John Blaine (William Desmond) tries valiantly to build a railway through the heart of the wild Western frontier, but is hindered by Indian attacks and by his foreman Rance Judd (Philo McCullough)–who is secretly in the pay of a rival contractor, and tries to make Blaine lose his government railroad contract by delaying construction by means of Indian attacks, and other underhanded methods. However, surveyor Tom Crosby (Onslow Stevens) and rail crew leader Bart Eaton (Edmund Cobb), Blaine’s son Noah and daughter Ann (Noah Beery Jr. and Jacqueline Wells), and Blaine himself prove equal to Judd’s machinations; together, these Heroes of the West make sure that the railroad goes through on time.
Universal’s third “talkie” Western serial, Heroes of the West features smoother production values and more consistently assured acting than Universal’s first two all-talking Western chapterplays, The Indians Are Coming and Battling With Buffalo Bill, did–although it still frequently comes off as primitive when compared to Universal’s later Western serials such as Wild West Days or Flaming Frontiers (its lack of a music score–even during the opening credits–is particularly noticeable). Like those later Western serials, however, it features lots of nice location work on the Universal backlot and ranch, and successfully combines interesting characterizations with plentiful action; it’s also more energetic and fast-paced than many other Universal chapterplays from the early 1930s.
Heroes’ script (by Ella O’Neill, Basil Dickey, Joe Roach, and George Plympton) and direction (by Ray Taylor) both keep its plot moving well, particularly in the serial’s mid-section–which, beginning with the stage holdup in Chapter Five and ending with Onslow Stevens’ tussle with three Indians in Chapter Nine, keeps the characters on the go almost continually, instead of (as in several contemporary Universals) sending them back to home base to talk things over at the beginning of each episode. The serial slows down somewhat in its last three chapters, however, and takes time out for incidents–the buffalo hunt, the wagon race–not really connected to the main part. That said, the aforesaid wagon race, which serves as the serial’s action finale, is quite exciting, although it’s more anticlimax than climax–since it takes place after the railroad is already safely on the way to completion.
Some of Heroes’ action highlights include the impressively shot and staged battle between the Indians and the work train in Chapter Two (which uses less stock footage than many other Universal sequences of its kind), a protracted shootout at the trapper Missouri’s cabin in Chapter Seven (which makes heavier use of stock, but is still very effective), and the lengthy saloon fight between Onslow Stevens and Philo McCullough in Chapter Eleven. Chapter Four’s somewhat chaotic but energetic large-scale saloon brawl and the horse stampede that follows it are noteworthy too; this sequence also sets up one of the serial’s several “double cliffhanger” chapter endings, with Stevens about to be shot in the back by McCullough and Jacqueline Wells about to be trampled by the horses. This motif persists in many of the serial’s cliffhanger sequences, with Stevens, Wells, and/or Noah Beery Jr. simultaneously facing peril, often in three different locations. This gimmick recalls many contemporary Mascot serials, but is handled with more consistent deftness and credibility than in many of those outings (several of which, particularly Last of the Mohicans, sometimes went to absurdly contrived lengths to put all its stars in danger at the same time).
Above: the triple cliffhanger of Chapter Two. Trapped in the forest, Noah Beery Jr. is swarmed by murderous Indians, while over at the work train Onslow Stevens is shot down and Jacqueline Wells is attacked on a flatcar by another group of Indians.
The cliffhangers are less ingenious in their resolution than in their staging; too many of the protagonists’ escapes result from their near-miraculous abilities to survive gunshot wounds or wagon crashes (as was too often the case at Universal). The best and most ingenious “escape” follows the Chapter Seven cliffhanger, in which a burning cabin crashes around most of the protagonists; instead of simply crawling out of the ruins, as we might expect, they escape through a tunnel revealed by the wounded Missouri (Jules Cowles), who regains consciousness just in time to reveal the hidden exit.
As aforementioned, Heroes’ action doesn’t stifle its characterizations. The lively but affectionate and humorous bouts of bickering between siblings Noan and Ann, their aunt Martha’s displays of comic fussiness and serious courage, the pupil-mentor relationship between Noah and Missouri the trapper, and (especially) the mutual grudge and uneasy truce between good guys Tom Crosby and Bart Eaton all help to give the protagonists a welcome degree of depth. Even the villains are given some dimension; brains heavy Rance Judd is slimy and generally ruthless, but does show some genuine affection and concern for the heroine–while action heavy Butch (a dismissed railroad employee) is not depicted as a mere swaggering, bullying thug, but as a surly, violent, and slow-witted misfit who really seems to believe he has a legitimate grudge against the hero and the railway.
The serial’s cast members handle their characters well–although the cast’s leading actor is definitely miscast. Star Onslow Stevens gives a good performance, delivering his lines in a smoothly self-assured style that’s largely unmarred by typical early-sound-era staginess–but he simply sounds too slick and looks too slender to be completely convincing as a tough-talking cowboy hero. The rugged and rustic Noah Beery Jr., on the other hand, is right at home as Stevens’ co-hero (he’s given top billing in the serial itself, while Stevens is listed first on the serial’s publicity material). Beery gives the youthfully inexperienced but fast-learning Noah an appropriate touch of the same naivety he brought to his later serial sidekick roles, but otherwise makes him seem quite tough and savvy, even slightly dashing at times.
Edmund Cobb, like Beery, functions as something of a co-hero here, taking part in nearly as many chases and rescues as Stevens and Beery do, and single-handedly discovering villain Philo McCullough’s treachery at the end. His good-natured interchanges with most of the protagonists contrast interestingly with the harsh, cranky comments he continually throws at Onslow Stevens; although we never learn the cause of the enmity between the two, their ultimate reconciliation is movingly acted by both Stevens and Cobb (albeit weakened a little by a line of looped dialogue, apparently intended to tie the serial more firmly to its ostensible “source,” a story by Peter B. Kyne).
Eighteen-year-old Jacqueline Wells (billed here as Diane Duval) is delightful as the spunky, pretty, and somewhat tomboyish heroine, particularly when trading barbed banter with Beery or reacting with amused patience to her Aunt Martha’s continual lectures. As this aunt, Martha Mattox is also good; amusingly fussy, but never irritatingly so, she not only provides comic relief but is completely convincing whenever her character is required to turn dependable and courageous in the face of danger. William Desmond is his usual jovial but dignified self as the beleaguered head of the Blaine family, while the stocky, hoarse-voiced Jules Cowles gives a colorful–if occasionally hammy–performance as the grubby, garrulous, and cagey trapper Missouri.
Philo McCullough is suitably sleazy and oily as the villainous Rance Judd, although his performance is so low-key at times that he seems almost sleepy. Harry Tenbrook is livelier as his henchman Butch, playing up the character’s angry perplexity to excellent effect; he seems so genuinely hurt by his dismissal from the railroad crew early in the serial that one actually feels sorry for him. Frank Lackteen is good as the shifty but tough and rather sardonic half-breed Buckskin Joe, McCullough’s other principal henchman, while Jim Corey, Ben Corbett, Slim Whitaker, and Blackjack Ward play minor thugs. Francis Ford and Grace Cunard, who co-starred as hero and heroine in many a silent Universal serial, appear in small roles here as (respectively) a cavalry captain and a saloon girl.
Both early talkies and Westerns are frequently overlooked by serial fans, and Heroes of the West–being both–has rarely received much critical attention; its lack of a well-known Western star (such as Buck Jones or John Mack Brown, who top-lined the casts of so many later Universal Western outings) has further contributed to its obscurity. Still, it’s a well-made, solid, and consistently enjoyable effort, full as it is of the promising ingredients that would create so many later Universal cowboy cliffhangers.