The hurricane express (1932) ****


1. The Wrecker

2. Flying Pirates

3. The Masked Menace

4. Buried Alive

5. Danger Lights

6. The Airport Mystery

7. Sealed Lips

8. Outside of the Law

9. The Invisible Enemy

10. The Wrecker’s Secret

11. Wings of Death

12. Unmasked (naturally)

D: J. P. McGowan

W: Colbert Clark

C: Tully Marshall, John Wayne, Shirley Grey, Edmund Breese, Lloyd Whitlock, Al Bridge, Matthew Betz

Once upon a time there was television – they had scripts then – and before that there was the cinema. Instead of anchormen we had newsreels, Laurel and Hardy instead of sitcoms, and Tom and Jerry instead of South Park.

And in place of the TV series there was the serial. All these wonders were unreeled before the main feature, which might even be a double-feature.

Some cinemas showed only such TWO-REELERS, while others turned all twelve episodes of a serial into four hour matinees. In every little town there was a theatre, and since this was the only available entertainment, you could be fairly certain to see your patrons next week for whatever was on the bill – plus the next exciting episode of the current serial.

Of course, in Copenhagen we had a hundred theatres to choose from, all playing a different movie, some of which might be ten or twenty years old. Today there are half a dozen cinemas all playing the same thing, nor would any sane person be caught in any of them.

Instead the illustrious past of this art form returns to us on DVD. The distributors of the new crap have every reason to fear this onslaught of good taste, but even a corrupt government preventing the sale of such treasures cannot stop us from acquiring them abroad.

This is fortunate since the culture disseminated by such as the heirs of Walt Disney can only be compared to HITLERISM. And all the time people are yearning for something they in most cases have never seen.

When STAR WARS opened with the caption EPISODE 4: A NEW HOPE not many recognized it as an imitation of the classic serial bordering on the absurd, but it still became the greatest box office hit in history. Accordingly, the modern movie mogul Steven Spielberg could do no better than to make a movie called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – a serial title if ever there was one.

And to this day producers pour millions into ventures like SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, even imitating the sepia of those models they could never reach. But then again, the serial belongs to an age, when movies were still inspired craftsmanship and so had no need to be divided into brainless and therefore basically boring entertainment and amateurish and therefore basically boring art films, later to coalesce into the middlebrow Woody Allen variant, which is neither.

Serials may have been basically kid stuff, but certainly not compared to LORD OF THE RINGS or MATRIX. Modern audiences may be shocked to learn that the classic Disney movies were intended for children, but back then children weren’t considered incurable morons that should be shielded from life and art.

It was still at least theoretically possible to meet existence with heroism. Of course, an iron curtain has since descended, but it should be noted that the shadow falls between us on one side and Shakespeare and Zorro on the other.

What was once the absurd notion of method acting, the audience being reduced to petty voyeurism as it desperately tries to discern what the actor is mumbling, has now become the rule, but that doesn’t necessarily make ROBERT DE NIRO a THESPIAN. The acting seen in serials may be rudimentary, relying on stereotyped gestures, but it is still acting.

This stuff was often standard, but seldom substandard. It was well scripted, well directed, and well photographed.

It wasn’t flashy, it was solid. When someone in the business had demonstrated this kind of solidity, he was given a relatively free rein.

MICHAEL CIMINO would not have made it, nor should he. Art is not breaking boundaries, it’s bouncing off them.

The greater the self-imposed limitations are, the greater the art. Modern composers may have transcended Mozart, but they have never equalled him.

It’s a common problem with amateurs, if there is neither meter rhyme nor reason in their poetry it just goes to show how groundbreaking they really are. The fact is that they never touch the ground, nor do they reach the sky.

Smashing a piano may be liberating, but it’s not art. The serial may have been formula, it may not have changed, but for the very same reason it was perfected.

You do not look for innovation in BOURNONVILLE. And without this groundwork the true groundbreakers would have no ground to break.

Naturally, there were other limitations, but these only stimulated the imaginative use of stock footage and similar devices. After all, if the Globe Theatre had mastered background-projection, how much would not have been lost to us?

Or what do you prefer, a Shakespearean soliloquy or the picture of a ship? And might this be one of the reasons why modern movies are all special effects and no script?

In fact, many of the directors of serials and B pictures went on to make A-movies. A modern example would be Spielberg’s descent from the inspired fantasy of INDIANA JONES to the sordid exploitation of SCHINDLER’S LIST.

In TWIN PEAKS David Lynch introduces a dream sequence of a dwarf (which would be discrimination in a monster movie) talking backwards, and the critics rave. In fact, that’s what the Indians were doing all through the serial SCOUTS TO THE RESCUE.

It may not have charmed the critics, but it was without doubt the better movie of the two. In Denmark we have LARS VON TRIER, lacking even the most basic filmmaking skills, but of course that just makes his movies more fascinating.

Unfortunately, people ingeniously masking as fools and amateurs usually are just that. In the old days, putting people to sleep with pictures of people sleeping simply wasn’t an option.

If ever there was a true motion picture, the serial was it. It never stood still.

People didn’t walk, they ran. Even fights were under-cranked.

You could hardly chase someone without the employment of cars, trains, and planes, usually at the same time, jumping from one to the other.

They invariably crashed, and it wasn’t revealed until the beginning of the next episode that the hero had successfully bailed out.

Whether he was shot or thrown from a speeding train, he always miraculously healed, simply by brushing off the dust.

Of course, the villain never had the good sense to bump him off effectively, while in his power.

Heroines were placed in death traps and left by the perpetrator, presumably too squeamish to watch.

A buzz-saw was always preferable to a knife, and a death ray to a gun.

Henchmen were indispensable, but robots more fun. The mysterious killer, who kept us guessing as to his identity for twelve episodes or more, didn’t simply wear a hood, but a rubber mask impossible to discern from the people he was impersonating.

Sometimes we actually saw the hero die or the disguised villain in the same room with the character he was later revealed to be, but that never really bothered us. Seeing these serials today, I can still feel those childhood afternoons flashing by and the irrepressible temptation to see the next episode and find out how the hero or heroine extracted themselves from their current peril only to steer courageously for the next one in order to unmask the villain, defeat the mad scientist and save the world, or discover the lost city.

To the young generation of filmgoers I can only say: You’ve been swamped with the imitations. Why not try the real thing?

THE HURRICANE EXPRESS is an excellent example of this, even though it doesn’t supply the viewer with much sense of wonder compared to the more exotic science fiction offerings. It’s basically a spot-the-masked-marauder flick with many impressive stunts involving cars, planes, and of course trains.

It also features an astoundingly young John Wayne, who started his career as a hero of B-westerns. He is one of those stars, who generate an instinctive sympathy.

You just know he’s basically a decent kind of fellow (whatever his politics may be). Here he plays an airline pilot, whose engineer father is killed in a train crash orchestrated by the mysterious “Wrecker”.

There are of course lots of shady characters for the audience to suspect plus a plucky heroine. As usual, the protagonists alternate in getting the upper hand, but always succeed in getting away to fight in another chapter.

It may seem a bit repetitive in a single viewing, but then again, that never was the intention. I would personally recommend watching it in two or three sittings.

PS: This review will not be found in BATHOS, as only original material is printed there. You will however find other reviews and articles, which the editor believes that you will find both educational and entertaining – all provided that you are a true film-buff, of course!