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March 2010

Tales Of The Gold Monkey

cast: Stephen Collins, Jeff MacKay, Caitlin O'Heaney, Roddy McDowall, and John Calvin

creator: Donald P. Bellisario

1056 minutes (PG) 1982-3
Fabulous DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Donald Morefield

Tales Of The Gold Monkey: The Complete Series

Before WWII, "somewhere in the South Pacific," ex-'Flying Tigers' bush pilot, Jake Cutter (Stephen Collins, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) ekes out a buccaneering, precarious living as daredevil airman with amphibious transport, a Grumman G-21, dubbed Cutter's Goose. Based in Boragora, hero Jake tackles all sorts of adventure, travelling in his flying boat, often in the company of his alcoholic but good-hearted mechanic, Corky (Jeff Mackay), and his most loyal sidekick, an eye-patched terrier named Jack (Leo the dog). Jack is a blatant scene-stealer, typically interrupting or challenging old-fashioned romantic comedy between Jake and American redhead Sarah Stickney White (Caitlin O'Heaney, 'Snow White' in TV series The Charmings, 1987), a feisty yet compassionate spy, who finds an undercover position as resident 'lounge singer' working in the 'Monkey Bar' saloon hotel that's owned by French magistrate 'Bon Chance' Louie (played by Ron Moody in the 'pilot' movie, until Roddy McDowell took over this key supporting character for the series).

Boasting exceptionally high production values for a television show, with exotic locations and expensive 'exterior' set designs (exquisite miniatures and splendid matte paintings also contribute to visual standards of cinematic quality), Tales Of The Gold Monkey is often wrongly cited as just another 'Indiana Jones' rip-off, but it was actually conceived by executive producer Donald Bellisario years before Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) proved a Hollywood hit at the cinema. Similarities exist only because the American heroes, period settings, and story themes - of both Spielberg's blockbuster movies and Bellisario's TV show - are derived from the same pulp milieu of cliff-hanger serials, and they both maintain only a loose grip on realism.

Directed by Ray Austin, the feature-length movie concerns our bold adventurers on a quest for the fabled golden monkey that's in a hidden cave - guarded by killer apes - on a volcanic island (nobody said it would be easy to acquire!). Along the way, Jake & Co. meet unusually westernised, untrustworthy Japanese princess, Kogi (Panamanian actress Marta DuBois), with her geisha entourage and imperial retinue of samurai guards, and everybody's activities are monitored by German missionary Reverend Willie Tenboom (John Calvin), who's actually a Nazi agent, sometimes used as comic-relief, and a rather dodgy character with a fondness for unorthodox 'blessings' (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) upon Polynesian girls.

While the unreliable seaplane proves to be a character in its own right during many action scenes, like daring rescues from shark-infested waters, one episode's search for mystical Shangri-La, and the heroes' escape from a prison camp on Death Island, there are many aerial sequences to provide establishing-shot viewpoints of sundry vistas in the jungles of island chains. Corky gets shanghaied to repair a damaged ship's engines for a slave-trader, and his companions have spooky encounters with the fearsome 'mud people' tribe. There's some iconic counter-historical imagery including the A-bomb prototype with a swastika emblazoned on it. Will Jake find the golden treasures of King Solomon's mines? Can the haunted Sarah cope with Egyptian-curse skulduggery in Trunk From The Past?

A wealth of contrary anachronisms (relating to nitpicking obvious inaccuracies of historical credibility for the TV show's late-1930s setting, in particular) in no way devalue its entertainment values and can be happily excused by the usual creative licence clause of many offbeat screen adventures. Tales Of The Gold Monkey also bridges common genre formulas, as when Jake's voice-over narration, seemingly an affectionate emulation of classic Bogart movies (of the Casablanca model), delivers essential backstory details, or comments wryly if not always honestly upon the proceedings of a storyline.

Cargo flights to there and back (including a leper colony), plane crashes in jungles, or near a Quaker community with a Japanese cowboy (for episode, The Lady And The Tiger, which features a romantic sub-plot pre-dating Peter Weir's Witness, 1985), grant the show plenty of thematic possibilities. Jack takes a long-haul flight to Manila in The Late Sarah White to save Sarah and expose a General MacArthur impostor. Incidents of 'tourists' going native, and the embarrassing culture-clash misunderstandings that result from such misadventures, are commonly deployed as humorous asides in several episodes. Apart from the regular scenic routes, in which fabulous aerial views of shining ocean and verdant islands are backdrop to the red and white Goose, the aircraft is a centrepiece for various flying stunts, as when Jake frequently lands his plane on a single engine.

While Ape Boy is an obvious Tarzan variant with a hint of King Kong, when Sarah is carried off by great apes to meet a teenage orphan raised in the wilds, and the young man is just as confused and psychologically disturbed about his familial and species heritage as the title character of Greystoke (1984). Seemingly inspired by Juggernaut (1974), episode God Save The Queen, concerns the 'floating palace' Silver Star cruise ship - "the biggest thing that moves" (in 1938, anyway) named after Victoria, hijacked for ransom by terrorist and fake 'Lord' Hedriks (guest star Roy Dotrice) who has placed time-bombs aboard the vessel. Such plot borrowings from popular and successful movies for the cash-in benefits of telly shows are so customary that it's unusual when a series doesn't routinely pinch its ideas from cinema sources. Stories are most complex, if not always compelling, when international espionage between double-agents is played out in Shanghai casinos, as in High Stakes Lady. Sarah's jealously over Jake's womanising provides romantic friction when plot twists are revealed.

Formidably pious nuns, travelling with their secret cargo aboard a Pan Am clipper, in Force Of Habit, spells religious trouble for Jake, especially after a 'sacrilegious' kiss. Moreso, when Cutter's Goose embarks on a wild chase and it needs in-flight refuelling with bottled rum. In Cooked Goose, a fire damages Jake's seaplane, but is it drunken Corky's fault? Can Jake fend off predatory femme fatale Kogi while also solving the twin mysteries of kidnapping and arson? Last Chance Louie sees the usually moderate magistrate indulge himself in a vengeful shooting duel to settle a point of honour. When a murder trial ensues, with Louie at risk from the guillotine of Napoleonic justice, Jake follows clues all the way to Saigon in a desperate bid to uncover the truth about Louie's dark past... Following a bomb attack, guest star Grace Zabriske has a cameo as the trauma doctor tending to Jake's coma week - all of which delays our hero's return via clipper only just in time to save his friend from execution.

Kim Cattrall (Sex And The City) plays newsreel reporter, Whitney Bunting, visiting her old pal (and rival) Sarah, on Boragora, before flying with Jake to interview a Japanese minister who's been targeted for assassination in Naka Jima Kill. Rom-com fun mixed with political intrigue makes for a delightful adventure with aerial confrontations, jungle death traps, and yet more 'hospitality' from the ever-sensual Princess Kogi (who struts between throne and hot-tub, at regular intervals). Jake still rambles on about 'Heywood Floyd novels' in Boragora Or Bust, and the staunchly moral philosophy of a fictional hero's exploits drives Jake to help a crusty old prospector defend his platinum mine against claim jumpers. However, learning that boom-town fortunes never last is hard for all concerned in the Marivellas community. A Distant Shout Of Thunder sees a scientific expedition disturb superstitious natives on Boragora, when Solar eclipse observers apparently prompt stormy winds, 'bloody' stigmata, a frog plague, and volcanic eruption. With evacuations underway, Sarah's kidnap by tribal rebels for pagan sacrifice to their fire god stirs Jake into one-man rescue mode that involves walking on lava crust and rock climbing only just in time to save the day from mystical signs of doom.

Series finale, Mourning Becomes Matuka, sees Jake become Kogi's bodyguard - during her birthday party, much to the chagrin of Sarah and the gang. When the princess is 'murdered' on Jake's watch, he's harassed by Japanese authorities insulted by his combat veteran past in the Flying Tigers squadron for China. Then, Jake is charged with killing Kogi, and his only hope of avoid execution is faking his own death by ritual suicide. Of course, there's a happy twist-ending to this story, and everyone gets home alive, including tricky schemer Kogi.

A lot of good fun, Tales Of The Gold Monkey is lively swashbuckling adventure, with an amiable hero, and it's certainly one of the better American TV action shows made in the 1980s.

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