A wide assortment of explorers, doctors, and treasure-hunters are seeking the hidden village of the mysterious Arzec tribe of Africa, who are supposed to possess both a miraculous healing fungus and a treasure of priceless jewels. Among the seekers are kindly physician Dr. Moore (John Elliott), his war-veteran son Bob (Kane Richmond), unscrupulous trading-post owner Jake Rayne (Charles King), and Rayne’s female accomplice Cora Bell (Veda Ann Borg). Rayne and his gang have secretly imprisoned Moore’s colleague Dr. Reed (Budd Buster), the only man who knows the village’s whereabouts, hoping to force its location from him–which also brings Reed’s daughter Ann (Janet Shaw) into the scramble. The girl joins up with Bob Moore and his war buddy Joe Reilly (Eddie Quillan), while Dr. Moore discovers the Arzec village, only to become involved in a power struggle between the Arzec chief and his son (Nick Thompson and Alfredo DeSa) on one hand and the bloodthirsty high priestess Zara (Carol Hughes) and her witch-doctor associate (Ted Adams) on the other. Bob and Ann must search for both their fathers with the help of Joe and of explorer Tom Hammil (Jack Ingram), while dodging Jake and Cora’s thugs and battling attacks by both the Arzecs and a rival tribe called the Urus.
Jungle Raiders was producer Sam Katzman’s second serial for Columbia Pictures, and remains one of the few chapterplays from Katzman’s early Columbia years (1945-1947) that is relatively enjoyable; while far from a classic, its extensive location shooting at Lone Pine, above-average direction, and “exotic” setting make it far superior to Hop Harrigan, Who’s Guilty, Brenda Starr, Reporter, and other boring duds from the same period of Columbia serial-making.
The serial’s script is the work of George Plympton and Ande Lamb, who also penned many of the later Universal serials; the duo use a technique here that frequently served to keep those Universal outings interesting if excessively talky–to wit, introducing a huge cast of good and bad characters and having them form continually shifting alliances throughout the serial. Here, Jake and his crew maintain a brittle association with the increasingly suspicious Bob and Ann in the earlier chapters before the good and bad factions decisively split–after which, to keep the plot boiling, Cora double-crosses Jake and temporarily throws in with Bob and his father, while Zara forms successive partnerships with the rival heavies, and the witch doctor secretly schemes against all the other characters; further twists are provided by continual changes of allegiance on the part of both the Arzecs and the Urus.
The script is still definitely repetitive, with multiple forays to the Arzec village and the seesaw battle between good guys and bad for control of Jake’s trading post serving to pad the narrative out to a fifteen-chapter length, but the incessant twisting of the plot serves to take much of the edge off said repetition; the viewer remains interested in seeing how the characters will re-align themselves in response to each new alliance or betrayal. Although the vast array of villains sometimes threatens to overwhelm the heroes, Lamb and Plympton manage to keep their protagonists more directly involved in the action than in some of their other Universal and Columbia screenplays–and, despite having several of the villains kill each other off, satisfyingly allow the hero to play a decisive part in the heavies’ downfall.
Director Lesley Selander handles Jungle Raiders with more flair than most of the journeymen who directed Katzman’s other early Columbia serials–relieving the visual tedium of the incessant medium shots favored by Columbia cameraman Ira Morgan with some impressive long shots that show off the serial’s imposing Lone Pine locations to good advantage (Selander, a talented director responsible for many outstanding A and B-westerns, had already made effective use of the Lone Pine hills in multiple Hopalong Cassidy features). Selander is still forced to make frequent use of one Katzman’s favorite padding devices–continual but pointless shots of characters walking slowly from one location to the next–but at least the slopes and mazy canyons of Lone Pine are on hand to lend some visual interest to the repeated trudging.
While the fights and chases in Jungle Raiders are often sidelined by the characters’ continual plotting and counter-plotting, there are some effective action scenes spread throughout the serial, including many well-staged (if rather repetitive) shootouts in the Lone Pine hills.The fistfights are competently staged by Selander, stuntmen Eddie Parker and Wally West, and by the actors themselves–who seem to be doing a fair share of their own stunt work; Kane Richmond’s Chapter Three fight with henchman I. Stanford Jolley, his Chapter Seven cave battle with a native heavy, and the lengthy Chapter Five brawl at the trading post (which eventually takes the combatants to the edge of an outdoor well) are all quite well done; the race and fight between Richmond and Ted Adams in the “valley of fire” in Chapter Fourteen, is also excitingly handled, as is the clifftop fight between the two in the last episode.
Selander and his crew obviously weren’t allowed the production time needed to bring all the serial’s action scenes up to par, however–some sequences, like the retaking of the trading post in Chapter Eleven or the garrote attack on the good guys in Chapter Thirteen, are so poorly conceived and executed as to be unintentionally comic. The latter scene serves as a chapter-ending cliffhanger; many of the other chapter endings, like the well sequence at the end of Chapter Five or the crocodile attack at the end of Chapter Nine, are similarly weak, but there are also cliffhangers here that are edited and staged somewhat more effectively than the Columbia norm–the Chapter Four avalanche sequence, the fiery lava peril in Chapter Six, and Kane Richmond and John Elliott’s suspension over a spike pit in Chapter Eight.
Kane Richmond heads up the serial’s large and interesting cast, delivering a likable and down-to-earth performance that keeps him from being upstaged by his hammier co-stars; as in his other chapterplays, he brings both quiet toughness and unaffected good humor to his characterization, as well as an ideally heroic appearance. John Elliott has an unusually large role as Richmond’s benevolent and resourceful father, frequently devising strategy on his own and taking center stage in more than one chapter ending. The elderly actor is extremely likable in the part, if a little too mild and frail in appearance to be entirely convincing as an intrepid explorer.
As Richmond’s sidekick, veteran comic Eddie Quillan delivers an entertainingly energetic performance, without becoming too broad. His physical comedy bits are not overdone (he reacts to dangerous situations in startled but non-cartoony fashion), and his bantering interactions with Richmond are frequently entertaining; the two almost sound like a practiced comedy team at times (as when Quillan badgers Richmond–distracted by leading lady Janet Shaw–to help him fix the jeep in Chapter One). Quillan also makes the most of his character’s non-stop wisecracks at the villains’ expense, delivering them with a sarcastic boisterousness that makes them sound more barbed than they are. However, said wisecracks only work about half the time; when Quillan’s character is being threatened by the villains, his irrepressible quipping makes him seem likably plucky–but when he continues to loudly bounce insulting remarks off of the heavies after getting the upper hand, he tends to come off as more bullying than amusing.
The aforementioned Janet Shaw, with her calmly intelligent manner and her trim good looks, makes a charming heroine–but receives less screen time than the serial’s two villainesses, Veda Ann Borg and Carol Hughes. Borg is very good as the abrasive, sarcastic, and swaggeringly confident Cora–audaciously but often unwisely taking the villainous initiative from her more circumspect cohorts and sneering smugly when anyone suggests she might be making a mistake. Hughes, the heroine of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and several B-westerns, plays vehemently against type as the emotional and ruthless Zara–raving maniacally about the vengeance of the god Rana and grinning sadistically as she tries to sacrifice various enemies to said god; though she’s frequently guilty of overacting, her wildly theatrical performance gives the character an air of barely-controlled insanity that makes her memorably menacing.
Charles King is highly enjoyable as the grubby schemer Jake Rayne, veering from jovial hypocrisy to cowardice to lazy slyness with gusto and skill; his blubbering “you gotta let old Jake come back” routine in Chapter Nine (intended to distract the heroes from an attack by his native allies) is especially entertaining. Ted Adams is more restrained but equally colorful as the crafty witch doctor, who eventually proves to be the most devious and dangerous of all the serial’s heavies; his slimy obsequiousness when forced to temporarily conciliate his chief or the high priestess is a delight to watch, as is his gleefully evil chuckling when he finds himself in control of a situation.
Jack Ingram has one of his only non-villainous serial roles as explorer Tom Hammil, who aids the hero and his father throughout the serial; dropping his usual sarcastic sneer, he turns in a low-key but definitely likable performance, and is even allowed to carry the action by himself in a few scenes. Budd Buster, as the heroine’s father, spends most of the serial imprisoned in Charles King’s dungeon, but gets some nicely cagy and feisty moments both before and after his eventual rescue. Veteran scene-stealer Ernie Adams is improbably cast as Charles King’s native servant, but makes the most of the part nonetheless; his sneaky facial expressions as he tries to lead the hero into a crocodile-infested river, and his delighted broken-English gloating as he rushes back to announce his (apparent) success to the other villains, are priceless.
I. Stanford Jolley and Kermit Maynard are good as the serial’s most prominent henchmen, coming off as nasty, selfish, and thoroughly untrustworthy. The brawny George Turner (later the star of Son of Zorro) is also suitably rough and thuggish as a subordinate henchman–although he towers over the other actors so noticeably that it looks ridiculous when the diminutive Eddie Quillan overpowers him in one scene; even Kane Richmond appears to be a little over-matched when battling Turner at other points in the serial. Jimmy Aubrey, a former English music-hall actor well-known for his hamminess in many B-films, plays another henchman and gives a decidedly quirky tone to his scanty dialogue.
Mexican actor Alfredo DeSa is wooden and lifeless as the Arzec prince Matu, making one wish that Katzman had cast someone else–Rick Vallin, for instance–in the role; Nick Thompson is fine as Matu’s ailing but authoritative father, however. The unidentified (but apparently Chinese) performer who plays the Uru chief makes DeSa look good by comparison; he’s barely able to spit his dialogue out, let alone give it any emphasis. P. J. Kelly plays one of Ted Adams’ native henchmen, as does gangster-turned-actor Jack Gordon (formerly Murder Inc. member Irving Cohen).
Jungle Raiders, despite excessive dialogue and the slow pacing common to most Katzman serials, manages to hold a moderate level of viewer interest and remains quite watchable–even intermittently entertaining–throughout its fifteen-chapter length, thanks to its varied cast of characters, its actors, its director, and the director’s trusty collaborator–the landscape of Lone Pine.
A Pedantic Geographical Note: The Lone Pine locations, good as they look on screen, bear no resemblance to the “jungle” promised by the title and are utterly unconvincing as African locations; it would have made much more sense to set the serial in South America in the foothills of the Andes–which would have also been a more logical location for the decidedly non-African “Arzecs,” whose very name suggests the Aztecs. Aside from the crocodile attack sequence, no animals figure in the serial’s action, so it’s not as if Katzman or his writers had to set the serial in Africa to match wildlife stock footage. This cavalier disregard of real-life geography does no actual damage to the chapterplay, but it’s hard not to be a little annoyed by the apparent contempt Katzman’s crew had for matinee audiences’ knowledge of foreign climes (a contempt that also surfaces in many of Katzman’s Jungle Jim B-features).