Wily carpetbagger Jake Jackson (Kenneth MacDonald) flees the South at the end of Reconstruction and heads for the Southwestern town of Big Mesa, where he sets up as an outwardly respectable businessmen. However, he’s really bent on seizing the gold in the legendary lost mine of Cibola, which is guarded by a hidden tribe of Zuni Indians in the mountains near Big Mesa; in order to safely smuggle the gold out of the Zunis’ territory, he must not only circumnavigate the Zunis, but also deal with the Navajo Indians whose reservation surrounds the Zuni land. Jackson tries to stir up trouble between the Navajos and the citizens of Big Mesa, hoping to start an Indian war that will end in the Navajos’ expulsion from their land; his chances of setting off a major conflict improve when he kills Arano, the Navajo chief, after the latter catches him trespassing on the reservation. The Navajo council of elders orders Arano’s son, Black Arrow (Robert Scott) to kill “the white man’s chief”–kindly Indian agent Tom Whitney (Charles Middleton)–in symbolic retaliation for Arano’s mysterious murder, but Black Arrow refuses to slay an innocent man and instead sets out to find the unknown real killer. He’s aided by Whitney, storekeeper Mary Brent (Adele Jergens), and Mexican rancher Pancho (Martin Garralaga), but is opposed by practically everyone else: the Navajos, who banish him on pain of death when he refuses to kill Whitney; the citizens of Big Mesa, who have survived an earlier Indian war and distrust all Navajos; the Zunis, who regard both Navajos and whites as sworn enemies; and, finally, the double-dealing Jackson–who’s determined to keep his gold-grabbing scheme a secret, and who pretends to be on the side of justice while simultaneously playing off townsmen, Navajos, Zunis, and his own henchmen against each other and against Black Arrow.
Black Arrow hails from the short period of Columbia serial-making that followed director James W. Horne’s death and preceded Sam Katzman’s appointment as the studio’s chapterplay producer; like the six other serials from that interregnum, it lacks both the self-parodying touches of Horne’s chapterplays and the production cheapness of Katzman’s, and is all the better for it.
Black Arrow’s simple basic plot (heroic Indian thwarting gold-hungry villain’s attempt to stir up Indian war) is similar to that of the Horne-era serial White Eagle–but Arrow, in addition to avoiding Eagle’s tongue-in-cheek directorial indulgences, also improves on the earlier serial in the scripting department. The murder of Black Arrow’s father and the subsequent hardships heaped upon the hero make his struggle with Jackson’s gang seem far more personal and compelling than the hero-villain duel in Eagle, while the last-chapter revelation about Black Arrow’s background is carefully set up in Chapter One–instead of being tossed in arbitrarily at the end, as a similar revelation was in Eagle. Also, Arrow’s MacGuffin–the fabled treasure of Cibola–is a lot more interesting than the mundane gold deposits that drove Eagle’s plot (even though the scripters mis-number the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, referring to them as the “Five Cities of Cibola” before dropping the “city” designation entirely in favor of references to the “Lost Mine of Cibola”).
Black Arrow’s storyline is not really substantial enough to warrant a fifteen-chapter length, but the writers (Leighton Brill, Sherman Lowe, Jack Stanley, and Royal Cole) give it enough embellishments to keep it from seeming too repetitive. A bogus Indian raid carried out by disguised outlaws, Jackson’s murder of Mary Brent’s land-agent brother as part of a claim-fraud scheme, the framing of Black Arrow for the killing, and a struggle over land-office papers that might incriminate the villains effectively supplement the main plot (the search for Aranho’s killer) for the first half of the serial. Then, in the serial’s second half, Black Arrow’s discovery of the coveted Cibola mine, his narrow escape from its Zuni guardians, Jackson’s efforts to set up various associates as scapegoats for his crimes, and another false murder charge against Black Arrow serve to keep the killer-hunt from ending too soon; some of these incidents (particularly the second framing of the hero) are obvious exercises in narrative wheel-spinning, but they’re still absorbing enough to hold audience interest until the satisfying climactic showdown arrives.
Said showdown is one of the serial’s action highlights, a protracted sequence that features a bow-and-arrow battle between Zunis and Navajos (the latter eventually reinforced by gun-toting settlers) as the warmup to the final confrontation between Black Arrow and Jackson–a showdown that begins with a good foot chase, leads into an outstanding fight on the ladders and roofs of a multi-storied adobe building, and concludes with hero dispatching villain in surprisingly intentional fashion. Stuntman Bert LeBaron seems to be standing in for Kenneth MacDonald during this scene; Robert Scott’s Indian wig makes it hard to tell who’s doubling him, but based on his build I’d guess that it’s Dale Van Sickel (who’s credited with Black Arrow stuntwork by the highly unreliable Internet Movie Database, for what that’s worth). If Van Sickel is indeed Scott’s double, then he does good work throughout the serial’s action scenes, frequently squaring off with fellow-stuntmen Eddie Parker and Ted Mapes (both of whom play recurring henchmen) in energetic brawls.
Above left: Robert Scott chases Kenneth MacDonald up a hillside at Iverson’s Ranch in the serial’s climactic sequence. Above right: Scott and MacDonald’s stunt doubles engage in a spectacular final fight atop a Zuni structure.
Other action highlights include the Chapter Two fight that begins in the land office and ends on a blazing rooftop, the horseback chase in Chapter Four that has Black Arrow disposing of three heavies in a row, Chapter Six’s series of fistfights and shootouts at a barn (which, all together, occupy most of the episode’s second half), the ambush sequence at the end of Chapter Eight, the cave fights in Chapters Ten and Eleven, and the large-scale shootout at Whitney’s stone-walled hacienda in Chapter Twelve. A few action sequences are clumsily staged–like Chapter Eleven’s five-man fistfight inside a cramped shack that’s too small to accommodate the combatants–but most of them are quite well-handled by veteran B-film and serial director Lew Landers–who, aided by former Universal serial cinematographer Richard Fryer, frequently uses distinctive camera angles to enliven fights and shootouts, among them the final showdown and the Chapter Twelve chase. The camera is also used to interesting effect in some of the serial’s more dramatic dialogue scenes (such as Black Arrow’s defiance of the tribal elders who’ve ordered Whitney’s death).
Above, top left: A shot from the Chapter Two rooftop sequence. Above right: Martin Garralaga returns fire as Charles Middleton ducks a bullet during the Chapter Six barn shootout. Bottom left: The Chapter Ten cave fight. Bottom right: The distant hero is gaining on a villain during the well-shot Chapter Twelve horseback chase.
Columbia’s Western street and the hills of Iverson’s Ranch provide the backdrop for most of Black Arrow’s action, with the tunnel-like jumble of boulders on the Ranch’s lower section serving nicely as the “entrance” to the Zunis’ hidden realm. The Zuni city itself is an impressively ancient-looking collection of tall adobe buildings; it looks as if it might be the same outdoor set use later used as the native village in Jack Armstrong–but it’s put to more effective (albeit infrequent) use here, providing the striking setting for the above-mentioned final fight. The glittering and cavernous Cibola mine (filled with stalactites and stalagmites) and the Zuni’s ore-crushing chamber are impressive as well; the primitive ore-crusher that dominates the latter chamber figures in one of the serial’s most memorable chapter endings (Chapter Nine’s)–although the cliffhanger in question suffers a little from a characteristic Columbia lack of foreshadowing; the sequence would have been even better had the ore-crusher been shown earlier in the chapter, instead of suddenly appearing just before Black Arrow stumbles into it.
Several of the serial’s other cliffhangers suffer not so much from insufficient buildup as from cheat resolutions; far too often, the hero is saved from seemingly certain doom not by writing creativity but by the alteration of the cliffhanger footage at the beginning of the next chapter. That said, the bulk of these cheats–like the resolutions to the Chapter Eight knifing cliffhanger and the Chapter Ten stalagmite-pit fall–are subtle enough that they’re not particularly disconcerting, but the resolution to the Chapter Two burning-building cliffhanger (like the stalagmite scene, an excellent chapter ending in itself), is really jarring in its blatant dishonesty. A few other endings (like the Chapter Twelve cave-in cliffhanger) are resolved in improbable live-through-it style, but there are still many well-executed and believably resolved cliffhangers in Black Arrow–the well-shaft explosion in Chapter Four, the falling safe in Chapter Five, the burning hayloft in Chapter Six, and the spectacular shack-off-the-cliff ending of Chapter Eleven.
The youthful Robert Scott is competent and likable in Black Arrow’s title role, but hasn’t got the presence and personality necessary to really succeed in his difficult part. Admittedly, he labors under many handicaps; it’s not his fault that he’s saddled with an absurd-looking wig, or that he looks and sounds utterly unconvincing as a Navajo (the last chapter partially remedies this problem), or that the writers occasionally let slangy phrases like “fill them full of lead” interrupt his flow of formally simple “Indian” dialogue. However, some actors (like Tom Tyler or Gilbert Roland, who both starred in Columbia serials around this time) could have overcome these handicaps by playing the leading role as earnestly and dynamically as possible; instead, Scott plays his role in low-key and rather glum fashion–occasionally displaying cheerful confidence, but too often coming off as merely depressed when he should be registering stern anger or energetic determination. One could argue that this morose air is appropriate for a perpetually put-upon character like Black Arrow, but the part really needed to be handled with more panache in order to keep its inherent absurdities from becoming too noticeable. Scott is still good enough of an actor to avoid ruining the serial, but he does little to enhance it either.
Scott’s co-stars are a more engaging lot; Martin Garralaga as Pancho makes a fine sidekick, providing light humor through his volubility and his mangling of the English language–but never becoming annoying, and credibly furnishing Scott with entirely serious help whenever necessary. Adele Jergens, later a frequent B-movie vamp, has her first major role as Black Arrow’s heroine; though perhaps a little too glamorous for a Western ingénue role, she’s appealingly enthusiastic and sympathetic, as well as exceedingly attractive (she bears a remarkably strong resemblance to Virginia Mayo). Charles Middleton has the only really prominent non-villainous role of his serial career as the noble Indian Agent, and handles it perfectly despite his naturally forbidding appearance; he’s commanding but genteelly dignified in his official dealings with hostile Indians and hot-headed settlers, quietly emotional in dramatic moments, and paternally polite and kindly in his interactions with Black Arrow.
Kenneth MacDonald is at the top of his villainous game as the outrageously treacherous and unshakably confident Jackson, and comes close to stealing the serial–calmly but menacingly threatening rebellious associates, congratulating himself with sober smugness, and telling the good guys elaborate lies with such resonant-voiced gravity that it’s easy to understand their misplaced trust in his integrity. The aggressively noisy and cranky-looking Robert Williams plays Buck Sherman, Jackson’s bad-tempered and far less astute partner in carpet-bagging–and contrasts so strongly with MacDonald that he serves as a first-rate foil for him throughout. I. Stanford Jolley is wasted in another subordinate villain role; though introduced as MacDonald and Williams’ co-conspirator in the first chapter, he disappears almost entirely in subsequent episodes, only making a couple of walk-ons until he (fleetingly) becomes prominent in Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen.
Stanley Price has more screen time than usual as Wade, the leader of the henchman pack for much of the serial; he conducts himself in effectively slimy and self-possessed style, avoiding any of his usual fear-crazed breakdowns. As mentioned, Ted Mapes and Eddie Parker play two of the principal recurring henchmen (the former more prominent than the latter), while Bud Osborne and Kit Guard have smaller outlaw roles. Forrest Taylor has fun in three episodes as a “hypocritical old skinflint” of a rancher who works with the villains in one chapter and vigorously tries to disavow knowledge of their schemes when the tide turns against them.
George J. Lewis is arrogantly ferocious as Black Arrow’s Navajo rival Snake-that-Walks, making a strong impression despite limited screen time. Chief Thundercloud is his usual grimly imposing self as the Navajo medicine man, while Elmo Lincoln–the original screen Tarzan–is affably patriarchal in his short-lived turn as the unfortunate Arano. The extremely wizened Nick Thompson cuts a suitably weird and sinister figure as the Zuni chieftain, and Mexican-American radio singer John Laurenz figures in the first two chapters as a renegade Navajo. Virginia Belmont, later the heroine of Dangers of the Canadian Mounted, pops up as a Navajo prisoner of the Zunis’ who helps Black Arrow escape her captors’ realm.
Ferris Taylor is amusing as the laid-back, checkers-loving sheriff, while Davison Clark is blustery as the most outspoken of Big Mesa’s citizens. Charles King is another easily-manipulated citizen, and future henchman actor Dan White is unusually respectable in his small role as the heroine’s brother. The slick-looking actor playing Bronson (one of MacDonald’s suit-wearing “office” accomplices), the husky-voiced and rather New-Yorkish-sounding actor who plays a recurring active henchman, and the portrayer of the Zunis’ lead warrior are all unidentified by the Internet Movie Database, the serial’s on-screen cast list, and its press-book–and are unfortunately unidentifiable to me as well.
Black Arrow is probably the most overlooked of the seven serials from the post-Horne/pre-Katzman era, lacking as it does a charismatic star (unlike The Desert Hawk, The Phantom, Valley of Vanishing Men, and The Secret Code), a comic-book connection (unlike The Phantom or Batman), or a science-fictional premise (unlike The Monster and the Ape). However, while it doesn’t approach the quality of Hawk or Phantom (two of Columbia’s best), it can hold its own against its other contemporaries–being definitely above-average by Columbia standards, and a well-done and satisfactory serial by any standard.