A mysterious drifter named Jim Grant (Jock Mahoney) is hired as troubleshooter by a beleaguered railroad crew who are trying to lay track across a wild and lawless stretch of frontier territory–and who are being plagued by “accidents” and outlaw raids. The territory in question is ruled by an aristocratic outlaw chieftain called the Baron (George Eldredge), who holds the local Indians in subjection and is using them to dig for a diamond-laden meteorite rumored to be buried on his land; although the Baron regards the incoming railroad as a threat to his power and has instigated some of the attacks on the rail crew, Grant soon learns that a separate group of outlaws is behind most of the trouble. Grant sets out to discover this second gang’s motives and unmask its unknown leader, with help from grizzled prospector Rocky Ford, railroad construction engineer Tom Lane (Hal Landon) and Lane’s sister Carol (Virginia Herrick)–as well as the more dubious assistance of the rail crew’s boss, uncooperative contractor Homer Lathrop (Jack Ingram).
Along with Pirates of the High Seas, Roar of the Iron Horse ranks as one of the very best of producer Sam Katzman’s Columbia chapterplays. Like Pirates, Iron Horse was one of the only Katzman serials not based on licensed characters from radio or the comics, and more care seems to have been taken over its production than for “pre-sold” Katzman titles like Batman and Robin. Again like Pirates, it features plotting above the Columbia norm, a charismatic leading man and flawless supporting cast, unfamiliar but striking locations, and some distinctive action scenes centered around enormous “props” that are really the genuine article–actual sailing vessels in Pirates, a bona-fide steam train in Iron Horse.
Roar of the Iron Horse is solidly scripted by George Plympton, Royal Cole, and Sherman Lowe, with very little of the padding common to most Katzman serials. The plot is mostly standard Western fare, with continual outlaw raids on the railroad serving as the main source of action–but the writers take the edge off the inevitable repetition through various subplots–the Baron’s attempts to keep the Indians in check, the search for a missing paper that supposedly awards a right-of-way through the Baron’s land, Grant being wrongfully accused of robbery, the search for the outlaws’ secret leader. Wisely, the writers resolve the missing-paper search in Chapter Eleven and unmask the mystery villain (whose identity becomes obvious quite early in the serial) in Chapter Twelve, using the final three chapters to deal at leisure with the various plot developments resulting from these discoveries, instead of hastily wrapping everything up in the final episode.
Even more importantly, the writers keep the hero at the forefront of the action throughout the serial; despite the presence of two different villainous factions, they do not sideline the Jim Grant character in favor of the tiresome villain-against-villain battles that were used to pad out other Katzman serials like Jack Armstrong and Tex Granger. The two rival heavies in Horse don’t even clash directly until Chapter Fourteen, and while they do eliminate each other at the very end, this scene only comes after the hero has definitively defeated the railroad raiders in a gun battle that ranks as one of the most exciting and satisfying climaxes in any post-war Columbia serial.
Despite the good plotting, the most memorable aspects of Iron Horse are visual. The serial was shot almost entirely on location in Nevada, and the creeks, canyons, rivers, rocky cliffs, sagebrush-laden plains, and rolling hills of that unfamiliar (to serial fans) state provide the chapterplay with a unique backdrop that lends visual interest even to routine rides from railroad headquarters to the Baron’s ranch. The rail camp, the Indian village, and the town street that figure in other scenes also benefit from the unfamiliarity factor, as does the Baron’s aforementioned ranch, which was probably an actual Nevada hacienda, since we never see its interior (the Baron spends all his time on the sprawling patio). The other big asset to the serial’s visuals is the titular Iron Horse itself, a real steam locomotive complete with flatcars and a baggage car. Directors Spencer Bennet and Thomas Carr make excellent use of this train throughout the serial, giving it a central role in innumerable action scenes.
Above: Some action shots that also capture the serial’s scenery. Top left: outlaws pursue a backwards-running train. Top right: the Baron’s men take cover in a gully. Bottom left: a railroad man is shot off his horse on the riverbank. Bottom right: Hal Landon, racing a wagon up a mountain trail, inadvertently loses a box containing Jock Mahoney.
Some of the highlights among these exciting and novel sequences are the large-scale running battle in Chapter One, with the rail crew shooting at pursuing Indians from moving flatcars, Indians climbing into the cab to battle the engineer, and Mahoney finally chucking dynamite to route the attackers; unlike very similar scenes in many Universal serials, this sequence is carried off without any use of stock footage. The shootout in Chapter Three, with the outlaws trapping the train in a canyon and pinning the crew down in the baggage car, is another standout, as is the lengthy climactic train action that begins in Chapter Fourteen and carries over into Chapter Fifteen, with Mahoney rescuing Virginia Herrick and Hal Landon from a runaway engine, subsequently avoiding a collision with an explosive-laden freight car, and outrunning the outlaws’ horseback pursuit of the train. Other chapters feature less elaborate but no less memorable train-based bits of action–Mahoney’s leap onto the train, his later horse-to-train transfer, and several fights with heavies in the engine cab or on the baggage car’s rear platform.
The serial’s non-locomotive action scenes, staged against the already-noted Nevada locations, are also very well-done. There are no fistfights as lengthy or elaborate as those director Bennet helmed at Republic, but the serial’s many brawls are still well-done, and are both a bit more acrobatic and more realistically violent than most of Bennet’s Republic work. Rusty Westcoatt’s vicious beat-down of a railroad worker in Chapter One is memorable, and paves the way for a satisfying longer fistfight between Mahoney and Westcoatt later in the chapter. The fight scene in Chapter Four, with Mahoney tossing thugs around and flipping them through the air, is first-rate as well, as are his brief but good fights with two different henchmen in Chapter Seven. Although George DeNormand, Charles Horvath, and Wally West contribute some stuntwork, Mahoney and the various heavy actors seem to perform a good deal of their own action scenes–ex-stuntman Mahoney wearing moccasins rather than cowboy boots for greater leaping and climbing mobility.
The serial’s gun battles are also good, with multiple casualties on both sides helping them to match the similarly tough tone of the fight sequences. The Chapter Three shootout at the train (mentioned above), the Chapter Six attack on the rail camp, the siege of the heroes in a shack in Chapter Eight, the shootout amid the trees in Chapter Thirteen, the same chapter’s gunfight in town (with Mahoney and a henchman pursuing each other across rooftops), and the gunfight at the rail camp in the last chapter (with Mahoney holding off the outlaws as the work crew steams to the rescue aboard flatcars), are particularly well-done.
The serial’s chapter endings are better-staged than the Columbia norm; while some perils (like the powder-wagon explosion at the end of Chapter Six) come out of left field, others–like Mahoney’s apparent shooting at the end of Chapter Thirteen–are set up more carefully. The latter sequence, like several of the other chapter endings, is resolved simply by having the hero survive, but others are more interestingly handled–like Mahoney’s apparent burning at the stake in Chapter Two, which is cleverly resolved with a solution stolen from Hawk of the Wilderness. The serial’s top chapter endings, however, are probably the Chapter Ten one–which has heroine Virginia Herrick trapped on a handcar that’s on a collision course with a locomotive–and the Chapter Nine one–which has Mahoney and heavy Myron Healey, battling in the back of a runaway wagon, being clobbered by an overhanging tree branch which is made to rush startlingly towards the audience in a nice piece of camera work.
Jock Mahoney, besides enhancing the action with his extraordinary athleticism, also delivers an assured and interesting performance. Though quiet-spoken and likably cheerful throughout, he also gives his character a tough and coolly intelligent edge that’s almost menacing at times, as when he calmly and smilingly accepts an order from a henchman in Chapter Two–seconds before knocking the man unconscious.
Sidekick William Fawcett plays his grouchy but shrewd and competent old-timer with entertaining gusto–craftily trailing heavies, bragging about his own know-how, or trading amusingly sarcastic comments with the hero (Mahoney: “I’ll keep my eyes open.” Fawcett: “I hope they stay that way.”) The gorgeous and very pleasant-voiced Virginia Herrick makes an appealing heroine, and likable Hal Landon–usually relegated to “reckless kid” roles in B-westerns–does a fine job in perhaps the best part of his career as Herrick’s brother, a capable, resourceful, and mature character quite different than the hotheads Landon typically played.
Jack Ingram is smooth but shifty as the railroad contractor, smugly sneering at the heroes’ suggestions and hamstringing their plans with bureaucratic excuses. Rusty Westcoatt, as the big-mouthed, brutish, and treacherous work-crew foreman, serves as one of the serial’s principal action heavies and does a fine job. Rangy, tough-looking Myron Healey and gigantic Mickey Simpson, soon to become familiar faces in 1950s TV westerns, also play prominent thugs, as do the hard-bitten Pierce Lyden and that old reliable Frank Ellis. A much odder member of the outlaw band is Tommy Farrell–the sidekick in Pirates of the High Seas–whose chipper voice and inoffensive appearance don’t really suit him to the part of a nasty, back-shooting owlhoot.
George Eldredge turns in an excellent performance as the Baron–whose insistence on gentlemanly fair dealing even with his mortal enemies makes him one of the more nuanced serial heavies. Eldredge’s deep, cultured voice and stern but gracious demeanor fit the character perfectly, and he ultimately makes the Baron seem rather likable, despite his villainy.
Dick Curtis plays the Baron’s faithful right-hand man, and is backed up by Katzman regular Hugh Prosser and hulking stuntman Charles Horvath. Rick Vallin is distinctive as the friendly Indian White Eagle, emphasizing his character’s broken English with an unusually halting delivery but summoning up suitably angry energy when confronting the Baron. Character actor Milton Kibbee–Guy Kibbee’s brother–has a colorful part as a crusty old telegrapher, providing several humorous moments, while an unidentified but irritatingly familiar actor pops up as Mahoney’s marshal friend in Chapter Thirteen.
The Katzman serial unit turned out some other worthwhile cliffhangers during the late 1940s and early 1950s, but most of them were flawed in one notable area or another–plotting, scripting, sets, special effects, etc. Roar of the Iron Horse, however, manages to steam steadily past potential derailments, to emerge as a thoroughly well-done and completely satisfying chapterplay.