World War Two has begun in Europe, and the German high command has developed a new type of magnetic underwater mine that can help them break the British Navy’s hold on the North Sea. These mines acquire their magnetic properties from a coating of the newly-discovered “Compound X”–a mineral-derived substance that is only known to the rest of the world as a cure for infantile paralysis. Compound X is in short supply in Germany but is being mined in large quantities for hospitals in Canada–which leads the Nazis to land an agent named Kettler (Robert Strange) on the Canadian coast. There, he works with traitorous Canadian mine-owner Matt Crandall (Bryant Washburn) and a gang of backwoods outlaws to mine the Compound X mineral and smuggle it back to Germany. However, the vigilant guardians of the British Empire’s western outposts–the Royal Canadian Mounted Police–quickly become aware of the espionage ring’s activities, and, led by Sgt. Dave King (Allan Lane), set out to track down the spies and discover the reason for their presence in Canada.
King of the Royal Mounted, like several other serials from Republic’s Golden Age, is so excellent all round that it leaves little for a reviewer to do but run over its good points. I’ll begin with the scripting department; writers Franklin Adreon, Joseph Poland, Sol Shor, Barney Sarecky, and Norman S. Hall’s screenplay for King is built on the soundest of serial plot foundations: a modestly-scaled villainous scheme (the mining and smuggling of Compound X) that can beliveably bring about catastrophic results (the defeat of the British Navy and the triumph of Nazi Germany) if it’s not stopped by the heroes. The writers lend additional urgency to this storyline by emphasizing the ruthless competency of the villains; Kettler and his outfit manage to stay one step ahead of King and his Mounties for most of the serial, cold-bloodedly gun down several good guys along the way, and are on the verge of triumph just before they meet with unexpected destruction in the final chapter.
The writing team also manages to avoid the repetitiousness that plagued so many later Republic serials, through their sequential focus on the hero’s gradual unraveling of the Compound X mystery. The first three chapters revolve around the Mounties’ pursuit of Kettler’s henchman Garson after the latter murders Crandall’s partner Merritt (who was about to expose Crandall’s treachery). The next three episodes center on King’s investigation into the motives behind the murder, his discovery of some vital evidence relating to Compound X, and the spies’ efforts to get it away from him before he can realize its full import. In Chapter Seven, it briefly seems as if the serial is going to devolve into a loosely-related series of hero-villain duels, with King battling the heavies over a heretofore unmentioned stockpile of explosives–but the writers quickly return to the main plot in Chapter Eight, setting the serial’s concluding action in motion by having King discover the villains’ secret mining tunnel; from there, he follows a trail of clues that leads him directly to the treacherous Crandall–whose arrest in Chapter Eleven then brings master spy Kettler out into the open for the Chapter Twelve showdown.
The writers handle that last-chapter showdown in unexpected fashion, and make it one of the most dramatic and emotionally compelling climaxes in any serial; the quiet concluding scene that follows it is equally powerful. There are several other effectively dramatic moments scattered throughout King, such as the heroic death of a key protagonist in Chapter Four, the other characters’ reaction to said death, and the Chapter Six sequence in which Sgt. King is faced with a choice between possibly dooming his country or definitely dooming the heroine. As in some of Republic’s other top Golden Age outings (Hawk of the Wilderness, Adventures of Red Ryder, Spy Smasher), such moments help to make King involving as well as exciting.
Excitement, of course, remains the keynote of King of the Royal Mounted, with directors William Witney and John English staging a steady succession of terrific action scenes. Dave Sharpe doubles for star Allan Lane throughout the serial, doing battle with opponents that include Jimmy Fawcett (who doubles lead henchman Harry Cording), Duke Green (who doubles secondary henchman Tony Paton), Ken Terrell, George DeNormand, Duke Taylor, Ted Mapes, Ken Terrell, and a young Dale Van Sickel. Like most of the serial fights “captained” by Sharpe, the brawls in King place as much emphasis on leaping, running, vaulting, and tumbling as they do on fisticuffs and furniture-destruction–and, as a result, look livelier and more varied than the prop-smashing slugfests that began to dominate Republic’s serials after Sharpe joined the Army in 1942. Among the serial’s many fistfight highlights are the cabin fights in Chapter One and Chapter Two, the fight at the lumber mill in Chapter Three, the incredible Chapter Eight fight at the reduction plant (with Sharpe swinging on railings and racing up stairs as he fights off multiple heavies) and the outdoor fight in Chapter Nine (which has Sharpe and Bud Geary battling up and down a steep hillside and then on the edge of a cliff).
Witney and English balance these combats with plenty of shootouts and chases; most of the former and all of the latter were filmed inside the San Bernardino National Forest. The directors (and cinematographer William Nobles) show off the Forest’s lakes, trees, hills, and wooden buildings to great advantage–utilizing many impressive long shots that give the serial a distinctively rustic and rugged visual look and further enhance the appeal of the action scenes. The shootout outside the cabin in Chapter One, the Chapter Four motorboat chase, King’s Chapter Six gallop to rescue a fellow-Mountie from an ambush, the horseback chase after the truck in Chapter Eight and King’s leap from a rock onto the truck bed, the chase and fight at the dam in Chapter Nine, the shootout at the Mountie post in Chapter Ten, and the car chase along a rough forest road in Chapter Eleven (which features some great point-of-view shots of the road’s hairpin turns and its sharply-dropping edges) are particularly memorable. The shootout at the cannery in Chapter Seven, the only major piece of outdoor action staged on the Republic backlot, is also a standout, with Mounties and villains exchanging shots across a small harbor.
Above, top left: Allan Lane gallops to the rescue through the forest. Top right: Dave Sharpe makes a flying leap from a dam to knock Ted Mapes into the water below. Bottom left: Allan Lane and Robert Kellard in a shootout near the Mountie post. Bottom right: The Mounties’ station wagon in pursuit of the villains along a forest road.
The Chapter Nine cliffhanger makes good use of the San Bernardino backdrop, with King being sucked down a towering spillway to conclude the episode (after a henchman has already suffered the same fate). This sequence is the most distinctive of the chapter endings, although the fiery explosion at the cannery in Chapter Seven is pretty striking as well, thanks to good miniature work by the Lydecker brothers. Other miniature-reliant endings are more generic (the plane, motorboat, train, and car crashes) but are still very well-executed–as are smaller-scaled cliffhangers like the buzz-saw sequence at the end of Chapter Three, the cleverly-resolved deadfall peril in Chapter Six, and the Chapter Eight fall into the melting vat. The forest fire sequence that ends Chapter One, although diminished a little by some obvious process-screen work, is set up wonderfully, with the fleeing Garson igniting blaze after blaze behind him as he runs into the woods and King becoming more and more encompassed by flame as he continues his pursuit of the criminal.
The athletic and clean-cut Allan Lane looks and acts the part of a stalwart Mountie to perfection, bringing a ideal combination of toughness and taciturn dignity to his role. He conveys both the thoughtfulness and the decisiveness of a good military commander when pondering his courses of action and confronts the villains with a grim self-assurance–but never comes off as stiff; he also does a convincing job of portraying King’s solicitude for the heroine, his good-natured affection for his friends, and his respect and admiration for his father. His authoritative and affable performance here ranks right alongside Reed Hadley’s Zorro, Herman Brix’s Kioga, Ralph Byrd’s Dick Tracy, and Kane Richmond’s Spy Smasher as one of the all-round best heroic turns of Republic’s Golden Age.
Robert Kellard, as King’s aide-de-camp Corporal Merritt (the son of the murdered mine-owner), has far less screen time than Lane but displays plenty of charisma himself, whether he’s standing in the background or (more rarely) taking center stage; he plays his character in an enthusiastic, eager, and slightly callow fashion that contrasts well with Lane’s more sober and mature demeanor. As his sister Linda, leading lady Lita Conway delivers the serial’s only uneven performance; she comes off as tense and uncomfortable in some of her more low-key dialogue scenes, nervously fiddling with props and staring grimly ahead of her as she waits for her cue–but this tenseness actually improves her acting in more emotional sequences; her angry and grieved reaction to her father’s death, for example, is far stronger than that of many other serial actresses.
As the brutish but cunning Garson, Harry Cording provides the bulk of the serial’s villainy (figuratively and literally); his large size, murderous glare, and hoarse, snarling voice give him a frightening physical presence that perfectly complements his character’s equally frightening behavior (like his cold-blooded murder of Tom Merritt Sr. in the first chapter). Former leading man Bryant Washburn is far less threatening, but is similarly good as the turncoat Crandall; he retains a hero-like air of sincerity and unassuming jauntiness that makes his character’s pose as a good guy convincing, but easily switches to furtive craftiness and cowardly panic whenever the situation requires.
Robert Strange’s Kettler has little to do but issue orders to Washburn and Cording’s characters until the serial’s last two chapters. His acting is not flamboyantly theatrical enough to make his radio conversations with his underlings as colorful as Noah Beery Sr.’s similar sessions in Zorro Rides Again–but he still comes off as a formidable if down-to-earth villain, sucessfully using his shrewd and vulpine face, curtly confident manner, and sharply commanding voice to make Kettler seem like an extremely crafty master spy and a dangerously dedicated Nazi. (His nationality–and that of his military backers–is never explicitly stated, but his many references to his country’s war with Great Britain make his affiliations quite obvious).
Herbert Rawlinson manages a very likable blend of military formality and quiet joviality as the hero’s father (and RCMP superior) Inspector King; the first meeting between father and son, in which the senior King holds his son at attention and receives an official report from him before warmly shaking his hand, is handled well by both Lane and Rawlinson. The reliable Budd Buster is colorful and quirky (but never obtrusively comedic) as a canny trapper named Vinegar Smith, who lends periodic assistance to the Mounties. Tony Paton is quite memorable as Garson’s second-in-command, the tough French-Canadian backwoodsman nicknamed “Le Coteau” (The Knife). Although physically undersized, his altertness, his swaggering self-confidence, and his evil joy when he contemplates the prospect of stabbing someone combine to make him quite menacing.
Other recurring henchmen are played by Charles Thomas, Bud Geary, Al Taylor, Alan Gregg, Frank Wayne, and stuntmen Ted Mapes and Ken Terrell; several other stuntmen, and familiar thug actor John Bagni, appear in smaller heavy bits. John Davidson plays a villainous doctor with unctuous relish in two chapters, while harsh-voiced Norman Willis is well-cast as a U-boat captain in the opening and concluding episodes. Lucien Prival is very sinister in his brief turn as a Nazi admiral, John Dilson is lively as the German scientist who demonstrates the military effectiveness of Compound X, and Paul McVey is slick as the intelligence official who sends Kettler on his mission. On the good guys’ side, Wallace Reid Jr., William Stahl, and short-lived Warner Brothers leading man Richard Travis can all be seen as Mounties–along with future TV Mountie Richard Simmons. As Tom Merritt Sr., Stanley Andrews appears just long enough to denounce Bryant Washburn for his treasonous behavior (in rather imprudently aggressive fashion) and get shot by Harry Cording.
Above: Herbert Rawlinson (in peaked cap) and other Mounties transport prisoner Harry Cording across a lake; the Mountie at the wheel of the boat is the future Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Richard Simmons.
Cy Feuer provides an excellent music score for King; the rousing but stately march that plays during the opening credits has a military sound befitting the RCMP theme, while the chase music–characterized by brisk, galloping rhythms and frequent bugle notes–also matches nicely with the serial’s theme; “The Maple Leaf Forever” is used sparingly but advantageously as an underlining motif in the serial’s quietest or most somber scenes.
King of the Royal Mounted has never received as wide an exposure as contemporaries like Adventures of Captain Marvel or Zorro’s Fighting Legion–due partly to its lack of fantastic trappings, but largely because of its long sojourn in the limbo of commercially unavailable “gray-market” serials (it didn’t receive an official home video release until 2004). However, its lack of major flaws and its very substantial collection of strengths entitle it to a very high place in Republic’s serial pantheon–and make it extremely rewarding viewing for the chapterplay fan.