Thursday, March 11, 2010

SABU: SAVAGE DRUMS / JUNGLE HELL

Sabu (as he was always billed) was only 13 years old when a documentary filmmaker found him in a small village in India and cast him in a movie called ELEPHANT BOY (1937). From there, the charismatic, athletic youth went on to star in the classic fantasy film THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940) and Zoltan Korda's adaptation of Kipling's THE JUNGLE BOOK (1942). He was soon signed by Universal Studios, and moved to America where he appeared in a series of costume adventures including ARABIAN NIGHTS (1942) and COBRA WOMAN (1944).

A few years later, he was still playing "jungle boys," but by then, he'd moved down the Hollywood food chain to smaller studios and cheaper producers. This new DVD from VCI Entertainment presents two of his later, B-film vehicles.

In 1951's SAVAGE DRUMS, Sabu plays an aspiring prizefighter in America who has to give up his dream of a career in the ring when his brother, the king of a small island nation off the South China coast, is assassinated. He returns home with a couple of his Yankee friends to assume the throne and discover who killed his brother. This brisk little programmer is plenty of vintage fun, with humor, mystery, and Commie agents lurking in the shadows.

JUNGLE HELL, made five years later, is another story entirely. Sabu - once again playing a native "elephant boy" despite being in his early thirties - helps an American doctor and British scientist investigate some mysterious radioactive ore... and flying saucers! Unfortunately, it sounds much cooler than it is. Apparently shot as a very low budget television pilot, the story has been blatantly padded out to feature length with interminable stock footage of jungle animals - especially elephants. I doubt there was a frame of elephant footage available in '56 that they didn't splice into this movie. And the flying saucer plot is left completely unresolved at the end of the film!

VCI's presentation of these vintage B-features, is, as usual, surprisingly good. Both films sport 1.33:1 full frame transfers in black and white. Image quality is generally very good, with the only real problems coming from the well-worn stock footage sequences. Audio is clear mono, devoid of extraneous hiss. VCI has even included a bonus feature: an interview with actress Margia Dean, who co-starred in DRUMS. There are also trailers for other jungle/Indian-themed films available from VCI.

For fans of Fifties matinee fare, this SABU double feature may be worth checking out. SAVAGE DRUMS is a solid little low budget adventure, and JUNGLE HELL... well, it's an interesting curio - as long as you keep your thumb near the fast-forward button of your remote.

BUY: Sabu: Savage Drums/Jungle Hell