The Desert Hawk

Desert Hawk--titles
Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1944. Starring Gilbert Roland, Mona Maris, Ben Welden, Frank Lackteen, Kenneth MacDonald, I. Stanford Jolley, Ernie Adams, Norman Willis, Billy Bletcher.

The Desert Hawk opens in a mythical Arabian kingdom called Ahad, where Kasim (Gilbert Roland) has just succeeded his father as Caliph; the new Caliph plans to rule his kingdom justly and fairly, but certain conspirators have other ideas. Kasim’s treacherous chamberlain Faud (Frank Lackteen) is plotting with Kasim’s evil and long-banished twin brother Hassan (Gilbert Roland again) to eliminate Kasim and place the ambitious Hassan on the throne. With the help of a pair of assassins, Hassan manages to remove Kasim and assume his identity without anyone being the wiser. Hassan then murders the Grand Vizier, who discovers the plot, while Faud has the two assassins hung for the killing of the Vizier, leaving Faud and Hassan secure in their secret–as they think.  They do not realize that Kasim has survived his stabbing by the assassins and has been taken in by kindly beggar Omar (Ben Welden) and his mother (Belle Mitchell). Once recovered, Kasim attempts to prove his identity, but the false Caliph merely pretends that Kasim is the wicked Hassan and outlaws him. Assuming the guise of the Desert Hawk, a legendary bandit and champion of the poor, Kasim begins a desperate fight against his evil brother, attempting to save the Princess Azala (Mona Maris) from unwittingly marrying the impostor while protecting both Azala’s kingdom of Telez and his own land of Ahad from the tyrannous yoke of Hassan.

Lacking the comical directorial touches of James W. Horne (which undermined many of the serials that preceded it), and unencumbered by the cheap production values of Sam Katzman (which sabotaged most of the serials that came after it), Desert Hawk emerges as one of Columbia Pictures’ most successful serials. Indeed, it’s probably the best-made chapterplay the studio produced during the 1940s–its only possible rival being The Phantom, made during the same happy interim period between the eras of Horne and Katzman, and directed by the same man: Mascot serial veteran B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason.

The experienced Eason gives The Desert Hawk a swift pace not seen in many other Columbia serials, keeping things moving throughout the chapterplay’s fifteen episodes. The script aids Eason in this regard, by constantly moving its heroes from one locale to another and never getting bogged down in one place for too long. These varying locales include the open spaces of the desert, the Caliph’s palace and its spacious garden, the underground tunnels of the Grey Wizard, the cavernous hideout of the bandits called “the Brothers of the Sword,” and the crowded streets and marketplaces of the city. The variety of settings keeps the viewer from feeling that the action is being confined by the serial genre’s usual financial limitations , an illusion that is aided by some well-appointed sets. Among chapterplays, only Zorro’s Fighting Legion, The Lone Ranger, and the Flash Gordon trilogy are as successful in putting across a large-scale plot on a serial-scale budget.

Desert Hawk marketplace
Above: A good panoramic shot of the gates of Ahad, showing the serial’s decent complement of extras and one of its impressive sets.

The script (by Sherman Lowe, Leslie Swabacker, Jack Stanley, and Leighton Brill) not only keeps on the move between locations, but also avoids the “thrown together” feeling of many Columbia screenplays. The plot stays on track, there are no logic gaps, and reference is frequently made to incidents that occurred four or five chapters ago. The dialogue is well-written, maintaining an Arabian Nights flavor without sounding corny or stilted. The story never gets so convoluted as to become ridiculous, but is just complicated enough to fill fifteen chapters. I suppose the serial could have been cut down to twelve chapters by eliminating the Brothers of the Sword and the Grey Wizard, but it would have been a pity to lose the Brothers, who provide colorful additional villainy. The sequences with the Grey Wizard smack more of padding, but the Wizard’s interesting underground dwelling and Ernie Adams’ lively performance as the enchanter makes these scenes pleasant enough as well.

Even Billy Bletcher’s “comic relief” character Zeno the Magician, who seems to be largely useless and unrelated to the plot, ultimately plays a vital role in the climax–a climax that constitutes one of the best finales in any serial. It ends just the way a feature-film swashbuckler would, with the Hawk making a dramatic entrance to stop Hassan’s marriage to the Princess at the last moment, leaping from a balcony into the main hall (to some stirring musical accompaniment) and doing battle with Hassan’s men while the loyal peasants storm the palace gates outside. The writers and director especially deserve credit for this climactic scene; it would have been so easy for them to wrap the serial up in cheaper, talkier, and less enjoyable fashion.

Desert Hawk--finale 3 Desert Hawk--finale 2 Desert Hawk--finale 4 Desert Hawk--finale 1
Above: The Hawk to the rescue in the climactic chapter.

Some of the cliffhanger endings are hastily set up, with the lack of foreshadowing common to most Columbia perils, especially the one in which Gilbert Roland is swept down a whirlpool.  However, there some memorably well-staged cliffhangers here too, among them the one that has include Roland and Mona Maris going off a cliff in a carriage, Roland trapped in a fire in a blacksmith shop, and Roland plunging from a cliff as the ground comes up to meet him in a startling “point of view” shot. The best of all the chapter endings comes at the end of the fourteenth episode, with Roland being knocked into an arena full of savage dogs; in a tense, violent, and frightening sequence, the snarling beasts try to tear him apart as the Caliph’s guards cheer them on. The Chapter Eight cliffhanger is noteworthy too, but mainly because its resolution constitutes one of the most imaginative but nonetheless outrageous “cheats” ever seen in a serial.

The serial’s action scenes are very well-staged by director Eason, and chiefly center around sword fights, like the action in Zorro’s Fighting Legion. The duels here actually come off better than the sword fights in Legion, however, since the blades involved are scimitars, not rapiers, and the actors don’t have to (often poorly) imitate fencing moves; instead, they hack and slash away at each other with energetic abandon. The sword fight in the first chapter, with Roland taking on a gang of henchmen atop a balcony and then sliding down a tapestry by means of his dagger, is one standout; the battle between the Emir of Telez’s men and the Brothers of the Sword in Chapter Three, with Roland aiding the former group, is another, with an impressive amount of extras involved. The clash between Roland and the henchmen in the marketplace in Chapter Ten is good as well, while the final sword-wielding showdown in the Caliph’s throne room is excellent–shot partly from above, an unusually stylistic touch for a serial. Eason’s experience in directing action scenes in spectacles like the silent Ben-Hur or Warner Brothers’ The Charge of the Light Brigade undoubtedly helped him here, in orchestrating these and other sequences.

Desert Hawk--swordfight Desert Hawk--curtain slide
Above: A shot from Roland’s first-chapter palace fight with the Caliph’s men, and his subsequent escape down the curtain. Below: The elaborate battle between the Emir’s Men and the Brothers of the Sword in Chapter Three (left) and an overhead shot of the last-chapter throne room fight.

Desert Hawk--chapter 3 fight Desert Hawk--throne room fight

The serial’s cast is an excellent one, and its lead actors fit perfectly into the unusual setting. Star Gilbert Roland was a last-minute replacement for the injured James Ellison, who was slated to play the lead–but, unlike most such substitutions, this one worked much better than the original casting arrangement. Roland brings an authenticity to his exotic role that Ellison–and most other American-born leading men–could never have matched. Roland also shows here, as he did in some of his better A-film parts, that he could play much more than the roguish Mexican bandit roles he became typecast in in later years. His Kasim is dignified but genial and dashing but intelligent, and displays convincing concern and even fear when he or his allies are facing death; he manages to make his character easy to identify with despite his foreigness. Roland also makes his Hassan as memorable a villain as his Kasim is a hero, playing the character’s aggressiveness and tyrannical arrogance for all it’s worth as the evil twin irritably stabs various enemies, engineers cold-blooded schemes, and continually threatens his henchmen with doom for their failures to capture the Hawk.

Desert Hawk--brother against brother
Above: Good Roland (left) face to face with Bad Roland (right).

Argentinian Mona Maris makes a fine leading lady for Roland, her slight accent matching his and helping her to fit in the serial’s milieu; once again, an American actress would not have been as convincing in the role. Like Roland as Kasim, she brings a proper air of dignity and poise to her regal character without ever seeming haughty. Ben Welden, later a comic villain in innumerable episodes of the Superman TV show, is surprisingly good as Omar, the Desert Hawk’s trusty sidekick. Omar is somewhat lazy and more than a bit excitable, but he’s also loyal, brave, and very crafty, and Welden manages to keep a perfect balance between the comedic and serious aspects of his characterization.

Frank Lackteen’s furtive and crafty Faud is a good foil for Roland’s Hassan, frequently cautioning his impetuously ruthless boss to tread more softly and growing increasingly nervous as Hassan’s overconfidence keeps threatening to expose their plans. Kenneth MacDonald has an interesting role as Akbar, the harsh but loyal Captain of the Guards who believes that the Hawk is an enemy of the Caliph and does his best to destroy him, but goes over to the good guys’ side when he finds out who the Hawk really is. MacDonald pulls off the switch from antagonist to protagonist very well. I. Stanford Jolley is good as the slimy, self-promoting Saladin, MacDonald’s lieutenant, while the grinningly sinister Stanley Price, the saturnine Syrian-born actor Jamiel Hasson, and an unusually nasty Kermit Maynard are Hassan’s other principal henchmen.

Belle Mitchell plays Welden’s irascible mother, and Charles Middleton has a good supporting part for the first five episodes as Koda Bey, a dignified and kindly merchant who believes Kasim’s story and tries to help him. Georges Renavent plays Mona Maris’ father, the Emir of Telez, and George J. Lewis appears as the captain of his guard. Ernie Adams (like Roland a last-minute substitute, for ailing actor Egon Brecher) is delightful as the gnomish, mysterious Grey Wizard. Margia Dean, later a leading lady in some 1950s features, is the Wizard’s daughter, and Forrest Taylor plays a crafty money-lender who assists the Desert Hawk. Norman Willis is excellent as Andor, the tough and shrewd leader of the Brothers of the Sword, scoffing scornfully at threats from Kasim, Hassan, and the Emir of Telez alike. Phillip Van Zandt and John Bagni play Willis’ lieutenants, with the slick Van Zandt getting an extended showcase sequence in which he slyly bargains with Hassan’s men.

Desert Hawk--brothers of the sword
Above: Norman Willis (far left) and his men confront Gilbert Roland in his “Desert Hawk” garb. Phillip Van Zandt is at far right.

Jack Ingram and Frank Shannon both appear very briefly–as one of the Caliph’s guards reading a proclamation and as a citizen lamenting the caliph’s high taxes, respectively. Reed Howes and Wade Crosby play the slow-witted assassins in the first chapter, while Lloyd Ingraham appears as the ill-fated Grand Vizier. Hugh Sothern is the mullah who almost marries the unwilling Princess to Hassan, and Gil Perkins and Eddie Parker play minor henchmen while also providing most of the serial’s stuntwork. The already-mentioned Billy Bletcher is on hand as the bumbling magician Zeno; although his comedy magic-act bits are weak, he uses that magnificent booming voice of his to make as much of them as he can.

Lee Zahler’s music score, with cues that fit the serial’s Arabian motif, serves as excellent background to this offbeat but highly successful cliffhanger–the only sound serial to venture completely outside the usual Western/jungle/urban locations of the genre and find complete success. Thanks to respectable production values, a good script, a strong cast that handles said script with conviction, and the sure directorial hand of good old Breezy Eason, The Desert Hawk ranks not only as the best entry in the small sub-genre of non-Western “period” serials, but as one of Columbia’s very best chapterplays.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Trevor Scott for providing me with a copy of this serial, and to John DiMezzes and Willard Fong, for helping me to identify several of the supporting cast members.

3 thoughts on “The Desert Hawk

  1. Right on review. One of the best Columbias. **** out of *****. I recently saw Gilbert Roland in Cheyenne Autumn. He was an impressive actor who maintained star status from the 1920’s into the 1980’s, longer I think than any other male silent era film lead.

  2. One of my favorites. Great cast, interesting and varied storyline and nice sets and location work. As you stated, Gilbert Roland brings much more to the role than James Ellison probably could have delivered. He definitely manages to portray Hassan and Kasim as two very distinct personalities, not always an easy task for an actor. I was unfamiliar with Mona Maris, but found her performance also very enjoyable. Too bad Columbia couldn’t deliver more serials of this quality, but once Katzman’s tenure began, the die was cast.

  3. I think you’re wrong about calling the crystal ball cliffhanger a cheat. I knew right away(but I’m a modern viewer) that the crystal ball would be the cliffhanger and resolution as he would die in that sequence. I was right. But, it was one clever cliffhanger, and possibly the first time something like that happened in a serial.

    So I bet there were some kids that didn’t realize that. And it stayed true to the logic of the serial. No cheating in its resolution. So again. Its not a cheat.

    But, what were cheats were the fire in the cave. They showed edits that didn’t happen. Another cheat was the fall sequence. Not that it didn’t happen or what it showed, but the fact that he survived. I hate lazy resolutions like that. One reason why I list Green Hornet serials as low as I do. They’re good, but thanks to the lazy cliffhanger resolutions they’re not great.

    Another cheat was how he was shown to be trampled at the end of chapter 1…And the spinning deathtrap…. If you have to show footage that you edit out to make your cliffhanger work… Then its a cheat and not a good cliffhanger. The best cliffhangers are when they stay true to the editing and maybe stick something a bit before it to explain how the hero escapes. When you show footage to mislead that will not be in the next chapter, its a cheat… That crystal ball was not.

    Also the fire in the blacksmiths house was a lazy resolution. Let’s leave men… Who cares about getting a body… Or even looking at the building… Hmmm… Hey wait isn’t that a small little door for animals and such to get in and out of… Better make sure he doesn’t sneak out of there… Nah… Let’s just go… LAZY… Just give it a stupid trap door in the floor like how most of them do. That would have been cliche’, but better.

    I actually liked this serial. I’d rank it as my 3rd favorite Colombia serial I’ve seen to date. Behind The Spider’s Web, Secret Code, and before the Phantom. Those are to date my favorites from them. Haven’t seen Deadwood Dick yet. That’s on my list of ones to watch. Not a big fan of Colombia… But, when they do have some really good ones.

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