Death Rides The Range (1939, directed by Sam Newfield)

In this “modern-day” western, Ken Maynard stars as Ken Baxter. While out camping in the wilderness with his trusty horse Tarzan and his two comic relief sidekicks, Pancho (Julian Rivero) and Panhandle (Ralph Peters), Ken comes across the gravely injured Professor Wahl (Michael Vallon). Wahl is an archeologist who has been left to die. Wahl is too weak to reveal who attacked him and, when Ken gets Wahl back to civilization, he discovers that Wahl’s colleagues, Dr. Flotow (William Castello) and Baron Starkoff (Sven Hugo Bard), aren’t willing to help Wahl unless he shares the location of a helium mine.

Flotow and the Baron are working for “a foreign power” and want to smuggle the helium back to Europe so that their country can use it to fuel their dirigibles. Ken and his sidekicks have to stop the bad guys from getting control of the ranch that sits near the mine. Going undercover, Ken allows himself to be hired by Joe Larkin (Charles King), who is trying to steal the property away from Letty Morgan (Fay McKenzie).  Romance and gunfight follows.  Ken’s horse, Tarzan, saves the day more than once.

The plot of Death Rides the Range is intriguing and, for a 55-minute programmer, complex. Unfortunately, the execution doesn’t allow the story to fulfill its potential. By the time Maynard starred in this film, the once-major cowboy star had alienated most of the major studios and he had a reputation being difficult. He was reduced to working for poverty row studios, like Colony Pictures. Maynard is a convincing hero and his horse, Tarzan, was one of the most talented of the animal actors working at that time but Death Rides The Range still feels rushed.

Death Rides The Range is mostly interesting as an example of the type of anti-German films that were being made before the U.S. officially entered World War II. The film keeps it ambiguous who Flotow and Starkoff are working for but any viewer who had been following the news out of Europe would automatically know they were working for the Germans. Even when he was making movies for Poverty Row, Ken Maynard was still fighting the good fight.

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