Republic, 12 Chapters, 1938. Starring Herman Brix, Jill Martin, Noble Johnson, Ray Mala, William Royle, Monte Blue, George Eldredge, Tom Chatterton, Fred “Snowflake” Toones, Patrick J. Kelly, Dick Wessell, and Tuffy.
In the year 1913, scientist and explorer Lincoln Rand, an expert on the history and myths of the American Indian, is caught in a violent storm while sailing north of the Arctic Circle. Rand and his wife perish in the ensuing shipwreck, but Rand’s Indian assistant Mokuyi (Noble Johnson) manages to swim to shore, carrying Rand’s infant son. Before the storm, Rand had sighted the coast of the island he had been seeking, a legendary hidden isle from which the ancient ancestors of the Indians spread out across North America–and where some descendants of these ancient Indians still live in pre-Columbian fashion (preserved from freezing by a volcano that heats the island). Hoping to pass on knowledge of the discovery, Rand threw a bottled message into the ocean, a note giving the island’s location to his colleague Dr. Edward Munro (Tom Chatterton) and beseeching Munro to come and claim the “treasure” that awaits discovery there. The bottle drifts the seas for twenty-five years, before finally being washed up on a California beach and discovered by the modern-day pirate Salerno (William Royle). Salerno, misinterpreting Rand’s references to treasure, smells a profit; having lost his own boat in a skirmish with the Coast Guard, he poses as an honest sailor and delivers the message to Munro. Munro soon organizes an expedition to the island, consisting of himself, his daughter Beth (Jill Martin), his servant George (Fred “Snowflake” Toones), wealthy yachtsman Allen Kendall (George Eldredge), Professor Williams (Patrick Kelly)–and Salerno, who volunteers himself and his men as crew for Kendall’s boat the Alberta.
The scene then shifts to the island, where Lincoln Rand Jr. has grown up to be a powerful warrior (Herman Brix) known as Kioga (“Hawk of the Wilderness“) to the island’s Indian tribe. He and Mokuyi, distrusted by the tribesmen and hated by medicine man Yellow Weasel (Monte Blue), live in a cave far from the Indian village, relying on their only friend among the islanders, Kias the Lame (Ray Mala), to keep them informed of Yellow Weasel’s actions. Kias brings news that Yellow Weasel, blaming the presence of the alien Kioga for the increasing unrest of the island’s volcano, is seeking to sacrifice the “Hawk” to Guneba, god of the volcano. Yellow Weasel soon has more sacrificial candidates when the Munro party arrives on the island; to make matters worse for the expedition, Salerno and his crew mutiny and seize the Alberta in hopes of forcing Munro to turn over the island’s treasure. It will be up to Kioga to protect the Munro party from both the Indians and Salerno’s cutthroats, and help them survive on the island while seeking an avenue of escape.
Hawk of the Wilderness’ unusual setting, its plot (which has more in common with Tarzan and Robinson Crusoe than a typical sound serial), and its lack of typical chapterplay trappings (science-fictional devices, master villains, and the like) have frequently caused it to be overlooked or underrated, even by historians of the genre. The chapterplay has its devotees, however–all of whom, quite correctly, recognize it as one of Republic’s all-time greatest serials.
Hawk was officially based on a novel by William A. Chester, but most of the chapterplay’s narrative was the work of screenwriters Barry Shipman, Rex Taylor, and–in his first Republic venture–Norman S. Hall, who began his serial-writing career at Mascot with The Three Musketeers, worked on some of Universal’s best late-1930s outings (Tim Tyler’s Luck, Wild West Days, many others) and then contributed to multiple Republic classics (among then King of the Royal Mounted, Adventures of Red Ryder, and Spy Smasher).
It’s tempting to ascribe many of the unique qualities of Hawk’s script to Hall, who throughout his serial work seemed to place a particular emphasis on drama and emotion; all of the serials mentioned in the preceding paragraph, as well as other Hall-cowritten chapterplays like Red Barry, feature at least one unexpectedly moving (and character-driven) scene. Earlier chapters of Hawk have their share of dramatic moments (particularly the first one, with its shipwreck sequence, its passage-of-time montage, and the later reading of Rand’s note by Munro), but the final chapter is positively filled with them–Kioga’s lament over a fallen friend (murdered by Yellow Weasel) and his vow of vengeance, the heroine’s refusal to escape the island without Kioga (“He’s saved every one of us from death, and we’ll wait for him if the whole island goes to pieces”), and–most especially–Kioga’s wordless climactic showdown with Yellow Weasel, a fierce cliff-top knife fight that both warriors prepare for in ritualistic but grimly intense fashion.
Whether Hall was the guiding spirit of Hawk’s script or not, he and his two co-writers definitely deserve plenty of credit. The three not only bring higher-than-usual levels of characterization and drama to the serial, but also do an admirable job of “translating” standard Republic-serial elements into a very different type of story. Their plotting neatly works around the potentially limiting island locale– spending most of the first three chapters introducing us to the characters and the island itself before settling into a series of skirmishes between the rival sets of villains and the castaways for most of the serial’s mid-section. These conflicts allow for lots of good action scenes, but avoid becoming repetitious, thanks to the new plot developments attached to them–like the castaways’ gradual furnishing of their stockade, Dr. Munro’s temporarily successful quieting of the volcano, or the explosion of the Alberta. The plot then takes an entirely new (and very exciting) direction in the three final chapters, as the good guys are forced to abandon their stockade and trek inland to the “Valley of Skulls,” Yellow Weasel enters into an alliance with Salerno, the volcano is reawakened, and the Munro party discovers a new but very risky potential means of escape from the island–the downed but still functional aircraft of a dead flyer.
The action scenes which dot this narrative are consistently excellent; the fistfights that would become Republic’s hallmark within a few years were not yet a studio fixture, and while there are plenty of well-handled physical combats throughout the serial, they’re not elaborately choreographed in the fashion of the studio’s later brawls. This isn’t to say the action scenes aren’t well-staged; in fact, they surpass many later Republic setpieces when it comes to a sense of real excitement and danger. A few examples include the aforementioned climactic knife-fight, Kioga’s tussle with two Indians on the verge of a tiger pit, his fight with the pirates near a dangerous deadfall trap, the nighttime Indian attacks on the expedition in Chapters One and Nine, the hillside battle with the Indians in Chapter Ten, Kias and Kioga’s pursuit of a murderous “demon” through a cave full of volcanic smoke, and the escape from the Indian village in Chapter Two (during which Ted Mapes, doubling Herman Brix, makes a flying leap over the heads of several Indians, climbs to the roof of a thatched lodge, and scales a wooden wall).
Yet another action highlight is the lengthy Chapter One chase, which has Kioga swinging through trees (with the aid of an ingenious bullwhip/grappling-hook device that the character carries on his belt), diving from a cliff into a lake, and upsetting pursuing Indians’ canoes. The serial is full of such outdoor chases and fights, with stuntman Mapes spending half his time leaping out of or into trees; each derives interest not only from its staging by directors William Witney and John English, but also from the accompanying scenery: Hawk was shot almost entirely in the steep and wooded hills of the Mammoth Lakes region, which succeeds beautifully in conveying the look and feel of remote Northern wilderness; even in the serial’s quieter moments, it’s a pleasure to watch the characters trudging through these mountain forests. The cliff at Iverson’s makes an appearance during that first-chapter chase, but the serial’s other principal location is Bronson Canyon, whose barren, Martian-looking slopes work perfectly as the eerie Valley of Skulls (and whose famed cave is made even more ominous by a carved thunder-bird and a row of skulls on sticks at the entrance).
Hawk’s setting calls for some unique variations on typical Republic chapter endings, in addition to one standard studio explosion (the yacht’s destruction in the Chapter Eight cliffhanger). The tiger-pit and deadfall cliffhangers are both memorable–particularly the tiger one, thanks to the intimidating restlessness of the big cat featured (if you’re wondering how a tiger got to an Arctic island, my theory is it arrived on an ice floe from Siberia; I still wonder about Kioga’s pet ocelot, though). The deadfall and tiger sequences are also very cleverly resolved, as is Kioga’s near-burning at the stake at the end of Chapter Two. Kioga and Beth’s swing on a sabotaged rope that drops them into a lake is another good chapter ending, as is Kioga’s apparent spearing by the terrifying “demon” of the cave. Kioga’s fall from the rigging of Salerno’s ship and his stabbing during an Indian raid are, however, unfortunately resolved by minor but noticeable alterations to the earlier chapter’s action.
The leading members of Hawk’s cast do a splendid job by the script; each principal player is given a fairly developed character, and each does a fine job by their role. Herman Brix’s Kioga, for example, is not a typically all-knowing Republic serial hero; though a master of his own domain, he’s completely puzzled by the ways of the outside world; his initial repulsion by the contentious ways of the newcomers, his resulting unwillingness to save them from the Indians, and his immediate fascination with Beth (which Mokuyi craftily uses to goad him into going to the rescue of the party after all) are particularly interesting touches. Brix’s mixture of thoughtfulness with quiet decisiveness fits the part perfectly, while his Olympic-athlete physique is also ideally suited to Kioga’s constant feats of derring-do.
Jill Martin is appealing as a good-hearted but cheerfully irresponsible amateur explorer whose sense of responsibility gradually increases along with her affection for Kioga; when she suddenly becomes the conscience of the expedition in the final chapter, it seems a logical growth of her character. Tom Chatterton is likably pompous as Martin’s father; Dr. Munro is drawn as a dignified and honest man, but one given to self-important professorial lecturing. Chatterton’s affably oblivious manner during his character’s long-winded expository discourses gives them a slightly comic tinge.
Noble Johnson, a minor but memorable character-acting presence in films ranging from King Kong to Bob Hope’s Ghost Breakers to John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, has one of his best and biggest roles as the shrewd but kindly Mokuyi; he’s fatherly in his scenes with Brix, calmly intelligent when helping to plan strategies, and intimidatingly tough in action scenes.
Deep-voiced George Eldredge has an unusually complex role as Allan Kendall; his character seems stalwart enough in most encounters with Indians and pirates, but his selfish and unpleasant side is hinted at throughout the serial (as when he recklessly wounds Kioga’s dog, or abandons Kioga to impending death rather than risk his own neck by trying to save him–and then lies about the incident later). This selfishness finally becomes deliberate villainy when he starts trying to dispose of Kioga and/or his Indian friends in order to make sure the escape plane won’t be overloaded. Eldredge brings an excellent blend of self-confidence and arrogance to this offbeat part.
William Royle’s scruffy and practical Salerno is no typical serial mastermind, but Royle gives him a forcefulness and craftiness that makes him fully as dangerous as more ambitious heavies. He convincingly adopts the pose of a humble seaman in the first chapter (note his sheepish twisting of his cap as he talks with Munro), and also does an entertainingly energetic job with his hypocritical protestations of repentance in Chapter Eight; his aggressively vicious manner towards the good guys (after revealing his true colors) and his craftily self-confident bearing when scheming with his men are just as strong as his false displays of honesty.
In a remarkable concession to realism, the Yellow Weasel character never utters a word of English; in playing him, Monte Blue is forced to rely on Indian-language dialogue, gestures, and facial expressions to create a character. He does a very effective job; his sullen glares, cunning looks, and occasional (and startling) savage shrieks make him an imposing villain–and help him to convey a deep and bitter resentment of Brix’s Kioga, nicely supporting the script’s references to an enmity between the two that goes back many years.
Ray Mala, who was horribly miscast as a leading man in Republic’s earlier serial Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, is actually quite good as the limping Kias, the only English-speaking island Indian. Mala’s inexpert and halting line delivery fits the role of a man only roughly tutored in the English language, while his scrawny appearance likewise matches his character’s status as a despised weakling in the Indian village. The script hints that Kias, as a cripple, lived a pretty miserable life in his savage world until being taken under the wing of Kioga and Mokuyi, and Mala–despite his limited acting skills–conveys a touching, kid-brother-like loyalty towards Brix that, as in Blue’s case, underscores the script well.
The wonderful character actor Dick Wessell is Salerno’s lieutenant Dirk, growling out nasty lines in his inimitably rough-sounding voice. Veteran serial thug Harry Tenbrook is another leading member of the pirate band, while the gang’s ranks are made up of Earl Askam (Flash Gordon’s Officer Torch), William Stahl, Jerry Sheldon, and stuntman Loren Riebe. Jerry Frank and Iron Eyes Cody are Yellow Weasel’s chief warriors, while stuntman Henry Wills, Mexican character players Phillip Armenta and Alex Montoya, authentic Indian John Big Tree, and the Chorre family (Gertrude Chorre and sons Clarence and Sonny–like Big tree, actual Indians) can also be seen among the island natives.
Patrick J. Kelly, as the absent-minded Professor Williams (“Bill Bill”), and Fred “Snowflake” Toones, as the bumbling butler George, furnish the chapterplay with unneeded comedy relief and with its only real (albeit minor) flaws. Kelly’s oblivious fussing and Toones’ nervous whining are not loud or frantic enough to be actively obnoxious, but are not very amusing either; their characters represent almost the last gasp of the bland buffoonery that intruded into too many Mascot and early Republic serials. That said, a few of their (fortunately brief) comic bits are slightly amusing, particularly their “lapidae” interchange in Chapter Five, and Kelly’s comic but heroic bluffing of the Indians in Chapter Seven.
Border collie Tuffy is a welcome presence as Kioga’s trusty dog Tawnee (although the script never does make clear whether Tawnee is the dog seen in the opening shipwreck sequence; the shipboard collie looks a little different, but no mention is made of its carrying puppies. It must be Tawnee’s mother, however–otherwise we’re looking at an over-25 dog still able to race through the woods and battle villains; most canines are long dead by that age).
Lane Chandler has the role of the elder Lincoln Rand in said shipwreck sequence; Chandler’s heroic appearance and demeanor suit the small but important part perfectly; Ann Evers is also good as his wife. Fred Miller plays the tough, reliable, and short-lived captain of the Alberta, while George Montgomery–many years away from stardom in A-features at Fox and Columbia–has a non-speaking background part as Miller’s first mate, whose death during the Chapter One Indian attack seems to have been left on the cutting-room floor.
William Lava’s musical score, with its insistent drum beats and general Indian flavor, complements the action beautifully and ranks right alongside his compositions for Zorro’s Fighting Legion and Daredevils of the Red Circle. The Lydecker Brothers’ miniature work–the shipwreck in the first chapter, the later explosion of the Alberta, and the many threatening shots of the volcano erupting or threatening to erupt–is also outstanding.
Hawk of the Wilderness combines all of Republic’s usual strengths–direction, pacing, stuntwork, editing, photography, and special effects–with lovely locations, strong performances, and an unusually interesting script. This combination puts it head and shoulders above most of its chapterplay competition, and, indeed, helps it to top many a B-adventure feature. Like its eponymous hero, Hawk is non-ostentatious but strikingly excellent, decidedly isolated from the “outer world” (of serial fandom, that is)–and eminently worthy of discovery.