A review from an Objectivist perspective
by David Hayes

Atlas Shrugged was called by Ayn Rand “the stunt novel,” according to the one authorized published biography of her.  The book Who is Ayn Rand? explains that she combined philosophy and the Romantic novel tradition with elements of a Saturday-matinee serials.  Miss Rand specifically states in her 1958 Fiction Writing course that she enjoyed the old chapterplays.

One can assume that Miss Rand had seen some of these twelve- to fifteen-part adventures before she ever embarked on the writing of Atlas Shrugged.  This is not to imply that she ever sought to consciously copy any of what she saw, but that these stories that she saw for her own enjoyment and for spiritual fuel, might have been mulled over in her mind and might have led indrectly to her own creations.

Ayn Rand indicated her admiration for the “Buck Rogers” character in one of her articles reprinted in The Romantic Manifesto and in a derivative speech entitled “Ethics in Education.”  Although she might have been familiar more with the radio serial or the comic strip than the 1938 movie serial made by Universal, or may not have been exposed to any of these works until television broadcasts of the movie serial, her stated approval of this character in 1960s nonfiction works does raise my curiosity given that movie audiences as early as 1938 did watch the courageous efforts of the virtuous people of the Hidden City attempt to reclaim the Earth (and the solar system) from their hideaway behind an entrance that appears to be a wall of solid rock.  (Sounds like Atlantis, doesn’t it?)

Ayn Rand worked out the plot of Atlas Shrugged during a two-year period from September 1944 to September 1946.  During that time, she was employed six months of the year writing screenplays for Hal Wallis.  Whether she kept up with the current movies or saw special screenings as a result of her employment, I would not know.  (I mention special screenings because a serial would normally be seen in regular theaters one chapter at a time over several months.  A special industry screening would eliminate the repeated trips.)  Whether she went to see movie serials when her writing troubles became overbearing, seeking emotional reassurance that values at least superficially similar to hers still found an appreciative audience, I don’t know.

What I do know is that a serial released during the midst of the plotting of Atlas Shrugged—in 1945—has some interesting parallels to Atlas Shrugged, and seems to beg the question of whether Miss Rand was familiar with it.  Should she have seen it, nothing would lessen the achievement she attained of integrating philosophy into plot elements that were written before, nor that Miss Rand refused to permit her points to be made weakly nor that she didn’t fail to dramatize through conflict aspects of her beliefs that in another writer’s hands would have been presented in verbalized assertions made by characters who never again talk about or act on these alleged beliefs.  In her private journals written during the writing of Atlas Shrugged, written to help her establish the direction of the novel and not intended to be read by anyone else, she not only makes no reference to any serials but does not include some of the “stunt” aspects of Atlas Shrugged which most closely make the novel read like a serials.  Simple meetings between characters appear in Miss Rand’s proposed plot outlines at points where the finished novel would have action scenes.  (The fact that some journal entries (reportedly repetitive) were omitted from the published edition of the journals does not negate this point, because the presence of the substitute scenes indicates that Miss Rand had decided upon how she would advance certain aspects of the plot and that she would do so without action scenes.)  Consequently, it should be concluded that similarities between Atlas Shrugged and Manhunt of Mystery Island are coincidental, but that shouldn’t prevent Objectivists from enjoying both stories.

Manhunt of Mystery Island stars Richard Bailey and Linda Stirling.  Stirling may be known to some Objectivists as the lead (albeit billed second) in a serial that was shown as part of the Romantic Screen series announced in The Objectivist from 1966 to 1968: Zorro’s Black Whip (1944), in which Stirling played a female version of the masked avenger.  Her career included other roles portraying daring yet feminine heroines, mostly if not exclusively for the same studio that made Mystery of Manhunt Island: Republic Pictures.

A pirate is committing heinous crimes and is being sought; he’s feared by decent people.  He is in disguise, but he is not a hero in disguise.  He is probably not schooled in philosophy, but he is probably well-educated, and must be very knowledgeable in physics, as he has discovered a means to convert a human being’s appearance into another’s by means of a transformation process.  He is not fighting against those who would like to enslave science and scientists.  On the contrary, he has kidnaped a scientist and is attempting to force him to reveal the secret of his breakthrough invention.

Dr. Forest has invented a power transmitter that will eliminate the need for oil.  Ships will be able to travel the seas without needing to carry their own fuel.  This invention will not transmit static in the air to electricity, per se, but instead enables the customers of power to receive electrical impulses sent from radio-station-like transmitters.

That the invention works cannot be doubted.  Dr. Forest demonstrates the device to the pirate Captain Mephisto using a model airplane (Chapter 1, at 11:49), but refuses to buckle down to the Captain’s demands.  He knows that no one else can build the full-size transmitter, and tells this to his assistant (Ch. 1, 10:56).  Dr. Forest confidently tells his captor, in accusation that the former may be trying to trick the latter, “Trick you?  I’d kill you if I thought I could escape afterwards” (Ch. 1, 12:46).  He is not surprised to know that the evil that confronts him sees him only as a tool; he doesn’t genuflect when Captain Mephisto plainly says that upon Forest’s completion of the transmitter that Forest will only go on living as long as he can make himself useful to his captor (Ch. 3, 9:44).

In short, the good man who can best deal with reality is in conflict with the evil man who dreams of “world control of industry” (Ch. 12, 4:39) but is stalled if not stopped as a result of the impotence of his means.  Captain Mephisto, finding that his captee has destroyed the work he had done thus far, threatening says “You’ll build me another.”  The captor confidently responds, “Not if my life depended on it” (Ch. 4, 3:19).  When Forest boldly tells Mephisto, “I’m neither frightened nor impressed by your piratical swashbuckling,” Mephisto shouts, “You have two days to complete the work.”  Forest then swings his arm, crashing to the floor a few pieces of equipment.  He says, “It’ll take more than two days to fix that.”  (Ch. 12, 4:59)

To the rescue comes Claire (Linda Stirling) and the ace-detective played by Richard Bailey, whose name is Lance.  He is competent, intelligent, able to second-guess his opponent with generally-good accuracy.  Is it just a coincidence that his last name is Reardon?

In the course of fifteen chapters, we see the following:

I do not mean to imply that Manhunt of Mystery Island is a perfect entertainment.  There are certain dumb moves on the part of the heroes that seem to do nothing but set up the plot so that there can be more confrontations and thrill scenes.  The third quarter of the serial is made up mostly with the two sides of the struggle setting traps for one another.  Although in real life this is probably what actual people would be doing, this becomes tiresome and repetitive to an audience.  (This problem of the third quarter of a serial becoming routine and trite is common to many of the chapterplays made by Republic.)

Annoying too are some inexcusable cheapnesses: the same car used on the island (where most of the action takes place) by the main characters is also the same prop car (same model, same color) rented by those characters on the mainland.  This stretches credibility.  (This same car shows up in many other Republic serials and modern Westerns.)  The special effects don’t show the lines where the miniatures were matched up with the full-size action (visual effects men Howard and Theodore Lydecker were too expert for that), yet it’s easy to spot the models and it doesn’t help that when characters are shown in miniature that they aren’t moving in those shots although they are moving plenty in the previous and following shots, where the action was filmed full-scale size.

In any event, I was held captive—not just by Captain Mephisto’s antics, but also by the heroes.

Throughout the first several years of the writing of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s journal entries record that she was planning to have Hank Rearden quit his mills by being visited by one of the leading strikers, who, behind closed doors, would secure Rearden’s departure from his business.  In the final novel, in scenes written sometime between 1951 and 1953, a government-orchestrated assault on the mills has become the part of the plot that convinces Rearden that he shouldn’t continue as an industrialists.  Although one of the lead Strikers (Francisco) is present as a witness to these events, he doesn’t say or do anything to influence Rearden but merely makes himself available to transport Rearden to the safety and cultural haven of the strikers’ hideout.

Similarly, the journals make no mention of the action scene of the novel which would depict the end of the d’Anconia copper empire.  Here again, Miss Rand’s journals show that an action scene could be an afterthought rather than a part of the outlines that she prepared years prior to the writing of the scene.  It becomes less likely that she was inspired by a serial she had seen during or prior to the writing of the novel.  In the case of the destruction of the d’Anconia copper mines, there’s less cause to wonder whether she was inspired by a scene in Mystery Mountain, a 1934 twelve-chapter Western in which the operator of a highly-productive mine blasts away the operation rather than allow his adversaries to claim it.  Ken Maynard, the leading man in that serial, was Ayn Rand’s favorite Western star (see her list on pg. 87 of the book edition of Ayn Rand: a Sense of Life).

Ayn Rand’s efforts to create a tight, much-encompassing plot to depict the full meaning of actions and the full range of experience of numerous diverse characters, does not find equal in literature and certainly not in Manhunt of Mystery Island.  On the contrary, Manhunt of Mystery Island suffers (in a minor way) from a few extraneous plot elements, particularly when characters set traps for their adversaries, after which, when the traps had failed to work, these same characters try again, putting the audience through repetitive scenes.  These scenes illustrate Ayn Rand’s dictum that just because an event might occur in real life, that doesn’t mean that the novel should not attempt to improve upon the reality so as to illustrate more aspects of the theme.

Ayn Rand gives the example in her Fiction Writing course that in real life Hank Rearden may have sat at his desk and thought to himself that things had become worse for him and that thus it was time to quit business.  Readers would be disappointed, so Rand devised the government’s assault upon his mills in the guise of disgruntled workers.  Here she could illustrate not only Rearden’s awakening but also the corruption of government and the nature of evil.  The writers of Manhunt of Mystery Island do not advance any significant aspect of their plot while the heroes and villains are taking turns setting their numerous failed traps.  (To be fair to the writers of that serial, they may have devised a tight serial to be told in (for example) thirteen chapters, but being under instructions to turn in a screenplay for fifteen chapters that would require a limited number of sets and photography set-ups (owing to budgetary considerations), they may have padded their original plan as best they could in the time allotted.  Ayn Rand, working without limitations on the number of her pages nor concerned with the deadline-setting timetables necessary in movie studios that sought for financial equilibrium to maintain year-round filming schedules, had freedoms which would have been unthinkable luxury to the writers at Republic Pictures.

The Republic writers, like Ayn Rand, looked at reality and saw heroism in it.  For this reason, no matter how many similar details they may have transferred to their pages, all parties produced fiction which can (and should) enthrall their audiences.

This article © 1998 David P. Hayes