In medieval England, villainous nobleman Sir Edgar Bullard (Charles King) has joined with other robber barons to seize the lands of Lord Markham (Wheeler Oakman)–and is squeezing the funds required for the war with Markham out of his already overtaxed tenants. Yeomen forced into outlawry by Bullard’s tyranny have taken to the greenwood to wage a guerrilla war against him, under the leadership of Allan Hawk (Jim Diehl) and Red Robert (Hugh Prosser); these outlaws eventually join forces with Lord Markham–and with Bullard’s nephew David Trent (Bob Shaw), who turns against his uncle after realizing the depths of the latter’s villainy. Trent, Hawk, and their followers not only protect Lord Markham and his daughter Louise (Daun Kennedy) from Bullard and his allies, but also thwart the rapacious nobles’ plot to eliminate the young heir to the English throne, the long-lost Prince Richard.
Like most of the Columbia serials produced by Sam Katzman during the early post-war era, Son of the Guardsman is a cheap-looking and decidedly inferior outing. Its most interesting aspect is its unacknowledged borrowing from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1888 novel The Black Arrow; the serial’s writers (George Plympton, Arthur Hoerl, and Harry Fraser) concoct a completely fictitious struggle for the English throne to take the place of the real-life Wars of the Roses (which provided the book’s historical backdrop)–but still take several plot devices and most of their major characters (albeit renamed) directly from the novel. Both the book and the serial feature a hero who turns against his robber-baron guardian, a heroine who disguises as a boy to escape the villains, and a band of outlaws led by a stern avenger and a more jovial roisterer; Guardsman’s debt to Arrow is made even more obvious by the serial’s first two chapters, which (beginning with the tavern confrontation between the heroine and the villain) follow Stevenson’s storyline almost exactly.
It’s no coincidence that these introductory episodes are much better than the rest of the serial; Stevenson-derived bits–like the hero and heroine’s quarrel over the hero’s attempt to rescue Sir Edgar’s followers from an ambush, or the hero’s attempts to discover the truth of the mystery surrounding his father’s death–are adapted in extremely uninspired fashion, but are still more compelling than the stretches of original narrative in the ensuing chapters. Most of those chapters are filled with a repetitious series of captures and escapes; the outlawed heroes spend most of their time sneaking in and out of Bullard Hall (far too easily) to rescue each other or the Markhams. The plot detour introduced in the serial’s final third (the search for the missing prince) does little to break up the monotony of the narrative, and instead simply provides a new motivation for the same old captures and escapes; the serial would have been far more entertaining had the writers continued to copy Stevenson’s colorful and eventful novel (an impossibility, since the book features seagoing sequences and battle scenes far beyond the meager budget of a Katzman serial).
Guardsman’s repetitive storyline would be much less tedious if it gave rise to well-staged action scenes; unfortunately, the serial’s swordfights and battles are extremely lackluster. Director Derwin Abrahams, who handled many B-westerns in capable fashion, obviously found himself completely out of his depth when called on to helm a medieval swashbuckler; most of the serial’s sword duels–like the Chapter Four fight during Red Robert’s escape from the dungeon or the Chapter Fifteen duel between Trent and the Duke of Hampton–are staged very statically, with the combatants moving slowly back and forth or even standing still as they cross blades (usually holding their weapons well above their heads, in safe but silly-looking fashion). The Chapter Six swordfight sequence does show a brief flicker of the energy one expects from a swashbuckler, when the hero (doubled by Jock Mahoney) leaps over a table and races down courtyard stairs; however, such moments are few and far between here.
The serial’s many mass battle scenes are more numerous than the small-scale swordfights, but are just as haphazardly staged. The several horseback clashes between good guys and bad are particularly shoddy-looking; they’re typically filmed in a single long shot that makes it hard to see just what any individual participant in the battle is doing–not that any of them do much more than wave their swords in the air (the alleged battle in Chapter Six is one of the worst examples). The serial’s bow-and-arrow fights, on the other hand, suffer from a lack of long-shots; it’s often difficult to figure out just where the bowmen are standing in relation to their targets (as during the Chapter Two ambush scene or the attack on the castle in Chapter Four). However, at least these sequences–in which heavies regularly take fatal arrows in the chest and keel over–give a tough edge to the action lacking in other Katzman outings like Tex Granger.
Guardsman’s cliffhangers are even more perfunctory than its in-chapter action scenes; among the weakest are the endings to Chapter One (which has a rowboat tipping over), Chapter Six (which has the hero rolling into less than a foot of water), and Chapter Nine (which has the hero making a clumsy vine-swing and crashing to the ground in front of a soldier). The cliffhangers involving the deadly pendulum (Chapter Seven) and the wall of spikes (Chapter Twelve) are a little more impressive–but, like most Columbia chapter endings, feature a minimum of editing buildup. The exploding cottage cliffhanger in Chapter Ten isn’t bad, but is decidedly anachronistic; the bomb that’s used to set it off is called a “petard” by the villainous Duke of Hampton–but the petard was unheard of in the Middle Ages; like other gunpowder weapons, it was not introduced into European warfare until the Renaissance era.
The locations in Guardsman are limited to the outlaws’ forest realm, a tavern (the refurbished Columbia Western saloon), Sir Edgar’s castle, and Lord Markham’s tent encampment (the writers give Markham some unconvincing dialogue to explain why he hasn’t made his headquarters in his own, never-seen castle). The more wooded portions of the Corriganville ranch serve convincingly enough as the forest; someone also took care to put fake thatches on the roofs of the ranch’s various cabins, which makes them look believably medieval. While the towers and drawbridge that front Sir Edgar’s castle (Bullard Hall) are impressive, they’re only seen in a couple of repeated long shots; the staircase and archway in the castle courtyard are also shown infrequently. These sets were built by Columbia for bigger-budgeted features; Katzman, who retained independent-contractor status in all his dealings with Columbia, would have had to rent them from the studio–and obviously tried to save money by making minimal use of them. The towering walls seem to disappear every time the heroes need to sneak inside the castle, while Sir Edgar’s archers fire at attackers from the windows of his dining hall and not from the battlements of the towers, making the Hall’s imposing facade seem decidedly fake.
Most of the cast members of Son of the Guardsman play their parts with energy, despite being saddled with ridiculous-looking page-boy wigs, ill-fitting Robin Hood getups, and cheap-looking man-at-arms outfits conspicuously lacking in armoring. The light-voiced, Texas-accented Bob Shaw (a former Twentieth-Century-Fox contract player who never advanced beyond small parts at that studio) is miscast in the serial’s starring role, even though he gives it plenty of vigor; he’d have made a fine hero in a Western, but just doesn’t have the vocal presence to carry off a “period” leading role. He sounds very stilted and awkward when delivering grave, long-winded denunciations of the villains (particularly in Chapter 13) or when trading barbed remarks with the heroine; he seems much more comfortable (and is more effective) when he’s tersely and smilingly tossing off lines while engaged in action.
Heroine Daun Kennedy overplays her role, affecting an almost comically over-dignified manner of speaking that she apparently thought suited to an “olden times” setting; however, her acting isn’t haughty enough to make her unsympathetic, nor to diminish the appeal of her good looks (which are so noticeable that they make her character’s “disguise” as a boy pretty unconvincing). Buzz Henry, as the orphaned young outlaw Roger (one of the few major characters not derived from The Black Arrow), delivers a likably unselfconscious and chipper performance, conveying an appealing confidence and cheerfulness as he coolly assists the adult leads (usually by hitting villains in the head with sling-shotted rocks).
Jim Diehl, a perennial background henchman in Katzman’s serials, has a rare prominent part as outlaw leader Allen Hawk; his grim, commanding voice (which sounds remarkably like that of Kenneth MacDonald) is well-suited to the role, but his performance is so calmly stern as to be rather bland. Hugh Prosser, another Katzman regular, is much more colorful as Hawk’s lieutenant Red Robert–dropping his typically dour demeanor in favor of a somewhat slovenly but crafty and endearingly affable manner. Veteran serial henchman Wheeler Oakman does his best to seem dignified and paternal as Lord Markham, but simply sounds too gruffly urban and American to pull off a role that would have been a much better fit for someone like a more smooth-voiced actor like Forrest Taylor.
Charles King as Sir Edgar Bullard serves as one of the two principal heavies in the first two-thirds of Guardsman, before being shouldered into the background by a new villain (John Merton’s Duke of Hampton) in the later episodes. His Texas accent (like Shaw’s) sounds a little odd in the medieval milieu, but his characterization is still delightful–combining as it does smugness, slyness, feigned respectability, self-importance, and amusing cowardice. Leonard Penn is also terrific as Sir Edgar’s lieutenant Mark Crowell, who engineers just as much villainy as King does (and, unlike him, remains prominent throughout the serial); he gives his character a slickness, intelligence, and sneering arrogance that makes him seem both the most formidable and the meanest of the serial’s villains.
John Merton, as aforementioned, enters the serial late as the harsh and overbearing Duke of Hampton, and carries his role off nicely–aggressively growling out orders and swaggering around in properly tyrannical fashion. I. Stanford Jolley has sadly little to do as Sir William Pryor, another of the serial’s villainous noblemen; though he gets a good sneakily treacherous moment in the final chapter, he’s relegated to sitting on the sidelines for most of the serial–occasionally offering comments on the other heavies’ schemes (or reminding them of his hopes of marrying the heroine; this potentially interesting subplot remains undeveloped). Robert Barron is cast as Lord Medford, yet another robber-baron antagonist, and plays his character with his customary slimy suavity.
Hard-faced Raphael Bennett, a memorable heavy in many B-westerns and in 1930s Republic serials like Dick Tracy Returns and The Lone Ranger, does a remarkably good job of playing against type as the old retainer Duncan–who pretends fealty to Sir Edgar but secretly assists the heroes. His gravely thoughtful but quietly polite manner and his clear-voiced and gently authoritative delivery of his lines give him an aura of old-fashioned courtliness that makes him seem more authentically medieval than any of the other cast members. Belle Mitchell plays things much more noisily and broadly as his garrulous wife.
Frank Ellis and Al Ferguson have noticeable parts as gruff but sympathetic members of Hawk’s outlaw band; Terry Frost plays multiple roles as an outlaw, one of Sir Edgar’s soldiers, and one of the Duke of Hampton’s followers. John Hart appears in the first two episodes as another of Sir Edgar’s soldiers, who’s rather nastily baited (by the outlaws) and then killed in an ambush sequence cribbed directly from The Black Arrow–while stuntman Jock Mahoney (still years removed from stardom) has several lines as Lord Markham’s right-hand man. Ted Adams shows up in the final episode to hail Buzz Henry as the rightful king. Stanley Blystone is a brutal Bullard tax-collector in the first chapter; the mild-mannered actor who appears as Buzz Henry’s ill-fated grandfather in the same chapter seems very familiar, but his wig and the poor quality of the print I viewed made it impossible for me to identify him (physically, he resembles Francis McDonald, but his vaguely British-sounding voice is a good deal smoother than McDonald’s usual croak).
Son of the Guardsman could have been a distinctive and memorable serial–but its potentially interesting medieval setting is negated by its shoddy production values, while its poorly staged action scenes are unable to lend much interest to its repetitive narrative. Its lack of comic relief makes it less obnoxious than several other Katzman/Columbia misfires from the same era–but it’s still a disappointingly tedious affair.