About as close to a visual manifestation of those lurid men's adventure magazines of the 1950s as was possible on television, Soldiers of Fortune ran for two seasons and 52 action and stock footage-packed episodes. Based around the escapades of two he-manly, globe-trekking mercenaries, this syndicated show from Revue/MCA Productions ran from 1955-1956 and enjoyed many years in reruns. It's a show that holds a special place in the childhood memories of certain baby boomers, but was completely unknown to many of my generation - certainly to me - until the good folks at the Classic Horror Film Board brought it to my attention. It's quickly become one of my favorite shows of its type, the sort of Indiana Jones/ Boy's Own adventure stuff that would have been the Best. Show. Ever! for the 11-year- old me.
While many of the half-hour adventure shows from that era of early television now come off as tame, inert stuff (Ramar of the Jungle, Last of the Mohicans, etc.), Soldiers of Fortune is the real deal, and hits that sweet spot for those of us that like high adventure of the old pulp school.
Our heroes are Tim Kelly (John Russell) and Toubo Smith (Chick Chandler), rugged adventurers who will take on any challenging job if the price is right. Sometimes that price is exorbitant, as their stellar reputations for delivering the goods lead people to seek out and hire the pair. Other episodes find our boys in more desperate straits, forced to risk their lives for a mere pittance. Either way, the two men have each other's backs, no matter the situation.
As the blurb on the back of the DVD box so succinctly puts it: "From the diamond mines of Africa, to the pampas of South America, and the bazaars of the Middle East, wherever they go, trouble finds them ready for action!" Our heroes tangle with all manner of dangers, from man-eating tigers, killer pythons, piranha, giant lizards, rampaging natives, voodoo priests, hooded criminal conspiracies, masked masterminds, femme fatales, smugglers, pirates, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes - the works.
Tim Kelly is the obvious leader, but Toubo is no mere comic relief sidekick. He dishes out punishment when needed just as effectively and ruthlessly as Kelly, and comes off pretty much as capable as his younger partner. Their easygoing camaraderie and bantering relationship is the true highlight of the series, the glue that holds it together and, occasionally, the saving grace in the handful of dud episodes.
Mixing stock footage with new action filmed on the RKO backlot, each 25 minute episode plays like a blend of elements: Republic serials, Jungle Jim potboilers, the opening section of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 40s mystery drama, plus a dash of edgy film noir. Those of you who, like me, eat this kind of stuff up will have no problem buying into the studio backlot settings and host of Caucasian actors portraying Chinese gangsters, Indian rajahs or Malay pirates. Those used to the adventure films and programs of this period might have a good wheeze at the dated casting choices, but will take such things in their stride as par for the Hollywood course back then, and not let it detract too much from the freewheeling sense of fun and devil-may-care adventure of the show overall.
The series opens with the relatively sedate but still fun “The Gaboon Viper,” as Kelly and Smith are hired to lead an arrogant amateur hunter (slimily played by Dan Seymour) into a remote region of the African veldt, where the cowardly actions of their client lands them in hot water with a hostile local tribe.
In "The Greatest Beast," the duo are tasked by an oil company to travel to the far reaches of Tibet and investigate reports of a strange creature (a Yeti?) that threatens negotiations there.
When a big game hunter buddy of theirs is killed in mysterious circumstances, a cryptic message from his Indian guide leads Tim and Toubo to Calcutta to get to the bottom of the affair, in “The Elephant Gun.”
At the start of “Pearls Off Dondra Head,” Tim and Toubo fend off a group of vicious killers at a South Seas island waterfront, but not in enough time to save the victim, a sea captain who gives them the coordinates to a fortune in pearls with his dying breath. The duo team up with the captain's daughter and her shifty fiancee to reach the pearls before the killers.
While searching for some missing Boswell papers in Scotland, Tim and Toubo get involved with an ailing laird who swears that the sighting of a local Nessie-like creature augers good fortune in “The Monster of Loch Lagora.” But is the monster real, or fake?
Perhaps the archetypal Soldiers of Fortune episode is “Skull of the Inca,” which boasts everything an adrenaline-junkie youth of the 50s could hope for in a TV show. Tim and Toubo are hired by the ambassador of an unnamed South American country (possibly Peru?) to accompany Prof. Tepok Amaru to (surprise) a dangerously remote village in the jungle wilderness.
The professor Is actually a native, the son of his tribe's chief, educated in the west and now ready to return in hopes of finding a fabled lost Incan city. Kelly and Smith are hired to get him there and back safely. The professor has his own plane, bought with Incan gold, and flies them down to his village.
Unfortunately, no sooner do they arrive than they find that Tepok's father has been killed and his murderous cousin has taken control as the new chief. The group is warned by Kita, a beautiful maiden promised from a young age to become Tepok's wife. The group beat a hasty retreat from the tribe's arrows and poison darts and escape in the plane, but soon discover that the attack has badly damaged the craft. They make a forced landing on an isolated plateau overrun with massive reptiles (cue that well-known footage of a baby croc and lizard battling it out from 1940's One Million B.C.) While exploring the plateau, Tim and Toubo discover the ruins of the lost Incan city Tepok was searching for, and the party holds up within its stone walls to fend off an attack - from not only the fearsome lizards but also the angry natives who have followed them there. Crammed with incident, action and humor, "Skull of the Inca" is a enjoyable romp, a low-budget riff on Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
(Click photos to enlarge)
Though doubtless aimed at the juvenile market at the time, Soldiers of Fortune plays pretty fresh today, thanks to the loose, often edgy characterizations of our two leads, and some surprisingly adult scenarios. It's great to see John Russell, so stern and authoritative on the later western series Lawman, so loose, relaxed and genial here. He's still as manly a man as you could find, 6' 3” of lean, tough hombre. Dressed up in his jungle togs, he's reminiscent of the Doc Savage of Paul Baumhofer's pulp covers of the 30s. Smart, cagey and quick to dispatch a murderous villain, he's equally quick to come to the aid of someone in distress. Russell is probably most famous to modern audiences as the head gunman facing off against Clint Eastwood in the memorable finale of Pale Rider. Here he's in the prime of his life, early 30s, all steely-eyed coolness under pressure, instantly commanding.
Chick Chandler (what a great name!) was a lesser-known character player, but a well-liked one, funny and believably salty. He's older (late 40s), smaller of build and cut from a more everyman cloth, but he's got an impressive, gravelly voice and brings a combination of resigned toughness, human warmth and smart-aleck charm to the part of Toubo Smith. True to the hallmark of sidekicks throughout TV and cinema history, he gets most of the best lines, but he also saves Tim's neck more times than can be counted, and seems equally effective in a knock-down, drag-out scrap.
Apparently, Soldiers of Fortune began as a one-off episode on the Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars. "Adventure in Java" starred Charles Bronson as "Tim Kelly" and Tim Holt as "Toubo Smith." That combo might have proved interesting, but I'm happy with the great chemistry achieved between Russell and Chandler. Together, the two make an unbeatable team, and the scripts more often than not are surprisingly inventive for this sort of early TV fare.
The show is just plain old fun to watch, and comes highly recommended. The complete series was released last year by Timeless Media Group (friend to vintage TV fans everywhere). Picture quality ranges from near-good to decent to pretty poor, but always watchable. The content is the thing here, and I'm just happy to have the entire run on disc, for a very reasonable price (I paid less than $18 shipped for my copy, and would have happily paid twice that amount considering the massive entertainment value of this set).
Many minor but memorable stars of the big and small screen appear in the series, from Keye Luke, Michael Ansara, Beverly Garland, Juanita Moore, Michael Pate, John Doucette, Leo Gordon, Ralph Moody, Ted de Corsia, Henry Drums of Fu Manchu Brandon, Anthony Caruso, Morris Ankrum, Alan Napier - even Woody Strode and Lee Van Cleef! One episode, "Cut Charlie In," features a bizarre threesome of guest stars: King Kong's Robert Armstrong and Claude Akins as Chinese diamond smugglers, with broad support given by producer-to-be Aaron Spelling as an Indian con artist!
If this kind of thing is even remotely your cup o' joe, grab this set right away. I guarantee you'll gobble the shows up like the tasty, nostalgic and exuberant bon bons they are.
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