A frontier saloon owner named Barnett (Mauritz Hugo) has discovered a vein of gold on a nearby Indian reservation, and is surreptitiously endeavoring to start a war between settlers and Indians that will end in the Indians being driven from their land–allowing him to purchase it. Rancher Jerry Randall (Richard Simmons) tries to keep the peace by assuming the guise of “El Latigo,” a mysterious whip-wielding masked man who aided the Indians many years ago, and has been revered by them as a “spirit rider” ever since. Aided by schoolteacher Nancy Cooper (Barbara Bestar), Randall counters the attempts of badman Crane (Dale Van Sickel) and renegade Indian Tosco (Lane Bradford) to stir up trouble, and eventually figures out that Barnett is the man behind their activities.
Ronald Davidson’s screenplay for Man with the Steel Whip eschews the “fight to hold on to the stage-line/mine/ranch” storyline that figured in most of Republic’s post-war Western serials, instead utilizing a varation of the “villains fomenting Indian troubles” plot frequently featured in Columbia’s Western chapterplays but rarely in Republic’s. However, Steel Whip’s script, unlike those of Columbia’s Black Arrow and Son of Geronimo, never creates the impression that the peace of the frontier is being seriously disturbed by the villains’ manipulations; the settlers bluster threateningly about “cleaning out” the reservation Indians, but never manage to carry their indignation outside the town saloon–while the reservation Indians are not even temporarily roused into taking the warpath en masse. The hero invariably manages to talk the members of each group into behaving themselves, while combating (with equally invariable success) the mostly small-scale attacks perpetrated by the two action heavies and their occasional allies–a nebulous gang of hill-dwelling Indian outcasts who only appear when stock footage from earlier Republic serials like The Painted Stallion or Daredevils of the West can be worked into the story.
In fact, the villains’ various plans for starting an Indian war (by attacking supply wagons, stopping reservation food shipments, carting in coal-oil intended to burn the Indian village, etc.) are so thoroughly checkmated by El Latigo in the serial’s first half that Davidson almost completely abandons the Indian aspect of the plot in Chapter Seven, rather abruptly refocusing on the heavies’ attempts to prevent new settlers (who’ve purchased chunks of reservation land from the Indians) from arriving. After meeting with equally resounding defeat on this front, Barnett’s gang sets out to eliminate the small group of settlers who’ve laid claim to the gold-rich section of land, but this scheme meets with no success either–and finally leads to the villains’ downfall, in a disappointingly rushed concluding chapter.
These repeated failures by Barnett and his men, and their gradual downsizing of their schemes, unfortunately gives them the same slightly pathetic air that undermined the heavies in other late Republics like Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders. However, though this shifting of villainous objectives dissipates the villains’ menace, it also keeps Steel Whip’s series of hero-heavy duels from seeming quite as repetitious as those of some post-war Republic serials (in which the plotting status quo remains unchanged from first chapter to last). The bad guys’ periodic efforts to discover El Latigo’s identity (they actually achieve this goal towards the end–although it does them no practical good, since Randall has been just as obstructive to them in his own person) also helps to vary the narrative a little, as do Randall’s incremental exposures of the principal evildoers (he first unmasks Tosco, then Crane, before finally zeroing in on Barnett).
Davidson (as always) does a good job of devising, with a minimum of contrivance, scenarios that lead into stock footage sequences from Republic’s past serials. However, some of the stock featured in Steel Whip isn’t edited in as smoothly as in other later Republics; the Lone Pine location shooting in Daredevils of the West makes shots from that serial’s big Indian-attack sequence (interpolated into both Chapters One and Five) more than a bit jarring when juxtaposed with new shots of protagonists besieged behind wagons on an obvious sound-stage. The Iverson’s Ranch wagon-chase sequence from Daredevils, on the other hand, fits perfectly into the new footage–since it’s combined with brand-new scenes also shot at Iverson’s; the same goes for other Iverson-filmed stock sequences like the outlaws’ wagon-raid from Zorro’s Black Whip (the “El Latigo” costume, of course, also originated in the latter serial).
Several of Steel Whip’s cliffhangers–the powder-wagon explosion, the burning-wagon crash, and two different wagon-over-the-cliff scenes–derive from other serials as well. However, there are also many smaller-scale original cliffhangers spread throughout the serial, two of the better ones being the hero’s apparent wounding and unmasking in Chapter Three and the creatively staged cave explosion in Chapter Four–brought about by the villains’ novel use of rolling explosives (dynamite sticks placed inside wheel spokes). The Chapter Nine harrow drop is good too, and so is the jail fire at the end of Chapter Eight (which uses a little well-concealed stock from Daredevils, but is mostly made up of original footage).
The jail fire is accompanied by a good nighttime shootout on Republic’s Western street. The similarly darkened attack on the hero’s barn in Chapter Three is also well-handled by director Franklin Adreon, as are the daylight street shootout in Chapter Six and the brief chases at Iverson’s in Chapters Four and Five. The serial’s many fight scenes (like most bouts of fisticuffs during Republic’s last days) are slower in tempo but more realistically rough-looking than those in earlier Republics, since the principals are doing a lot of their own stuntwork; action heavies Dale Van Sickel and Lane Bradford fight without doubling throughout the serial, while star Richard Simmons is doubled only part of the time by Tom Steele (younger stuntman Buzz Henry, who has an acting bit, might be the one doubling Simmons in his occasional whip-cracking scenes–although Simmons, a former cowboy, could just as easily have been handling such bits himself). The saloon fights between Van Sickel and Steele/Simmons in Chapters One and Four are both well-done; the Chapter Two fight at the Indian camp, the Chapter Three and Chapter Eight ranch-house fights, and the Chapter Nine barn fight are solid too.
Above left: Dale Van Sickel punches Richard Simmons towards the camera in the Chapter Four saloon fight. Above right. Lane Bradford ducks behind a buckboard as Richard Simmons fires from behind a surrey in the Chapter Six street gunfight.
The cast of Steel Whip is sturdy all the way down the line. Stalwart-looking Richard Simmons, television’s Sergeant Preston, makes a strong hero–using his resonant voice to very good advantage, as he conveys authoritativeness and geniality with equal vigor. Barbara Bestar is an intelligent and attractive heroine, although she has little to do but discuss strategy with Simmons; her calmly self-assured manner seems appropriate in a supposed schoolteacher.
As chief action heavy Crane, top stuntman Dale Van Sickel turns in a fine acting job, coming off as both swaggering and cagy. Lane Bradford is equally good as Van Sickel’s backup, the grimly ferocious Indian Tosco; his facial features (better-suited to an Indian role than those of most white actors) and his panther-like movements make his characterization quite convincing–especially when combined with the controlled Indian accent that he affects.
Above left: Dale Van Sickel (cowboy clothes) confers with Mauritz Hugo. Above right: Lane Bradford challenges the off-camera Richard Simmons to a knife duel, as Pat Hogan (vest) and other Indians watch.
Mauritz Hugo, an actor capable of being both slyly suave and menacingly fierce, could have been a memorable brains heavy if he’d been allowed to actively hoodwink or threaten anybody. However, his Barnett never leaves his saloon, and hardly interacts with anyone other than his henchmen–although Hugo’s snake-like glare and sharply harsh voice in his plotting scenes with said henchmen helps him to make something of an impression, in spite of his limited screen time.
Oneida Indian actor Pat Hogan, who specialized in playing hostile and hot-headed braves in innumerable 1950s films and TV shows, does a good job of portraying (for a change) a peaceable and responsible chief, albeit a stern and wary one. The great Roy Barcroft makes his final serial appearance in the uncharacteristically sympathetic role of the blustery but likably feisty Sheriff; his lively and colorful performance makes his scenes very enjoyable–particularly when he’s defying the heavies during the Chapter Eight jailbreak sequence.
Two other serial veterans make their last genre bows in Steel Whip: Charles Stevens has a noticeable cameo as (what else?) a half-breed outlaw, and Edmund Cobb pops up briefly as a friendly rancher. Stuart Randall plays a larger role as an unfriendly rancher who’s always making threats against the reservation Indians, I. Stanford Jolley has a single scene as a shady assayer, and the ever-urbane George Eldredge is the dignified settler who unwittingly lays claim to the gold-rich land section. Guy Teague makes a pair of appearances as a nervous henchman, Gregg Barton is a tough wagon-train leader, Harry Harvey a kindly Indian agent, Buzz Henry an injured Indian, and Tom Steele two different badmen.
Man with the Steel Whip was Republic’s last Western serial–and could fairly be designated as the studio’s least interesting effort in that sub-genre, as well; its good cast and its uninspired but capably executed action scenes make it very easy to watch, but its blandly unexciting storyline makes it equally easy to forget.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to my friend and reader Michael Litant, for providing me with a digital copy of Man with the Steel Whip that in turn furnished the illustrations for this review.