The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: The Return of Chandu

Basic Story Line
Chandu, a man with mystical powers, must protect a princess from a group of black sorcerers who wish to sacrifice her and resurrect their high priestess.

Quick Facts
Released in 1934
Directed by Ray Taylor
Written by Barry Barringer
Starring Bela Lugosi, Maria Alba, and Jack J. Clark

By today’s standards, The Return of Chandu is politically incorrect and sometimes straight up offensive. However, as a 1930s serial, it is remarkably well written, it is interesting, exotic, and stars Bela Lugosi.

As the title suggests, The Return of Chandu is not the first time we meet Chandu. The character started life in a radio serial called Chandu the Magician that ran for four years in the 1930s and was resurrected in the late 1940s to run for another three years. The character and his adventures were turned into a feature film in 1932, starring Edmund Lowe as Chandu, and Bela Lugosi as the villain. In 1934 they released The Return of Chandu as a film serial, also starring Bela, but this time he played the title character.

As was my complaint with Ace Drummond, the writer and the director obviously had very little knowledge of the Middle East. Everything seems to be a sort of hodgepodge of African, Middle Eastern, and Far Eastern culture, as presented by someone who has only a cursory knowledge of any of these places. Maria Alba is supposed to be an Egyptian princess but speaks with a Latin American accent, while Bela is supposed to be an American raised in Asia and speaks with his Eastern European accent. The vaguely African looking natives are referred to as cannibals and savages. All of this would make a lesser serial unredeemable.

One of the things that makes this serial enjoyable is the main character. Most serials have heroes that can be described as strong, brave, handsome, forgettable. Even played by Buster Crabbe, Flash Gordon was not nearly as memorable as Ming. Here, our hero is played by an actor with talent, charm, and presence. Chandu has a unique set of abilities and he rarely gets into a physical fight. He defeats his enemies using his mind and his mystical powers. He’s sort of a Middle Eastern Jedi. He has telekinetic powers, he is able to read people’s minds, plant ideas in their heads, communicate over long distances, and make himself invisible. It’s well known that George Lucas likes his old movies and serials, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he got some of his ideas for the Jedi from Chandu.

The story is well plotted out. Most serials are small adventures strung together with our hero and villain locked in a stalemate until the last chapter. This plot arches. Chandu starts as an almost unstoppable superhero, but as the forces of darkness close in on the princess he becomes more and more desperate and is stripped of his powers. It isn’t until he is willing to give up everything that he regains the upper hand. The ending however, is a bit disappointing. To save the other’s life, Chandu and the Princess have to foreswear their love for each other. In order to give their likeable hero and heroine the happily ever after ending, the film makers decided to cheat and simply ignore this. They have them get together anyways. An understandable decision, but it cheapens the sacrifice they had to make.

The Return of Chandu is a fun bit of political incorrectness. A good story and an interesting hero played by Bela Lugosi makes you forgive certain misconceptions of the time.

Things to watch for
-The King Kong gates
-Natives referred to as half-human savages

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink.
Odds of getting sloshed: Medium


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