Action Adventure movies


THE HURRICANE EXPRESS. Mascot Pictures, 12 chapter serial, 1932. Tully Marshall, Conway Tearle, John Wayne, Shirley Gray, Edmund Breese, Lloyd Whitlock. Directors: J. P. McGowan & Armand Schaefer.

   Speaking of Serials (here and here), I did spend four hours and twenty minutes watching The Hurricane Express, a Twelve chapter 1932 release of somewhat modest dimensions from the folks at Mascot, whom I mentioned some time ago in connection with The Last of the Mohicans.

   Hurricane Express would probably be pretty much forgotten today, except that it starred an overgrown athlete of exceptional thespic incompetence (in those days) named John Wayne. Wayne had just come off the biggest commercial flop of his career, The Big Trail, and found himself sudenly a Star with nowhere to go; the closest contemporary comparison would probably be Klinton Spillsbury.

   Anyway, for the next few years Wayne would shift uneasily between minor parts at Major Studios and Star Turns on Gower Gulch, until the years somehow turned him into a seasoned performer. Hurricane Express is one of the happier steps in his apprenticeship, a film that enabled him to show off his natural athleticism while avoiding the Big Dramatic Scenes that he was as yet woefully ill-equipped to handle.

   The Plot, such as it is, deals with Young Duke’s efforts to catch The Wrecker, a Pulp-style Master of Disguise who goes around smashing toy trains (the miniature work/special effects in this are about on a par with The Claw Monsters) and is responsible for the death of Wayne’s Dear old Dad in an HO scale pile-up. Writer/Director Armand Schaefer puts some nice touches in, though, and even manages a Real Thrill from time to time, what with folks jumping on and off speeding trains, shooting down airplanes, stealing the Gold Shipment and gosh-all.

   There’s also a nifty bit involving the Wrecker’s Secret Identity: He apparently has detailed life-masks of everyone in the cast, and goes around impersonating them for his own evil ends. What this means in practical terms of course, is that Wally The Brakeman, who’s been acting sort of suspicious for the last few chapters, will suddenly do something overtly criminal, then sneak out of sight, clinching everyone’s suspicions that he’s actually the Wrecker. Then the actor playing him will reach behind his own neck the camera pans to his feet, and a mask of Wally’s face drops to the floor -neatly confounding our suspicions and eliminating the necessity of paying another player.

   So who is the Wrecker? Well, I had a good hunch by Chapter 2 and was pretty well sure of it by Chapter 4. He’s the one who acts normal; the one without an obsession over something-or-other; the fellow who tries to be helpful and counsels everyone to take the path of least resistance. A man, in fact very much like you or me. Or like me, anyway.

   I’ve mentioned this before, but I always thought it should be a sign of Literary Sophistication not to be able to pick out the Mystery Villain in one of these things. I mean, when we get to the scene where they’ve tied up Dick Dauntless and are torturing Helen Heroine, and Freddy-who’s-been-hanging-around-all-movie-for-no-apparent-reason pipes up, “Oh for Gawd’s sakes, Helen, tell them where the Map is!” the Truly Discerning Viewer should think he’s supposed to identify with this guy: “Obviously, the writers put him in to add a touch of Evelyn-Waugh realism to the Characterizations, someone to take our minds off the cardboard protagonists and their pulp-paper problems. A Henry James Everyman to provide a touchstone of emotional verisimilitude. What? You mean he’s the Villain? How utterly crass!”


THE CLAW MONSTERS. Republic Pictures, 1966. Phyllis Coates, Myron Healey, Arthur Space, John Day, Mike Ragan, Morris Buchanan. Director: Franklin Adreon.

   After D-Day on Mars, reviewed here, I spent some time with The Claw Monsters, which on the other hand is pretty awful. It’s the trimmed down feature version of the serial Panther Girl of the Kongo, which was made in 1955 when everyone had pretty much lost interest, and it shows.

   Phyllis Coates — future Lois Lane — is the Panther girl (mostly, that is; a lot of footage of her swinging through the trees was lifted from the Nyoka serial) and not being much for Stunt Work she leaves most of the fighting to Myron Healey and the requisite two bad guys working for the Mad Scientist.

   The Claw Monsters are just little crayfish photographed on cheap miniature sets, and there isn’t even much back-projection to integrate them with the actors; someone just looks off camera, screams, and we cut to a shot of the crayfish ambling around in some completely irrelevant direction inside what looks to be a dime-store Turtle Tank.

   Also, the fights are pretty routine, and the protagonists on both sides are incredibly poor marksmen; time and again they shoot at each other from about ten feet away and miss until one of them runs out of bullets, knocks the gun out of his opponent’s hand and etc., etc. There’s also a lot of really embarrassing dialogue — from the good guys — about how ignorant and superstitious the Natives are.


ZEPPELIN. Warner Brothers, US/UK, 1971. Michael York, Elke Sommer, Peter Carsten, Rupert Davies, Marius Goring, Anton Diffring, Andrew Keir, Alexandra Stewart. Screenplay by Arthur Rowe & Donald Churchill, based on a story by Owen Crump. Directed by Etienne Pèrier.

   This big wartime adventure film often looks good, and has some decent photography and special effects, but it’s as leisurely as some of E. Phillips Oppenheim’s World War I diplomatic spy novels, which it too often resembles, when it could use a healthy dose of John Buchan-style action or even William LeQueux melodrama.

   Michael York is perfectly cast as Lt. Geoffrey Richter-Douglas, a Scot of mixed German background assigned to a desk at Whitehall, thanks to his vertigo, when London is attacked from the air and bombed by German zeppelins for the first time. The country is in a panic, the government is asking questions, and unknown to Geoffrey, he is in the cross-hairs of Captain Whitney of British Naval intelligence (Rupert Davies) under the direction of the famous Admiral Needles Hall (Richard Hurdnall) — the brilliant British spy who uncovered the famous Zimmerman telegram — and German Military Intelligence in the person of seductive Alexandra Stewart.

   When the Germans try to recruit Geoffrey to defect, he learns that is exactly what his people want him to do, defect and use his contacts in Germany, notably Professor Anschul (Marius Goring) to get a look at the new zeppelin he is developing. In no time Geoffrey is in Germany, where he discovers his knowledge of Scotland is part of a German plan by Colonel Hirsch (Anton Diffring) and Major Tautner (Peter Carsten) to use the new zeppelin to destroy British morale once and for all and end the war.

   Complicating things are Professor Anschul’s beautiful younger wife Erika (Elke Sommer), who sees right through Geoffrey, but doesn’t care he is a spy so long as her husband isn’t hurt.

   In short order, Geoffrey finds himself on board the zeppelin commander by Captain Von Goirer (Andrew Kier) under the watchful eyes of Hirsh and Tautner on its mission to destroy the treasures of the British empire stored in an abandoned Scottish castle in the highlands for the duration, trying to survive and contact his people.

   There is a fairly exciting raid on the castle, somewhat undercut in that the hero stands around for the duration with his hands in the air, then a nicely shot attack on the zeppelin by the RAF as they try to escape with Geoffrey on board, then the film just sort of fizzles to the end with nothing much resolved except most of the cast is dead and the rest are wet, and considering Sommer is covered to the throat in coveralls for most of the picture, even her wet in a white blouse is a let down.

   Zeppelin is by no means a bad movie. It is perfectly cast, it looks great, and if it had been made in the 1930‘s it would likely be one of my favorite films, but if had been made then, it would be half an hour or more shorter, and not waste so much time on a preachy anti-war message that never rises to the level of irony, so it just gets in the way.

   A much better film would have been to do it tongue in cheek in the manner of The Assassination Bureau, but that isn’t the film they made. As it is, made in Technicolor and widescreen in 1971, it isn’t dull, but it isn’t very exciting either, a fatal flaw for a big screen action epic. Still, if you ever wanted to see a Technicolor film of an Oppenheim WWI era spy novel, minus the slapstick and musical numbers of Blake Edwards’ Darling Lily, this is pretty much your best bet.

PASSENGER 57. Warner Brothers, 1992. Wesley Snipes, Bruce Payne, Tom Sizemore, Alex Datcher, Bruce Greenwood, Robert Hooks, Elizabeth Hurley. Director: Kevin Hooks.

   I don’t know how you can live as long as I have and still be able to say that this is the first movie starring Wesley Snipes that I have even seen, but it is so. I see from his resume on IMDb that over his career he has made quite a few action thriller movies like this one, and as of 2014, he was still making them, if The Expendables 3 is the kind of movie I think it is.

   This one has to do with a notorious terrorist and a gang of equally vicious followers with the same carefree attitude toward killing that he has. To help rescue their leader from the FBI, they take over a passenger jet that Snipes’ character, a newly promoted chief of security, just happens to be a passenger on.

   I don’t think the movie is as good as those in the “Diehard” series, say, but I enjoyed it. There is a light touch to the movie that makes all of the gunfire, martial arts fighting, explosions and every other means of organized chaos all the more bearable, such as when one elderly female passenger mistakenly takes Snipes’ character to be Arsenio Hall.

   The ladies in the cast are, unfortunately, the weakest links, in my opinion, but all of the men are consummate pros at this sort of thing, especially the primary villain (Bruce Payne), who seems to be having a great time playing pure evil incarnate, and with his glowering presence, taking over every scene he’s in.

   But here’s the question. Would I watch another Wesley Snipes movie? Based on this sample of size one, I see no reason why not.

PEARL OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC. RKO Radio Pictures, 1955. Virginia Mayo, Dennis Morgan, David Farrar, Murvyn Vye, Lance Fuller, Basil Ruysdael, Lisa Montell. Director: Allan Dwan.

   An old-fashioned South Seas melodrama straight from the pulp magazines, but by the time this movie was made, the pulps were gone — and they did it better.

   Lured to a South Seas island as a possible source of valuable black pearls, two men and a woman plan to steal them from the natives, who have been been cut off from the rest of the world for several decades. They do speak English and use nets to catch fish instead spears, thanks to the presence of the aged Tuan Michael (Basil Ruysdael) who has guided their lives and interpreted their god’s wishes for them through all that time.

   The girl is Virginia Mayo. Dennis Morgan is her former lover and she is currently romancing his partner, played by David Farrar. The latter, a chap called Bully Hague, is an out-and-out thug, while Morgan is more of an honest crook. It is fun to see Virginia Mayo dressed up like a prim Bible-carrying missionary as part of their plan, and while this is no musical, she also manages to sing a song or two along the way.

   The problem is, the three adventurers really have no plan to speak of. They are either making it up as they go along, or they are too incompetent to stick to it, especially the fellow named Bully, who gets nastier and nastier as the movie plods along. This was sort of fun to watch, but there’s really no meat to go with the bones.


THE BLACK SWAN. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara, Laird Cregar, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, Anthony Quinn, George Zucco. Screenplay: Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini. Director: Henry King.

   The Black Swan, a Technicolor swashbuckler par excellence, almost feels as if it were two distinct movies put together into one.

   The “first,” which is far more enthralling, consists of the first fifty minutes or so of this 85-minute Henry King-directed film in which two pirates, Jamie Boy (Tyrone Power) and Captain Morgan (Laird Cregar) adjust to new lives as domesticated land guys running Jamaica. There’s court intrigue a plenty, lavish costumes, and a carefree, lighthearted atmosphere one would expect from an early 1940s swashbuckler adventure film: nothing too violent, but with just enough of an edge you keep the viewer engaged.

   The “second” movie, as it were, revolves almost exclusively on the love-hate relationship between Jamie Boy and Lady Margaret (Maureen O’Hara). Problem is: up until the final scene, it feels much more like a hate-hate relationship. Indeed, there is almost no palpable chemistry between the two leads, all of which leads to some rather cringe-worthy scenes in which Jamie Boy attempts to woo the shrewish Lady Margaret who is, naturally, in love with Jamie Boy’s court rival. O’Hara looks as if she’s going through the motions, making her character a rather dour-looking presence. Why, one must ask, would the dashing Jamie Boy devote so much time and energy to capturing her heart? Surely, there’s many more proverbial fish in the Caribbean Sea.

   Unlike O’Hara, Laird Cregar seems to be having a genuine blast in his role as the mighty Captain Morgan, former pirate and newly appointed Governor of Jamaica. His large presence, both figuratively and literally, towers over Power throughout the film. In many ways, his character’s story is far more compelling than that of the more graceful, more handsome Jamie Boy. The scene in which Morgan finally sheds his role as governor is fantastic. At last, he no longer has to wear those silly clothes and a wig and can be himself again!


BLOWING WILD. Warner Brothers, 1953. Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Anthony Quinn, Ruth Roman, Ward Bond, Ian MacDonald. Screenplay by Philip Yordan. Directed by Hugo Fregonese.

   The spicy pulp and paperback original spirit lives in this adventure film/soap opera with a few noirish touches.

   The setting is somewhere in Central America in what was then contemporary times. Jeffrey Dawson (Gary Cooper) and Dutch (Ward Bond) are wildcat oilmen whose lease is destroyed by bandits leaving them to hitchhike back to civilization looking for work. Along the way they meet a tough smart but vulnerable girl (Ruth Roman) of a type not unusual in adventure fiction — good girl, but not a fanatic about it — and get cheated out of money owed them for delivering nitro to a well through bandit country by a four-flusher (Ian MacDonald).

   Dutch is wounded and Jeff needs money, meaning he has to turn to old pal Paco Conway (Anthony Quinn) who the two encountered earlier, but turning to Paco, now a successful oilman, is the last thing Jeff wants to do because Paco is married to Marina (Barbara Stanwyck) who Jeff once loved, and Marina is bad news, twisted, destructive, promiscuous, and sick to death of her husband. Both she and Roman’s character might have crawled out of any Gold Medal paperback of the era full blown.

   To say Marina has a thing for Jeff is putting it mildly, Marina is a female jaguar in heat, and just about as dangerous to all involved. There is enough wattage in the scene where she comes to Jeff’s bedroom and he turns a lamp on her in the doorway like a spotlight to power a small town for a week, although it is all underplayed, and fully clothed.

   Stanwyck was unsurpassed at portraying female lust with just a smoldering look and a raspy tone of voice. Just watching her, and remembering the heat she and Cooper engendered back in Ball of Fire and Meet John Doe, you fear for Cooper’s characters virtue — however tarnished and shopworn it may be.

   Paco, meanwhile, has troubles, a wife who doesn’t love him and who, along with his success, has caused him to lose his nerve; and, those self same bandits who blew up Jeff and Dutch’s well and now threaten all that Paco owns.

   No surprises in this film. It is shot handsomely on location and you get a lot of shots of Stanwyck whipping her galloping horse in various states of sexual frustration to the Frankie Laine theme song from Dimitri Tiomkin, plenty of the patented Stanwyck look of passionate fires just barely tamped down enough not to escape, and, of course, also Stanwyck flaring whenever crossed by her husband or Jeff. At times you half to expect her to throw herself off the screen and sexually assault the nearest man.

   You know going in there will have to be a shootout with the bandits and that Stanwyck won’t long put up with Paco in the way of her passion for Jeff, that Paco will finally interpret those hot long looks Marina gives Jeff and react violently, and just as certainly the pump jack in the courtyard of their hacienda, that was the first well Paco hit it big with and the noise from which drives Marina mad, is going to play a role in how both their marriage and their lives end.

   Having spent part of my youth with an oilman father and grandfather, I can testify to how annoying a pump jack in the yard can be, even if it is pumping your family’s money from the ground. Blowing Wild is a bit closer to oil field reality than most. At least it got a few details right, and God knows I knew enough men like Jeff, Dutch, and Paco in my youth, and no few women like Stanwyck’s Marina or Roman’s character around them if they didn’t quite look like their Hollywood counterparts or have Philip Yordan writing their sharp innuendo laden dialogue.

   Even Ian MacDonald’s four flushing cheat is true enough to life. The oil business may be one of the few industries in the world as colorful as its publicity. at least it was then.

    Blowing Wild is professionally done, tightly directed, and with an impeccable cast. It is pulp dressed up with a touch of Freud and Kraft-Ebling and a slight noir glaze, but it is well done for all that, diverting, and just about any film with that cast, screenwriter, and director would hold me for at least the running time.

   Granted it is almost done in semaphore, the obvious nature of every scene telegraphed well before it appears. It’s a not-quite Western in an adult mode, more than worth watching, just for Cooper, Stanwyck, and Quinn in my case, and if you can get that Frankie Laine theme song out of your head for a day or two after watching it you are a better man than I.     (*)

   (*) And yes, I could hear Bosley Crowther, the famous film critic who liked to sum up films in plays on their titles, commenting, Blowing Mild, but honestly it is a perfectly good middling Gold Medal original of a film you will almost certainly enjoy in the right mood.


SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF. American International Pictures, 1958. Bill Cord, Don Durant, Lisa Montell, Jeanne Gerson, Carol Lindsay. Director: Roger Corman.

   I’m someone who finds a great deal of value in some of Roger Corman’s earliest films, movies released prior to his Poe cycle that are otherwise disregarded for being too simply low budget and too amateurish. For instance, Teenage Caveman (1958) reviewed here and Ski Troop Attack (1960) reviewed here are much better films than their detractors would suggest. Both are fun little adventure films that deliver escapism, some thrills, and a liberal humanist message.

   The same can’t be said for She Gods of Shark Reef. As I understand it, Corman had a great time filming this one – and why not? Filmed on location in Hawaii, She Gods of Shark Reef has some beautiful natural scenery. But that’s kind of all that it has. Amateurish supporting actors and an annoying film score make this early Corman entry a rather forgettable affair.

   As far as the plot goes, there isn’t much there either. Two brothers, one a criminal on the lam and the other, a man who feels that its his moral duty to protect his rapscallion sibling, end up crashing their boat on a reef off the coast of a Polynesian island. Turns out the island is inhabited only by women and that they adhere to some rather unique religious beliefs involving the need to appease some primitive underwater god.

   Most of the movie follows the two brothers as one of them attempts to woo a native girl and the other looks for a means of escaping the island. That’s kind of it. Truth be told, it seems like She Gods of Shark Reef would have been an extremely fun project to work on. But to watch – that’s a whole other kettle of fish.


SKYJACKED. MGM, 1972. Charlton Heston, Yvette Mimieux, James Brolin, Claude Akins, Jeanne Crain, Susan Dey, Roosevelt Grier, Mariette Hartley, Walter Pidgeon, Ken Swofford, Leslie Uggams. Based on the novel Hijacked by David Harper. Director: John Guillermin.

   Sometimes films with all-star casts, no matter how stellar, end up falling a bit flat. That’s the case with Skyjacked, a Hollywood disaster film about a deranged American soldier (James Brolin) suffering from post-traumatic stress who hijacks an American airliner.

   That’s not to say that there aren’t some genuinely tense moments in the movie, or that Charlton Heston doesn’t give a solid, eminently believable performance as the airplane’s captain. It’s just that, despite the presence of veteran actors and actresses such as Brolin, Yvette Mimieux, Walter Pidgeon, and Claude Akins, the whole production ends up feeling rather languid, as if all the characters were going through the motions, behaving in the most stereotypical manner possible. (See, for instance, the pregnant woman who goes into labor mid-hijacking, and the laid back African-American jazz musician who ends up seated next to the overwrought hijacker).

   From what I can tell, however, Skyjacked was the first major Hollywood production where an airline hijacking was central to the plot. In that sense, the movie was the template for things to come. Unfortunately, it’s now all but impossible to watch this John Guillermin-directed work without one’s mind drifting and thinking about Airplane (1980), the Paramount comedy that successfully mocked and played homage to the numerous airline disaster movies such as this one that Hollywood churned out during the 1970s.


THE WHITE GORILLA. Fraser & Merrick, 1945. Ray Corrigan, Lorrain Miller, Charles King and Francis Ford. Written, produced & directed by Harry L. Fraser.

   Dammit, I felt like watching a Killer Ape movie, and this time it was The White Gorilla, made in 1945 and 1927. No, that’s not two versions, it’s actually one movie made nearly twenty years apart.

   To better understand The White Gorilla you need to know something about its auteur, Harry L. Fraser, who also worked under the names Arthur Borris, Wayne Carter, Harry P. Christ, Harry S. Christ, Harry C. Crist, Harry P. Crist, Harry Crist, Miller Easton, Weston Edwards, Harry Frazer, Clint Johnson, Harry O. Jones, Harry Jones, Timothy Munro, Monroe Talbot, Munro Talbot, Victor von Resarf and Edward Weston. Those who profess to enjoy the films of Ed Wood need to take a look at Fraser’s oeuvre and recognize him as the spiritual father of bad movies. Fraser worked in film from the silent days to the 50s with only the faintest glimmer of talent, and most times not even that, but he brought his films in on time and under budget, which kept him gainfully employed at studios where they wanted it done Tuesday.

   According to Fraser’s memoirs (I Went That-a-Way, Scarecrow, 1990) it took three and a half days in 1945 to film White Gorilla, and looking at it today, one can only wonder how he spent three of them. Most of the footage shot in ’45 consists of Ray “Crash” Corrigan sitting around a cardboard mock-up of a Jungle Trading Post telling Charles King and Francis Ford what happened to “the Rogers safari.” Every so often we flash-back to scenes of Crash walking through the woods behind somebody’s back yard, which is supposed to be the African jungle, looking off-screen and seeing… well, whatever grainy old footage of wildlife happened to be handy at the time, including tigers and new world monkeys.

   But it gets better. As Crash continues his story, the movie flash-backs to old footage from Perils of the Jungle, shot in 1927. And this footage is so blatantly mis-matched as to provoke disbelieving laughter from anyone who sees it: the actors are all made-up in classic silent-movie style, with rouged lips and eye shadow, they mime their parts with pre-talkie emphasis, and they seem to move at the wrong speed. So we get these 1945 shots of Ray “Crash” Corrigan standing in somebody’s shrubs, saying voice-over, “…as I watched, the lions surrounded Rogers’ camp…” and then we cut-away to the hilarious footage of what he’s supposedly watching. And of course, since all this was filmed eighteen years earlier, Corrigan can’t interact with anyone in the Rogers safari, so he – or the writer — has to keep coming up with excuses like, “…with no ammunition, I could only watch helplessly while the natives…” or “…with the river between us, I could only watch helplessly while the crocodile…”

   Well, he’s not the only one watching helplessly, but White Gorilla gets better still. Sometimes we cut away from Crash to more recent footage, filmed that same weekend, of someone in a white Gorilla outfit lumbering through the woods. Eventually the guy in the white Gorilla suit runs into someone in a black Gorilla suit and the two mimic fighting for a few minutes. Then the camera simply seems to lose interest and we cut back to Corrigan or to the silent movie for a few chapters till the refrain starts in again: someone in a white Gorilla outfit lumbering through the woods, running into someone in a black Gorilla suit, whereupon the two mimic fighting for a few minutes, till the camera loses interest and…. It’s like being caught in a time warp. I have it on good authority that Crash played at least one of the battling apes, so this film was quite a stretch for him dramatically.

   White Gorilla, in short, is one of those films so jaw-droppingly awful as to be truly fun to watch, and I recommend it to anyone who can approach it in the proper spirit. While we were watching it, I happened to mention to my wife that the writer-director had written a memoir, and she responded, “Because those who forget the past have to repeat it?”

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