Action Adventure movies


THE SEA HAWK. First National Pictures, 1924. Milton Sills, Enid Bennett, Lloyd Hughes, Wallace MacDonald, Marc MacDermott, Wallace Beery, Frank Currier, Medea Radzina, William Collier, J. Lionel Belmore. Based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini. Director: Frank Lloyd. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   The Sea Hawk was a substitution for the originally scheduled L’Argent (1929; Marcel L’Herbier, director) L’Argent was certainly the film I was looking forward to with the most anticipation. However, although I’d seen The Sea Hawk more than once and have a Turner showing on tape, I didn’t miss the opportunity to watch it again.

   Some of you will be familiar with the Errol Flynn remake (WB, 1940), although the silent version is more faithful to Sabatini’s novel than the later version, which eliminates the extensive Moorish section that’s one of the glories of this film.

   When Sir Oliver Tressilian (Sills) is betrayed by his villainous younger brother and delivered into the greedy hands of rascally Jasper Leigh (Beery), his Christian upbringing is so damaged by his sense of outrage that when he falls into the hands of Moorish pirates, he quickly becomes Sakr-el-Bahr, the “Sea Hawk,” Muslim scourge of the high seas, and the favorite of Asad-el-Din, Sasha of Algiers, much to the chagrin of the Sasha’s favorite wife and heir apparent son.

   Enid Bennett, the lovely star of Hairpins, and Sir Oliver’s intended bride until his betrayal, is imprisoned in unbecoming costumes that mask her beauty until she’s captured by Moorish pirates (guess who?) and put up for auction, her clothes in tatters that reveal something of her native charms, and sold to… guess who again?

   Beery is a rascal, but lovable, and Sills is a splendid corsaire, with a focused rage that distinguishes his portrayal from that of the rakish, devil-may-care Flynn. I like both portrayals and both films.

   Now, the downside: this was, for much of the screening, an inferior print that only occasionally incorporated a reel of superior quality, most notably during the Moorish episodes. Of course, I missed the great score that Korngold composed for the sound remake, but the accompanist was more than competent.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

WEST OF SHANGHAI. Warner Brothers, 1937. Boris Karloff, Beverly Roberts, Ricardo Cortez, Gordon Oliver, Sheila Bromley, Vladimir Sokoloff, Gordon Hart, Richard Loo. Based on a play by Porter Emerson Browne. Director: John Farrow.

   West of Shanghai is overall an enjoyable, although occasionally stilted, drama/action film starring Boris Karloff with Beverly Roberts and Ricardo Cortez. Directed by John Farrow, whose movie adaptation of David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun I reviewed here, the film stars Karloff as a Chinese warlord by the name of Wu Yen Fang.

   Fang’s an interesting fellow, that’s for certain. He’s brutal, yes, but he’s also got something of a heart of gold and a sense of humor to boot. One can’t help but smile when he repeats, with a gleam in his eye, his self-assured catchphrase, “I’m Fang” as a means of explaining of how he can get away with the seemingly improbable or impossible.

   Perhaps one reason this movie isn’t as well known today is that Karloff is made up to look Chinese. He also speaks in broken English, taking us many degrees away from politically correct territory. Still, Karloff’s an absolute pleasure to watch, demonstrating once again that the classically trained English actor really had incredible acting skills.

   Based on a play by Porter Emerson Browne, West of Shanghai is an adventure film, a thriller, and a comedy of manners all in one. The story follows two business competitors, Gordon Creed (Cortez) and an older man named Galt as they travel north in China in the hopes of gaining business influence over an oil field overseen by Jim Hallet (Gordon Oliver). It should come as no surprise that among the film’s subtexts is a slightly comical, but also deadly serious, critique of American industrialists and human greed. At one point, the power hungry general tells Galt that the latter cares too much about money. Ouch.

   Complicating matters even further for the businessmen is not only Fang’s growing military and political influence in the region, but also the fact that Creed’s estranged wife, Jane (Beverly Roberts), is both a missionary in the region and currently in love with Jim. Add to the mix Galt’s headstrong and quite beautiful daughter, Lola (Sheila Bromley), and you’ve got yourself some great human drama in an exotic setting.

   All told, I found West of Shanghai to be an enjoyable picture with a lot in terms of plot and style to recommend it. Karloff is great as Feng and Cortez portrays the slimy, double-crossing, Creed really well. Vladmir Sokoloff’s portrayal of General Chow Fu-Shan is literally cut short when his character is killed by one of Feng’s assassins, but he’s also quite good as far as character actors go.

   I’d hesitate to call West of Shanghai a great film, but at a running time of slightly over 60 minutes, it’s never dull and Farrow’s direction is solid. The movie’s no classic, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth seeking out even if for novelty value. They don’t make films like this anymore. But just because they really can’t, doesn’t mean that it’s not worth appreciating those that remain and enjoying them on their own terms.

THE NAKED JUNGLE. Paramount Pictures, 1954. Eleanor Parker, Charlton Heston, Abraham Sofaer, William Conrad. Based on the story “Leiningen versus the Ants,” by Carl Stephenson (Esquire, December 1938); first published in Germany in 1937 as “Leiningens Kampf mit den Ameisen.” Director: Byron Haskin.

   Fans and collectors of Old Time Radio shows will recognize the story this film is based on immediately. “Leiningen versus the Ants” must be among everyone’s all time Top Ten list of favorite episodes. It was produced at least four different times, on Escape 14 Jan 1948, 23 May 1948, 4 Aug 1949, and on Suspense, 29 Nov 1959. You can hear an MP3 version of the first of these here.

   The radio version follows the story itself quite faithfully, that of a stubborn bull-headed plantation owner in South America who refuses to move away from his land in the face of a swarm of deadly ants two miles wide and ten miles long. The only difference is that in the radio version the District Commissioner returns to Leiningen’s compound to see whether (and how) he can make good on his promise to prevail against the deadly horde. He also helps provide half of the necessary narration.

   The story can be read in twenty minutes, and it takes thirty minutes to listen to the radio show. How then is the running time of the movie some 95 minutes long? Easy. Add a preamble about an hour long, one introducing a mail-order bride to the tale, a lady from New Orleans previously unseen by Leiningen.

   Charlton Heston is of course the obvious choice to play Leiningen, a fellow as stubborn and ignorant of the ways of women as he was later on in his portrayal of Captain Colt Saunders in Three Violent People (1956), which I reviewed here not too long ago.

   Of course it could only happen in the movies that the mail-order bride would be as lovely as Eleanor Parker, but leave it to Charlton Heston’s character to reject her almost immediately, once he learns that she has been married once before. (He prides himself on having only new items in his house, including a piano, which of course the new Mrs. Leiningen is able to play, and quite well)

   All in all, it’s sort of dull romance, and you just know that once the danger is over, the two of them will find a way to sort things out between them, if not before. In my opinion, as long as you’re asking me, the time the romantic problems take up could have been shortened considerably, thus giving us more time with the ants. (Some of us, who know full well what is coming in advance, may even be squirming in our seats in anticipation.)

   The special effects are quite good, I hasten to add, and well worth the price of admission. So good, in fact, that I recognized some of the footage as being used again in an episode of the TV series MacGyver, “Trumbo’s World” (Season 1, Episode 6; 10 November 1985).

   And oh yes, one other thing. William Conrad, who played Leiningen in the radio show that I hope you took (or will take) the time to listen to, played the role of the District Commissioner in The Naked Jungle.

  Overall verdict: Medium well but no more.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

DAVID DODGE – Plunder of the Sun. Random House, hardcover, 1949. Paperback reprints: Dell #478, 1951, mapback edition; Hard Case Crime, 2005.

PLUNDER OF THE SUN. Warner Brothers, 1953. Glenn Ford (Al Colby), Diana Lynn, Patricia Medina, Francis L. Sullivan, Sean McClory. Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, based on the book by David Dodge. Director: John Farrow.

   Sometimes, it’s a whole lot of fun to plunge into an adventure story, replete with intrigue, shady characters, and historical references to ancient civilizations. And gold. Sadly, stories with plots focusing on the search for treasure in exotic locales are not written very much anymore. Perhaps they are considered passé; perhaps there just aren’t enough contemporary readers for these yarns.

   But if this type of fictional adventure does happen appeal to you, you really can’t go wrong with Plunder of the Sun. Written by David Dodge, author of To Catch a Thief, the story follows the South American treasure seeking adventures of American expatriate Al Colby, our first person narrator. It’s both a fun little suspense tale and an introductory course in Peruvian geography and history.

   The book’s opening places the reader right into the heart of the action. The story’s narrator, Al Colby, is in Santiago, Chile, where he meets up with Alfredo Berrien, a sickly man in a wheelchair, and his nurse, Ana Luz. Berrien has a proposition for Colby. He wants him to transport a small package on board a ship heading from Valparaíso, Chile to Callao, the Peruvian seaport. Once there, Colby is supposed to return the package to Berrien and to get paid.

   As you might imagine, things don’t go quite as planned. After a series of potentially sinister characters show up on board the ship, Berrien is found dead in his cabin. Naturally, Colby becomes curious as to what’s in the package. Turns out it contains parchment fragments that tell, you guessed it, of buried treasure.

   The rest of the novel follows Colby in his quest to decipher the manuscript and to deal with a scheming man from the boat named Jeff. He also runs across Naharro, a Peruvian expert in antiquities, and his son, Raul. There’s also Julie, who was originally also on the boat and manages to be around at both the wrong and right times. There’s plenty of scheming afoot, a deal made, and a double cross. Plus Colby may or may not have feelings for Ana Luz.

   Al Colby’s an interesting character, but the real star of the show is Peru. Dodge clearly knew the country well. His descriptions of the places, the people, and the culture all give Plunder of the Sun an authenticity that many other adventure tales from the era lack. There are numerous references to Incan history, particularly the Spanish conquest of Peru. The work is also filled with what I presume to be Peruvian-dialect Spanish.

   Given how central Peru is to the book’s plot, I was skeptical when I learned that the film adaptation, directed by John Farrow, was set in Oaxaca. I expected just another adventure film set in Mexico. I was both pleasantly surprised and somewhat disappointed.

   There is no doubt that Glenn Ford was well cast as Al Colby. He’s a good actor and he plays the role convincingly. Likewise, Patricia Medina portrays Ana Luz well. Sean McClory portrays the villain, Jeff, as Jefferson, a serpentine creep who slithers his way in and out of Colby’s presence.

   Setting the film in Oaxaca rather than in Peru allowed the filmmakers to shoot on location. Turns out that was a great decision. There are some amazing visuals in the film, managing to give the viewer a glimpse into the ruins without making the film seem like a documentary.

   And although it’s not a film noir, at times Plunder of the Sun does feel like one. There’s a claustrophobic aspect to the film, particularly in the first half. This is notably the case when Colby (Ford) first meets the wheelchair bound Berrien (Francis L. Sullivan). One wishes that Sullivan’s character didn’t have to die so quickly, for he seemed to be one of the more intriguing personalities in the story.

   The problem is this. After a great setup, the story just kind of plods along, notably during the second half of the film. Colby and Jefferson fight, they make up, they fight again. It all just gets a bit tedious. Indeed, without the on-location setting, the film really wouldn’t be particularly interesting.

   As it is, the book tells a much more fascinating story than the movie manages to tell. The film adaptation of Dodge’s work, despite a screenplay by veteran mystery writer Jonathan Latimer, somehow comes across as being both rushed and somewhat dull, turning what could have been a very good movie into a slightly above average adventure film. The film tells Colby’s story in what are supposed to be flashbacks or reminiscences. It’s a narrative technique that doesn’t quite work in this context, giving the movie less a sense of immediacy than the book.

   In conclusion, David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun is a fun, engaging read. It’s steeped in Peruvian geography and history, with well-developed characters, and enough mystery and intrigue to keep one guessing as to what is going to happen next.

    While the film version isn’t bad, it does come across as something of a missed opportunity. The Oaxaca scenery does, however, almost makes up for the fact that the screenplay isn’t as strong as it could have been. Almost.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

BATTLES OF CHIEF PONTIAC. Realart Pictures, 1952. Lex Barker, Helen Westcott, Lon Chaney Jr., Berry Kroeger, Roy Roberts. Director: Felix E. Feist.

   Battles of Chief Pontiac is a good, albeit not great, historical drama/early frontier Western starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Lex Barker of Tarzan fame. Directed by Felix Feist, whose film noir, The Man Who Cheated Himself I reviewed here, the movie benefits from solid acting from Chaney in his portrayal of Ottawa Indian Chief Pontiac and from its on location South Dakota setting.

   The film’s narrative and script, however, suffers from its forced moralism. While the filmmakers should be credited for their willingness to depict Indians as societally more complex than mindless warriors, they may have gone a bit overboard in their decision to depict Chief Pontiac as more as a seeker of peace than as the warrior he actually was. They chose, for instance, not to make the historical Chief Pontiac’s attack and siege on Fort Detroit the focus of their film.

   The plot of the movie isn’t very complex, with few surprises or unexpected plot twists. Lt. Kent McIntire (Barker) is acting as a liaison between the British, led by Major Gladwin (Roy Roberts) and Ottawa Chief Pontiac (Chaney). His goal is to help establish peace between the two peoples. But things get complicated when Pontiac’s men take white hostages, including Winifred Lancaster (Helen Westcott) who — to no one’s surprise — becomes McIntire’s love interest.

   The real drama begins, however, when a Hessian officer, the incredibly creepy Colonel Von Weber (Berry Kroeger), takes over the reins from Major Gladwin. Von Weber is a racist to the core, spewing vitriol about the Indians. Truth be told, it’s all a bit undignified. The filmmakers could have made their point even better if they had chosen to be subtle about it.

   In any case, Von Weber is a really bad guy and a bit too, should we say, Third Reich, for a film set in eighteenth-century Michigan.

   Although Pontiac is willing to enter into peace negotiations, the Hessian decides it would be better to deliver smallpox infested blankets to Pontiac’s people. This leads, of course, to both untold suffering on the part of the Ottawa Indians and therefore to Chief Pontiac’s decision to wage battle against the Von Weber and his men.

   It’s then up to Tarzan — I mean, McIntire — to intercede so as to prevent a complete bloodbath. By the time it’s all over, Chief Pontiac is once again willing to make peace with the British, McIntire and Lancaster are in love, and Von Weber has suffered a rather horrific death from smallpox. Not that you are supposed to feel remotely sorry for him. He’s one of the least sympathetic characters I’ve ever seen in any historical drama.

   Chaney is actually very good in this. His voice and mannerisms are excellent, even if he is stuck at times with some embarrassingly bad dialogue. There are moments when he appears to be the only actor in the film taking it with the seriousness the subject matter deserves. As to how much of all this is historically accurate, probably not all that much.

   In conclusion, Battles of Chief Pontiac is a well-meaning, low budget production that portrays Indians and their customs quite differently from other films of that era. It just doesn’t nearly live up to its potential.


HARRY STEPHEN KEELER, with Hazel Goodwin Keeler – The Case of the Barking Clock. Phoenix Press, hardcover, 1947. Ward Lock, UK, hardcover, 1951, as The Barking Clock. (The British edition is 5-8000 words longer than the U.S.) No paperback edition.

Barking Clock

   One book I read recently is The Case of the Barking Clock, by Harry Stephen Keeler. Though late in the Keeler oeuvre, this has all the elements that make HSK the Master of Alternative Classic Mystery: colorful characters with Dickensian names (Nyland Finfrock, Umphrey Ibstone, and Tuttleton T. Trotter to name but a few), a convoluted plot, driven by wild coincidence (at one point, in a very minor element, a letter addressed to Trotter at “Occupant, Hotel so-and-so” is mistakenly delivered to a Mr. Occpunt residing at the same Hotel!), lengthy letters and speeches of pure explication:

    “Cripes!” he said, still unbelievingly, “Cripes,” he repeated, “A guy what knows sci’nce an’ mat’matics! An’ ev’dently knows ‘em all the way from A to Izzardy and back ag’in. An’s gotta have one case what can be showed on a book jacket as — as a knockout! the one guy in the whole world who-who might an’lyze my strange case. My case what’s not only sci’ntific, but what’s got ten book jackets in it — if I know an’thing at ail o’ what that book jacket artist, Waxworth Goforth, teached me long ago when I was his errand boy.”

   and the florid metaphor:

    “. . .silk-upholstered, bulging where the upholstery was as obscene as the breasts of virgins confined in $1.98 dresses. . .”

   that make Keeler’s writing so uniquely his own.

   Barking Clock was published by Phoenix Press, the fabled firm described so vividly in Pronzini’s Gun in Cheek, and it has all the earmarks of hasty printing and sloppy proof-reading one would expect from an outfit like Phoenix — the kind distressingly common today, where the words have simply been scanned for correctness, not read for sense — but it contains one of those privileged passages that make Keeler singularly enjoyable.

      On Page 188, Joe the Duck tells Tuttleton T. Trotter about Svenda Ulf, a platinum blonde Swede who dyes her hair black and pretends to be a Russian named Olga Russakov. Svenda/Olga plays no role at all in the book, except for this brief mention. She’s not a red-herring, witness, or even a bit-player. Her presence in this single sentence of the book was apparently written in by Keeler simply as another bit of pleasantly gratuitous ornamentation in his baroque tapestry.

   That a writer as obscure as HSK, working for a cheap-jack outfit like Phoenix would take the time to throw in a touch like this is one of the wonders that keep me reading.

Editorial Comment:   Mike Nevins talks a bit of the publishing history behind this book in one of his monthly columns for this blog.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

THE SOLDIER AND THE LADY. RKO Radio Pictures, 1937. Anton Walbrook (debut), Elizabeth Allen, Akim Tamiroff, Margot Grahame, Fay Bainter (debut), Eric Blore, Edward Brophy, Paul Guilfoyle, Paul Harvey. Screenplay by Mortimer Offner, Anthony Veiller, Anne Morrison Chapin, based on Michael Strogoff Courier of the Tzar by Jules Verne. Directed by George Nichols Jr. as George Nicholls Jr.

   This remains one of the most faithful and well done of all Jules Verne’s books adapted to film, an epic portrayal of Verne’s novel about a heroic courier for Alexander II who brings down the Moslem Tartar rebellion of 1870 and saves Russia while finding love and facing one daunting task after another.

   Though Strogoff is another of Verne’s naturalist romantic heroes in the line of Ned Land from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Nik Dek from Castle Carpathian, he has also been rightfully called a 19th century James Bond.

      The splendid cast is the first great asset of this film. Anton Walbrook made his American film debut as Strogoff, and proves a fine swashbuckler more adept than most at the dramatic scenes (or melodramatic in this case). It isn’t as subtle as many of his fine later films, but then it isn’t supposed to be, and he more than suggests the characters nobility and courage.

   Elizabeth Allen (wife of Robert Montgomery and mother of Elizabeth) is the heroine Nadia, beautiful, aristocratic and innocent; Margot Grahame the femme fatale Zangarra with a heart that can be melted by a noble hero; and Fay Bainter in her strong film debut is Michael’s mother. Eric Blore and Edward Brophy are English and American war correspondents for comedy relief, and Paul Harvey the Tzar.

   But the film is stolen to a great extent by Akim Tamiroff as the perfectly named Ivan Ogareff, the traitorous, brutal, sly, cunning, and sadistic Tartar agent plotting to use the uprising to grab power and wealth. It’s Tamiroff at his scenery chewing best as a thorough going rotter, and audiences must have cheered when he meets his deserved end.

   The Tzar himself dispatches Strogoff as a courier to his brother in Irkutsk with instructions that will save him and the city from the Tartar’s treachery, adding for Michael not to even acknowledge his mother, Fay Bainter, whom he will see on his journey to the place of his birth.

   Things go bad quickly: the lovely Nadia is captured when the Tartar’s assault a barge she and Strogoff travel on looking for the courier they know the Tzar sent, and he is left for dead in the river. He escapes but is now afoot, and the Tartars are closing in. Finally he too is captured and Ogareff’s mistress Zangarra, Margot Grahame, who saw him in Moscow is to identify the courier, but she lies and Ogareff must threaten to torture the courier’s mother to bring Strogoff out.

   He comes forth of course, and confesses he destroyed the papers, and in one of the most brutal scenes in Verne’s works Ogareff blinds him with a torch, a crime so brutal that Strogoff’s mother’s heart fails at the horror. It’s pretty strong stuff here too, and unlike almost anything else in Verne’s fiction.

   Now Ogareff poses as the Tzar’s courier to deceive the Tzar’s brother, and Strogoff and Nadia struggle to reach Irkutsk in time.

   Ogareff hasn’t calculated on one thing — Strogoff isn’t blind — the tears he wept saying goodbye to his mother kept the flames from burning his eyes. He slays Ogareff, the city is saved, the rebellion put down with its leader dead, and Stogoff is given a medal by the Tzar and promoted to Colonel as the Tzar praises his heroic mother’s sacrifice.

   Walbrook had starred in the 1936 French version of the story so RKO wisely chose him in the role so they could use the sweeping scenes of battle and marching armies filmed for it. It proved a wise choice and the film was a major hit. Granted it might have been better from one of the bigger studios like Warners or MGM with a director better suited to epics, but it is still a fine swashbuckler very close to Verne’s novel.

   This was remade in the 1960‘s in Germany with Curt Jurgens as Strogoff (known both as Michael Strogoff and Soldier and a Lady) in color, and not a bad film itself, though difficult to find.

   But it’s this version that is the standout, a handsome adaptation of the classic novel with a fine cast and many sweeping scenes from the French original. From the look of things it is clear the French version beats them both, but as far as I know it is lost, so like the scenes of the silent Gold included in The Magnetic Monster, this is all we have.

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