In Canada, circa 1900, an undermanned contingent of frontier Mounties find themselves battling a group of outlaws called the “White Horse Rebels,” who are plotting to overthrow Canada’s government and establish a republic that will allow them to control the territory’s wealth. The duty of stopping the gang falls principally on RCMP Sergeant Joe Ward (Jock Mahoney) and Constable Bram Nevin (Clayton Moore), who must block the outlaws’ supply of gold from the supposedly lost Marrow Mine and pacify the Blackfoot Indians stirred up by the rebels’ machinations.
Gunfighters of the Northwest features a very strong cast and beautiful location work (the entire serial was shot in the rocky, lake-filled, pine-forested Big Bear Valley area of the San Bernardino National Forest, a region that makes a very convincing faux Canada). For the first four or five chapters, the serial also delivers good action to match its stellar cast and setting, but unfortunately goes downhill rapidly as it progresses; neither cast nor locations nor action are ultimately enough to overcome the serial’s low budget or successfully counteract a padded and weakly-plotted script.
It soon becomes quite evident in Gunfighters that the outdoor locations recommended themselves to producer Sam Katzman not as a means of improving the serial’s visuals but as a means of saving money on interior sets; although various buildings–real-life structures inside the Forest area–appear throughout the serial, we never see the inside of any of them, making them seem as phony as a painted stage backdrop. The villains assemble in the woods to receive the Leader’s orders, the Mounties’ commander issues orders from the RCMP post’s porch, the trading-post owner and the assay-office proprietress conduct their business in front of their establishments, a scene supposedly taking place inside a cave is unconvincingly shot against an outdoor rock wall, and besieged heroes can only be seen peering through windows when they take cover inside cabins. The exteriors-only approach saved Katzman from paying more than a minimum for sets and props, but it ironically gives nearly as restricted and artificial a feel to both action and dialogue scenes as exclusive interior shooting would have.
Writers Royal Cole, Arthur Hoerl, and George Plympton give their villains goals that are far too ambitious for the serial’s budget; it’s hard to believe the White Horse Rebels can conquer Canada when we only ever see about seven of them (the Leader’s allusions to unseen but extremely successful groups of collaborators in other districts, sounding as they do like wistful fabrications, don’t make his scheme seem any more believable). Ronald Davidson’s screenplays for contemporary Republic serials (Invisible Monster, Radar Men from the Moon) frequently made the same mistake, but at least Davidson allowed his grandiose villains to attempt multiple crimes, incongruously petty as they usually were. In Gunfighters, however, the villains abandon their raids on gold shipments and mining camps after the first four episodes and spend almost all the remaining episodes trying to plug the security leak caused by the Mounties’ identification of a henchman named Anders (Zon Murray) and the same henchman’s betrayal of the Leader–which doesn’t make them seem very impressive even as an outlaw band, let alone a rebel organization. The Anders subplot does save Katzman from having to provide stagecoaches or banks for the outlaws to attack, of course–which, I’m sure, was the point of its introduction in the first place.
Although the subplot may be economical, it completely derails the serial’s storyline, turning it into a dully repetitious and ultimately pointless extended chase. The pursuit of Anders dominates the serial from Chapter Six through Chapter Twelve, with the ex-henchman joining the Blackfoot tribe and using them to fight both Mounties and White Horse Rebels, while the Mounties make repeatedly frustrated attempts to capture him and the villains try just as ineffectively to kill him. The continued existence of this renegade thug not only makes the heavies look ridiculously incompetent (especially after Anders beats up the Leader himself and comes within an inch of killing him) but also sidelines the heroes, with the villains treating Murray’s character as a bigger threat than the Mounties (chief henchman Marshall Reed even passes up a chance to kill Jock Mahoney with the comment, “It’s more important to get Anders.”) To make matters worse, after serving as the main plot for so many chapters, the whole Anders pursuit is abruptly abandoned in Chapter Thirteen–in which the villains give up their White Horse Republic scheme, forget about their fight with Anders, and try to grab some gold from their secret mine before taking it on the lam. By the time Mahoney has run down and defeated the Leader in a good but too-brief climactic sequence, the viewer is likely to feel that the hero has not crushed a deadly threat to Canada but merely finished off an inept bandit organization already collapsing due to internal dissensions.
The serial’s action, like its plotting, degenerates as the serial progresses; after the first couple of chapters, star Jock Mahoney is given few opportunities to perform the stuntwork that brightened his earlier Katzman outing Roar of the Iron Horse. Scenes like the excellent first-chapter fight sequence, the fiercely violent battle between Mounties and pursuing Indians later in the same episode, or the lengthy and well-staged attack on the mining camp in Chapter Three give way to far more half-hearted action sequences in later episodes, among them the easy capture of Mahoney and Clayton Moore by Indians in Chapter Five and the confrontation between Mahoney and Zon Murray in Chapter Ten–which ends, like too many of the other serial’s fight scenes, in Mahoney getting knocked out before he can even begin his expected acrobatics.
There are a few good pieces of action in the later episodes, like Mahoney’s brief Chapter Twelve fight with an Indian and Murray’s Chapter Eleven brawl with the Leader (which, though incredibly damaging to the villain’s menace, is energetically performed by stuntmen Eddie Parker and George DeNormand). Mahoney’s Chapter Nine’ pursuit of Murray along a rocky lakeside is very good as well; this scene, like the many horseback chases scattered throughout the serial, benefits greatly from good utilizations of the National Forest scenery by directors Spencer Bennet and Charles Gould. Gould and Bennet are also forced to provide the visual padding typical of Katzman serials, featuring plenty of over-long sequences of characters walking, riding, or canoeing through the woods–but these scenes are made somewhat more palatable than usual by the terrific scenery.
The serial’s chapter endings are largely simple ones, due to the serial’s lack of production resources; several of them consist of falls from cliffs or into lakes, while one chapter ends even more basically, with Indian arrows whizzing towards a canoeing Mahoney and Phyllis Coates. The Chapter Seven ending is better and more elaborate than most, with Mahoney dangling from a cliff on a rope as Indians throw rocks at him from above and outlaws shoot at him from below; the Chapter Twelve ending, with Mahoney and Clayton Moore about to be torn in half by wild horses, is also quite good. Other endings, like the Chapter Six cabin explosion, suffer from the lack of interior shooting; without buildup shots of the heroes trapped inside the doomed building, the sequence loses most of its potential punch. The serial’s most memorable ending, however, is probably the Chapter Two one, remarkable not so much for its peril (a fall from a wooden tower) as for its unprecedented resolution.
Though short-changed in the action scenes and too often thrust into the background by the rival villains, Jock Mahoney handles his starring role very well indeed; as in Roar of the Iron Horse, he makes his character seem wryly humorous and extremely shrewd as well as athletically stalwart (his crafty pose as a trapper in Chapter Seven gives him some particularly good moments). Clayton Moore’s own strong presence helps him to make the most of his underwritten second-banana part; he delivers his lines with his customary combination of eagerness and intense seriousness.
Phyllis Coates’s rather cold screen personality actually makes her a good choice for the role of heroine Rita Carville; the character is introduced as a member of the White Horse Rebels and her true allegiance remains ambiguous for many episodes, Coates’ friendly but aloofly self-confident manner making her credible as a possible villain. Marshall Reed is quite imposing as the Rebels’ field commander Lynch, to all intents and purposes the serial’s principal heavy; his assured and athletic bearing and his authoritative voice make him seem very formidable.
The Leader is less impressive; although his black cloak (which evokes the early Mascot villains) and his white horse make him look good when issuing orders to his men, his drawling and rather affable voice is completely non-menacing–and not helped by extremely generic dialogue that makes him sound more like a corporate executive than a would-be outlaw ruler (“I feel that more use could be made of the Indians…Lynch, you attend to it.”) The actor who handles the part does do an excellent job of disguising his voice when playing the Leader’s alter ego (as in most Katzman serials, the mystery villain’s lines are not dubbed by another actor).
The suspect pool is limited to two members–easygoing storekeeper Don Harvey and extremely suave Indian Agent Joseph Allen; both actors turn in lively and vivid performances. Although his character is given far too much screen time (see above), Zon Murray is excellent as the swaggering Anders–insolently defying both heroes and villains and conveying a sort of animal-like fearlessness and cunning. Other key henchmen are played by the sardonically cagy Pierce Lyden and tough-looking Gregg Barton; Lee Roberts is memorably gruff in a small role as another heavy. Lyle Talbot is dignified if a little too complacent as the heroes’ commander, RCMP Inspector Wheeler, while Gene Roth is even more laid-back as another Mountie official who enters late in the serial.
Rodd Redwing is very good as the quick-tempered and arrogant Blackfoot war-chief Bear Tooth, while the elderly Chief Yowlachie delivers a surprisingly energetic performance as his father Running Elk. Usual henchman Terry Frost plays a sympathetic and helpful half-breed named Wildfoot, while Charles Stevens echoes his 1930s serial parts as the opportunistic and decidedly unhelpful half-breed Cariboo, who schemes with both Indians and outlaws at different times. Although frailer and slower-moving than in his earlier Universal chapterplays, Stevens still displays plenty of his old quirky slyness and brings added spark to several scenes; his character unfortunately drops out of sight before the halfway mark, however.
The irrepressible Tommy Farrell begins the serial as Mahoney’s sidekick, enlivening the proceedings with his light-hearted wisecracks until he’s abruptly written out, with Clayton Moore’s character taking his place (Farrell suffered a riding accident while filming the serial, hence his exit). Bud Osborne has a good bit as a prospector, while William Fawcett and Robert Barron pop up as two henchmen guarding the villains’ mine. George Robotham (another member of the serial’s stunt team) has a small role as a Mountie, as does Kermit Maynard; John Hart also appears as a Mountie–interestingly sharing the screen for a few minutes with Clayton Moore, whom he had replaced in the Lone Ranger role on television (Moore would return to TV to supplant Hart as Gunfighters was hitting theaters).
Gunfighters of the Northwest is, overall, a disappointment, thanks to the contrived effect of the all-exteriors filming and the utterly disappointing storyline–but, while the cast and the Big Bear vistas can’t really save it, they do give it a certain amount of entertainment value, and keep it from becoming a complete disaster.