As an experiment, I’m going to try synopsizing the 13 episodes of the 1936 film serial Flash Gordon
, which is available in DVD under the title Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers
. I’ve already seen the two serials that followed, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars
(1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe
(1940), as well as the 1980 feature film with the awesome soundtrack by Queen (“Flash! Ahahhhhhhhh!”
), so cross-references and comparisons will crop up; I’ll try to keep them non-spoilery. I’ll be working from notes taken as I watch each episode, so the style will be rather choppy.Credits:
Let’s count off the sci-fi clichés as they appear. Enormous throne room, check. Multi-armed heathen idol draped in writhing female extras with scanty clothing, check. City floating in the clouds, check.
Our hero, Buster Crabbe, fetching in a short-sleeved leotard/swim trunks/cape/sword ensemble and "Who, me?" expression. Wow, he almost makes Sam Jones look like a master thespian in comparison.
Dale Arden, played by Jean Rogers and much blonder than she is in the later serials. I wonder if she turns brunette during her time on Mongo?
Charles Middleton, sporting the Bald Cap and Facial Hair of Evil as Emperor Ming.
Priscilla Lawson as Princess Aura, hot despite the damn silly tiara.
Frank Shannon as Doctor Hans Zarkov, Ph.D, WTF.Title Card: Chapter One, “The Planet of Peril”
Why are there thunderclouds and lightning in space? Oh, it’s a Earthbound view of an alien planet that is COMING RIGHT AT US OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIEEEEEEEEEEEE!
Flash’s dad Professor Gordon is some kind of egghead in an observatory who, when not peering through his gigantic telescope at our imminent demise, is busy scoffing at Zarkov’s mad and fantastic ideas to save the Earth.
“The whole world’s in a state of frenzy! Read these.” We dissolve from a close-up of a telegram to our first stock footage montage: London, Rome, Paris, Shanghai, India, Africa, Arabia.
Meanwhile, Flash is on the transcontinental plane, having given up his polo game so he can be with his folks before the end. Awww... (Polo?) He’s seated next to Dale Arden. They chat awkwardly.
Whoa — the plane is caught in a meteor shower, so the passengers are bailing out with parachutes that were under their seats! How come all we get nowadays are flotation vests? Dale is scared, so Flash takes her in his arms and jumps — sans chute. He hangs on to her harness as they float down. I can't decide if that’s stupid or awesome.
They land in a forest, right next to Zarkov’s rocket. Why is Zarkov skulking in the shrubbery with a gun? He makes a remarkably fast transition from “You are the son of my biggest critic, come to foil my plan to save the Earth with my rocket ship!” to “Hey, my assistant turned coward and stood me up. Wanna go to an alien planet with me? The girl can’t come. Okay, fine, she can come.”
Dialogue between Flash and Zarkov as they prepare to launch: “Sure this thing will work?” “I have experimented with models.” “Ah. They ever come back?” “They weren’t supposed to.”
Oops, Dale’s gone all faint. “Sorry. In the excitement, I forgot to turn on the oxygen. No need to worry.” What’s a little asphyxia between recent acquaintances? (And in Dale’s case, who would notice?)
So all Zarkov needed his assistant to do was help him throw the big switch that activates the counter-magnet for landings? Why not just install a lighter lever, or make it a push button?
Welcome to planet Mongo! Mountaintop citadel, check. Slow-mo iguanas with fins on, check.
Dale looks like an idiot (sorry, redundant) for almost wandering straight into the jaws of a lizard monster, but those are some surprisingly good superimposures and double exposures.
Important safety tip: If you fall down on Mongo (as Zarkov and Dale do within 30 seconds of each other), you cannot get back up without the assistance of Flash Gordon.
Here’s the first rocket-load of Ming’s minions. Ouch, those suits of armor and tin-can helmets must have been murder on the extras; no wonder they switched to stock comic-opera guardsmen costumes in the sequels.
Ooh, nice wipe!
Annnnnnd the first in what will be a long serious of grandiose audience chambers. Boy, the aristocracy of Mongo must have fallen arches from all the time they spend standing around Ming’s throne, hoping for the arrival of some fesity Earth people to alleviate the tedium.
Ming’s castle guards wear crested helmets, breastplates, and short pleated kirtles; more comfortable than the tin man suits, if less practical.
Henchman #1 just called Flash “the blond giant.” He’s not that tall...
Zarkov’s idea of diplomacy: “Why destroy the Earth? Why not conquer it?” Awesome.
On the other hand, he’s just been promoted from prisoner to new recruit with his own lab, so maybe I shouldn’t mock.
Princess Aura just made her entrance. She and Dale are giving each other the hairy eyeball, and it is hilarious. Now she’s giving Flash an appreciative once-over; he is disdainful, which confirms my opinion of his intelligence.
Meanwhile, Ming digs Earth girls: “Your eyes, your hair, your skin...I’ve never seen one like you before.” Smooth operator, and I’m not just talking about his scalp.
Sword fight, Flash versus the guards! Ming’s idea of a first date is the gory death of your last boyfriend, so he orders his lackeys to throw Flash into the arena. Aura sees an opportunity: “A bargain, Father! If he survives, he’s mine!” Huh, she’s more girlish than I expected; I’ve been spoiled by Ornella Muti.
In the arena (actually a section of the throne room portioned off by a ridiculously wide-barred fence), Flash faces…three hunched over guys in loincloths…two of whom have fangs. What, they couldn’t afford three sets of fake incisors?
Hero’s shirt getting ripped, check.
More of Aura ogling Flash. Man, she has eyebrows any drag queen would kill for.
Flash is winning! “He fights well, the Earth man. He shall not escape the Pit.” “No, Father, not that!” (God, she sounds so cornfed.)
Aura runs into the arena, pursued by guards who are immediately set upon by Flash. Aura, after briefly indulging in a classic sci-fi girly hair-clutch, grabs a ray-gun dropped by one of the stooges and shoots the henchman posted at the Pit’s controls. Alas, he’s a Grade A minion, and even as he dies he throws the big switch that opens a trapdoor beneath Flash and Aura, sending them plummeting into darkness...See
“The Tunnel of Terror”
Chapter Two of “FLASH
GORDON” serial to be
shown at this theatre next