"The Miracle Rider" (1935) is the one serial that is always discussed in books that deal with the history of the Western, due to it's staring the legendary Tom Mix in his last film. It also takes a lot of brick bats from critics, who feel that it is a terrible swan song from Mix. Compared to Mix's best features, "The Miracle Rider" would indeed seem to be a pretty poor endeavor, few serials can stand up to a big budget feature. But as a serial, "The Miracle Rider" is a fun, action picture with one of the great teamings ever put on film, Tom Mix against Charles Middleton.
The serial starts with a series of vignettes showing how down through history Davey Crockett (Bud Geary), Daniel Boone (Jay Wilsey), and Buffalo Bill (Tex Cooper) have tried to be friends with the Ravenhead Indians. Moving to 1912, a young Tom Morgan sees his Texas Ranger father killed while protecting the Ravenhead Reservation. The boy swears to carry on his father's work and joins the Texas Rangers.
Which brings us to the present (1935), and the young boy is now Texas Ranger Captain Tom Morgan (Tom Mix). Tom prevents a major robbery of the Ravenhead's funds. This is just another in a long line of great deeds he has done for the tribe. Chief Black Wing (Robert Frazer) presides over a ceremony that makes Tom a tribal blood brother, and dubs him the Miracle Rider.
Watching the ceremony is local oil magnate Zaroff (Charles Middleton). Unknown to everyone, he has discovered a deposit of a substance he calls X-94, which is highly explosive. Zaroff wants the Ravenheads off the land so that he can mine X-94 and sell it to foreign powers, making him "the most powerful man in the world", something Zaroff likes to say in every chapter.
Returning to his ranch, Zaroff puts into motion a plan to frighten the Ravenheads into leaving the reservation. Using a heat beam, Zaroff burns several haystacks on the reservation. Longboat (Bob Kortman), a Ravenhead confederate of Zaroff who hopes to be made chief, proclaims that the Ravenheads have angered their God, the great Firebird. That night, Zaroff sends out a remote controlled glider to fly over the reservation. Longboat says it is the Firebird. Tom isn't convinced and tries to follow the glider, but loses it in the hills.
Chief Black Wing is obstinate about leaving the reservation. So Zaroff sends one of his henchmen, Chapman (Stanely Price), disguised as an Indian, to murder the chief. He shoots Black Wing through a window, with an arrow, in front of Tom, Black Wing's daughter Ruth (Jean Gale), and local merchant Janss (Edward Hearn).
Tom leaps onto his horse, Tony (Tony, Jr.), and gives chase. Chapman rides off the reservation and jumps onto one of Zaroff's oil trucks. Tom does the same and a fight breaks out in the truck cab. The truck's driver jumps out the door, leaving the truck running wild. Some of Zaroff's other henchmen have seen this and shoot the truck with one of their new X-94 bullets. The truck explodes in a huge fire ball.
Tom and Chapman both leaped to safety split seconds before the explosion. Chapman gets away. Tom rides over to Zaroff's ranch to question him about the murderer trying to escape in one of the oil baron's trucks. Zaroff tells Tom that the murderer tried to steal the truck. Tom believes the story, for now.
Returning to the reservation, Tom discovers that the arrow that killed Black Wing is missing. Ruth tells him that the arrow didn't look like it was made by a native, it looked store bought. Janss sells arrows like that. Tom rides into town to talk to Janss.
Janss does have the arrow, he took it because he thinks someone is trying to implicate him in the murder. When he sees Tom coming, the merchant hides the arrow in his office and goes to talk to the ranger out in the store. Tom makes mention of the fact that he knows Janss has a lot of property outside of town that he is trying to sell to the government. The ranger all but accuses Janss of trying to scare the Ravenheads off the reservation so that Janss can sell his property for a new reservation.
While they are talking, Chapman sneaks into Janss's office to retrieve the arrow, knowing that it has his fingerprints. He makes a noise, which alerts Tom and a new chase is started. This time Tom catches Chapman. Noticing that Chapman was headed for a cave, Tom ties Chapman to Tony's saddle, then proceeds into the cave, making it look like Chapman has captured Tom.
Once inside, Tom gets the drop on the rest of the gang. He spots the glider and realizes the truth behind the Firebird. A fight breaks out. Tom is knocked unconscious and falls into the glider's cockpit, which launches the glider.
The gang uses a hidden telephone to contact Zaroff. Hearing this latest news, Zaroff decides to send the glider into a crash dive and kill Tom. Luckily Tom revives and discovers a parachute in the cockpit. He bales out and lands safely, while the glider crashes. Tony had been following the glider and Tom rides him back to the reservation to get the natives to come see the dead Firebird.
Longboat calls the gang on another hidden phone. They quickly ride out and retrieve the wreckage before Tom and the Ravenheads can get there. Taking it back to the cave, the gang hides the wreckage in a side tunnel and cover the entrance with a fake spider's web.
When Tom and the Indians arrive at the empty spot on the plains, Longboat proclaims that the Firebird can't be killed. Tom reasons that the wreckage must have been taken back to the cave. Everybody goes and searches the cave. They don't find anything, until Tom notices that a large spider web doesn't a have a hole in the center for the spider to get back and forth on either side of the web. Tearing the web down, Tom finds the wrecked glider.
The Ravenheads start to take the glider back to the reservation but are are waylayed by the gang. A massive shotout ensues. Ruth is knocked unconscious inside the wagon that holds the glider. The wagon is set on fire and sent rolling toward a cliff. Tom saves Ruth but the wagon goes over the cliff, completely destroying the glider. Without this important evidence, Tom is hard pressed to make his case that someone is trying to frighten the Indians off their land.
I really like this serial. Mascot pictures was at the top of their game in 1935, and came up with a strong storyline with lots of interesting twists along the way. One of the best is Janss being inadvertantly framed for Zaroff's crimes, at first. Chapters one and two portray him as being an innocent victim, then as the story progresses we come to see that he actually has his own agenda for getting the Indians off the reservation. Finally discovering Zaroff is the real villain, he horns his way in to the gang.
It is also an unusual serial. Clocking in at three hundered ten minutes, it is the longest serial to be produced in the sound era. The first chapter is, at forty five minutes, almost feature length. It is also the only serial to contain an extended prologue leading up to the introduction of the hero by incorporating over a hundered years of history.
As to be expected with most Mascot serials, "The Miracle Rider" is non stop action. Chapters are full of chases on horseback (one has Tom chasing after a motorcycle), fist fights (simple affairs when compared to what Republic would do in later years), and shootouts galore (my favorite being one between Zaroff and an underling in a hidden lab).
Best of all is not one, but two confrontations between the hero and villain in the last chapter. The first one has Tom being held at gunpoint. Both he and Zaroff disarm each other twice before a diversion by Tony allows Tom to get out a window to safety. The second one involves Zaroff trying to get away in a car from the hard riding Texas Ranger. Tom cuts across country to get ahead of Zaroff. After throwing oil on the road to stop the car, Tom offers a witty remark before engaging Zaroff in a fist fight while the car starts careening down a curve filled road. Wow! Now that's a final chapter!
The serial is filled with an excellent cast. The hencmen are made up such stalwarts as Tom London, Charles King, Stanely Price, Ernie Adams, Bob Kortman, George Chesebro, and Jason Robards, Sr.. I can't think of a better, or meaner bunch to be utilized by a villain. The hero has got some great help of his own with Jean Gale, Wally Wales, Jack Rockwell, and Edward Earle.
But they are just appetizers for the audience. The main course being Charles Middleton and Tom Mix. Middleton is in fine form playing his first serial villain. He easily switches back and forth between the hearty, back slapping guise of a friendly oil man and his true personae, a sneering and ruthless mobster. It is a real treat to watch Middleton swagger into a room, pontificating about how he will become man to be reckoned with in the world, or to see a sadistic gleam enter his eyes as he contemplates the hero suffering a gruesome death.
Matching Middleton scene for scene is Tom Mix. While his voice may not have been the voice of a traditional movie hero, it helps to make his character seem more real. Mix is at his best whipping out a sarcastic reply to one of the bad guys. When Middleton complains in the final chapter, that Mix is ruining all of his plans, Mix thanks him for the compliment. How could you not root for a hero like that? My only real complaint about the serial is that once the glider is destroyed almost all of the science fiction aspects also leave. The only thing left is an occasional use of X-94 to blow up the hero. Even Zaroff's heat ray is dropped after chapter one for no discernible reason.
Special note to trivia lovers--Athlete Jim Thorpe has a bit part, playing an Indian. Happy hunting.