The Phantom (1943)
Film review #448
Director: B. Reeves Eason
SYNOPSIS: Aiming to find the ancient lost city of Zoloz, Professor Davidson organises an expedition into the jungle. Meanwhile, Dr. Bremmer is secretly looking to acquire the treasure of the lost city himself, and drive the local natives out of the area in order to construct a secret airbase for his country. Standing in the way is a mysterious figure known as “The Phantom,” a leader figure of the native tribes who is apparently immortal.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Phantom is a 1943 serial comprised of fifteen chapters, based on the comic book character of the same name. The serial opens up with a planned expedition into a jungle to find the lost city of Zoloz and its treasure. Meanwhile, Dr. Bremmer is working with local crook Singapore Smith to drive out the local natives from the jungle in order to build a secret airbase for an unnamed country. The natives worship a mysterious figure known only as “The Phantom,” who apparently “never dies.” So when The Phantom is killed shortly after, his identity is taken up by his son Geoffrey Prescott, who has recently returned to the jungle. That’s basically the outline of the story, and there’s really not much else to it, as the serial stretches fifteen chapters of traps and schemes that don’t really go anywhere, making an incoherent plot with meaningless details which go nowhere, and inconsequential schemes that don’t move the story along at all. The story begins explaining that there are seven ivory keys needed to create a map to Zoloz, with three being held by the heroes and three the villains. All six then fall into the hands of Davidson’s expedition, meaning that the final key is all that is missing, and doesn’t show up until the end of chapter ten. I feel like it would have been more sensible to spread out the hunt for the keys across the chapters to create a sense of flow. As it stands, the serial is at a standstill for well over half of its runtime.
The character of The Phantom presents an interesting conundrum. Namely, why is the leader of the native tribes of the jungle a white man dressed like some kind of superhero? The costume is alright and recognisable I guess, but the whole character just seems ridiculously out of place. His dog Devil serves as his action partner, but being a dog, he doesn’t have much more of a character than that (then again, the “action sidekick” characters which are human in other serials have a similar missing personality). The rest of the characters are completely uninteresting, and don’t serve a purpose outside of their typical serial roles. Dr. Bremmer as the villain isn’t very interesting; apparently he wants to clear out the natives so he can build a secret airbase there for an unnamed foreign country, but other than him stating this once or twice, it never factors into the story, and we never see who these backers are, or the consequences of such a base would be (since this serial was released in the middle of World War II, I think it would have been easy to set that up with some ease). None of the native characters have any particular personalities, and their presentation as typical, non-descript “savages” makes the serial really dated. The whole story of leading expeditions or “safaris” to claim lost treasure for themselves rather than the people of that nation is itself completely outdated and problematic.
A lot of the “action” takes place in the jungle, actually filmed in studios and the Hollywood Hills apparently. As with all of these serials, the budget is minuscule, so there’s definitely no real jungles involved. There’s some cliffhangers with crocodiles and tigers, and plenty of extras for the role of the natives, but no real ambition in the action other than that. The action sequences themselves consist of mostly gun and fistfights, and aren’t spectacularly well structured, and don’t last very long. As mentioned, the serial suffers from a lack of a coherent, well-paced story, and this is exacerbated by the wooden acting and awkward dialogue that explains and recaps the plot, rather than shows it. Chapters eleven to fourteen take place elsewhere which can presumed to be based on Mongolia (given that everyone is dressed like the classic depiction of Genghis Khan). While this part offers some much needed variety, it doesn’t really go too far in contributing to the overall story, as it probably would have been an optional part of the serial, given that many fifteen chapter serials had the option to be purchased as twelve chapter serials instead, leading at least three chapters to be somewhat separate and inconsequential so movie studios could offer this option. Overall, The Phantom is a poor showing for a serial, and time has certainly not made things better for it. It’s plot is all over the place, from the mismatch of objectives between the heroes and villains, to the poor pacing and wooden acting, there’s little to really offer viewers nowadays. The Phantom might be an interesting character himself, but is out of place as a white man dressed like a superhero who is apparently the mythical figure of native tribes. If you really want to see serials, you can still probably skip this one, unless you really, really want to waste four hours.