Friday, 9 October 2009

The Phantom (1943)

I’ve been slowly developing an appreciation for the old-time Hollywood movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s. So far the best I’ve across is a delightfully camp offering from 1935 called The Lost City but most of them are fun in their own way. The Phantom, dating from 1943, is one of several originally based on a comic.

In my opinion the best of the serials are the ones that combine adventure with some science fictional elements but The Phantom is basically straight adventure. Although the hero is also know as The Ghost Who Walks and the Man Who Cannot Die there are actually no supernatural elements. The Phantom is immortal purely in the sense that whenever he dies his place is taken by his son or another member of the next generation of the family but as far as his followers are concerned it’s always the same Phantom.

The Phantom rules over a huge jungle territory in Africa and is a kind of overlord to whom the various native chiefs and petty kings owe allegiance. You just have to try to ignore the fairly outrageous colonialist assumptions behind the idea that these African chiefs are pathetically grateful to have found a wise white man to rule over them! The Phantom is a benevolent despot who maintains peace throughout his domain through a mixture of awe, superstition and fear.

It goes without saying that at regular intervals some villain emerges to threaten the peace of the jungle. In this case it’s a nefarious Nazi agent with plans to find the fabulous lost city of Zoloz and turn it into a secret air base. Exactly why the Germans would want a secret air base in the middle of the African jungle isn’t entirely clear, but logic isn’t this serial’s strong point! This Nazi spy has decided that the Phantom must first be eliminated before his plans can be carried out, and the serial opens with the death of the Phantom at the hands of an assassin with a blowgun. His faithful native assistant conceal his death and sends a urgent message to the Phantom’s son informing him that the time has come for him to take up the mantle of his father and become the latest incarnation of The Ghost Who Walks. The son is Geoffrey Prescott, at present part of an archeological expedition searching for the very same lost city of Zoloz, a city rumoured to house a fabulous treasure.

Of course the kindly professor who leads the expedition isn’t interested in the treasure for its monetary value, his motivation being purely to further the cause of knowledge. To find the city the seven segments of an ivory map have to be found and assembled, and there are others also searching for his lost map, but their interests are purely selfish - they just want the treasure. Naturally the professor has a beautiful daughter (all scientists in those days had beautiful daughters) and her admiration for the Phantom knows no bounds.

By 1943 the conventions governing serials were well and truly established, and each installment ends with our hero making a miraculous escape from almost-certain death. And naturally it never occurs to the bad guys to kill the Phantom in an obvious way, like for example shooting him. No, they always come up with some ingenious indirect method like dynamiting a narrow mountain pass so the Phantom will get buried under the rubble, and of course every attempt fails.

The problem with these serials is often that there’s not quite enough plot to sustain anywhere from twelve to fifteen episodes. This one actually maintains the viewer’s interest reasonably well. It’s all very silly, but it’s fun. And of course there’s the joy of watching the Phantom confront the most feared beast of the African jungles - the tiger! There’s plenty of action, lots of double-crossing and the plot gets enjoyably convoluted. The diabolical criminal mastermind isn’t really quite diabolical enough - he’s sinister and sneaky but in a subdued way. There’s a complete lack of any romantic sub-plot which is a pity because it would have added a bit of variety to the overall plot, but the serials were aimed largely at kids which may explain the lack of romance.

Tom Tyler makes an acceptable hero as the Phantom. The acting is mainly standard B-movie stuff, and if you’re a fan of this sort of thing you wouldn’t have it any other way. The settings are also wonderfully wrong. We seem to be in Africa, but then suddenly we’re in a castle that looks like it belongs in central Europe with soldiers who look decidedly like they belong in medieval central Asia.

The Region 4 DVD release is very good as far as sound and image quality are concerned. The Phantom is fun lightweight entertainment.

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