As Perils of Nyoka opens, Prof. Douglas Campbell (Forbes Murray) and his expedition arrive in the small North African town of Wadi Bartha; they are seeking an ancient treasure trove that contains–among other priceless artifacts–the Tablets of Hippocrates, on which are inscribed “the only cure for cancer the world has ever known.” Campbell and his colleagues, including Dr. Larry Grayson (Clayton Moore), are principally interested in the Tablets’ value to humanity, but Count Benito Torrini (Tristram Coffin), the Italian colonial official attached to the expedition, has more mercenary ideas in mind and is conspiring with the devious Arab queen Vultura (Lorna Gray) to seize the treasure. After being joined by Nyoka Gordon (Kay Aldridge), the daughter of an archeologist who vanished years ago looking for the Tablets, the expedition sets out in search of the Tablets and Nyoka’s missing father, journeying into the hidden valley of the sun-worshipping Tuareg tribe while fighting Vultura and her ally Cassib (Charles Middleton) every step of the way.
Well-written, well-directed, and well-cast, Perils of Nyoka represents Republic serial-making at its absolute peak. Writers Ronald Davidson, Norman Hall, William Lively, Joseph O’Donnell, and Joseph Poland utilize a “quest” structure for their screenplay, one which keeps the characters on the move from one location to the next. The heroes must first translate an important papyrus before beginning their journey to the Tuaregs’ valley, where, upon arrival, they have to deal with the hostile natives and their chief–Nyoka’s amnesic father Professor Gordon (Robert Strange). Then, they must rescue Gordon from Vultura and restore his memory, unmask Torrini’s treachery, return to the Tuaregs’ valley for another important clue, locate the treasure, and recover it in a final showdown after it’s stolen by Vultura. This storyline not only provides plenty of opportunities for action scenes, but also gives the serial a strong sense of steadily focused progression towards a definite goal, making its overall narrative much more interesting than the loosely connected plots of many other Republic serials.
This well-paced narrative plays out in an impressive variety of indoor sets and outdoor locations–the honeycomb of tunnels in the Tuareg valley, Vultura’s mammoth palace and the cliffs nearby, numerous caverns, and various rocky hillsides. Of all Republic’s serials set in foreign realms, Nyoka manages to be the most successful in creating a believably exotic atmosphere; it helps that semi-arid Californian locales like Iverson’s Movie Ranch and Corriganville can more convincingly double for the North African hills than they could for other African locales, like the sub-equatorial jungles or the Sahara desert.
The serial’s action scenes are handled with gusto by William Witney and his star stuntman David Sharpe. One of the many action highlights is Nyoka and Larry’s invasion of Vultura’s palace in Chapter One, which has Clayton Moore’s Larry (doubled by Sharpe) practically flying around the throne room in a combination swordfight/fistfight and eventually being attacked by Vultura’s pet gorilla Satan (Emil Van Horn), who pulls down several stone pillars on our hero and heroine. The pursuit of Nyoka by Cassib’s horsemen in Chapter Two is another memorable action sequence, as is her subsequent chariot escape from Vultura’s camp following a fight with the evil queen. There are far too many additional standout scenes for me to describe them all, but among them are the fight in the lava caves, Larry’s battle with hostile Tuaregs in their cavern temple, Nyoka trying to escape down a cliff on a rope while Satan tugs on the other end, the Tuaregs’ primitive hand-grenade attack on the expedition, and the final showdown in which Larry fights Cassib and his men while Nyoka grapples with Vultura.
The cliffhanger sequences are consistently imaginative and include one of the best-known chapter endings in the Republic canon, the sequence that has Kay Aldridge dangling over a Tuareg fire pit. Equally memorable chapter endings have Aldridge and Forbes Murray being forced towards a ceiling of spikes by an ascending floor, Aldridge about to be sliced in two by a lethal pendulum, and Aldridge being inexorably blown towards the edge of a cliff in an impressive wind tunnel.
Dave Sharpe not only doubles Clayton Moore, but also fills in for Kay Aldridge on all the really dangerous stunts. Stuntwoman Babe DeFreest doubles the heroine in other sequences, with Helen Thurston filling in for Lorna Gray; Tom Steele performs most of Charles Middleton’s stunts, while Ken Terrell, Duke Green, Duke Taylor, Henry Wills, Bud Wolfe, and Johnny Daheim make many contributions as well. Most of these stuntmen, of course, also do acting duty as various Arabs throughout the serial.
Perils of Nyoka’s action is complemented beautifully by Mort Glickman’s score, which is distinctive, memorable, and very well-suited to the setting, with a persistent but not overdone “Arabian” motif dominating both its fast-paced “action” theme and its slower opening-credits music.
The serial’s cast is filled with appealing performers, although its ostensible star, Kay Aldridge, is probably the weakest thespian in the group. Her line delivery is very energetic but awkward at times, and her face is frequently expressionless during dialogue scenes–although she does a fine job registering alarm in cliffhanger sequences. Still, Aldridge is so beautiful, and so likable despite her stiffness, that her presence really has no negative impact on the serial.
Clayton Moore contributes an enormous amount of energy to his part, continually taking the lead in both dialogue and action scenes. He delivers his lines with both seriousness and a certain swashbuckling enthusiasm, and rides and runs with an admirable athleticism that matches well with the dynamism of his double Dave Sharpe in the fight scenes. He, far more than Aldridge, comes off as the actual star of the serial.
Lorna Gray is haughty, viciously bad-tempered, and gleefully evil by turns, but never hammy or over-the-top. Her good looks contrast so startlingly with her convincingly appalling behavior that she commands attention when on-screen; her Vultura is probably the most memorable of all female serial heavies.
Charles Middleton has less time in the spotlight than in his 1930s serials, but his Cassib is still an intimidating figure, glowering grimly at Vultura’s enemies and infusing his Arabian-Nights-style dialogue with both menace (“If you let her escape, you will find death a pleasant relief from your punishment”) and dignity (“What brings you to this humble huddle of tents, Gracious One?”)
Billy Benedict, as the Campbell expedition’s driver and mechanic Red, provides low-key but amusing comic relief, stealing scenes with a single facial expression or a bit of incongruous slang. His scenes with his pet Capuchin monkey Jitters (played by “Professor”) are much more appealing than most such animal-sidekick interchanges; the monkey is not only cute but genuinely helpful to the good guys more than once, and Benedict seems to have a genuine rapport with the little creature.
One of the additional joys of Perils of Nyoka is the unusually large cast of interesting supporting characters; in sharp contrast to many Republic outings, Nyoka features meaty speaking parts for characters besides the hero, heroine, villain, action heavy, and sidekick. Robert Strange, as Nyoka’s amnesic father, has the most important supporting role and does an excellent job in both aspects of his part, dropping his grim, slow-talking, and crafty Tuareg-chieftain personality for a more kindly, upright, and brisk manner when his character’s memory is restored.
Forbes Murray is authoritative but genially avuncular as Campbell, the expedition head, and surprisingly gets in on quite a bit of action. George Pembroke, as a British expedition member named Spencer, also takes part in many fights and shootouts, and provides some mild but entertaining comic relief through his verbal interchanges with Billy Benedict’s Red, in which the English scientist and the American mechanic confuse each other with their very different approaches to their common language.
Tristram Coffin, as the treacherous Torrini, is given high billing but has relatively little screen time; however, he handles his interactions with the unsuspecting heroes with the same slickness and smoothness he displayed in his similar part in Spy Smasher. Distinguished Herbert Rawlinson is killed off far too early as Major Reynolds, another expedition member, while the enjoyably hammy John Davidson has a much larger role as Lobar, the fanatical Tuareg sub-chief. Davidson rolls out each line in his inimitably resonant voice and manages to look positively pop-eyed with rage at times, particularly when defying the recovered Professor Gordon as the latter vainly tries to exercise his old authority over the Tuaregs.
Kenne Duncan has a good role as Nyoka’s tough and loyal follower Abou, while George Lewis is noticeably sinister in his small role as Cassib’s lieutenant Batan. George Renavent is enjoyably hammy in his few scenes as Vultura’s oily major-domo, Forrest Taylor pops up as a translator in Chapter Fourteen, John Bagni plays another one of Nyoka’s Bedouin friends, and John Bleifer has a brief but vivid turn as a villainous Arab street merchant in the first chapter. Jay Silverheels, star Clayton Moore’s eventual companion on the Lone Ranger show, is frequently credited as playing one of the Tuaregs, but I’ve never been able to spot him under the tribe’s burnouses and face-paint.
Ace the Wonder Dog, who also played Devil in Columbia’s The Phantom, adds a nice touch to the serial as Nyoka’s faithful dog Fang, going through some clever paces as he assists the heroine–particularly in Chapter One, when he tips over a basket, barks at two Arab guards, and then ducks inside the basket while the guards run past. Vultura’s gorilla Satan, played as an unruly and barely controllable beast by Emil Van Horn, also brings additional color to the proceedings; Van Horn’s rowdy anthropoid antics are great fun to watch.
Just as William Witney’s Spy Smasher–made the same year–represented the acme of Republic’s crime-fighting serials, so does Witney’s Perils of Nyoka represent the acme of Republic’s far-flung adventure serials. Later chapterplays like Secret Service in Darkest Africa or The Tiger Woman would try to recapture some of Perils of Nyoka’s glory, but few of them could match Nyoka’s large and interesting cast of players or its varied assortment of action scenes–and none of them boasted a story that could compete with the appeal of Nyoka‘s archetypal but enthralling treasure hunt.