A Communist spy plane is shot down near an American radar post by Air Force Captain Roger Drum (Buster Crabbe). Drum is subsequently assigned to assume the identity of the plane’s deceased pilot–who was apparently en route for a remote section of the African jungle; by going undercover, Drum hopes to discover what the Reds are up to in that part of the world. After crash-landing in Africa, Drum is befriended by the Rock People, a primitive tribe that hails him as their long-prophesied champion, “Thunda, King of the Congo.” Soon, he learns that the Rock People are at odds with a group of Russian agents led by one Boris (Leonard Penn); these Red agents are hoping to carve out a Soviet-dominated strip of territory in Central Africa, by “dividing and conquering” natives like the Rock People and their more savage neighbors the Cave Men. The Reds are also seeking a rare and unknown mineral–more potent than uranium–that can help the Soviet Union win the Cold War; the newly-christened “Thunda” sets out to stop them, at first posing as one of their number but eventually battling them openly. He’s helped by the Rock People–particularly the princess Pha (Gloria Dea) and the mystic high priest (William Fawcett)–and is also assisted by Clark (Jack Ingram), an apparent member of Boris’s gang who has his own mysterious agenda.
The comic books on which King of the Congo was based dealt, like the serial, with the adventures of Captain Roger Drum; however, the comics version of the character permanently lost his memory after crashing in a veritable lost world full of dinosaurs, and entered much more whole-heartedly into the role of Thun’Da (the spelling used in the comics) than his serial counterpart. The original Thun’Da quickly moved to another stretch of jungle to battle more conventional menaces like poachers, hostile natives, and spies, with only his cave-girl consort Pha and his pet saber-tooth tiger on hand to remind him of his lost-world roots. However, George Plympton, Arthur Hoerl, and Royal Cole (the writers of the King of the Congo serial) utilized both Pha’s tribe and their Cave People antagonists, who’d only featured in the first issue of the comics, as major supporting players in their scenario–but didn’t bother to present these offbeat primitives as survivors of some ancient lost civilization, and instead treated them as ordinary African natives. All jungle serials struggle at times to successfully convey an exotic atmosphere, but the unexplained and uncommented-on presence of these non-black Stone Agers in the modern-day African wilds makes Congo’s “jungle” seem even hokier than the norm. The other characters’ casual acceptance of the similarly unexplained and unabashedly magical powers of the Rock People’s high priest is also very jarring, particularly when juxtaposed with the typical 1950s pseudo-scientific dialogue used to refer to the coveted radioactive-mineral deposits.
Congo’s villains are decidedly more realistic than its “natives.” Boris and his gang, unlike most serial heavies from the Cold War era, are not merely the generic agents of an obscure but hostile power; Plympton, Hoerl, and Cole make them highly recognizable Communists without ever naming them as such–by having them call each other “Comrade,” obsess over possible disloyalty, elicit false confessions of treason via torture, and toss around favorite Party words like “liquidation” and “liberation.” Believable though these heavies are, they don’t seem as menacing as they should, due to the comical impracticality of their master plan; the conquest of central Africa is simply too ambitious to be plausibly attempted by a handful of Soviet agents and extremely unreliable local assistants like the Cave Men. The writers would have been much better-advised to completely eliminate the conquest angle and make the smaller-scaled but potentially world-threatening search for the “better-than-uranium” minerals the villains’ sole focus–especially since this search occupies most of the Reds’ time, anyway.
Above: Leonard Penn explains his goal of conquering a strip of Africa from “the Black Sea to the Atlantic” to Nick Stuart (far left), Rick Vallin (seated), and Buster Crabbe–all of whom are too polite to point out the scheme’s impracticality.
However, even had the Rock and Cave tribes been adequately accounted for, and the villains’ plot made more plausibly threatening, Congo’s storyline would still have been marred by the serial’s overlength; as in most Columbia serials, the narrative has to be severely stretched to fit the studio’s inevitable fifteen-chapter format. The writers do provide enough plot twists (the defection of the henchman Andreov, the blowing of Drum’s cover, the arrival of another USAF officer, the alliance between the Communists and the Cave Men) to keep the narrative from completely bogging down in repetitiveness, but the serial still comes off as padded and slow-moving–particularly in its first half, during which Drum, Clark, Boris’ gang, and the Rock People all try to figure out just what everyone else is up to, while engaging in a lot of ultimately pointless arguing, and shadowing each other across soundstages and through outdoor locations (invariably moving at the same slow jog used to eat up screen time in so many of Congo producer Sam Katzman’s serials).
Wild-animal stock footage is also utilized to help fill out various chapters, but not to an excessive degree; most of the insertions are brief enough not to annoy. More persistent (and more irksome) animal padding is provided by the new footage of Drum’s chimpanzee friend–who stands on the sidelines during almost every action scene, “reacting” to fights with sound and gesture; the continual cutaways to the chimp’s cheerleading are mildly amusing at best in the early episodes, and become very irritating after a few chapters. The only other trained animal that actually appears in the serial is a black panther (probably Melvin Koontz’s Dynamite) that engages Crabbe (presumably doubled by Koontz) in a good fight in Chapter Four, and takes out two of the serial’s villains in a much less energetic sequence in the final chapter. An obvious stuffed panther is utilized for some shots in the latter scene, while a stuffed leopard tangles unconvincingly with Crabbe in Chapter Ten. Other animal-attack scenes, like the lion fight in Chapter One and the crocodile fight in Chapter Nine, are lifted from Katzman’s Jungle Jim features, but are blended well with the new footage.
Unlike some of Congo’s man-versus-animal battles, the serial’s man-to-man battles are composed of new footage, and are capably done–though they’re usually fairly short and unelaborate affairs. Directors Spencer Bennet and Wallace Grissell, though lacking the resources that they both enjoyed at Republic in the mid-1940s, nevertheless do a nice job of staging the serial’s periodic brawls; Paul Stader, Buzz Henry (who appears very briefly as a henchman), and Bernie Gozier (who plays a substantial native role) furnish some of the stuntwork, but the serial’s actors do a fair percentage of their own leaping and punching as well. The rock-tossing fight between Drum and the Cave Man chieftain Kor in Chapter Two fight is quite good (though marred by the above-mentioned chimpanzee chorus); the fight on the hillside in Chapters Eight and Nine is also a highlight. The stone-axe combat and wrestling match between Drum and Kor in the final episode is good as well, as is the hero’s leap into the villains’ munitions truck in Chapter Nine and the gun battle in Chapter Fourteen. The principal backdrops for these and other action scenes are a foliage-draped soundstage (which makes a most unconvincing jungle) and Iverson’s Ranch–which isn’t very jungle-like either, but is much more visually interesting.
Some of the cliffhangers in Congo are rather pedestrian even by Columbia standards–the hero diving out a window as the villains shoot at him, or being lassoed and clubbed by cavemen. Several other endings are more spectacular but too abrupt (like the cave-in that concludes Chapter One), while others are ill-conceived (the stock-footage wild horse stampede–wild horses in Africa?) or confusingly bizarre (the prime example being the “magnetic rocks” cliffhanger that has the cavemen pounding on a boulder and somehow causing it to emit animated electrical sparks that transfix the hero). There are a few solidly memorable cliffhangers to be found in the serial, however–particularly the Chapter Four ending, which has the hero tossed out a treehouse window by a gorilla (Steve Calvert, in Ray Corrigan’s old simian suit) and the well-set-up hillside explosion at the end of Chapter Eight.
Above left: The Chapter Three stampede of the misplaced horses (noncommittally referred to as “wild beasts” by narrator Knox Manning). Above right: The gorilla defenestrates Thunda at the end of Chapter Four.
As in most Katzman serials, the cast of Congo is generally superior to the chapterplay’s ragged production values. Archetypal serial hero Buster Crabbe, in his final cliffhanger outing, is convincingly cagy (when pretending to be one of the Communists), believably befuddled (when groggily recovering from his first-chapter plane crash), quietly tough (when confronting the villains), and genially easygoing (when interacting with his friends) as the case requires–and is enormously likable and charismatic throughout. Though considerably older than in his Flash Gordon days, he’s also still in good enough shape to wear “Thunda’s” Tarzan-style loincloth without embarrassment; one could wish him a better valedictory serial vehicle, but at least his own performance is a worthy farewell to his distinguished career in the genre.
Leonard Penn–always a welcome presence in Katzman’s chapterplays–skillfully assumes a marked but never overdone Russian accent as the villainous Boris, and combines smug slickness with brusque authoritativeness to very good effect. Rick Vallin, another Katzman regular, has the unusual role of henchman-turned-sidekick Andreov; though he’s not given the opportunity to make his character seem at all complex in his pre-reformation scenes, he appropriately adopts a thoughtful, grimly serious manner after he renounces Communism and comes over to Crabbe’s side, eschewing the glib cheerfulness that marked some of his other supporting-hero turns. Jack Ingram, in a departure from his usual straightforward henchman roles, is also quite good as the crafty and enigmatic Clark–coolly and casually proffering questions and pieces of advice to both Crabbe and Penn as he goes about his character’s double game.
Gloria Dea is good-looking, but delivers a frankly awful performance as Pha, Princess of the Rock People. Though her vaguely exotic features make her seem less ridiculous as a native than some actresses would have, her dialogue delivery is utterly flat and emotionless, and she comes off as painfully amateurish–even though her broken-English lines aren’t exactly challenging. Reliable character actor William Fawcett, wearing a stringy gray wig, looks rather silly as the Rock People’s tribal wizard (there’s really no other word for his character), but is fun to watch as he intently gazes into his crystal ball or gravely offers sage advice to the other good guys; his grandly mystical bearing helps him to steal more than one scene.
Nick Stuart (the bullying French Apache heavy from Katzman’s 1930s outing Blake of Scotland Yard) is suitably tough and mean as Leonard Penn’s chief henchman, going about his villainy with a self-satisfied smile and a confident swagger. Bart Davidson, who enters the serial in Chapter Six and subsequently becomes a prominent co-conspirator of Penn’s, is effectively villainous as well; his unemotional demeanor and sneering half-smile give him a rather reptilian air. Rusty Westcoatt delivers a delightfully lively and colorful performance as the hirsute Cave Man leader Kor–roaring like an animal as he attacks people, chortling just as noisily when pleased, and generally behaving in an aggressive, wildly abrupt, and completely uncontrollable manner befitting his primitive character; the sequence in which the villains try to teach him how to use modern weaponry is particularly amusing.
Lee Roberts, usually a heavy, is gruffly cheerful and quite likable as the Air Force pilot who lends occasional aid to Crabbe in the later chapters; Frank Ellis pops up briefly as a henchman named Ivan, his cowboy twang making him one of the most unlikely-sounding Russians in screen history. Princess Pha’s chief followers are played by competent supporting players Neyle Morrow, Bernie Gozier, and Alex Montoya; all three, like Gloria Dea, are indeterminately swarthy and “foreign” enough in appearance to not appear totally absurd in native getups. Pierre Watkin, dryly self-assured as ever, is the military bigwig who gives Crabbe his mission in the first chapter; Frank Gerstle appears as another officer in the same sequence, and John Hart pops up a few scenes earlier as an Air Force radioman.
On the post-war Columbia serial scale, King of the Congo places somewhere in the middle; it’s not as painfully tedious as some of Katzman’s mid-1940s and mid-1950s chapterplays, but isn’t as good as other early-1950s Katzman efforts like Pirates of the High Seas or Son of Geronimo. The professionalism of its directors and most of its actors (Crabbe in particular) keeps it watchable, but neither cast nor crew can make it much more than what it is, a tolerably mediocre serial.
Acknowledgements: I’m indebted to the Thunda page at the late Don Markstein’s Toonopedia website, which provided me with useful background information on the comic-book version of the character.