Weird Western Films: Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937)
A serial Western about Three Mesquiteers who head off into the desert to find hidden gold protected by a whistling, skull-shaped rock formation and a frankly racist representation of a Native American cult.
By Max Sparber
First things first: "Riders of the Whistling Skull," a 1937 juvenile oater featuring Republic Picture's Three Mesquiteers (a rotating cast of Western heroes), is a racist film.
The story tells of an ancient, hidden stash of gold in the desert, marked (and apparently guarded) by a giant, skull-shaped rock formation that produces a haunting whistle when the wind rushes through it, which is does constantly. All this is fine, and, in fact, legitimately spooky — I presume the film's skull was a matte painting, but it looks great.
The problem is that this gold is protected by an Indian cult, and they are a sort of greatest hits of racist ideas about Indians: They are savage, murderous, given to torture, and duplicitous. Sometimes films will suddenly realize how racist they are being and put in a few token good Indians to point at the others and insist they are an aberration, but this film does not bother with that. No, every single Indian in the film is a member of the cult, even the one who seems all right, even a guy who doesn't seem to be an Indian. ("He's a half-breed" we're told when he suddenly becomes murderous.)
Now, it's not unusual for old cowboy movies to be racist. If you watch old Westerns, there are a few things you just have to deal with. They trip horses, some of whom died as a result. There aren't a lot of Hispanics or black people, despite the fact that both were quite prominent in the West. Women will be wives or prostitutes. And Indians will often be the subject of racist representation.
Still, this film cranks it up, including a character who is incapable of talking about Native Americans except in racist terms, and everybody else sort of shrugs, like he's maybe not the most politic in the way he's expressing himself, but he's fundamentally right. And the film supports him, because even the most racist things he say turn out to be true.
I am of the opinion that when a film is this racist, it is okay to turn it off immediately. But even if you hold out, hoping for something worthwhile to offset the racism a little, you'll be disappointed. Two of the three Mesquiteers are so blandly written as to basically be indistinguishable, despite one being played by Crash Corrigan, who was a superlative stuntman. (He does get a few stunts in here, including leaping from a horse to a runaway wagon, but his most impressive stunt simply involves him running at a dead heat through foothills in his cowboy boots; he constantly seems about to tumble off his Cuban heels and break an ankle.)
The third Mesquiteer is played by Max Terhune, a former semi-pro ball player in Minneapolis (note: whenever there is a Minneapolis connection I will mention it; I suffer an excess of civil pride). Terhune likely got into Western films because of his brother, Ken Maynard, who was a Western actor and stunman, but Terhune always seemed a bit misplaced. He was older than the others and played his character as a bit dim, which was common for comic relief, but he also had an arsenal of vaudeville tricks he brought to the films, including card tricks and ventriloquism.
So he sometimes pulls out his ventriloquist dummy in this film, which is as weird as the movie gets, but, then, he barely uses it — I think he does actual ventriloquism in one scene, very briefly. Sometimes you will spot the dummy in a scene, propped up against a tree, but I honestly think the dummy should have been in every scene, constantly present, riding along with Terhune, giving him suggestions during gunfights, and generally being a problem when Terhune has to climb a rope ladder or push the top of a mountain over onto the Indian cult, as he does at the climax.
It's disappointing that the dummy isn't more present. But, then, maybe the dummy is more present in a film with less racism. I think I would prefer that.