U.S. Marshal Dan Mason (Dennis Moore) goes undercover as an outlaw named “Laramie” in the Canadian backwoods, secretly working with the Mounties to track down the man responsible for the robbery of a Montana bank and the murder of Mason’s father. The culprit in question, Ben Roder (Kenneth MacDonald), now goes by the name of Bart Randall, and has discovered a valuable pitchblende deposit–which he’s trying to keep the incoming railroad from discovering; to this end, he and his men rile up the local Indians, overawing them with a loudspeaker-equipped airplane and a phony talking totem. However, Randall’s attempts to disrupt the peace of the frontier are continually thwarted by Mason, RCMP Sgt. Gray (Richard Emory), friendly Indian Little Bear (Rick Vallin), and enigmatic trading-post clerk Donna Blaine (Eve Anderson).
By the mid-1950s, television had effectively killed the movie serial. Republic Pictures abandoned chapterplay-making for good in 1955; Columbia would have been wise to follow suit, but instead tried to prolong the life of the moribund form for another year–still adhering tenaciously to their fifteen-chapter “Super Serial” format, instead of cutting back to a more manageable twelve chapters as Republic had done back in the late 1940s. These final 1956 chapterplays were, like all post-war Columbia offerings, turned out by the redoubtable producer Sam Katzman–on a budget that made the sums allotted to his cost-conscious earlier cliffhanging efforts seem lavish by comparison.
Perils of the Wilderness was the first of Katzman’s two last-ditch 1956 serials; it relies on stock footage even more heavily than Republic’s last few outings, frequently replaying entire (and lengthy) action sequences from the earlier Columbia serial Perils of the Royal Mounted, with only a couple of very tight closeups of the new serial’s players inserted. Examples include the Chapter Three mine fight and the Chapter Fourteen raid on the trading post; the latter sequence is presented as a voiced-over flashback, and even closeups are dispensed with. The excessive undercranking of the James-Horne-directed fights from Royal Mounted also makes the stock-footage insertions much more obvious than in most Republic efforts; the jarring difference in filming speed between Wilderness and Royal Mounted almost gives the older footage the look of silent-film stock at times. The Mysterious Pilot also provides Wilderness with a fair share of scenes; since Pilot was helmed by Wilderness’s own director Spencer Bennet, the fight footage borrowed from it fits into Wilderness much more smoothly (like the grapple by the lake shore in Chapter Thirteen).
The use of Pilot footage, however, does great damage to Wilderness’s storyline; in his attempt to provide a narrative framework to fit both the scenes from Pilot (set in the 1930s) and the scenes from Royal Mounted (set in the 1890s), screenwriter George Plympton strikes a crippling blow to the serial’s credibility. The presence of Pilot’s 1930s aircraft (and, in another Pilot stock scene, modern timber-cutting equipment) makes the serial’s Royal-Mounted-derived trappings seem comically anachronistic, and vice-versa. Even in a serial, it’s impossible to believe in twentieth-century Indians that are primitive enough to think an airplane is the “Spirit of the North Wind”–or are wild and untamed enough to pose a serious, organized threat to local industry. Similarly, it looks ridiculous for the characters to dress in 19th-century clothes and ride around in pioneer-era buggies and covered wagons (matching Royal Mounted stock), while pontoon planes are cruising the skies. Overall, the ludicrous juxtaposition of footage from two such incompatible serials creates the impression that Wilderness’ production team had very little respect for the viewer’s intelligence.
Wilderness would have worked much better had Plympton completely dropped the airplane business (and all the Mysterious Pilot stock footage with it), and simply focused on recycling Perils of the Royal Mounted–but the serial would still have been an overlong, padded, repetitious, and hazily-plotted affair. The bulk of the serial’s storyline is devoted to a series of repetitive clashes between heroes and villains as the latter steal guns, destroy railroad supplies, and incite the Indians–and commit several other criminal acts that are often inadequately explained (like their kidnapping of their own ally, the crooked storekeeper Lynch, or their random setting of forest fires); “Laramie’s” status in the outlaw band is as hazy as some of the plot twists, with the villains never quite making up their minds to trust him, but rarely making a serious attempt to kill him. In order to make the struggle between Laramie and his antagonists last until the Chapter Fifteen finale (a disappointing one, by the way), Plympton and Katzman fill the serial with more recap sequences than even Mascot’s Nat Levine would have countenanced; over half of Wilderness’s chapters features a scene in which the characters flash back to preceding events–often recapping scenes which took place in the chapter immediately preceding the flashback sequence.
Though all of the chases and almost all of the fights in Wilderness are derived from Royal Mounted or Pilot, old directorial warhorse Spencer Bennet does occasionally manage to squeeze in a few small but fairly well-done new action scenes–most of them shootouts in the scenically rocky hills of the serial’s only location, the Big Bear region of the San Bernardino National Forest. There are a few respectable fistfights, like the one between Dennis Moore and an outlaw (stuntman Fred Graham) in Chapter Four–but they’re extremely brief, mere pale ghosts of the elaborate brawls Bennet staged in his glory days. As in all of Katzman’s post-1953 serials, this new footage is shot exclusively outdoors–which isn’t a problem in action scenes, but does make dialogue scenes look silly at times, with characters forced to confer while sitting on boulders in the forest or on the front steps of shacks.
As for the stock-footage action, too many of the borrowed fights from Royal Mounted suffer from James Horne’s trademark six-against-one cartoonishness, but the trading-post fight in Chapter Ten and the subsequent rooftop chase (a highlight sequence in Royal Mounted) is pretty good, and is entertaining to watch even though it’s entirely recycled. All of the cliffhanger endings in Wilderness, like most of the in-chapter action, come either from Royal Mounted or Pilot, with footage from the former predominating; the resolutions to these reused endings are generally lifted wholesale from the earlier serials as well. The preponderance of Royal Mounted cliffhanger footage frequently forces Plympton and Bennet to quickly rush secondary Mountie hero Richard Emory on stage at chapter’s end, sidelining primary non-Mountie hero Dennis Moore in order to subject Emory to the perils originally visited upon the red-coated Robert Kellard in Royal Mounted.
Several of Wilderness’s actors seem aware that they’re doing little besides tie together stock footage, and come off as decidedly indifferent to their roles; this is particularly true of the above-mentioned Emory, a low-key, boyish-looking actor obviously cast due to his strong facial resemblance to Robert Kellard. Though I’ve seen him do energetic work elsewhere, in Wilderness he delivers a pleasant but largely one-note performance–handling his lines in a calm monotone that makes him sound more than a little bored at times. Dennis Moore comes off much better than Emory, using that deep and authoritative voice of his to give an urgent, grimly determined, almost intense turn to his lines; in star-studded earlier serials like Raiders of Ghost City or The Purple Monster Strikes, the workmanlike Moore came off as the least interesting principal actor–but here, surrounded by lackadaisical co-stars, his focused and solidly competent approach to his role makes him a very welcome presence.
Former stuntwoman Evelyn Finley, hair died blonde to match shots of heroine Nell O’Day in Perils of the Royal Mounted and her name changed to “Eve Anderson,” is, like Emory, pretty forgettable–although in her case it’s hard to tell whether this is because she’s uninterested in her part or is simply not given enough to do; her screen time is limited, and she actually does manage some liveliness in a few later scenes in which she lightly bickers with Emory (and even sparks a little enthusiasm out of her co-star). Great serial villain Kenneth MacDonald has nothing to do but sit outside a shack and periodically confer with his men; he occasionally displays a little of the poker-faced menace that marked his other chapterplay turns–but largely sleepwalks through his role, issuing orders and laying schemes in disinterested, almost listless style.
Terry Frost puts a lot more vigor into his performance as the serial’s chief action heavy, confronting the good guys with earnestly ferocious gruffness and even aggressively arguing with MacDonald. Frost’s fellow-henchman Don Harvey, on the other hand, shares MacDonald’s listlessness–perhaps because he, like his screen boss, is allowed to do nothing but dispiritedly sit outside a shack and talk; his somber and static interchanges with MacDonald suggest the philosophical comic-strip conversations of Charlie Brown and Linus more than villainous plotting sessions. Pierce Lyden, rangy-looking and tough-acting as ever, is good as one of the main backup henchmen; John Mitchum (Robert’s brother) is also fine as another outlaw pack-member. Grizzled serial veterans Al Ferguson and Bud Osborne are on hand to do henchman work as well–and to provide links to the stock footage from Perils of the Royal Mounted, in which they both served as leading thugs; Ferguson retains much of his old swagger, while the elderly Osborne is understandably a bit subdued, but still effective.
Rick Vallin, who also figured prominently in Perils of the Royal Mounted as a friendly Indian, takes a near-identical role here, serving as a bridge to stock-footage scenes and functioning as Dennis Moore’s sidekick for the bulk of the serial. He affects the same extremely halting delivery he used for his “White Eagle” character in Roar of the Iron Horse; though he’s not especially convincing as an Indian, and looks decidedly embarrassed at times, his performance is still better than that of the horribly miscast Robert Bice, who plays his father. Though a capable character actor, the round-faced and exceedingly chunky Bice looks patently absurd in an Indian role; his deep-voiced and dramatically grave line delivery is also a bit overdone. Frank Lackteen is underused as the treacherous Indian medicine man–only appearing in a couple of scenes–but he’s still a pleasure to see, playing his part with all his characteristic craftiness and sinister furtiveness; he also takes a small second role as a henchman in order to set up a stock-footage fight from The Mysterious Pilot (in which he played one of the main heavies).
John Elliott, looking positively ancient, plays the shady trading-post proprietor Lynch, whose relationship with MacDonald and his men is never satisfactorily explained–mainly because of the Royal Mounted stock-footage use. Elliott played the heroine’s honest and put-upon father in the earlier serial; though he’s supposed to be the villains’ ally in Wilderness, those villains repeatedly and abruptly turn on him–in order to permit the deployment of Royal Mounted stock that shows him as the hapless victim of outlaws. Kermit Maynard, yet another returnee from Royal Mounted, plays basically the same background Mountie role as in the earlier serial; John Hart has a larger role as another Mountie, and Lee Roberts appears in RCMP uniform as well. Dan White plays a recurring henchman, as does Stanley Price, while Fred Graham is seen more briefly in another outlaw role. Ed Coch is the villains’ pilot, and Rex Lease effectually reprises his Mountie-flyer role from The Mysterious Pilot, aging by about twenty years every time the serial switches from Pilot stock-shots to new footage. Ubiquitous Columbia narrator Knox Manning is noticeably absent here; instead, the serial’s next-week announcements and plot recaps are handled by a smooth-voiced but dull-sounding announcer, who utterly lacks the slightly hammy enthusiasm that always made Manning’s voiceovers so much fun to listen to.
Many movie serials have proved entertaining despite excessive flashbacks, while others have worked well even when relying too heavily on stock footage; likewise, many serials have been successful even when hampered by hazy plotting or uninspired performances. However, when all these weaknesses are combined in a single serial, and are topped off with an anachronous and completely unbelievable central premise, the end result is a painfully tired-feeling chapterplay with very little to recommend to anyone but a serial historian.