American mining engineers Alan King (Clayton Moore) and Bert Hadley (Johnny Spencer) come to Africa to develop a uranium mine in jungle territory controlled by American-educated native chief Douanga (Bill Walker). Alan and Bert are secretly opposed by a foreign agent (Henry Rowland), who poses as a local trader named Kurgan; the spy is determined to sabotage the Americans’ mining concession and win the valuable uranium deposits for his own country. To that end, he and his henchman Regas (John Cason) encourage ambitious witch doctor Naganto (Roy Glenn) to subvert some of Douanga’s tribesmen and lead them in perpetual attacks on Alan and Bert. The two engineers are aided by Carol Bryant (Phyllis Coates), who has been carrying on her deceased physician father’s practice among the natives and undermining voodoo-practitioner Naganto’s status with the tribesmen.
Jungle Drums of Africa is routinely singled out as Republic’s worst serial, a charge that seems to have originated with its star Clayton Moore, who had little good to say of it in his autobiography. It is easily the weakest of Moore’s Republic outings, a disappointing serial when measured against his first starring cliffhanger Perils of Nyoka–but, when compared to Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders, Man with the Steel Whip, King of the Carnival, and other Republic chapterplays from the studio’s last and weakest serial-producing period (1953-1955), it comes off reasonably well, its modestly-scaled plot and its surprising lack of stock footage setting it a few notches above some of its contemporaries.
Unlike many of the serials from Republic’s last-gasp era, Jungle Drums features a plot that’s not too “big” for its meager production budget. The conflict over uranium mining rights furnishes a much more believable basis for small-scale fistfights and gun battles than the outrageously grandiose plotlines featured in other late Republics like Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders or Radar Men from the Moon, in which schemes for building Communist missile bases in Canada or preparing for the lunar conquest of the Earth were executed by two or three heavies at most and combated by two or three good guys.
That said, Ronald Davidson’s screenplay for Jungle Drums adheres to Republic formula in other respects, settling immediately into a repetitious series of skirmishes between the heroes and the renegade natives led by Regas and Naganto, as the latter try to interfere with the formers’ mining project. Davidson’s plotline is so limited and his cast of characters so small that he’s forced to resort to padding (low-comedy hijinks from a trio of chimps, some stock-footage wildlife encounters) and improbable plot devices (Naganto’s pretended reformation, which fools the chief too easily) in order to fill twelve chapters. One of Davidson’s plotting ideas, however, is genuinely clever–the villains’ importation of an Indian tiger as a “devil beast” to terrorize African natives unfamiliar with the alien animal. So many jungle serials and jungle features–even in the 1950s–show tigers in an African setting that it’s refreshing (especially for a zoology buff like myself) to find a serial writer not only acknowledging that there are no tigers in Africa, but actually exploiting this fact for plotting purposes.
The serial overall maintains a modicum of geographical plausibility when compared to many other jungle chapterplays (particularly Sam Katzman’s jungle outings over at Columbia): wildlife is limited to identifiably African species, natives are played by black actors, and locations are shot so as not to look too obviously Californian. The combination of some of the more savannah-like portions of Iverson’s Ranch, a few of the ranch’s thicker forests, the rivers and “jungles” of the Republic backlot, and some heavily-foliaged soundstages serves to suggest the East African landscape more effectively than the somewhat rockier locations in Republic’s otherwise superior Jungle Girl.
However, the most striking aspect of Drums–in which it differs strongly from almost every one of the studio’s post-1948 serials–is the way its action sequences and chapter endings almost completely steer clear of stock footage–the aforementioned stock wild-animal sequences (a hyena-leopard battle, a lion-tiger fight, a fight between two lions, and some shots of hippos) notwithstanding. While the serial’s new footage is far from Republic’s best, it does include some very respectable fights and cliffhanger sequences.
The serial’s fight scenes, like others from Republic’s last years, are far less elaborately destructive than Spencer Bennet’s wartime fight sequences, and also less expansive than the more modest fights in Drums director Fred Brannon’s Republics from the late forties and early fifties. The key difference lies in the minimal use of stuntmen in Drums and its contemporaries, another result of severe cost-cutting; while Tom Steele and Dale Van Sickel stand in for Clayton Moore and John Cason in the more dangerous bits of action (like Steele’s impressive leap across a fire pit), the actors handle much of the fight-scene action themselves, giving the combats a more deliberate tempo that lacks the quick pacing of earlier Republic fights. However, the fights in Drums are often quite effective in their own fashion, with the slower pacing making punches and falls alike seem more labored, more violent, and more realistic than the brisk and almost effortless combats seen in 1940s serials.
The fight between Moore and John Cason in the mine tunnel in Chapter Six is particularly good, tough and vivid with plenty of leaps, falls, hand-to-hand grappling, and rock-throwing mixed in. The Chapter Four sequence, in which Naganto drugs a gigantic native and sends him after the heroes, is also quite memorable, with the roaring, near-invulnerable maniac throwing Moore and Johnny Spencer about their hut as they desperately try to knock him out, smashing most of the furnishings in the process. The trading-post fight in Chapter Eleven is another highlight, with Moore and Spencer taking on John Cason and Henry Rowland.
The serial’s shootout scenes are less interesting, with heroes and heavies trading bullets, spears, and arrows with each other while taking cover in the same patches of brush chapter after chapter–although some native henchmen do bite the dust in these combats, giving the action scenes more edge than the studiously bloodless shootouts that were dominating the “adventure” TV shows of the era. The attack on the truck in Chapter One (with its interesting gimmick of dynamite sticks tied to arrows), the attack on the heroes’ camp in the eleventh episode, and the larger-scale last-chapter assault on the village–which features a surprisingly violent end for Naganto–are the best of the frequent jungle battles.
The serial’s cliffhanger sequences feature very little borrowing from Republic’s considerable library of stock footage (the only exception being the fight with the lion in the pit that ends Chapter Five; it originally hails from Jungle Girl). The brand-new chapter endings are less spectacular than the stock-assisted ones in other Republics of the period, but most of them work quite well regardless of their small scale–good examples being the conclusion of Chapter Nine, in which a dynamited tree falls on Clayton Moore, and the end of Chapter Eleven, in which Moore is apparently speared. More elaborate are Phyllis Coates’ Chapter Four suspension over a fire pit and the Chapter Six wind-tunnel chapter ending; both are reworkings of ideas from Perils of Nyoka but both are handled without any stock aside from a few establishing shots in the latter scene. While neither sequence is as spectacular as the scene it imitates, they are both handled quite efficiently.
Above left: The Chapter Four fire-pit cliffhanger setup. Above right: Henry Rowland viciously sinks a spear into Clayton Moore (or so we’re supposed to think) as John Cason watches in the Chapter Eleven cliffhanger.
Clayton Moore, as in all his serials, makes a strong hero (despite his stated disdain for this particular outing); he’s soft-spoken but firmly authoritative, very serious and determined but always able to relax into cheerfulness in lighter moments. Leading lady Phyllis Coates is even more serious than Moore; she’s likable enough, but explains animal habits and jungle customs to the other characters in such an assured and slightly bossy tone that she sounds more like a schoolteacher than anything else; while her manner does become annoying at times, it also seems quite appropriate for a character who’s presumably been used to taking care of herself in the jungle for years.
Johnny Spencer, who played major parts in several A-movies under the name Johnny Sands, makes a second lead far stronger than the Republic norm; his chipper personality is a good contrast to the seriousness of Moore and Coates, and his lively handling of the routine quips his character is assigned (particularly in the truck attack sequence in Chapter One) is quite appealing. Henry Rowland, a specialist in Nazi or Soviet roles in countless features and TV shows, is in fine form as the cold-blooded Kurgan, smugly and ruthlessly plotting against both the good guys and his own allies and occasionally flying into harsh, snarling rages.
John Cason makes a strong and unusually individualized action heavy–continually grumbling over his boss’s orders, stubbornly balking when he disagrees with schemes, but always displaying convincing toughness when he actually goes into action against the heroes. Roy Glenn does a terrific job as Naganto, using his distinctively deep voice to properly menacing effect when muttering voodoo incantations but also giving a comic touch to his vain and superstitious character, particularly when puzzling over Rowland’s orders (his rejection of his boss’s “devil beast” scheme as too big for his magical skills is especially funny).
Bill Walker is calmly dignified as Chief Douanga, although his character’s trust in Naganto makes him appear rather naïve at times. Other black players like Joel Fluellen, William Washington, Davis Roberts, and Felix Nelson fill multiple parts as both helpful and hostile natives; the most memorable is hulking Don Blackman in his brief turn as the frightening drugged giant–whose character name, Ebola, bears its own frightening significance nowadays. Tom Steele appears briefly as a constable, as does character actor Roy Engel–who would soon become a familiar face in the TV shows of the fifties and sixties. Steve Mitchell turns in an utterly flat and expressionless performance as Rowland’s trading-post clerk, but fortunately has little to do beyond serving as a sounding board for some of his boss’s plans.
Jungle Drums of Africa is an undeniably pedestrian serial that comes nowhere near Republic’s 1930s and 1940s efforts in entertainment value. However, it’s not the painfully dull, carelessly-produced mess that too many critics have labeled it; it instead represents a deliberate attempt to put some new action footage on a serial screen long dominated by recycled scenes from earlier serials. Low-budgeted as said attempt is, the fact that Jungle Drums of Africa makes such an unexpected effort at all should be enough to save it from the “worst Republic” tag so often attached to it.