You know how I spend a lot of time trumpeting how the Superhero genre is being officially recognized now and how it’s spread out from comic books and into movies, television and even music?
Well this isn’t the first time Superheroes or their ancestors, pulp vigilantes, have enjoyed an era of cross-media popularity. Back in the day, when radio was king, The Phantom, The Shadow, Batman and even Blue Beetle had radio shows that were massively popular.
In fact, today’s subject, the Green Hornet, was born not in comic, bit in radio in the 1936. He eventually had not only a decade-spanning radio series, but movie serials and, of course, the TV series that debuted in 1966, starring Van Williams and the soon-to-be-legendary Bruce Lee.
Today, we’ll be watching the first episode of that series, ‘The Silent Gun’, which is available on Youtube, and I’ll be reviewing it in my style of ‘what works’ in terms of writing (and also other forms of story-telling we ususally don’t touch here, like acting and effects.
Feel free to post your own thoughts on the comments or on the forum as well. I look forward to hearing what you think!
And now, without further ado, The Green Hornet.
The first thing about this series that strikes me is its age. The 60’s were a different time on television. Acting was more melodramatic, effects were rougher, and they love, love loved their stock footage. I’m not going to hold any of that against the series though because it’s not like they could have used time travel to fix those things.
We open with a funeral scene where DA Scanlan (who the opening narration helpfully tells us knows who the Green Hornet is) and another man are waiting to speak to a witness attending the funeral. Sixties or not, I question why they decided to park right out in full view of everyone, basically advertising that someone at the funeral is a big ‘ol squealer.
…Which in retrospect might be why seconds later a man there is shot by a gun produced from another funeral-goer’s pocket. However, the comic/sci-fi geek cred of the show instantly goes right up when the gun makes no sound when fired. The target just reacts to being shot and goes down.
The titular ‘silent gun’ is an excellent McGuffin for this show. Obviously, it fits right into the world of ‘realistic, but could be cutting edge science’ that the Green Hornet occupies, and is actually a pretty damn good piece of tech to this day (as ‘silenced’ firearms aren’t actually silent). Even better though is how simple it is to represent in the limited special effects of a 1966 TV show. All you need is to show the gun, then have a person to act like they’ve been shot and you’re done. Nowadays there would be a blood pack involved, but it’s still simple and elegant. Seeing as I’ve watched several episodes of this series, I’m going to add that this is par for the course. As we’ll see coming up, the writers were very good at understanding their limitations and doing cool stuff with them.
Anyway, after the opening credits, which are mostly static shots plus the famous ‘hornet’ animation, we arrive in the office of Brit Reed. We find Mr. Reed discussing the mysterious murder (and the mysterious murder of the man’s father, whose funeral it was) with his secretary Ms. Kasey. He then getts a call from DA Scanlan revealing that the bullet that killed the victim was 17 caliber, a caliber neither of them has heard of. They arrange to meet in half an hour.
The moment they get off the phone, police reporter, Mike Axeford bursts in to announce that he’s got a woman on the line who says she knows who committed the murders and is willing to sell her story for two thousand dollars. When Britt immediately decides to pay her, Mike is overjoyed and talks about how he and Britt’s father used to do the same thing.
This scene is packed from a writing standpoint. We establish all of ‘Team Hornet’ except Kato and it’s shown without being explicit that Mike is unaware of Britt’s secret identity while Kasey and the DA do. More importantly, the writers put the ‘newspaper’ angle of Britt’s secret ID right to work, showing that this is a goldmine for intel that Britt can then use as the Hornet.
There’s then a pair of stock footage shots of britt driving home while DA Scanlan goes to the Hornet’s lair via a back way that end with him coming out of an elevator behind Britt’s goddamn fire place. I cannot stress how much I love that little set-piece. The entire LIT fireplace rises up to reveal the little elevator Scanlan uses.
Scanlan arrives with new information: the OSS tried to develop a silent gun but all of their weapons are accounted for. He does, however, reveal that the victim’s father was a retired gunsmith.
Just then, Britt gets a call (presumably from Ms. Kasey, but we’re never told) that the gun was just used again to kill a courier in a crowded elevator.
And once again, we see what an excellent McGuffin the silent gun is. The idea that people can be murdered with it in broad daylight without any witnesses is legitimately terrifying. Take the many, many gun culture related deaths America suffers every month and then imagine that the shooter is undetectable. Most clues to crimes of this nature come from ballistic evidence and detective work built around when people heard the shot and from what direction. A gun of uncommon caliber that kills without noise is a near-perfect murder weapon.
Britt even notes that he really hopes that there’s only one of these things out there.
But the Green Hornet has an appointment, which means we’re treated to the pretty cool sequence of the Black Beauty being revealed and leaving the garage via a series of false walls. As it turns out, Britt arranged to pay the woman Mike Axeford talk to purely so he, as the Green Hornet, could ply her for informaiton.
Here is one of my first real problems with the episode’s writing/directing. The Green Hornet arrives at the Daily Sentinel building and we get to see the first use of his gas gun as he uses it on Mike. Buuuut, nothing is said or implied to point out that the gas gun only knocks people out. What the reader sees is the Hornet gassing Axefor and him going down.
Immediately after this, we’re given our first reaction (via the woman who turns out to be the victim’s girlfriend) that shows that the Hornet is known as a criminal to the public. She freaks out, at first even refusing to take four thousand dollars as payment for her story because she thinks things ould be worse if the Green Hornet got his hands on it!
Yes, Britt manages to talk her down and show he’s really a good guy (to her), however the real problem here is that we never see Mike for the rest of the episode. He gets gassed, falls down and we never see him again. And Green Hornet doesn’t use the gas gun for the rest of the episode so we don’t see anyone recovering from it.
The Green Hornet’s gas gun is a great heroic weapon, but it’s significantly less impactful if the rules concerning it aren’t established. Sadly, this is one failing of the series: a LOT of the Hornet’s gadgets go unexplained or defined.
Moving on, the victim’s girlfriend lays out a reasonable chain of events for what led to the first two murders (credit to the writers) and sets the Hornet on the trail of the mobsters who have the gun. Unfortunately, two more crooks turn up dead from the gun and the Hornet is caught with their bodies. This leads to a good character moment, where their boss hates the Hornet so much that he’s willing to call the cops on him.
Of course, he can’t win because the Hornet has Kato on his side and Kato is Bruce Lee. One savage ass-kicking later and Van Williams as the Hornet gets to deliver a great gang wars style speech to intimidate the boss into talking and admitting that a second mob boss is looking for the gun and is killing his way through anyone between him and it.
Cue another break-in beat-down, this time revealing that Kato is packing paralytic darts shaped like hornets. Because of course he is! This time, the Hornet convinces the mob boss to let him negotiate the sale of the gun.
And here is where Green Hornet’s writing turns out to be far more clever than (modern) Batman. If this were a Batman story, the mob would be scared into doing what Batman told them. But the mob hates the Green Hornet, so instead of doing as told, they plan to just shoot him with the gun once they get to the meeting.
This to me is the line between a moderately clever story and a regular story: something goes against the hero’s plan, forcing them to think and act fast. Fortunately, Green Hornet intercepts the plan to double cross him and is forced to run for it, using the parking garage he’s in to cleverly defeat them one by one.
Even better, it turns out he can’t beat the last guy and has to rely on Kato not only timing himself perfectly, but evading the cops to take the last villain out. It’s rather nice that the Hornet isn’t perfect even while sitting on a mountain of intel and tech.
And with one last quip from Kato, the episode ends.
So how was it overall?
Well first of all, given my allowances, I feel that this episode has aged well. Yes, the technical issues are somewhat primitive now, but in terms of story, the threat is still relevant today, Britt’s process and plans are good and the plot is reasonably complex for a half hour of television. There are nice world-building beats and character beats for not only Britt (and the Green Hornet separately) but for Mike, Scanlan, Kato and even the bit part girlfriend.
As an introductory episode though, I feel like it ends up falling into the ‘I just joined a writer’s workshop’ problem of ‘showing’ things that should be told to make sure they’re obvious, like the gas gun or the sheer power of the Black Beauty, which we see plow through a concrete wall without a scratch at the end of the episode without explanation. I enjoyed this because I’m a fan of the Green Hornet and already know stuff about him. If I wasn’t, it’d be an okay episode, but it probably wouldn’t have gotten me hooked.
Well that’s all for this week. If fate be kind, I’ll have guest bloggers in here for the month of September (and if you’d like to be one of them, please contact me!)
For your reading pleasure, I’d like to direct you the my contribution to the Pen and Cap Society’s Super Choice Adventure round-robin story as well as Cheyanne Young’s follow-up, where she uses Legion-of-One like a boss.
Also, seriously, guys, I highly recommend picking up Rakne’s Tale before you grab Soul Battery: City of Bards this December. It’s only 99 cents and reading it will make City of Bards just a little more awesome. Plus it has two AWESOME fights in it.