Action Adventure movies

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?”


ALLEGHENY UPRISING. RKO Radio Pictures, 1939. Claire Trevor, John Wayne, George Sanders, Brian Donlevy, Wilfrid Lawson, Robert Barrat, Moroni Olsen, Eddie Quillan, Chill Wills. Director: William A. Seiter.

   If you’ve ever wanted to see John Wayne sporting a coonskin cap and carrying a rifle, then Allegheny Uprising may be the movie for you. If that doesn’t sound like something you’d go in for, then there’s probably no real reason for you to watch this rather dated, and poorly edited, RKO film set after the end of the French and Indian War.

   Wayne, not yet the movie star he was yet to become, portrays the historical figure James Smith, the leader of the Black Boys Rebellion in 1765 in which some Pennsylvania colonists rose up against their British overlords. In many ways, the British title for the film, The First Rebel, does the movie more justice. (Incidentally, the film did not do well in a Great Britain. No surprise there!)

   Although there’s quite a bit of American patriotic fervor embedded into the script, Allegheny Uprising ends up feeling stale. It’s almost as if you’re watching an historical reenactment rather than a cinematic representation of an historical event. That’s not to say that the exceedingly talented George Sanders isn’t well cast as a British captain, or that Brian Donlevy can’t play a conniving villain, it’s just that the whole thing seems so formulaic, as if no one in the studio fully had their heart and soul invested in the project.

   With the notable except of Wayne, who looks as if he did his best to transform what would have been an otherwise completely forgettable Revolutionary War era film into what I’ll grudgingly admit is a somewhat entertaining costumer.


ANGEL UNCHAINED. American International Pictures, 1970. Don Stroud, Luke Askew, Larry Bishop, Tyne Daly, Neil Moran, Jean Marie, Aldo Ray. Director: Lee Madden.

   You might find this a bit surprising, but Angel Unchained is a minor, if not completely kitschy, gem. Based on the premise of “what would happen if a biker outfit and a bunch of hippies teamed up against a bunch of rednecks,” you might think that this American International exploitation film would be yet another completely forgettable biker film. Solid performances by stars Don Stroud and Larry Bishop as biker buddies, a cameo by veteran character actor Aldo Ray as the local sheriff, and a genuinely heartfelt ending all ensure that this movie roars right along.

   Soon after Angel (Don Stroud) decides to leave his biker outfit and set out on his own, he runs into a situation at a gas station when he witnesses townie rednecks harassing a couple of hippies. Angel decides he’s going to side with the hippies. After all, they weren’t doing anything wrong.

   This leads him straight to the hippie agricultural commune on the outskirts of town, where he falls for Merilee, a local hippie girl (Tyne Daly) and forms a bond with commune leader, Tremaine (Luke Askew). When the townies threaten the commune with annihilation, Tremaine urges Angel to enlist the help of biker leader Pilot (Larry Bishop) and his old crew in order to stave off the redneck horde. So the bikers and the hippies have to learn to work together for a common purpose!

   Add in some both comedic and tragic moments, an Indian medicine man with a penchant for peyote-laced chocolate chip cookies, and some action sequences and you’ve got yourself one genre bending biker-themed, “hippiesploitation” film.

   For those skeptics out there, I’d recommend watching this movie, if for no other reason, for the scene in which Pilot has a polite conversation about the weather with the sheriff (Aldo Ray) right as the bikers and the townies go at it in a parking lot. It’s one of those quirky, completely mesmerizing little scenes that dot so many 1970s low budget productions and one that makes the occasionally overly formulaic Angel Unchained worth seeking out.


KING OF THE JUNGLE. Paramount, 1933. Buster Crabbe, Frances Dee, Sidney Toler, Nydia Westman, Robert Barrat, Irving Pichel, Douglas(s) Dumbrille. Based on the novel The Lion’s Way, by Charles Thurley Stoneham. Directors: H. Bruce Humberstone & Max Marcin. Shown at Cinevent 31, Columbus OH, May 1999.

   I saw this on TV several years ago and was not impressed by it, but this time I found it a pleasant diversion, with Buster Crabbe as Kaspa, raised in the jungle after the deaths of his parents, and brought to the states with his lions to perform in a circus.

   Frances Dee, a teacher who’s hired to teach Kaspa English, teaches him a couple of others things as well before the predictable fade-out in the studio backlot studio set.

   This doesn’t give the first couple of the first MGM Tarzan films any real competition (Frances Dee, while attractive, is not Maureen O’Sullivan), but a spectacular circus fire provides some genuine excitement and the animals are magnificent specimens and out-act some of the supporting players.


SECRET OF THE INCAS. Paramount Pictures, 1954. Charlton Heston, Robert Young, Nicole Maurey, Thomas Mitchell, Glenda Farrell, Michael Pate, Yma Sumac. Director: Jerry Hopper.

   Before there was Indiana Jones, there was Charlton Heston in Secret of the Incas. A lackluster action movie filmed on location in Peru, the movie features Heston in khaki pants, a leather jacket, and a fedora. He portrays scheming smart aleck Harry Steele, a would-be adventurer and treasure seeker unhappily giving wealthy Americans tours of Cusco, Peru. Even more than women, Harry has one thing on his mind. Money.

   All that begins to change when Romanian exile, Elena Antonescu (Nicole Maurey) arrives in town, the communist authorities hot on her trail. When he and Elana steal a private plane and head to Machu Picchu to steal an Incan treasure (his plan, not hers), it feels as if you’re about to take part in a great adventure and a character’s radical moral transformation.

   Except you’re not.

   Truth be told, Secrets of the Incas is, with a few exceptions, an epic bore. The on-location photography, including some truly breathtaking mountain vistas, is wasted on a lackluster script and strikingly unoriginal direction.

   Heston, who was more than capable of portraying men with villainous streaks, does his best with what he was given. His character, thought by many to be the basis for Indiana Jones, hardly has Indy’s rapscallion charm. Harry Steele isn’t a particularly interesting character; indeed, when he finally realizes that there’s other things in life other than money, it’s with the type of bitterness Heston was so capable of emoting. But truthfully it’s difficult to care all that much: another day, another modernist epiphany.

   All of which leaves the viewer with the question: if it weren’t for Indiana Jones, would anyone anywhere care about Harry Steele?

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