In his essay on the Italian filone cinema of the late 50s through to the early 1980s in the Monthly Film Bulletin, critic Kim Newman makes the point that if this cinema could be for ripping-off Hollywood, it could also be praised for the energy and audacity of many of these rip-offs.
Hunters of the Golden Cobra is an case in point. Though clearly derivative of Raiders of the Lost Ark and, before it, the adventure serial – in turn a reminder that the only thing that was really new about Spielberg and Lucas's film were the resources and talent behind it – it showcases all that was best about this cinema in making the most of its comparatively limited resources with ingenuity and its sheer coglioni.
The story begins in 1944, as two British and American commandos, Bob Jackson and David Franks, played by the inimitable David Warbeck and John Steiner, launch a daring raid on a Japanese base somewhere in the Philippines; coveniently, these same islands also serve, post Apocalyse Now, as the actual locations for the film.
Their misson is to abduct Japanese officer Yamato, apparently an agent and counter agent.
Yamato has something else on his mind, however: The Golden Cobra. Recalling the likes of the golden snake of the Edgar Wallace novel and krimi film as much as Raider's Lost Ark – and thus as further reminders that in this day and age everything has some antecedent – this McGuffin is valuable in more ways than one, as we shall soon learn.
As Yamato flees the base after calmly gunning down the Japanese soldier who had discovered his treachery, Jackson and Franks embark on a desperate pursuit via jeep and then plane, bombs and buildings exploding all around them. (“You know, I've never driven one of these before” “Now you tell me.” “It's going to be quite an experience, I can assure you.”)
Yamato's plane crash lands on an island, so Jackson parachutes out after him while Franks returns to base with the promise of returning with reinforcements.
Jackson soon catches up with Yamato but both men are then shot with poisoned darts by the natives. Whereas Yamato is slain, Jackson is placed on a makeshift raft and floated downstream, unsure whether he has really seen a white woman at the head of the tribe or just hallucinated her presence...
A year or so passes, during which time the Japanese are defeated. Franks, still an officer in the British army, tracks down Jackson in a seedy bar, hitting the bottle hard and down on his luck to the extent that he's willing to trade his campaign medal for a couple of dollars.
With Jackson responding to Franks' hello with a right hook, a fistfight and then mass brawl breaks out before Franks finally gets the chance to explain himself. He did search for his colleague, but was delayed as his plane had ditched in the ocean some 200 miles from land.
Franks is not here about past history, however. Rather, he has been ordered to offer Jackson $20,000 to go back into the jungle with him and find the golden cobra. For, as Franks' superior in the briefing room explains, “If this priceless object should fall into the wrong hands, all of south east Asia could be destabilised [...] Call it superstition, but millions of people in Asia believe this golden cobra possesses some sort of supernatural power, a destructive force that we can't even imagine.”
Jackson remains cynical and reluctant until the high priestess of the cult appears on the screen wreathed in flames and a native waiter, evidently a member of the cult from his cobra tattoo, attacks him with a machette. He thus accepts the mission – but for $40,000, paid in advance.
By the time the expedition is ready to leave – during which time more cultists come out of the woodwork at every opportunity – it has gained two more people: a wealthy adventurer and archaeologist by the name of Greenwater (Alan Collins) and his niece Julie (Almanta Suska), who looks exactly like the woman from the island.
And so she should, for they are in fact sisters...
“I see no reason why we shouldn't all go” surmises Franks, and thus the adventure really begins...
The hunters and their quarry
Director Antonio Margheriti was quite simply the man for this kind of film, knowing not only how to deliver no-nonsense, testosterone-fuelled action scenes with the best of them but also a whole range of more subtle trick effects, ranging from model work with aeroplanes and lava-filled chasms to convincingly placing two his leading ladies in shot simultaneously
The implicit racism of the material with its backwards cultists and the white goddess figure of Suska is made slightly more palatable by the fact that Franks is just as much of a caricature; the base motives accorded most of the western characters, and, most interestingly, the space given one of the natives who opposes the cobra cultists for their backwardness and dreams of a progressive future for his country as one “with many friends and no masters – and that includes you westerners too.” (On this subject, it's also worth remembering that Jackie Chan's Armour of God isn't exactly politically correct either, with its 'comedy' tribesmen.)
The natives bowing down before the white goddess, as per usual
Warbeck is reliable as ever as the tough, no-nonsense action hero, making one lament that he was never given the opportunity to play James Bond, while Steiner's unflappable British officer with his Terry-Thomas style upper class twit voice is amusing without becoming tiresome.
The talismanic Collins, whom Margheriti would always cast if he got the chance is suitably shifty, his character's name recalling Sidney Greenstreet, his mannerisms that actor's Maltese Falcon co-star, Peter Lorre; on the Bond angle Jackson amusingly calls Greenriver Greenfinger at one point.
If the final couple of minutes, featuring an awful theme song performed by someone with a somewhat flexible sense of pitch, are painful, the preceding 90 odd are compensation enough.
[I watched the film on a English-dubbed, Japanese (?) subtitled AVI, again found via Cinemageddon]