Daredevils of the West begins in deceptive calm, as the lovely June Foster (Kay Aldridge) prepares to leave the western town of Canyon City with a wagonload of supplies for her father’s construction camp. Old Mr. Foster (Charles Miller) is constructing a stage line through the Comanche Strip, a piece of government land that will be opened up to settlement once the stage line is complete. Unbeknownst to Foster and his daughter, local land and cattle broker Martin Dexter (Robert Frazer) is determined to purchase the Comanche Strip (“the best grazing land in the West”) from the government, a purchase that can only be made if the Fosters forfeit their government franchise by failing to complete the stage line on time. The thoroughly ruthless Dexter intends to see that the stage line is never completed, and pays a band of renegade Indians to attack the stage line camp. Captain Duke Cameron (Allan Lane) and his company of cavalry ride to the rescue in time to save June Foster and line foreman Red Kelly (Eddie Acuff) from massacre, but Foster himself is killed. June vows to complete the stage line, and Cameron, an old friend of June and her father, requests a leave to assist her, pointing out to his commander that paper money was found on the Indians killed in the fighting, which means white men are inciting the Indians to revolt–a situation that the Army must investigate. Dexter and his wily lawyer Higby (Ted Adams) and their henchmen Ward and Turner (William Haade and George J. Lewis) do their best to shoot, blow up, and otherwise eliminate our heroes chapter after chapter, but our durable “daredevils,” Duke, June, and Red, meet every obstacle that comes their way.
Before giving my thoughts on Daredevils of the West, I should explain a little of the serial’s curious history, almost as fraught with mishap as the construction of the Foster Stage Line itself. After its original release, Daredevils was never seen again in its original form. For over sixty years, Four chapters circulated on the collectors’ market, but the complete cliffhanger remained unavailable, due to various copyright issues and the fact that the only existing prints were missing portions of their soundtrack. In 2008, a print formerly belonging to the late collector Jack Mathis was shown at a serial fan convention in Pennsylvania, courtesy of Brigham Young University, Mathis’ legatees. This print was missing five reels of sound, but its picture was complete, and its exhibition was the biggest event in serial fandom since the rediscovery of the supposedly lost Jungle Jim and the two Secret Agent X-9 serials. Since 2008, this print of Daredevils has played at other film conventions; early in 2011, it was released on DVD by Eric Stedman, the proprietor of the Serial Squadron website. The soundless portions of the serial (comprising the first ten minutes of Chapter One, all of Chapter Seven, and the second halves of Chapters 8 and 9) were redubbed with Republic music and sound effects, while missing dialogue was redubbed by a cast of voiceover actors. For those who are wondering what the redubbed soundtrack sounds like: the new sound effects are seamless, the music is appropriate if slightly different in orchestral tone from the original score, and the dubbed dialogue is professionally handled. The performers dubbing Kay Aldridge and Robert Frazer sound remarkably like the original actors. The new voices of Allan Lane and Eddie Acuff don’t match the originals as closely, but are still smoothly done. The only jarring notes are the voices of Ted Adams and (in a small role) Kenne Duncan, who are given Western drawls that don’t match their genuine voices (even the author could have managed better vocal imitations of those actors). However, considering that the serial is quite light on dialogue overall, the redubbed dialogue, even when off-key, is not very distracting.
Now, on to the chapterplay itself. When Republic Pictures made a Western serial, they often injected an added component into the standard Western formula, usually a masked rider (the Lone Ranger and Zorro serials) or one or more historical figures (The Painted Stallion and the Jesse James cliffhangers). Presumably this was to avoid duplicating the feel of their many B-westerns, which often played on the same bill as their serials. Occasionally, however, they departed from this rule; Daredevils of the West plays like an extended Republic B-western, with a simple and archetypal plot that would fit easily into a Western feature. However, no Western feature, not even one of Republic’s B-westerns, could boast a pace to match that of Daredevils of the West. Its simple plot moves along at breakneck speed, and provides a sturdy setting for some of the best action scenes in serial history. Standard Western scenarios–an Indian attack on a wagon train, horseback chases, shootouts at the familiar Republic barn, saloon brawls–are played out with an inventive and energetic flair unequaled in any other Western cliffhanger. There’s scarcely ever a breather between these spectacular setpieces, either; the plot snowballs from one incident to the next, with only brief dialogue intervals to set the stage for the next incident.
Of course, there are two sides to every coin, and Daredevils’ breathless pace and abundant action leaves little room for the occasional moments of emotion and character interaction that made Republic Golden Age serials like Hawk of the Wilderness, Daredevils of the Red Circle, Adventures of Red Ryder, or King of the Royal Mounted so memorable. However, Daredevils’ script, the work of Ronald Davidson, Basil Dickey, Joseph O’Donnell, William Lively, and Joseph Poland, does build steadily towards a goal (the completion of the Foster Stage Line), and draws out each subplot for several chapters. It thus partly avoids the air of excessively repetition that pervades other wartime Republic serials like Secret Service in Darkest Africa, Captain America, and The Masked Marvel, in which the heroes and villains engage in a long series of basically unrelated clashes. Situations are also dragged out for more than one episode in Daredevils, unlike in many of its contemporaries, which unveiled a new subplot in each chapter; the villains’ theft of the stage line payroll and the theft’s ramifications account for over two chapters’ worth of action, while the villains’ plot to incite trouble between the stage line and the Arapaho Indians in Chapter Eight sets off a chain of events that leads directly to the final episode.
John English directs the serial’s explosive action scenes with considerable zest and skill, backed by the Republic stunt team and Howard and Theodore Lydecker’s explosive miniature effects. The fights in Daredevils aren’t as acrobatic as the fights in English’s many collaborations with William Witney, due to the absence of stuntman Dave Sharpe, but they’re still dynamic, energetically performed by Tom Steele, Duke Green, and Ken Terrell, along with Pierce Lyden, Allen Pomeroy, Eddie Parker, and Bill and Joe Yrigoyen. One of the most memorable of the serial’s long parade of action highlights is the good guys’ invasion of the outlaw town of Red Gulch in Chapter Three, with Allan Lane and Eddie Acuff battling a saloon full of villains while Kay Aldridge holds off additional outlaws with rifle fire; this sequence is followed by the good guys’ equally exciting escape from the town, with Lane rolling barrels out of the back of a wagon to distract their pursuers’ horses, then jumping out of the wagon to tackle the remaining pursuer from a high rock. Another impressive scene is the Indian attack on the stage line’s camp in Chapter One, easily the best Indians-versus-circled-wagons sequence in any Western serial. The scene culminates in a violent hand-to-hand struggle when the redskins breach the wagons, with Eddie Acuff using an empty rifle as a club and Allan Lane chucking a stray spear into an Indian about to scalp Kay Aldridge.
Then there’s the shootout at the Republic barn in Chapter Ten, followed by a fistfight in which the barn, true to form, explodes into a million pieces. There’s the exploding mine shaft cliffhanger in Chapter Four, following on the heels of an incredible fight in the Republic cave. There’s the fistfight between Lane and Robert Frazer in the volcanic caverns at the end of Chapter Eleven, which ends in Lane apparently being knocked down into a blazing fire pit while Frazer (in a nice little piece of symbolism) brandishes a devilish pitchfork above the flame and smoke. There’s the exploding stagecoach cliffhanger that concludes the first chapter, the flaming jail cliffhanger that closes Chapter Two, the final shootout in the streets of Red Gulch, with the cavalry coming to the rescue in time-honored fashion, and dozens of other memorable shootouts, fights, chases, and cliffhanging moments. Mort Glickman’s musical score, reused many times in later serials, contributes a rousing accompaniment to the action.
The serial’s locations, consisting of two different Western town sets (Canyon City and Red Gulch), the familiar wooded roads of Iverson’s Movie Ranch, and, most prominently, the rocky hills and sweeping plains of Lone Pine, furnish excellent backdrops to the action. Lone Pine was frequently utilized in B and A Westerns, but rarely used so extensively in movie serials; the Lone Pine locations give Daredevils a visual “look” that distinguishes it from most other Western chapterplays. Cinematographer Bud Thackery captures Lone Pine’s vistas beautifully throughout the cliffhanger.
The cast of Daredevils of the West is a uniformly excellent one, which is fortunate considering the script’s lack of dialogue and thin characterizations. Each performer invests his underwritten part with personality and presence, making the audience relish the scenes in which the actors take time out from the action–rather than wish the dialogue would end so the action could continue, as in many Republic outings with weaker casts. Allan Lane is commanding and energetic at the same time, showing enthusiasm, anger, and even alarm in addition to determination, and delivering a performance much livelier than some of his more stoic turns in his later Westerns. Kay Aldridge is as lovely and charming as ever, and manages to make her character seem ladylike and cheerful even when blazing away with a rifle. The Western milieu also seems to have encouraged her to give freer rein to her Virginian accent than usual; her dialogue delivery is less stilted than it was at times in her other serials. Eddie Acuff has almost no opportunity to perform the comic bits he brought to The Green Hornet Strikes Again and Jungle Girl, but his quirky, sardonic personality saves his character from seeming like a typically bland supporting lead.
Burly William Haade, with his tough voice, crafty smile, and smug manner, makes a perfect lead henchman, while George J. Lewis backs him up nicely as the bad-tempered, peremptorily vicious secondary henchman. The booming-voiced, wonderfully hammy Robert Frazer, perennial “red herring” in Mascot and Republic serials, gets to play an actual villain for a change, and although he doesn’t have as much screen time as Haade and Lewis, he chomps through his scenes with vigor, gloating unctuously when successful and resonantly berating his gang after failures. Ted Adams, as his lawyer, differs from the typical serial “office henchman” in that he actually suggests several villainous schemes himself, instead of simply worrying over possible exposure. Adams’ sly, crisp-voiced delivery suits his unusual character well.
The supporting cast of Daredevils is filled with familiar and dependable players, among them Stanley Andrews as Lane’s cavalry colonel, Chief Thundercloud as the grim Arapaho chief, Jack Rockwell as the feisty and helpful sheriff, Budd Buster as a grizzled scout, Kenneth Harlan as a land commissioner, Herbert Rawlinson as a banker, Edmund Cobb as a telegrapher, Crane Whitley as a crooked attorney, and George Pembroke as a pompous government functionary. Charles Miller is Kay Aldridge’s ill-fated father, while Tom London, Rex Lease, and Kenne Duncan make appearances as outlaws, as do Duke Green, Tom Steele, Ken Terrell, Eddie Parker, and the other members of the stunt team. Green, Terrell and Parker also do duty as renegade Indians, while among the supposedly-peaceful Arapahos are Rodd Redwing and Jay Silverheels–who interestingly exchanges several lines with Chief Thundercloud, his predecessor in the role of Tonto.
Daredevils of the West, while far from Republic’s best serial or even its best Western serial (I’d award that honor to either The Lone Ranger or Adventures of Red Ryder, both much richer in characterization and plot dramatics), certainly surpasses most of its Republic contemporaries from 1943, to me the studio’s first full post-Golden Age year. In terms of plotting and action, it’s better than Secret Service in Darkest Africa, The Masked Marvel, and Captain America, and it can hold its own against G-Men vs. the Black Dragon. Like these cliffhangers, it’s best viewed a chapter at a time, so the action scenes don’t cancel each other out, but, also like the other members of Republic’s class of ’43, it achieves a sustained level of excitement rarely seen on the movie screen.