Review Date: October 24, 2011
Released by: Republic Pictures Home Video
Release date: 8/25/97
Occasionally I’ll write a review that just misses being able to capitalize on a current event somewhere in our world. For example, in my review of Octaman
I laughed at the use of radiation as a menace less than two weeks before the Fukushima crisis in Japan gave everyone the heebie jeebies about nuclear power. On the other hand, sometimes a current event will lead me to my choice of a particular review, allowing me to post something that is at least a little timely. This here is one such review. Coming in the aftermath of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow by western air power and rebellious tribesmen comes this review, of an adventure/fantasy serial that sets its heroes battling against hostile Libyan tribesmen at a time when the country was still an Italian colony. One of the tribes in this fifteen-chapter saga are the Tauregs, who are an actual ethnic group inside Libya and who were rumored to be providing protection to Gaddafi (who, as of this writing, has just been killed) at one point. Despite the presence of the tribe in the story and a few other superficial details, this WWII-era serial from Republic Pictures has little grounding in the real Libya, either now or in the past, but is today still considered one of their better cliffhanger productions by many fans.
Wadi Bartha, Libya – An expedition of foreigners has come to this bustling town in search of treasure and knowledge. The party includes physician Dr. Larry Grayson (Clayton Moore
), Professor Douglas Campbell (Forbes Murray
), mechanic Red Davis (William Benedict
) and Major Reynolds (Herbert Rawlinson
). Their goal is to find the golden lost tablets of Hippocrates and the treasure that is buried along with them, not just for the monetary gain of the discovery, but also because the tablets are said to contain the formula for the only cure for cancer that the world has ever known. At Wadi Bartha the party is met by Count Benito Torrini (Tristram Coffin
), the liaison assigned to them by the Italian colonial government. They explain that they are waiting for the delivery of an ancient papyrus scroll that holds written instructions on how to find the tablets.
The delivery of the scroll throws a wrench into the group’s plans, as it is discovered that the document is written in ancient Assyrian, a language that only one Dr. Henry Gordon was ever known to have mastered. But Dr. Gordon is believed to be dead, having reportedly been killed some time earlier in an attack on his camp by hostile native tribesmen. However, someone points out that his daughter Nyoka (Kay Aldridge
) was known to have learned much from her father, and is still in the country, living with a tribe of friendly Bedouins and searching for conclusive evidence of her father’s death. They decide to send for Nyoka in hopes that she can translate the scroll.
Although none of the expedition members realizes it, the suave Count Torrini is actually deeply corrupt and is playing a double game with them, sending back information to the villainous Bedouin queen Vultura (Lorna Gray
), who is after the tablets for herself. When she receives word that Nyoka is on her way, she orders her chief henchman Cassib (Charles Middleton
) to intercept and capture her. Vultura then goes to Wadi Bartha herself, posing as Nyoka and discreetly killing Major Reynolds, the only member of the expedition who had previously met her. However, it isn’t long before the real Nyoka escapes and Vultura’s scheme is found out, and from there we’re in for fifteen explosive chapters of gunfights, cliffhangers, killer gorillas and hostile tribesmen as our heroes jump past countless dangerous obstacles in their search for the tablets and lost treasure that will help them rid the world of cancer.
Produced and released in 1942, the proper title for this serial is actually Perils of Nyoka
, although for unknown reasons Republic chose to release this tape under the Nyoka and the Tigermen
title, which was the name it went under when it was reissued in 1952. The reissue title is somewhat misleading, if only because it is not clear who exactly the “Tigermen” are supposed to be. Are they the Bedouin Arabs, or are they the sun worshipping Tuareg tribesmen who pop up during the middle chapters? The original release title is more elegant and more accurate; there is a character named Nyoka, and she goes through many perilous adventures. This serial is reported to be a loose follow-up to a major Republic serial from the previous year, Jungle Girl
, which also featured a character named Nyoka, albeit one with a different surname and played by a different actress. Seen today, the least surprising thing about Perils of Nyoka
is its utterly clichéd depiction of villainous Arabs, while its most surprising quality is the progressive depiction of the Nyoka character as a fully capable action heroine.
The Arab villains, all of whom are predictably played by non-Arab actors and actresses, spend a lot of time screaming about the “white infidels” and saying things like “As Allah is my God, it is so written.” They are treacherous and are experts at torture, but are also amazingly bad marksmen, since the production is filled with countless gun battles in which many keffiyeh-wearing extras are cut down, all without any of the good guys getting more than a bullet graze for a wound. The Tuareg characters are not Muslims, but are not treated any better. In fact, they are treated as being even more primitive and superstitious. None of this is at all surprising by the standards of 1942, although it is a bit shocking to realize that, unlike other nationalities and ethnicities once maligned in Hollywood, the stereotype of Arabs is the one that appears to have changed the least over the decades.
While the depiction of its Arab characters presents no surprises, where Perils of Nyoka
does surprise is in the Nyoka character herself. Many serials have a female secondary character by default, because it was expected that the writers put one in, even if they had nothing to do and there was no logical place for them in the story. And in many serials the women are just sort of there, sometimes needing to be rescued or getting into situations that end in a chapter cliffhanger. That is not the case here by any means; Nyoka is out there punching, kicking and shooting it up with the badguys alongside all the men. She ambushes Bedouin henchmen by jumping from trees and ledges, goes on dangerous tasks by herself and at one point even steals and wears a burkha in order to infiltrate Cassib’s village. No one ever says or implies that she shouldn’t do something because she’s a woman. On those rare occasions when someone tells her she shouldn’t do something because it’s too dangerous, it’s believably explained that her archaeological knowledge and translation skills are much too valuable for the expedition for her to risk her life doing something that one of the other expedition members can also do.
Republic Pictures has always had a reputation for producing the best serials, and while they were not the most prolific studio in their output of cliffhangers, it is true that in many ways the artisans who put together the Republic serials were the most skilled and the most industrious of the bunch. Perils of Nyoka
is in fact one of the best serials that I have ever seen. As a format for storytelling, serials have their own little quirks. The intention of their producers was to exhibit them in little chunks, one chapter a week, spaced out over a period of months. The advent of home video allowed full serials to be watched in just a couple of sittings, which revealed the weaknesses of the genre in unexpected ways. Like a TV series that retreads the same couple of plot lines over and over, serials have a repetitive nature to them. In many of the poorer ones, heroes and villains spend chapter after chapter fighting what are pretty much the same battles, and even dealing with similar cliffhangers. When a modern viewer sits down to watch chapter after chapter in one sitting, it becomes repetitive and boring very quickly. And even the best serials tend to have a repetitive nature to them.
Perils of Nyoka
is not quite an exception to that rule, but it does come as close to escaping from the format’s limitations as anything I’ve ever seen. By 1942 the conventions of the serial format were thoroughly established, and a large pool of seasoned artisans, actors and stuntmen were available in Hollywood to put them together, while frequent movie attendance amongst the general population allowed larger budgeted, ambitious productions like this (reportedly the most expensive Republic serial of that year) to go before the cameras. Within a few years ticket sales would start dropping, budgets would be cut and older serials would be thoroughly mined for stock footage. For this reason, Perils of Nyoka
was made at precisely the right moment in history. Under the direction of veteran serial director William Witney, the action is exciting, the chapter cliffhangers are varied and interesting, and the expository dialogue scenes come and go without slowing down the minimalist story. The endless gun battles between the expedition members and the Bedouins do wear on the viewer at times – frankly someone could probably earn their PhD by calculating how many blank rounds the production expended - but even when watching three of four chapters at a time, which I was forced to do in order to get this review done before the end of October, Perils of Nyoka
is never less than entertaining, and is usually something more: it is genuinely thrilling, and everything that a good old fashioned cliffhanger is supposed to be.
For a late 1990’s VHS release of an early 1940’s serial, quality here is quite good. The fifteen chapters are spread out over two cassettes recorded in the high quality SP mode, and the full frame 1.33:1 image is perfectly watchable. There is some minor print damage in the form of scratches, specks and vertical lines, and from time to time other anomalies pop up, including some weird shot to shot changes in brightness and contrast during the middle chapters. On the whole though the black and white image is about as clear and detailed as the old VHS format will allow, and should keep serial fans content until a digital upgrade comes along.
The Dolby 2.0 Mono track is perfectly serviceable considering the age and the medium. Dialogue is understandable and the music and sound effects are reproduced clearly. Some minor hissing and popping is detectable during quiet moments.
No extras are included on this release.
It’s sad that so many Republic serials are missing in action on DVD, including this one. It may score low on the cultural sensitivity meter, but the surprisingly progressive depiction of the Nyoka character and all-around strong craftsmanship in the construction of this serial make it one to remember and watch repeatedly. If the Criterion Collection were to ever tackle some of the great old Republic serials (as I’ve previously urged them to), Nyoka and the Tigermen
/Perils of Nyoka
should be high on the list for consideration. Until then, this VHS release is an acceptable, if painfully low-tech, way for serial aficionados to see this fantastic cliffhanger. Though long out of print, this two-cassette can still be found used, and for reasonable prices to boot.
Movie – A-
Image Quality – B-
Sound – B-
Supplements – N/A
- Running Time – 4 hours 21 minutes
- Not Rated
- 2 Tapes
- English 2.0 Stereo