing), with the intention of starting over somewhere far away. In the first of several eerie flashbacks, the gold coins are melted into slag and sucked through the roof of the cabin by a mysterious force, and then one of the aliens’ skyhooks pierces the roof and captures the woman.

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After finding nothing at the cabin, Lonergan joins the search party, which has been tracking an injured alien. The main tracker, a Mexican Indian named Nat (Adam Beach), is Dolarhyde’s hired man and Percy’s companion and protector, but is more importantly everything Percy isn’t: brave, competent, and honorable. To Dolarhyde, however, Nat is just a thick-skulled Indian.

After losing the tracks in a rainstorm, the party comes across an upside-down riverboat, stranded miles from any river. The searchers hole up in the eerie, decaying boat for the night, and several character arcs begin to unfold: the preacher helps Doc practice shooting; Dolarhyde reluctantly takes Emmett under his wing, giving him a knife for protection; Nat inadvertently reveals how much Dolarhyde has been a father figure to him, but is rebuked.

Will Doc learn to shoot in time to help save his wife? Will that knife come in handy just when Emmett needs it? Will Dolarhyde come to appreciate the surrogate son who has been in front of him the whole time? Most importantly, will Lonergan regain his memory and redeem himself after his former life of crime, coming to an understanding with the similarly hardened Civil War veteran Colonel Dolarhyde? If you can’t guess the answers to those questions, then you haven’t seen very many Westerns or sci-fi action movies.

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It is worth emphasizing that Cowboys & Aliens presents a distinctly cinematic version of both the genres it combines: it is primarily an action movie with a secondary focus on character. Neither the history of the West nor a philosophy of science have any particular bearing on events, other than an awareness of the passing of the Indian in the face of white migration (something that is at the heart of many Westerns, but which is also, as we shall see, of thematic importance to Cowboys & Aliens).

As mentioned, the characters are archetypes of Western fiction; their familiarity helps us take sides right away. Also, whether consciously or not, Cowboys & Aliens exploits the fact that early filmed sci-fi took advantage of the rocky, arid terrain of the Southwest to stand in for alien planets. (The association of science fiction with desert landscapes has long literary associations, as well.) The same caves and canyons around Hollywood that were backdrops for Johnny Mack Brown and Tom Mix served just as well for the surface of the moon or the planet Mongo a few years later.

This is more than just convenience or historical association: it contributes vitally to the tone of the film. In an essay entitled “The Alien Landscapes of the Planet Earth: Science Fiction in the Fifties,” Vivian Sobchak points out that lonely, desolate places on earth have more power to awaken terror than visions of advanced technology that inevitably become dated with the passage of time. In Sobchak’s words, “What we wonder at today, we may laugh at tomorrow. But the desert and the beach, the wind and the sea, the black lagoon and the frozen stretches of Arctic ice do not date, and will never lose their power to awe and disturb us.”

The power Sobchak describes is what the romantics called the sublime, the combination of wonder and terror one experiences in the face of the vast works of nature such as the storm, or the sea . . . or the desert. It is what often makes even the lousiest Western worth watching for its panoramic vistas of the great plains, the deserts of the Southwest, or formations such as Monument Valley. Against the grain of much modern filmmaking, Cowboys & Aliens was filmed on location in New Mexico: all of its settings are real, physical places, even the spaceship interior sets; the aliens and their technology are brought to life with a mixture of CG and practical effects; and the daytime scenes are filmed with natural light. (Director of Photography Matthew Libatique is best known as a long-time collaborator with Darren Aronofsky, and had previously worked with Favreau on the first two Iron Man movies.) It is as real as a film about cowboys fighting alien invaders can be, and its sense of place is a powerful asset.**

**It also sounds great: composer Harry Gregson-Williams had the job of effectively scoring two movies, but his score fits together and bridges the gap between genres very effectively.

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In the films Sobchak was writing about (largely low-budget monster and alien-invasion movies such as Them! and It Came From Outer Space), the scope and ruggedness of natural settings are only part of their effectiveness in setting mood: they are also isolated. The tension in these films is in part a product of their settings’ loneliness and distance from help, and the frisson generated when encountering something that doesn’t belong where no one should be: “strange inhuman footprints on an impressionable beach,” to cite one of Sobchak’s examples. Cowboys & Aliens features exactly that trope, with Indian tracker Nat following the trail of footprints left by the alien.

Tracking is an important part of Western lore, and the Indian scout is one of several archetypal characters the movie presents. The anxiety and eeriness of seeing the alien footprints is only slightly greater than that a settler might have experienced upon finding prints in unknown territory: do they belong to friend or foe? In that strange world west of the tree line, the unknown almost always represented danger.

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Another common visual motif of science fiction is the juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial, or the primitive and the high-tech (in his essay “The Science Fiction Film Image,”*** Fred Chappell identifies this as one of five types of incongruity that can make an image recognizably science fictional: “the spaceship in the wilderness” and “the spaceman among alien aborigines” are two examples he gives). The riverboat, already made eerie by its landlocked, overturned state, is half-overgrown with weeds, and rain water filters through its cracked floors and ceilings. It’s an image of nature and technology in collision, and its wrongness foreshadows the searchers’ ultimate destination, a tower-like spaceship hidden among the rock formations of a remote canyon. In Cowboys & Aliens, the aliens are the spacemen, the humans the aborigines, a very effective reversal of common imagery (more about this momentarily).

***Both Vivian Sobchak’s and Fred Chappell’s essays are found in the Monarch Film Studies volume Science Fiction Films, edited by Thomas R. Atkins.

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Unbeknownst to the group, the injured alien is also hiding in the riverboat, and this sequence of the movie recalls Alien’s “haunted house” formula; the first clear view of the alien reveals it as a tall, vaguely humanoid creature with a mixture of reptilian and insectoid features (including, most disturbingly, a breastplate that opens to reveal a pair of tiny, grasping forelimbs for fine manipulation, a clear nod to the mouth-within-a-mouth of H. R. Giger’s xenomorph). The alien picks off a few members of the party, including the preacher, and escapes.

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The next morning, after picking up the alien’s fresh tracks, the party runs afoul of a gang of robbers: some of Lonergan’s old crew, now run by a dufus named Hunt (Walton Goggins). Lonergan, still not completely recovered from his amnesia, plays along and asks Hunt to take him back to the gang’s camp. It’s there that he learns that he had left the gang high and dry, taking their share of the stolen gold in order to run away with his woman. The gang isn’t too willing to have him back, and they threaten the members of the search party. Another aerial attack by the aliens interrupts them.

Ella is taken by one of the aliens’ lassos, and Lonergan manages to jump onto the ship carrying her, blowing it up with the blaster; they both land in the water, but Ella is wounded by the ship’s alien pilot, who also escaped the crash of his craft. Lonergan carries Ella back to the search party, but it’s too late: she is dead.

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The party is surrounded by an Apache tribe on horseback who take them back to their encampment. Dolarhyde’s anti-Indian attitudes come to the fore, but Nat is able to translate and keep the two groups from killing each other. When Ella’s body is thrown onto a funeral pyre, it releases a burst of energy and she comes back to life: she is the last of her kind, one of another race that had already been wiped out by the aliens, and who has been following them to make sure no other world suffers the same fate as her home. Finally we get a little exposition: the aliens are part of a scouting mission, looking for gold (“It’s as rare to them as it is to you,” she explains) and abducting humans to perform tests and analyze their weaknesses in advance of a full invasion force.

Even when it’s clearer what is happening, there is no outpouring of foreign names or history, no grand mythology of which this film is only a single episode; in an era of incessant franchise-building, it’s refreshing to see such a self-contained story. (If the film’s poor performance has one bright side, it’s that we weren’t subjected to a series of increasingly convoluted and unsatisfying sequels.)

Because of its singularity—there is only a single scout ship, destroyed by the humans by the end of the movie—and its remoteness from civilization, this is a story that can take place without rewriting known history. It has a level of plausible deniability: even if the characters were to share their story at some point, who would believe them? (I don’t know if it was intentional, but this alien-invasion story fits neatly with the nineteenth-century “airship mysteries” that are sometimes cited as proto-UFO phenomena, not to mention the various hoaxes that filled newspapers of the time.)

In a sweat lodge ceremony, the Apaches help Lonergan recover the rest of his memories in a deeply unsettling sequence: a hard-to-place memory of his lover lying next to him is revealed to be her vivisection at the hands of an alien scientist, before her disintegration right before Lonergan’s eyes. In the flashback, he is strapped to a table, awaiting his turn to be tested and then exterminated. He remembers how the alien’s carelessness gave him the chance to steal its weapon and use it to escape, his mind still scrambled by a hypnotic light the aliens used to keep their captives docile.

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At this point, all the threads come together for the big finish: Nat helps Dolarhyde reach an accommodation with the Apaches (who have also lost many of their people to the aliens) by explaining that Dolarhyde raised him like a son, even though they were not blood, and Lonergan rides out to convince his old gang to join the fight. The townspeople, gang members, and Apaches converge on the aliens’ base, a spaceship half buried in the ground in a remote canyon, disguised to look like the rocks around it. (I personally love scenes where erstwhile foes join together to defeat a common foe, like the gangsters and G-men standing up to the Nazis in The Rocketeer. If Cowboys & Aliens could be described as Independence Day in the Old West, at least it has more nuance than that film.)

The images of alien footprints and the alien vessel in the canyon are doorways from which the Western transitions into science fiction in Cowboys & Aliens, but they are also reminders that the Western is already a kind of science fiction, a historically-based example of Isaac Asimov’s definition of science fiction as “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.” Although not always the central focus of Western stories, the telegraph, the railroad, the Winchester rifle, and even the horse—introduced by the conquistadors, and which transformed the plains tribes before settlers had even crossed the Mississippi—are clear examples of new technologies affecting entire civilizations. (Technological superiority alone does not account for the relentless expansion of colonists at the expense of Native peoples, but it is surely a significant factor.) Even if white settlers had been wholly benign, Native culture could not have avoided changing through contact and trade with them.

Cowboys & Aliens puts all its human characters, white and Indian alike, in the position of natives faced with conquerors who vastly outgun them (and will also outnumber them in the event of a full-scale invasion). The Apaches and whites, who otherwise would have no cause to trust or associate with each other, have a good reason to work together here. The aliens see humanity as a mere inconvenience, almost beneath notice, fit only to exploit and experiment upon; they sweep in and take what they want, in a pattern of conquest that (according to Ella) has happened again and again. Human beings are even compared explicitly to cattle, first by being roped up and taken, and then by being penned while they await slaughter. The movie doesn’t hit us over the head with it, but it isn’t subtle.

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The film is at its most horrifying not when the searchers are being picked off by a lone alien in the upside-down riverboat, but in Lonergan’s memories and his return to the spaceship. Watching his lover disposed of as a science experiment; finding piles of pocket watches and glasses from past victims; the prisoners herded together as a nameless mass awaiting their turn—and Lonergan remembering himself as one of them: these are images not just of genocide, but of Holocaust, the scientist-alien (whom the filmmakers in their commentary describe tellingly as the uber-alien) as Dr. Mengele. It is this, more than anything else in the film, that likely made it so hard to swallow for audiences who only wanted a Western lark with a twist, an afternoon with the kids to sit in air conditioning and eat popcorn, and it makes the cannibalism and Indian slaughter of The Lone Ranger seem measured by comparison.

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Finally, a few words about the cast: it’s loaded with well-known stars and terrific character actors, but as we all know that doesn’t always lead to a good movie. In this case, however, the cast has great chemistry; most of the actors are familiar faces with experience in Westerns and do many of their own stunts, adding to the sense of lived-in reality. Daniel Craig is a natural as a bad man who finds himself capable of heroism, and Olivia Wilde’s otherworldly beauty makes her an excellent choice for her role; the supporting cast is also a pleasure to watch. I’d like to single out Harrison Ford, however, for the best performance he’s given in years. Colonel Dolarhyde is the kind of tight-lipped grouch Ford has been playing for the last decade-plus, but here he doesn’t come off as a pampered, over-the-hill star marking time until he can get back to flying his plane. His anger, his disappointment in his son, and the bitterness that has grown into a thick shell around him feel genuine, and his last scenes with Nat are moving in the best hey-I’m-not-crying-it’s-just-getting-awfully-dusty-in-here guys’-movie tradition. In the interviews on the Blu-ray, Ford mentions that he’s playing the old man role, mostly talking while Craig does all the stunts. It’s an exaggeration, but it points to a relationship that plays out on screen, with the grudging respect that develops between the two men unfolding naturally. Harrison Ford is really acting in this one, guys: see it and believe it.

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Hitch Your Wagon to a Star: The Elusive Hollywood Sci-Fi Western

Despite the title, not a space Western

Despite the title, not a space Western

It seems like it should be easy: “space cowboys” such as Han Solo and Mal Reynolds are essentially Old West gunslingers dropped into the cockpit of a spaceship, so why shouldn’t it work the other way around: a robot on horseback or a space alien on a stagecoach? Despite the longstanding popularity of both Westerns and science fiction, the number of films that successfully bring the two genres together in this way is surprisingly small. To be sure, ghost stories, tall tales, and bloody violence are all established parts of Western lore, and some great movies have been made exploring these themes, but the “weird Western” typically explores the boundaries of fantasy and horror, myth and history, rather than science fiction. It turns out that it’s easier to move the Old West into outer space than vice versa.

Undoubtedly, the cinematic grandfather of all such hybrids is the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire (of which I have written more extensively elsewhere), in which singing cowboy Gene Autry runs up against members of a super-advanced underground civilization. In their book The Great Movie Serials, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut characterize The Phantom Empire as the beginning of a cycle of “zap-gun Western” serials. However, the other examples they cite, such as Tom Mix’s final film The Miracle Rider, involve super-science of purely human invention, and lack the sense of weird mystery and contact with alien forces that makes The Phantom Empire so distinctive.

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Perhaps the reason there have been so few overt fusions of science fiction and the Western in film is that such a hybrid is redundant: once science fiction (especially in the pulpy, action-adventure mode that has dominated popular film-making) took over the Western’s role as the main arena for playing out America’s myths and fears, it borrowed wholesale many of the plots and character types associated with the older genre, effectively replacing it. Good guys (almost exclusively white in the early years of both genres) and bad guys (sometimes literally alien, sometimes white men whose greed had overcome them); a thirst for exploration and conquest, usually in the name of civilization but often identified with commercial interests; and a sense of isolation, of being separated from the routines and mores of the old world (including meditations on the softening, corrupting influences of civilized society), were all notable features of both the Western and early science fiction, to the point that “horse opera” could be updated to “space opera” without any misunderstanding on the part of audiences. The “edge of civilization” was constantly moving outward: Star Trek’s description of space as “the final frontier” is illustrative.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars." A few episodes, such as "Spectre of the Gun," made it literal.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” A few episodes, such as “Spectre of the Gun,” made it literal.

Besides the gunslinger, other characters, such as the alien other, the damsel in distress (or the hooker with a heart of gold in racier manifestations: neither genre had much use for well-developed female characters, as pioneering was considered man’s work), the white man “gone native,” the amoral company man, and the wise tribesman (often the last of his kind, given a tragic nobility once no longer a threat) were translated easily. Science fiction, arriving as it did in a period of both rapid dissemination of ideas and ready access to literature of the past, became a clearinghouse of genre storytelling, absorbing themes and tropes like a sponge. From this point of view, it’s only natural that Terry Gilliam could describe Darth Vader as “the cowboy with the black hat,” that Flash Gordon’s Princess Aura fits the mold of the femme fatale, and that Seven Samurai could be remade as both a Western and as a space adventure. Ultimately, callow, daydreaming farm boys are the same everywhere, whether from Texas or Tatooine.

In that case, the distinction between the two genres is one of iconography, and iconography flourishes in visual media: comic books and cartoons have always been friendly to the robot in a cowboy hat, as have the pop surrealism movement and the artists who contribute to sites like DeviantArt. When it comes to mixing and matching, Western and sci-fi are primary colors that can be laid on in broad strokes.

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Both literary and cinematic science fiction have had to work to absorb Western motifs, however: all but the most fantastic stories attempt to rationalize the mixture of Old West and New Frontier, and here the difference between the two genres is a clear obstacle.* The Western is rooted in a specific time and place, and once that historical moment was over, the Western became a genre about the past (one reflecting contemporary attitudes, to be sure, but almost always focusing through the lens of history); science fiction, especially in the early Space Age, was about the future, and whether focused on the promise of exploration or the horror of nuclear war, it used speculation about the future to examine the current moment. In short, both forms stood in the present, but the Western looked into the past, either searching for some imperialistic original sin or retreating into comforting nostalgia, while science fiction looked into the future, projecting either our hopes or fears.

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Given that difference in emphasis, science fiction has often chosen to visit the Old West by means of time travel or alternate history. The “steampunk” movement has produced a wide variety of literature, some of it great, but on film it has been too often a faddish visual template that can be applied to the same old pulp storytelling: the result has been ambitious failures like the film version of Wild Wild West or “high concept” dreck like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. (Complaints about the perceived hackiness of combining the two genres aren’t new: Wikipedia’s “Space Western” entry notes pulp-era efforts to stamp out lazy updates of Western plots in sci-fi garb, including one magazine’s ad campaign claiming “You’ll never see it in Galaxy.”)

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Better are films that find ways to repurpose the trappings of the Western, like Westworld, in which the Western setting is a fiction within the fiction, or Serenity (the belated finale of television series Firefly), which makes explicit both the themes of colonization and post-civil war disillusionment that are a part of the Western. In both cases, the adoption of Western dress and lingo are made to seem not only organic to the setting but essential to the stories being told: both use science fiction to interrogate the Western, and by extension mythmaking in general.

* Even excursions into outright fantasy don’t always pass the laugh test: I invite you to consider the short-lived 1987 cartoon series BraveStarr:

I’ve also just become aware of a 1999 film called Aliens in the Wild, Wild West that doesn’t look too promising; although I haven’t seen it, an imdb reviewer calls it “one of the top ten worst movies I have ever seen.” Tellingly, like The Phantom Empire and like BraveStarr and similar cartoons, Aliens in the Wild, Wild West appears to have been made primarily for children.

BraveStarr

BraveStarr

Next week, I’ll look at a recent example of the genre, 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens.

Fates Worse Than Death: Zorro’s Black Whip

AKA "Zorro minus Zorro"

AKA “Zorro minus Zorro”

Although movie studios adapted many popular characters from the comics, radio, and literature for serials, they eventually grew tired of paying license fees and squabbling over creative control and came up with thinly-disguised copies of licensed characters, changing (for example) the Phantom to “Captain Africa” or Zorro to “Don Daredevil.” This allowed filmmakers to reuse footage from earlier productions without paying to license the characters again. Studios also created a few original characters, such as Rocket Man/Commando Cody.

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Zorro’s Black Whip, however, is an unusual case, a seemingly superfluous license: aside from the title, the lead character, the “Black Whip,” is never referred to as Zorro at all, and only superficially resembles Johnston McCulley’s masked avenger. Zorro’s Black Whip doesn’t even take place in Mexico or the Southwest: the story is set in the Idaho Territory in 1889, just before elections to determine Idaho’s statehood. However, the use of Zorro’s name in the title undoubtedly sold tickets, and the film’s reputation for being “the female Zorro” has given it a sort of immortality.

So Zorro’s Black Whip, despite its title, is a fairly straightforward Western with a masked hero. It begins with a title card describing rampant lawlessness on the eve of statehood elections:

Law-abiding citizens called for a vote to bring their territory into the Union. But sinister forces, opposed to the coming of law and order, instigated a reign of terror against the lives and property of all who favored statehood.

After a montage of masked horsemen attacking wagon trains, burning settlements, and robbing a bank, the scene changes to a meeting of the “citizens’ committee,” including pro-statehood newspaper editor Randolph Meredith, at the offices of stagecoach operator Dan Hammond. A federal commissioner is arriving in the territory in response to the bank robbery, driven by Meredith’s sister Barbara; he’ll take charge of law and order in the area until the elections.

After the meeting, Hammond confers with his henchmen, Baxter and Harris: it is Hammond who is behind the outlaws’ depredations, and he’ll stop at nothing to prevent statehood from wrecking his plans to control the territory. (Yes, this is the same motive as Kraft’s in Fighting with Kit Carson.) Hammond sends his goons to eliminate the commissioner and capture Barbara in order to force her brother to stop pushing for statehood in his newspaper.

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A chance meeting with Vic Gordon, a railroad surveyor, gives Barbara and the commissioner a fighting chance, and when the Black Whip rides in to assist, Baxter and Harris are outmatched and retreat. It’s too late for the commissioner, however, and before he dies of his wounds he reveals that Gordon is an undercover agent working for him, deputizing Barbara to help Gordon “stamp out these evils [and] bring Idaho into the Union.”

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The Black Whip, also injured, returns to his lair behind a waterfall; as he unmasks before dying, we see that it is Randolph Meredith, and the secret entrance connects to his and Barbara’s ranch house. When she returns home, looking for him, she finds his body and learns the truth. From then on, she wears the costume and takes on the responsibilities of the Black Whip, as well as the newspaper, with the aid of Vic Gordon.

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There are quite a few complications before Hammond is eventually brought to justice: Gordon is briefly framed for stealing reward money he had collected, and is almost lynched by an angry mob; Barbara is captured with the intention of forcing her to reveal the Black Whip’s identity; Gordon learns the truth and puts on the Black Whip costume to avert suspicion that Barbara is the masked vigilante.

Throughout, Barbara uses the newspaper to pass information along and provide handy visual summaries for the audience: HERALD EDITOR MURDERED; $10,000 REWARD; BIG GOLD STRIKE AT HARPER’S CREEK, etc. At the same time, Hammond secretly uses his position as a businessman and member of the citizens’ committee to shape public opinion and stymie attempts to curb the outlaws. It’s a surprisingly urban approach to the Western, with gangsters using six-shooters instead of tommy guns and getting away on horseback instead of in black sedans.

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Also contributing to the contemporary feel, I was struck by the fact that everyone has a telephone. At first this seemed anachronistic to me, but reliable sources inform me that the first commercial telephone service in Idaho was established in 1883, so I can now claim the entire four hours of Zorro’s Black Whip as “educational viewing.” In other ways it is a typical Hollywood production: there are no Native Americans or people of color at all, sparing us the usual problematic racial depictions but also whitewashing away any real history. (I know, expecting “real history” was probably too much, but the telephone thing got my hopes up.) In fact, probably the most jarring element from a modern perspective is typesetter “Ten Point” Jackson’s addiction to patent medicines (like a “jitters tonic” helpfully labeled “90% alcohol”), played as comic relief.

(note telephone in background)

(note telephone in background)

The performances are uniformly excellent and, in combination with the writing (credited to four people: Basil Dickey, Jesse Duffy, Grant Nelson, and Joseph Poland), give the characters a lived-in quality. As Vic Gordon, George J. Lewis is the first billed, but Linda Stirling as Barbara/the Black Whip should really be considered the star. (As in most serials, no one person is responsible for moving the entire plot forward, but come on, she’s the title character and was the focus in promotional materials.) Lewis comes off as somewhat glib, flashing a movie-star smile at the end of most of his scenes, whether appropriate to the moment or not.

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Who knows—maybe he really had the hots for Stirling, and who could blame him? Beautiful and self-possessed, Stirling is considered one of the “serial queens” of the era, having previously appeared in The Tiger Woman, a jungle adventure; she here shows both an ability to act and carry a stunt-heavy action picture, riding, shooting, and dispatching bad guys with the long whip from which her alter ego takes its name. (Unlike Pearl White, however, she didn’t do all her own stunts.) On the villains’ side, Francis McDonald gives a wiry intensity to Hammond, and Hal Taliaferro is physically imposing and laconic in the manner of John Wayne as Hammond’s chief henchman Baxter.

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From a technical standpoint, this is one of the most tightly assembled serials I’ve watched so far. Directors Spencer Gordon Bennet and Wallace A. Grissell frame the action clearly and keep the pace up, aided by the cast’s game performances. Famed Western stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt serves as second unit director, contributing his expertise to the numerous horseback gunfights, chases and careening wagons that fill the running time. Also present are Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel, who would typically play a few henchmen or other bit parts while coordinating fistfights and other stunts behind the scenes. Finally, Theodore Lydecker is in charge of special effects, and his miniature work is recognizable in several shots, such as a cabin being flattened by a rockslide (according to imdb, Theodore’s brother Howard did uncredited work as well, which would make sense: they usually worked as a team). Zorro’s Black Whip is a showcase for some of Republic’s production talent at a high point of quality.

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The fight scenes are especially prominent and well executed, and Republic must have spent half its budget for this picture on breakaway furniture. Several locations are demolished by fights (including the newspaper office, the stagecoach office, an abandoned mine tunnel, and several barns and shacks), the fighters throwing each other over and through objects, and the furniture and any loose items being turned into impromptu clubs or missiles. When a fight breaks out in Barbara’s sitting room, with its flimsy knick-knack shelves and parlor furniture, it’s as thoroughly trashed as in any juvenile delinquent movie of the 1950s. In another fight scene, everything in the room, up to and including a cast-iron stove, comes crashing down during the brawl. It’s a credit to the choreography that these fights never become dull or repetitive.

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In The Great Movie Serials, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut highlight the contradictions inherent in the serial heroine: do audiences want to see an avenging she-devil whipping her male oppressors, or a bound victim awaiting rescue? It’s the same question posed by The Perils of Pauline in an updated package.

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Harmon and Glut even go so far as to draw a connection between Stirling’s tight costume and “man-abusing actions” and “certain forms of underground erotica” (the book was written in 1972). I wonder, however, if through hindsight they were overstating the film’s effect on their younger selves. It’s possible to read the Black Whip as a predecessor of Russ Meyer’s “supervixens”—there’s definitely a lot of whipping in this film, and one can imagine it charging the imagination of some young Russ Meyers in the audience—but Linda Stirling is no Tura Satana, and Zorro’s Black Whip, while entertaining in its own right, will never be mistaken for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

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In the interest of equal time, Vic Gordon is also captured and tied up.

In the interest of equal time, Vic Gordon is also captured and tied up.

What I Watched: Zorro’s Black Whip (Republic, 1944)
Where I Watched It: A Roan Group Archival Entertainment DVD; it’s also available to watch on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Take Off That Mask!” (Chapter Five)
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Best Cliffhanger: Fittingly for a serial that places such a premium on action, there are many excellent cliffhangers in Zorro’s Black Whip. There are several falls off of cliffs, of course, in and out of speeding wagons; there are explosions, including a burning barrel of coal oil in a dead-end mine tunnel. There’s quite a bit of violence which is grisly in its implication, if not very graphic in its depiction (and lest you think that whip is just for show, the Black Whip totally whips a guy backwards off the edge of a cliff at one point). I think my favorite cliffhanger is in Chapter Ten, “Fangs of Doom,” the title of which leads me to expect a rattlesnake (or maybe . . . a vampire?). As it happens, during a fight in a barn, in which a variety of riding tack and farm implements are thrown around, the Black Whip is knocked out, and Baxter attempts to finish her off with a pitchfork(!), thrusting it downward with a sickening crunch.
Annie Wilkes Award for Blatant Cheat: But wait! At the last minute, Gordon throws a saddle over the Black Whip’s torso, so the sickening crunch is the sound of the pitchfork driving into the hard leather. Okay, it’s not a cheat, but come on . . . a saddle?
ZBW.saddle
Sample Dialogue: “The Black Whip’s got to be a man! He’s out-shot us, out-rode us, and out-fought us, stopped us at every turn!” –Baxter to Hammond, Chapter Nine (“Avalanche”)
What Others Have Said: “What still remains a mystery to viewers of Zorro’s Black Whip is that those crooks could wrestle around the barn so many times with the avenger without somehow discovering the true sex of the ‘masked man.’” –Harmon and Glut, The Great Movie Serials
What’s Next: Next week I plan to publish a special serial-related article, and then in two weeks I’ll be back with my impression of Gang Busters, the final installment of Fates Worse Than Death until next summer. See you then!

Fates Worse Than Death: The Phantom Empire

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Radio Ranch is a busy place: Frankie and Betsy Baxter’s father Tom co-owns the ranch with “Radio’s Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry, whose daily broadcasts have brought visitors from all over. The Baxter kids also run the “Junior Thunder Riders,” a combination fan club and service organization (after some debate, they settle on “To the rescue!” as their motto) inspired by a mysterious group of riders they once witnessed in nearby Thunder Valley. In addition, Frankie is a tinkerer (with an enviable workshop in the barn loft), assembling electrical gadgets using instructions from Popular Science (and occasionally borrowing parts from the ranch’s radio engineer!).
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The action begins with the arrival of Professor Beetson and his crew, secretly in search of a radium deposit Beetson believes to be in the area. At the same time, one of Frankie’s devices, a radio signal “direction finder,” indicates that some scrambled signals he’s been tracking for weeks are coming from straight down, somewhere in the depths of the earth.
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Before the first chapter is over, it is revealed that the mysterious riders, the radium deposit, and the unknown radio signals are all connected to “The Scientific City of Murania” 25,000 feet below the surface, a realm of futuristic marvels ruled by the haughty Queen Tika and whose entrance in Thunder Valley is protected by her royal guard (the “Thunder Riders” the Baxters witnessed, wearing gas mask-like breathing apparatuses while at surface level). It isn’t long before the surface and subterranean worlds collide and the fates of Autry and Tika are entwined!
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As the story develops, Beetson’s greed (for both radium and scientific acclaim) and the Baxters’ curiosity endanger Murania’s secret. Beetson hopes to get Autry out of the way—if Autry misses a broadcast, he’ll lose his radio contract and the ranch—so that he won’t have any interference in his digging (or have to share any of his finds with the property owners and government). Beetson even goes so far as to kill Tom Baxter and frame Autry for the crime! Queen Tika wants both Autry and Beetson gone for similar reasons: too many visitors to Radio Ranch means risking the discovery of Murania, and their serene kingdom must never be desecrated by the presence of surface people!
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Little does Tika know, however, that there is division in her own kingdom: her Chancellor, Argo, schemes to overthrow her with a band of rebels, men he has saved from death in the “Lightning Chamber.” Will she succeed in keeping her throne? Will Frankie and Betsy discover the secret of the underground city? Will Beetson succeed in keeping Gene Autry away from Radio Ranch, or will Autry make it back to broadcast a performance at two o’clock each day?
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Thus begins the epic twelve-chapter Mascot serial The Phantom Empire, Gene Autry’s debut as a leading man (following his attention-getting appearance in In Old Santa Fe) and one of the strangest examples of the form. This is one I had actually seen before: The Phantom Empire was my introduction to the serials several years ago, and revisiting it in light of my recent exploration has not lessened its curiosity factor.

As even this brief summary indicates, there are numerous characters with competing interests to be accommodated by the story, and while some of them fit the profile of stock serial characters—the juveniles, the imperious monarch, the scientist-explorer—both the energy of the performances and the unusual situations in which they find themselves make them stand out as individuals. Even the comic relief, provided by Autry’s sidemen Oscar and Pete (longtime sidekick Lester “Smiley” Burnett and Peter Potter, credited as “William Moore,” respectively), is more idiosyncratic than the typical examples (for one thing, they actually help advance the plot).


Gene Autry is the star, of course, playing the fictionalized version of himself that would carry him through dozens of features and television episodes, bland but likeable, a good guy and friend to all except for heels like Beetson (even Queen Tika eventually comes to see him as an ally). (Incidentally, there is a perception, given his persona, that Autry sings in every chapter, but this is not so: fewer than half the chapters include musical numbers, and in some cases the film cuts to other action, the song continuing in the background.)


Most pulp heroes are intentionally somewhat blank, more active than reflective, the better for audiences to project themselves onto their characters. In this case, however, the audience identification characters are clearly Frankie and Betsy (played by frequent juvenile leads Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross, whom we saw in Fighting with Kit Carson): their leadership of the Junior Thunder Riders (whom they address as part of Autry’s radio broadcast) and Frankie’s do-it-yourself projects are clear appeals to the kinds of young viewers who might throw themselves into fandom, who in the following generations might become Futurians, or members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, or Trekkies, or Whovians. Were they around today, the Junior Thunder Riders would undoubtedly be attending Comic-Con.

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Obviously, the most notable element of The Phantom Empire is its mingling of genres, drawing on the “modern” Western (in which contemporary inventions such as radio, automobiles, and airplanes coexist with horses and six-guns) and space opera (albeit of the inner rather than outer variety). Very little of Murania, with its gleaming art deco spires (reminiscent of both Metropolis and the Emerald City of Oz) and fantastic machinery, including robots and disintegration rays, would be out of place the following year in Flash Gordon. Like the royalty of planet Mongo, the citizens of Murania dress with stagey, pseudo-medieval flair and favor both swords and ray guns for defense. With their flowing cloaks and ornate headgear, it’s no wonder Frankie and Betsy took the Queen’s royal guard as their models for the Junior Thunder Riders.

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The genre mash-up (which, even at this late date, is still unusual in film*) gives it a quaint appeal. Much of Murania’s technology was on the cusp of becoming real in 1935, but must have seemed as fantastic as the automobile would have been in the Old West: radium is treated as a source of almost magical power, not only powering the weapons and machines of Murania but even bringing people—including Gene Autry—back from the brink of death in a “radium reviving chamber.” The disintegrating ray that (inevitably) dooms Murania must have seemed fanciful indeed until real-life atomic bombs cast all such science fiction premises in a new light ten years later. Television is a particular object of fascination, treated here as a magic mirror, able to direct its user’s view almost anywhere with godlike omniscience. (Queen Tika’s viewer, which gets much use, even takes the form of a spiraling horizontal disc, like an oracle’s scrying pool.)

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There had been fictional treatments of a hollow earth, or at least of subterranean realms, before, by such authors as Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and underground kingdoms continued to be popular in the science fiction and fantasy pulps. The Muranians are identified as descendants of ancient Mu who went underground one hundred thousand years earlier, fleeing the advancing glaciers of the Ice Age. Separate from the “mad world” above, they cultivated an advanced science based on the abundant radium they found.


Even in the 1930s, such beliefs were the territory of fringe science and occultism: I’m sure no one involved thought they were making a documentary, but the backstory indicates that at least one of the writers had been paying close attention to such ideas. In Chapter One, after Frankie’s direction finder has detected the radio signals from underground, Betsy asks Autry, “Say, do you suppose there’s anything to any of those books that Frankie’s been reading, about a world underground, with people and cities and everything?” Without hesitating, Autry replies, “Well, of course there’s something to them,” like a regular reader of Amazing Stories.


Speaking of that esteemed publication, The Phantom Empire anticipates by several years the so-called “Shaver Mystery” that appeared in its pages. Beginning in 1943, Amazing Stories’ editor Ray Palmer began printing letters and stories from Richard S. Shaver, who claimed he could hear voices from reincarnated spirits from the past and decode markings left in stone by the long-ago inhabitants of Atlantis and Lemuria. An important part of Shaver’s increasingly complex cosmology was the present-day survival of the original Lemurians’ descendants, who, subject to harmful rays from our sun, had degenerated into “detrimental robots” or “deros.” The deros continued to live in vast cave and tunnel systems beneath the earth, and, through their mastery of the ray technology left behind by the ancients, wreaked all manner of havoc on the surface. Eventually, Shaver came to believe that all illness, mental distress, war, and other problems of the individual and society were caused by the machinations of the malevolent deros. As his stories became wilder and his memories of the ancient world became more vivid (with extensive rewriting by Palmer), letters poured in from readers claiming they had encountered the deros too, having unknowingly crossed into their realm via caves or mines, or that they were being persecuted by the deros and their surface allies. **


I am not aware of any claim that The Phantom Empire influenced the form of Shaver’s later revelations, but they both share a paranoid, hallucinatory quality that (in the case of The Phantom Empire) goes beyond the novelty value of merging two such disparate genres. I would venture so far as to say that The Phantom Empire is in many places truly surreal, not just in the colloquial sense of “weird” but in the sense of invoking a dream-like acceptance of seemingly unrelated events, making the strange seem normal and vice versa. Through the alchemy of film, obvious artifice becomes more vividly real than reality.


As an example, Autry’s easygoing music, for which he was presumably chosen to headline the production, is often juxtaposed with scenes of mystery or danger, giving it an eerie edge: in Chapter Eight (“Jaws of Jeopardy”) he sings “I’m Getting a Moon’s Eye View of the World” on an airplane while Frankie holds a gun on the unwilling pilot; in Chapter One, his then best-known song “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” is broken up and heard from a distance while Frankie and Betsy use the direction finder in their secret workshop. The moment when they realize the signals are coming from beneath the earth achieves something often reached for but not always grasped in the serials: a sense of wonder, and in that scene The Phantom Empire anticipates the inquisitive child protagonists of Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers of the 1980s.


There is a reflexive quality to much of The Phantom Empire, and the borders between narrative elements are permeable: Autry’s daily broadcasts (at least before he is framed) include full live performances of stagecoach robberies and other dramas, supposedly staged for the live audience at the ranch rather than those listening to the radio show, but in ways that play with audience expectation and blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Frankie and Betsy address “Junior Thunder Riders” in the radio audience as a way of speaking directly to the film audience.


The Queen’s royal guard, nicknamed the “Thunder Riders” by Frankie and Betsy, and taken as the basis of their club, are at first referred to only as the “royal guard;” later as the “thunder guard;” and finally as the “Thunder Riders,” the same as the name given to them by the children. The robots of Murania have what appear to be built-in cowboy hats as part of their design (the logical explanation is that someone in the prop department heard the phrase “science fiction Western” and took it to heart, but I’m more interested in effect than intent); ultimately, two of the robots’ metal bodies are inhabited by Oscar and Pete, real cowboys in disguise.

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The constant reuse of key sets above and below ground, made possible in part by Queen Tika’s remote viewing from her control room, gives events a sense of circularity: Flash Gordon moves from one fantastic place to another in sequence, but The Phantom Empire moves up and down as capriciously as the city’s sole elevator, always returning to the same locations.


Queen Tika’s television viewer contributes to this same dream-like scramble of images: several times she views a succession of unconnected scenes from the surface (stock footage of traffic, boxing matches, and car crashes) in order to express her disapproval: “Fools! Surface people are always in a hurry—their world today is a madhouse. We in Murania are indeed fortunate. Death . . . suffering . . . speed . . . accidents. . . .” Almost everything Tika (played by Dorothy Christy) says is delivered in a tone of high dudgeon: “Do I have to witness this insane material because you are unable to find the Garden of Life?” she demands of her assistant, sounding exactly like an annoyed spouse whose husband continues to flip through channels at random.


In one odd scene, Tika takes Autry on a virtual tour of Murania using the viewer, and then contrasts the achievements of her kingdom with a penniless beggar: “Feast your eyes,” she says. “He is from your world; we have none of that here.” Changing the view to Frankie and Betsy, she says, “There are friends of yours. They may become beggars.” In 1935, the depths of the Depression, such a concern was far from academic.

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One moment in the final chapter (“The End of Murania”) says a great deal about the production as a whole: the underground city is melting down under the beam of the rebels’ giant disintegrating ray, now out of control. Queen Tika, resigned to die with her kingdom, remains in her control room and throws the switch which will open the hidden door in Thunder Valley, allowing Autry and his surface friends to escape. Hitching up some of the Thunder Riders’ horses, Autry sees the remaining herd and suddenly says, “We can’t leave those horses here to die!” The group takes an extra moment to free all the horses, as if they knew that the young audience they hoped to grab would say, “Hey, Gene! What about those other horses!?” I admit that, seeing the herd of animals stream out of the hidden door, my heart swelled. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

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What I Watched: The Phantom Empire (Mascot, 1935)
Where I Watched It: Timeless Media Group’s 3-DVD set, endorsed by Gene Autry Entertainment and “sourced from Gene Autry’s personal film archive.” There are several versions on YouTube.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “Prisoners of the Ray” (Chapter Nine)
Best Cliffhanger: The bound or incapacitated victim on a conveyor belt, inexorably moving toward death in the form of a buzz saw or furnace, is one of the iconic images of the serials, but I haven’t seen it all that much in my admittedly limited viewing. Perhaps it was already a cliché by the 1930s heyday of the form, or perhaps I just haven’t watched the right examples yet. However, Chapter Ten of The Phantom Empire (“The Rebellion”) includes just such a cliffhanger: following Argo’s overthrow of Queen Tika, Autry attempts to fight his way out of Murania. During a fight in a foundry full of laboring robots, he is knocked unconscious and sprawled onto a warhead assembly line. At the end, a robot ceaselessly raises and lowers a welding torch—whether its white-hot fire touches a weld point or Autry’s all-too mortal flesh is of no concern to the mindless automaton.
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Annie Wilkes Award for Most Blatant Cheat: After his experience in the “radium reviving chamber” in Chapter Seven (“From Death to Life”), Autry escapes into the underground city and gets into a sword fight with a group of guards. Overpowered by one of them, he falls over the railing of a suspended catwalk; at the beginning of the next chapter, he climbs over instead of being pushed, and grabs onto a rail underneath. As cheats go, it’s a small one, but there’s no question the footage is different.
Silliest Costume: The assistant who operates Tika’s television is essentially a glorified remote control, but he does serve the Queen directly so I can’t blame him for putting on airs. The bat wings on his helmet are a little much, though.
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Sample Dialogue: “So, you are the sprouts from which surface people spring!” –Queen Tika, upon meeting Frankie and Betsy (Chapter Nine, “Prisoners of the Ray”)
What Others Have Said: “Although the stories written about such central ideas are often vastly entertaining, they remain completely fallacious. The Earth is not hollow. The atom is not a miniature solar system. Mars is very different from Earth and could not support Earth life.” –Isaac Asimov, “Social Science Fiction”
What’s Next: I’ll examine another science fiction adventure, Radar Men from the Moon. Will it be as good as The Phantom Empire? Check back in two weeks to find out!

* The Western with science fiction, supernatural, or “weird” elements has a long history in both the comics and prose, but only spotty success in the medium of film. (2011’s Cowboys & Aliens is only the latest attempt to fuse the two genres, but its rejection by audiences is probably due less to its hybrid nature than its relentlessly dour tone; these days, audiences are more willing to embrace sci-fi Western elements under the mantle of “steampunk.”)

** Although mostly a footnote now, the Shaver Mystery was a sensation in the 1940s. It was overtaken by fascination with UFOs, but as late as the 1960s a vocal minority of UFO researchers claimed that flying saucers came from inside the earth rather than outer space.