The term “cliffhanger” comes from the old movie serials, especially those of the 1930s through 1950s. Each episode always ended with one of the heroes stuck in an apparently impossible position, quite often seeming to die with no possibility of rescue. Then the next episode starts with a resolution where, lo and behold, the hero survives after all and can go on chasing the baddies.
I have seen a number of serials, maybe fifteen or so, and the first and only time I ever saw a cliffhanger where the heroes are actually hanging (and falling) off a cliff is in The Phantom Empire. It is much more common that the hero crashes a plane or a car, “cliffhanger” variations which are also used in that same serial.
But The Phantom Empire’s fame does not rest in its possibly naming the cliffhanger gimmick (there were probably others before it anyway). The reason why it is exciting and to some extent unique is the peculiar blend between western adventure and science fiction.
In the serial, Gene Autry, who plays himself, owns the Radio Ranch. He makes daily radio broadcasts with music and live theatre, and he needs to continue making them, or he will lose his contract and cannot afford to keep the ranch. So far, nothing spectacular about the setup.
But then there is the team of scientists, who are secretly trying to locate the underground kingdom of Murania to rob its treasure of radium. Not to mention the Muranians themselves, a lost race of scientifically advanced cave dwellers who sometimes come to the surface just near Radio Ranch. And to top that off, Gene Autry is suspected of murdering a man and has to make his broadcasts in secret, or the sheriff will capture him.
As you can probably guess, the plot is not always logical or coherent. But compared with many other serials, it is fairly intricate, and even though it may seem inane at times, it moves along at a breakneck pace. This serial has much fewer choreographed fist fights than, for example, the Captain America serial, and the reason is that there is enough plot without those fights to fill up the episodes.
I think the reason why I find that sci-fi and western genre-crossing has such strong potential is that both (westerns, in particular) are genres that are very much stuck in their respective sets of clichés. When those clichés clash, the filmmakers are forced to be creative. This does not always lead to good film, but it often leads to thought-provoking and entertaining solutions.
I have searched at IMDb and other sites, and as far as I can figure, The Phantom Empire was the first ever cross between western and science fiction, at least on film. It was soon followed by some others, but over the past eighty years, there have been relatively few such films. Two other examples from the 30s are available at the Internet Archive: Ghost Patrol and Sky Racket.
Underground civilizations were not exactly a new idea when this serial was released. A hollow earth was suggested by Edmond Halley (for whom Halley’s comet is named) as early as 1692. Others expanded upon his theory, adding large polar openings from the outer surface, and an internal sun to warm and light the inner world.
The idea was used in fiction by several writers; among the immediate predecessors in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s were stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ralph Milne Farley. Technically speaking, The Phantom Empire is not a hollow earth story, since the setting is not a hollow earth but a gigantic cavern 22,000 ft. below the surface. It is clear, however, that it comes from the same tradition, and judging from the similarities of titles, the direct inspiration was perhaps the non-fictional work The Phantom of the Poles published in 1906 by William Reed.
If you find that watching an entire serial is a bit stiff, but are still interested in the story and production, this serial, like many others, was also released as a shorter feature version, which is also downloadable.
This serial is best enjoyed if not taken too seriously. It is fun, camp and wonderfully silly. To boot, The Phantom Empire, like many other western serials, contains some really nice horseback stunts.
The Phantom Empire
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Running time: 3 h 57 min
Directors: Otto Brower, B Reeves Eason
Stars: Gene Autry
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable