Wednesday, January 20, 2016
LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE (1946)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
It's interesting to compare this postwar American serial to BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD, made in the U.S. prior to the country's entry into WWII. Both serials emphasize a message concerning the maintenance of world peace, but while BLAKE has the idea of giving away a great weapon to keep the peace, LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE is more interested in keeping the status quo.
Admittedly, the serial's heroes are largely aligned with a private organization, the United Peace Foundation, that is not directly affiliated with any government. The Foundation's ideals-- tediously reiterated at the beginning of each JUNGLE chapter by a bunch of Foundation-guys sitting around a table-- are supposed to reflect the ethos of the newly-minted United Nations. These sequences even emphasize that the Foundation is based in San Francisco, the city where the UN first convened. The idea of an unaligned international peacekeeping force would show up again in the 1964 teleseries THE MAN FROM UNCLE. Yet JUNGLE, like the later TV show, seems to associate the best interests of the world with those of the United States. This political attitude is indicated by the threat posed by the villains: they want to construct an "anti-atomic defense" that they can sell to the highest bidder-- implying that the circulation of such a defense will inevitably bring about another war. "The warmonger who steals peace," pontificates one of the Foundation members, "is the worst kind of thief."
The atomic defense can only be constructed by harvesting a rare radioactive element, "meteorium," from a lost temple in the Asian realm of Pendrang, so the villains head for Zalabar, capital city of Pendrang, and two Foundation agents go after them. The lead hero is one Rod Stanton, played by Russell Hayden, an actor who spent most of his career in westerns like the Hopalong Cassidy series, but who doesn't manage to project the brio of the best serial-heroes. He's frequently helped out by fellow agent Tal Shan (Keye Luke), whose role in JUNGLE allows him a little more status than his better-known serial-role as houseboy Kato in the two "Green Hornet" chapter-plays. There's also Jane Adams, playing the standard part of a scientist's daughter, but she barely has anything to do. Helen Bennett plays Indra, a road-company Dragon Lady who rules over Zalabar and who may or may not ally herself with the Foundation guys.
The nature of the villains is complicated by the fact that one villain, Sir Eric Hazarias, is played by Lionel Atwill, who died of lung cancer during the serial's production. Therefore, even though Sir Eric is the principal fiend against whom the heroes contend, the serial had to find ways to work around scenes that Atwill never shot-- sometimes using a double for the deceased actor, sometimes giving his scenes to a subordinate character, his secretary Malborn (John Mylong), who, rather confusingly, is sometimes said to have been Sir Eric's secret superior. Nevertheless, even with all of these drawbacks Atwill's Sir Eric remains the evil name with which the good guys conjure when they moralize against the evils of warmongering, and Atwill has a handful of decent scenes, though his villainous role in 1944's CAPTAIN AMERICA blows Sir Eric away.
In addition, the heroes have some dust-ups with the tribesmen of Pendrang, who are understandably miffed when the bad white guys destroy one of Pendrang's lakes in order to gain access to the lost temple hidden beneath. But despite getting help from archaeologist Dr. Elmore, an innocent gulled by the villains, the warmongers don't manage to explore the temple until the final few chapters. Perhaps this foot-dragging comes about as the result of the production's recycling of scenes from earlier serials, though JUNGLE isn't as transparent in its re-use of old footage as some chapter-plays I might name.
Though the early chapters are slow to get going, not least because of Hayden's lack of charisma, eventually the Foundation's agents get involved in an assortment of fights and death-traps. The best trap is the "Pendrang guillotine," which is triggered by the sun's rays burning through a rope, a device possibly swiped from a similar one in Republic's 1940 serial THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU.
In the history of fantasy-films, JUNGLE's greatest repute is as a possible influence upon 1980's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It's not until the last couple of episodes that JUNGLE's "ark" materializes: a special box containing the radioactive meteorium. Thanks to some lost archaic technology, the box can provide a shield from the substance's radioactivity, and though the meteorium is loosely associated with a Pendrang deity, it has no literal metaphysical aspects, though it does blast one of Sir Eric's henchmen into dust in an Ark-like display of power. The villains actually manage to get their prize away from the heroes, but a last-ditch stratagem by one of the good guys' allies causes the warmongers to meet destruction, albeit a much humbler one than the famous climax of RAIDERS. I suppose there's a poetic justice here; that evildoers seeking to curb the right-minded use of the Atom are destroyed by meddling with a not dissimilar power.