Thirteen chapters of gun blazing thrills!
The serials are one of the most interesting and amusing areas of movie history. A serial was a single adventure story, broken up into 10-13 chapters, told over that same number of weeks at Saturday matinees. They are famous for their high adventure thrills, and for each chapter ending in an eye-popping cliff hanger.
Although criticized at the time for being little more than cheap B-movies with a gimmick, a lot of today’s blockbuster action films owe quite a debt to the serials. This one, 1944’s Raiders of Ghost City, is a Western, but uses that setting to kick off action movie elements of all types.
It’s 1865, out in the West, during the final days of the Civil War. U.S. Secret Service Captain Steve Clark (Dennis Moore, West of the Rio Grande) is assigned by the President to track down Southern spies stealing shipments of gold. Before long, though, it’s revealed that the Confederates are being framed, and a group of nefarious foreigners are after the gold, as part of a much more elaborate plot. With the help of feisty Wells Fargo agent Cathy Haines (Wanda McKay, The Black Raven) and a tough brawling detective Idaho Jones (Joe Sawyer, The Singing Sheriff), Clark is out to take down the bad guys and protect America.
Years before the TV series Wild Wild West did it, this matinee serial combines Western thrills with espionage plotlines, with a cowboy hero who’s also a secret service agent. Like most serials, this one emphasizes action and big thrills in short, quickly paced segments. Even the episode titles are action packed:
• “Murder by Accident”
• “Flaming Treachery”
• “Death Rides Double”
• “Ghost City Terror”
• “The Fatal Lariat”
• “Water Rising”
• “Bullet Avalanche”
• “Death Laughs Last”
• “Cold Steel”
• “The Trail to Torture”
• “Calling all Buckboards”
• “Golden Vengeance”
What’s fun here is the way the creators take a lot of Western conventions, which had become common in Westerns as far back as 1944, and then play around with them. Sure, there’s a saloon like you see in every Western, but then the villains open up a secret trap door behind the bar, which leads to an underground bunker where code breakers are deciphering secret messages. So although Raiders of Ghost City serves up plenty of horse riding, six gun shooting action that we expect from these serials, there are a lot of little surprises along the way that will keep viewers from feeling like this is the same old thing.
The B-westerns of the 1940s are not known for their depth of characterization, and that’s true for this one too. We’re in the world of good guys with white hats and bad guys with black hats here. That being said, Dennis Moore makes for a great staunch do-gooder hero for audiences to root for. He’s all courage and “hooray for America” heroics, but that’s all that this story requires of him. Wanda McKay gets to show plenty of spunk, and is rarely a mere damsel in distress. As the villain, Lionel Atwell (The Ghost of Frankenstein) is full of moustache-twirling menace, and makes for a fine “love to hate him” baddie.
I was worried during the opening credits, where I saw an intolerable amount of scratches and grain all over the picture. Once the story itself kicked off, though, the picture quality improved greatly, and looks very sharp and clean, considering its age. The audio tends to give off a static hiss, especially during less sound-intensive dialogue scenes. At first, I thought it was raining outside, but then realized that sound was coming from the DVD. It either goes away or is much less noticeable during the louder action scenes. Some brief bios of the actors and a few trailers are it for extras.
Like a lot of serials of this type, the story tends to go around in circles. The heroes chase the villains, then the villains chase the heroes, then heroes chase the villains again, and so on. There are all manner of scrapes and escapes, and yet after a while it feels like a lot of running around aimlessly, and not really moving from one plot point to the next.
Also, as has been pointed out with other serials, the solutions to the cliff hangers are often copouts. Rumor has it that the writers and the directors of the time didn’t trust audiences to remember every detail of each chapter, so the beginning of a chapter would often be tweaked so that it’s different from the one that preceded it. For example, one chapter ends with the hero aboard a train as it crashes. The next chapter begins with the hero jumping from the train well before the crash. Many viewers will balk at continuity errors such as this, while others will accept them, knowing they’re part of a serial’s nostalgic charm.
The serials and B-westerns of the ’40s can’t really compete with today’s explosion-laden blockbusters, but they nonetheless have a charm of their own. If you’re in a nostalgic mood, or if you’re interested in how they did action back in the old days, then Raiders of Ghost City might be for you.