Contents of Issue #4 Contents of Issue #4 [Welcome] [Features] [In Focus] [Reviews] [Info]

Fighting Devil Dogs
by Gary Johnson

Evil villains filled the serials. The Crimson Ghost, the Scorpion, the Spider, and the Dragon menaced our heroes week after week with diabolical devices such as the radiatomic transmitter, the decimator, and the cyclotrode.

  The Lightning from The Fighting Devil Dogs.

But none of the villains struck such a dangerous and intimidating pose as the Lightning, the black-caped villain from Fighting Devil Dogs. The Lightning wore a shiny black helmet that obscured the villain's identity behind a visor. Wicked barbs crowned the helmet. Four decades later, George Lucas would resurrect a similar looking villain, this time named Darth Vader, in Star Wars.

It wasn't just the villain's ominous image that struck fear into the hearts of serial goers everywhere. The Lightning kept a truly awe-inspiring range of weapons. His electrical torpedoes soared through the air, dripping sparks until they hit their targets and erupted in a shower of lightning bolts. He wiped out entire armies and left no clues behind. "They're all dead," cackled the Lightning's head henchman, "and there's no sign of how you killed them."

The Lightning also soared the skies in the flying "Wing"--a huge airplane that looked (as its name implied) like a single wing. While his henchmen manned the controls, cloaked in radiation suits, the Lightning stalked the decks, fists clenched, huge gauntlets covering his forearms. And for battles at closer range, the Lightning wielded a revolver-sized contraption that shot deadly bolts of electricity. And after he struck, he always left behind a small black lightning bolt on his victim--his calling card.

Herman Brix struggles on board a ship
The Fighting Devil Dogs.

As the title of this serial implies, the Lightning battles the U.S. Marines. Lee Powell and Herman Brix play the heroes. Chapter One gets off to a chilling start as Powell and Brix tramp through the jungles of Lingchuria and discover an entire platoon has been wiped out. "Hey! What is this? What's killing these people?" Even flies lay dead on the ground. It's a truly spooky start to Fighting Devil Dogs and one of the most atmospheric, chilling pieces of filmmaking you'll find in the history of the serial.

See The Lightning use his lightning gun,
an excerpt from The Fighting Devil Dogs.
(Animated GIF, 25 frames, 150 KB)

With directors William Witney and John English in control, Fighting Devil Dogs moves at a breakneck pace from the jungles of Lingchuria to San Francisco to South Sea islands, as Powell and Brix struggle to undermine the Lightning's plans and learn his true identity. But the Lighting always keeps two steps ahead of them. An informer contacts Powell and says "I have certain papers that the United States government must see. A fiend is behind a monstrous plot to control whole nations. What happened in Lingchuria is but a small demonstration of his powers." And then the Lightning promptly steps from shadows and zaps the informer with his thunderbolt pistol.

Herman Brix actually plays second banana in this serial. Lee Powell gets all the best scenes and all the cliffhangers revolve around Powell. Republic clearly intended Powell to become one of their top serial stars (he also starred in The Lone Ranger), but Powell enlisted in the military during World War II and he was killed in the Pacific. So we'll never know just how large his star could have grown. In Fighting Devil Dogs, however, he gives a strong, charismatic performance. The script also adds more personal anguish to the mix as the Lightning kills Powell's father, leaving Powell on a vendetta to bring the killer to justice.

The Lightning flaunts his true identity: "I am never suspected. I move amongst those most anxious to find me out. The fools! Perhaps they think I am too unimportant for them to suspect. No one will ever learn the identity of the Lightning!"

The Lighting and his head henchman menace
a female victim in
The Fighting Devil Dogs.

Fighting Devil Dogs is the second least expensive serial produced by Republic. Budgeted at $94,656 and finished for just $92,569, Fighting Devil Dogs shows its low budget in several ways--such as the extensive recycling of footage from previous Republic serials and the use of two (count 'em two!) retrospective chapters that did little but summarize the previous chapters. The flying wing comes from Dick Tracy, as does a tense chapter ending where two navy ships put the squeeze on a speedboat. But the cost-cutting measures are hardly noticeable amidst the plethora of action sequences. Fighting Devil Dogs moves through an astonishing variety of scenes. In addition to the aforementioned scenes of the Marines hacking their way through the jungle underbrush of Lingchuria, we get the boys fighting underwater, on ships, in airplanes, in submarines, and in caves. In addition, they pursue some quieter investigations in the scientific laboratory. Powell and Brix aren't just lunkhead muscle boys: they understand the value of science as well. At one point, they take ashes back to the laboratory to be inspected under an infra-red camera--in an effort to discover what was originally written on the paper. But when the situation requires some athleticism, the boys are more than capable. They climb ropes and leap through windows like Douglas Fairbanks. But Fighting Devil Dogs isn't like the Republic serials of the late '50s, which frequently degenerate into fist fight marathons. Directors Witney and English occasionally give us a slugging match, but they usually supply a wide variety of action sequences.

When George Lucas created Star Wars, he actually managed to improve on the villain. Whereas the Lightning was simply an ordinary-sized guy under the helmet and cape, Darth Vader took the form of the towering David Prowse, who stood nearly a head taller than the other actors. And instead of the nasally whine of the Lightning, we got the booming sonorous voice of James Earl Jones.

However, in the short history of the serials, few villains could match the Lightning. Unlike so many serial villains who became little more than underworld kingpins with armies of dunderhead henchmen, the Lightning was a truly scary creation who actually looked like he could make good on his quest to conquer the world--if not for those pesky Marines!

The Serials: An Introduction
Page 1: In the Theaters
Page 2: The Beginnings
Page 3: Enter Flash Gordon
Page 4: The Golden Age
Page 5: The Downfall

The Phantom Empire

Flash Gordon

Dick Tracy

The Fighting Devil Dogs

Zorro's Fighting Legion

The Shadow

Mysterious Dr. Satan

Spy Smasher

Perils of Nyoka

The Tiger Woman

Serials Web Links



Top Welcome Features In Focus Reviews Info