Eric Stedman of The Serial Squadron has a well-deserved reputation for restoring vintage serials (in many cases salvaging otherwise lost serials) and preserving them for posterity. As Sax Rohmer’s 133rd birthday is rapidly approaching, I thought I would turn our attention to a vintage 1919 serial that borrowed quite a few elements from Rohmer’s work, The Trail of the Octopus. The Serial Squadron released their restored version of this forgotten gem in 2012.
The original serial produced by Hallmark Pictures nearly a century earlier comprises 15 chapters. The serial is centered around an Asian criminal mastermind, Wang Foo (known as “The Octopus”) who commands an international gang of Egyptians, Chinese, Africans, Turks, Jews, even a cult of devil worshippers in pursuit of an ancient Egyptian artifact, the Sacred Talisman of Set. While Fu Manchu was the head of an international secret society that contained Europeans as well as Asians and Arabs, it’s impossible not to see that The Octopus commands all of the stereotypical foreign and/or exotic elements feared by white Europeans just after the First World War.
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Most mainstream readers who were familiar with the phrase “pulp fiction” prior to Quentin Tarantino’s critically and commercially acclaimed film associated it with hard-boiled detective fiction. While this association only captured part of the eclectic spectrum of genres represented in pulp magazines in the first half of the last century, it must be noted that the documented evolution of the western gunfighter into the hardboiled detective hero was crucial to the proliferation of twentieth century popular culture.
Dashiell Hammett’s seminal hardboiled thriller Red Harvest could just as easily have been transferred from a mining town to a western setting. This flexibility is what allowed the story to be adapted so effectively decades after the fact by Akira Kurosawa as Yojimbo and by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars with equally trendsetting results.
Most people today best understand the ethos of pulp fiction from the 1981 blockbuster hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg perfectly encapsulated the archetypal pulp hero in the form of Indiana Jones, an original character who revived the cheap thrills and spills of pulp magazines and Saturday matinee serials and transformed them into box office gold.
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