A big game hunter teams up with a government agent to investigate a series of suspicious accidents. In the nearby jungle, the native tribes worship Captain Africa, a mysterious, masked white man who fights for truth and justice. Together, they become involved in a mission to restore a deposed caliph to his rightful throne.
One of the last of the movie serials comes courtesy of Columbia studios and some all-to familiar names. Producing is the legendary scrooge Sam Katzman, Spencer Gordon Bennet is in the director’s chair and the script was by George H Plympton, who had spent almost a quarter of a century delivering such Saturday morning thrills. Initially, Katzman intended this 15-episode white-knuckler as a sequel to box-office hit ‘The Phantom’ (1943). After all, lots of the old action scenes, fights and stunts could be seamlessly matched with new footage of star John Hart in the old Phantom costume.
But all did not go to plan. Filming was already well advanced when it turned out that the studio’s rights to use the character had expired. In a shocking development, Katzman’s negotiations with the copyright owners did not go well (they probably wanted money or something). However, such a problem were a mere bagatelle to our penny-pinching hero! The script was quickly rewritten so footage from other old serials could be used, retakes were ordered (how that must have hurt!), and Katzman put Hart in riding britches and jammed a flying helmet on his head sometimes. And so, with one mighty bound, Captain Africa was born, heroically rushing through the jungle one step ahead of an angry tribe of copyright lawyers.
Inevitably, the final product is not very good. Great white hunter Bob Osborne is concerned about sabotage at his compound. He has a pretty fine collection of tigers (perhaps they got lost on the way home from the pub!) and they have a regrettable habit of getting out of their cages and bothering the help. Government agent Ted (Rick Vallin) suspects something is going on and the two of them spend an awful lot of Chapter One talking it over. These chats allow for lengthy clips from ‘Jungle Menace’ (1937) and ‘The Desert Hawk’ (1944), as well as a few shots from ‘The Phantom’ (1943) of course. There’s a sequence of a shipwreck (for some reason) and a fight with swords between desert tribesmen. Shamelessly, that fight also crops up in Chapter Two, courtesy of a different flashback story being told by a different character!
But we have to get used to Ted’s company as we spend most of the episodes running around with him as he rocks a striped bed-sheet and saves hopeless Princess Rhoda (June Howard) from various bands of outlaws and agents of evil. Yes, it’s just an endless series of captures and escapes, and the main villain never actually appears! And they wouldn’t have had to use another actor either as he’s the twin brother of the deposed sovereign! But no, obviously that would have been too difficult (trick photography is just so expensive!) so we’re served up one fight after another with faceless minions. Additionally, the ‘agents of a foreign power’ are apparently led by someone called Boris. Can I identify him from the few dialogue exchanges that these villains have between them? No. I couldn’t. Perhaps I should have tried harder.
Captain Africa does actually show up every now and then, but often seems to be a guest star in his own serial. He does make a couple of exciting last ditch escapes though, as he wakes up beneath a descending portcullis (he rolls out of the way) and a speeding boulder (he steps to one side). His tactics mostly consist of running up to various stunt players and belting them one, although he does create a couple of stock footage explosions by throwing things. Actually Hart had replaced Clayton Moore as TV’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ a couple of years earlier. Unfortunately, the change didn’t sit well with fans of the show and Moore was re-hired the following season.
To save money, serials often had a ‘recap’ episode where characters would simply sit around and say things like ‘do you remember when the gang almost got their hands on the meteorite element at the mine? or ‘yes, wasn’t that when they tried to dynamite the bridge/derail the train/bomb the factory/kidnap the professor’s daughter, etc, etc.?’ Obviously, this allowed for the replay of a few scenes from previous episodes. But a single ‘recap’ episode simply wasn’t enough for the thrifty Katzman! In this serial, there are four!
To be fair to our favourite skinflint producer and his colleagues, obviously the radical rethink that proved necessary mid-production must have affected the quality of the final product but, predictably enough, the results are really wretched stuff. Only four more movie serials were made after it, as shrinking budgets, tired plots and endless repetition had put them on the ropes as early as the end of the 1940s.
And, of course, the arrival of television proved to be the final cliffhanger that no square-jawed serial hero could hope to escape.