The Black Pirate is hiding his treasure on a volcanic island off the coast of Mexico, when there is a massive eruption. Several hundred years later, the island is owned by a rich businessman known as the Shark, and he is desperate to find the pirate hoard. Half a treasure map has been left to postmistress Toni, who lives nearby on the mainland, and the Shark will stop at nothing to get it. Newspaperman Larry Kent becomes involved when one of his colleagues disappears in the area…
This is possibly the most nonsensical and ridiculous movie serial ever made and that’s no mean achievement, considering the opposition. The setup makes absolutely no sense at all from the get go with the Shark surrounded by henchmen who are all dressed as pirates. Why? Are they supposed to be the descendants of the original buccaneers? We never find out. Also in his employ are ‘The Mole Men’, a bunch of blokes dressed in hooded onesies, who dig in caves and look for the fabled pirate treasure. They seem to be workers imported from the mainland, who have become slaves, but how exactly is the Shark getting away with that? Hasn’t anyone noticed? The local authorities, for instance? About the only explanation we get is the conversation of some salty old sea dogs in a coastal tavern, who – rather inevitably, I feel – tell us that ‘no-one ever comes back from Treasure Island.’
The plot develops completely haphazardly, introducing new characters seemingly at random, who are promptly forgotten a couple of chapters later. The Shark has a pet scientist, Professor X, who is working on something or other in a secret lab, but we never find out what he’s up to. There’s an old pirate with a hook hand and a tame raven called Captain Cuttle, who favours us with various ‘yo-ho-ho-ism’s’ such as ‘Avast there! Stow that order!’ Who exactly is he? Search me. The Mole Men feature heavily in the first few episodes, but then disappear completely, apart from a late cameo. And the ghost of the Black Pirate is wandering about for some reason!
In short, it looks very much like this was all written on the fly, as filming was taking place. Apparently, it’s based on a story by L. Ron Hubbard, the author who is now more famous for inventing Scientology! Chasing around like a headless chicken in his quest for the treasure map is Don Terry as indestructible newspaperman Larry Kent. He spends so much time in the water that he probably developed gills, but it’s just what he deserves for his silly, melodramatic performance. Yes, you don’t expect subtle acting in a movie serial, but it’s 1938, not 1928! A lot of cast and crew were veterans from the silent days, but had they spent the previous decade in suspended animation? It’s hard to believe that all the advances in acting technique and technical expertise had passed them by, but, on this evidence, it appeared they had!
The only exception to all this is actor Grant Withers, who plays the Shark’s chief henchman. His performance is a model of restraint and subtlety in comparison with everything else here. Unsurprisingly, he was the only cast member who went onto any sort of career, appearing in John Ford films, such as ‘Fort Apache’ (1948) and ‘My Darling Clementine’ (1946), in which he played Ike Clanton opposite Henry Fonda. He was also notorious for eloping with a pre-stardom Loretta Young.
This serial is often categorised as Science Fiction, but that’s pushing the definition a fair bit. The Shark has a few gadgets, but he’s hardly Victor Frankenstein. There’s some enjoyment to be had from all this chaos, of course, but it’s a desperate shambles, and at a combined length of nearly 5 hours, rather an exhausting one. Certain questions are answered with a tie-up at the end of Chapter 15, but the resolutions have absolutely no credibility whatsoever, and it had been so long since some of those particular mysteries had been featured, that I’d kind of forgotten about them anyway!
I think I need a sit down now.