Daredevils of the West: Return to the Saturday Matinee

Daredevils of the West: Classis Western Serial

Daredevils of the West was filmed at the height of Republic’s serial-making career, when their formula and technique were perfected and ensemble cast members at their most capable and appealing. As a work of film melodrama, the serial is astoundingly effective as its tempo, like that of King of the Mounties (1942) or The Masked Marvel (1943), is lightning-fast and there’s not a wasted frame presented onscreen.

The Story

Cavalryman-on-special-assignment Duke Cameron (Allan Lane) offers to help lovely June Foster (Kay Aldridge) build a stage line through the Comanche Strip after her father is slain in a wagon train attack masterminded by crooked land baron Martin Dexter. Dexter and his henchmen Ward and Turner, and crooked lawyer Silas Higby relentlessly conspire and attack Cameron and Foster, who are forced to try and survive an exploding runaway stagecoach, a flaming prison, powder kegs in a runaway mine car, a plunge into a vat of flaming alcohol, and being shot at the edge of a cliff, trapped in a covered wagon and sentenced to death by fire by the Indians, among other perils.

In fact, action scenes are so lively and frequent that the plot is forgotten and the viewer simply gazes in awe at the wild dance of fist-fights and fire that plays out before him. Explosions and fire are prevalent in this very violent serial, which doesn’t just show a wagon flying off of a cliff, it includes one full of blasting powder that runs into the side of the cliff at full speed and blows to bits.

Daredevils of the West was directed by William Witney’s first lieutenant John English, who does employ his mentor’s occasional trademark long-shot-during-a-fight but never lets anything drag. Lane and Aldridge are an appealing duo of leads in this single serial they were ever featured in together, and both are inscrutable — in more than one scene it’s Aldridge, more than Lane, who operates a rifle in deadly rapid-fire fashion. The supporting cast of the serial is strong. Robert Frazer, the villainous Dexter this time around, is known to serial fans as the hero of The Mystery Trooper. Eddie Acuff backed up Tom Neal in Jungle Girl, and William Haade played the memorable back-from-the-dead crook Taboni in Universal’s Gang Busters. Chief Thundercloud plays a respectable enough Indian chief who forces the heroine and her friend into a deathtrap-by-fire, which will destroy them unless the hero can bring him the real murderers of two braves in time. The scene is interesting in that it features the two Tontos of the screen, Thundercloud (of the Lone Ranger serials) and Jay Silverheels (who would play the character on TV) onscreen together at the same time.

History Of The Serial

The serial was filmed in January and February 1943 and originally released May 1 of the same year. Apart from transfers of a few chapters which have circulated among collectors for years, the complete serial wasn’t shown again for over 60 years until its 21st-century premiere at SerialFest 2007, presented by the Serial Squadron. It has subsequently been shown at the Lone Pine film festival and with restored audio by the Squadron at the Memphis film festival.

Allan Lane and Kay Aldridge of Daredevils of the West

Allan Lane and Kay Aldridge

When it comes to cliffhanging thrills, it just doesn’t get better than Daredevils of the West. This serial was made during the height of the war years when Republic Pictures was in its prime form and the on-screen action was so fast and furious it left audiences absolutely dazzled. Fan-favorite leading players Allan “King of the Mounties” Lane and Kay “Nyoka” Aldridge are also seen here in peak form. There is so much action and so little talk in this serial one wonders how it was ever completed in such a short time. But sometimes when great people have worked together for a long time they produce things which they don’t even realize are as good as they are.

Daredevils of the West is one of those things — a real marvel produced in the golden age of Hollywood that has suffered a huge lack of notoriety for having been inaccessible for over 60 years. But, folks, this is no tame “old movie.” It’s every bit as thrilling as any action film that followed, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, which it and other Republic serials inspired. In fact, since it was one of the “originals,” you could easily make a case for it being better. There’s hardly a plot in sight here — the setup is that a wealthy land-grabber wants to prevent the heroine’s stage line from going through so he can take the land for himself, and so causes all sorts of trouble to try and make that happen, and a cavalryman friend of hers fights with her to defeat his schemes and keep her alive. But all of that is just an excuse to create dazzling fight and chase scenes and screen-busting cliffhangers which here are often so protracted and stunningly, skillfully performed they are simply jaw-dropping.

See Allan Lane as Duke Cameron fight a gang of bad guys in a blazing jail cell, over a fiery pit, and atop a stagecoach full of gun-blazing assassins. See Kay Aldridge as June Foster held hostage by angry Indians who have been wronged and trapped in a flaming covered wagon, driving her stagecoach down dangerous mountain slopes with bad guys in hot pursuit, and fighting right alongside the boys as she grabs a rifle herself and blasts away at the bloodthirsty villains. And see slimy Robert “Mystery Trooper” Frazier as the greedy evil mastermind behind all the mayhem do everything he can to destroy our heroes to have his way. Even the supporting cast is top-notch, with the excellent and imposing actor William “Gang Busters” Haade handling most of the heavy stuff. This serial doesn’t just include gunfights or fist-fights, it includes them in blazing infernos ready to explode the cast into oblivion at any second if those powder kegs ignite! The level of excitement here throughout is so fast and furious one gets the feeling that director John English had learned everything he could from William Witney and may have wanted to show him up a bit with this effort.

Transfer Quality and Notes

This DVD was prepared from a new high-quality, extremely stable and clear digital transfer from an original print, as can be seen from actual frame grabs above. The serial was never re-released or shown on television because apparently shortly after its original release, some of the original reels of sound went missing and were never found. The missing audio in Chapters 1, 6, 7, and 8 has been replaced here with authentic sound effects and dubbing for missing dialogue. Most of the replacement audio and music comes from the serial itself and is seamlessly integrated with existing audio and newly stripped-in sound effects. Meaning it all sounds pretty good and you may not be able to tell repaired sections of the film from ones with original sound.

The Serial Squadron, created in 1998 by artist/writer/director Eric Stedman, is a place for fans of classic cliffhangers to read or share information about radio, TV and silent and sound movie serials. You’re invited to join in, participate, and contribute.