Flash Gordon begins with the strange planet Mongo hurtling towards Earth on a collision course. People across the world, from London to darkest Africa, are panicking as their seemingly certain doom draws near. One of the doomed Earthlings, polo player and all-around athlete Flash Gordon (Larry “Buster” Crabbe) is flying home from college to be with his scientist father (Richard Tucker) at the end. A meteor shower, one of the side effects of Mongo’s ever-nearer approach to the Earth, begins to fall around the plane, and the passengers are forced to bail out. Flash assists pretty fellow passenger Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) with her parachute, and the two land together near a remote laboratory–the lab of brilliant scientist Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon). Zarkov, a former colleague of Flash’s father who is regarded as a loony by other members of the scientific community, has been working on a rocket ship in which he intends to fly to Mongo and attempt to find a way to stop the planet’s impending collision with Earth. Zarkov confronts Flash and Dale, and after overcoming his initial suspicion that Flash has been sent to sabotage his project, Zarkov asks Flash to accompany him on the flight, taking the place of Zarkov’s assistant, who has fled rather than assist Zarkov on what seems a fool’s errand. Flash agrees to go along, and Dale (after some objections from Zarkov) comes along too.
Arriving on Mongo, our heroes are shortly taken prisoner by the soldiers of an Emperor Ming, who is the supreme ruler of the universe (at least according to the captain of Ming’s soldiers). The trio is brought before Ming (Charles Middleton) in his enormous castle, and the sinister ruler reveals that he is deliberately directing Mongo towards the Earth, planning to wipe out the planet (apparently from sheer maliciousness). Zarkov, as a delaying tactic, manages to convince Ming to eschew the destruction of Earth and plan a conquest of it instead, but new trouble instant erupts when Ming gets a look at Dale. He promptly decides to marry her, but the Emperor is so unwise as to clutch Dale’s arm, leading Flash to rough Ming up. Ming promptly orders Flash thrown into the Arena of Death, where our hero must fight three humanoid ape-like creatures. Winning the struggle, he is dropped down a trap door by the enraged Ming, but is rescued through the intervention of Ming’s daughter Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), who has almost immediately fallen in love with Flash. This is simply the prelude to thirteen chapters’ worth of high adventure on Mongo, as Flash attempts to keep Dale out of Ming’s clutches and Zarkov, slyly maneuvering against Ming even while working in the despot’s laboratories, attempts to figure out a way to block Ming’s ambitions and safely return himself and his friends to Earth. Along the way, our heroes will encounter Lion Men, Shark Men, and Hawk Men, as well as Fire Dragons, giant lizards, Orangopoids, Tigrons, and Octosacs.
Flash Gordon is probably the most popular and certainly the best-known of all movie serials, and both its popularity and its fame are well-deserved. Flash has all the strengths of the other good 1930s Universal serials–strong performances, unabashedly emotional moments, colorful characters, and expansive sets. Add to those strengths fantastic and imaginative props, locales, and creatures, the likes of which are not to be found in any other cliffhanger, and you begin to see why Flash Gordon has remained the best-remembered chapterplay of all. The serial throws one villain, monster or gadget after another at its protagonists, but is so well-paced as never to seem frantic or overcrowded; even its few slow spots are made interesting by the actors, their characters, and the fantastic world that surrounds them.
Flash Gordon was reportedly budgeted at over $300,000, a practically unequalled budget for a serial, and this alone sets it apart from its competition. The serial’s costumes, props, and miniatures are all on a far more impressive scale than those of other 1930s serials (although the miniatures are not quite as convincing as those at Republic Pictures). The serial also makes good use of some impressive re-decorated sets from Universal’s bigger-budgeted films (among them the Frankenstein and Dracula films and the silent Hunchback of Notre Dame). This lavish (for a serial) deployment of resources gives Flash more atmosphere than any other cliffhanger, helping to make the many weird locales of Mongo–Ming’s laboratory (filled with Kenneth Strickfaden’s impressive and quirky electrical props), Ming’s enormous throne room, King Vultan’s floating sky palace with its gigantic atom-furnace room, the Shark Men’s underwater citadel, the monster-haunted tunnels beneath Ming’s fortress–convincingly otherworldly.
The cinematography of Flash Gordon futher augments the serial’s atmosphere with some strikingly stylish camera angles, particularly in Flash’s fight with the “monkey-men” in the first chapter, Zarkov and Ming’s first laboratory conversation, sequences of various characters hurrying through the tunnels, and Ming’s dramatic entrance into the Fire Tunnel in the final chapter. I’d hazard a guess that these unusual shots are the work of director Frederick Stephani, a German-born director whose only chapterplay was Flash; the serial’s cinematographers, Richard Fryer and Jerry Ash, are two cliffhanger regulars whose other entries in the genre never looked like this.
Supposedly Ray Taylor directed many portions of this serial, though he’s uncredited on screen; perhaps Taylor was needed to assist Stephani, who presumably was unfamiliar with the serial format. If Stephani is behind the more artistic-looking moments in Flash Gordon, we probably have Taylor to thank for the serial’s steady pace and for its well-done action sequences. While the serial contains no elaborate fistfights, it is not lacking in derring-do; Flash’s battle with the monkey-men is quite lengthy and exciting, as is a later fight in the water with a group of Shark Men and Flash’s wrestling match with the Shark Men’s King Kala. Flash’s big swordfight with the Masked Champion of Mongo and his subsequent battle with the Orangopoid are also played for all they’re worth, while Flash’s fight with the Sacred Tigron (a very large tiger) is memorable as well, though it’s hard to believe that our hero can emerge from the struggle without even a scratch. The sequence where an invisible Flash, with the help of King Vultan of the Hawk Men, takes on a squad of Ming’s guards is also exciting and rather amusing as well, with the boisterous Vultan laughs heartily while the unseen Flash wreaks havoc among the guards. Some of the stunt work seems to be handled by Crabbe himself, while he is doubled in other scenes by Eddie Parker; Tom Steele, Lane Chandler, and Jerry Frank also participate in the action scenes, while Ray Corrigan turns in another one of his delightful ape portrayals as the Sacred Orangopoid that Flash must fight.
One shouldn’t forget to give the screenwriters–director Stephani and the more experienced Basil Dickey, George Plympton, and Ella O’Neill–credit for the many good things in Flash Gordon. Occasionally the dialogue sounds rather pompous and unnatural, particularly Flash’s challenge to King Kala (“If I could not defeat a weakling like you, I would gladly welcome death!”); such lines sound like attempts to emulate the style of the beautifully-drawn but clunkily-written Flash Gordon comic strip. However, the grandiose dialogue– though it sounds inappropriate for Flash–seems just right and adds to the larger-than-life feel of the serial when it’s spoken by more baroque characters like Ming, Dr. Zarkov, the High Priest of Tao, or King Vultan. There are also some funny lines among the grandiose ones, mainly spoken by the roistering King Vultan and occasionally by the sardonic Ming (when he learns that Dale has been carried off by Vultan’s Hawk Men, Ming dryly comments that Vultan will “undoubtedly compel the Earth girl to marry him. He makes a habit of it.”)
Again following the Gordon comic strip, the serial incorporates romance into its plot far more than any other sound chapterplay does. Ming’s interest in Dale, Flash and Dale’s mutual attachment, Aura’s attraction to Flash, and Barin’s love for Aura, all play important parts in the plot and allow for some unusually emotional moments, particularly in the scene in which a practically hysterical Princess Aura threatens to put out Flash’s eyes with a blowtorch unless he renounces Dale, only to drop the torch in tears when Flash remains unmoved by the threat. Most plot summaries of Flash risk making it sound like an outer-space soap opera at times, but its romantic elements remain muted, bringing added interest to the action but never stifling it.
The serial’s chapter endings are a memorable and varied lot, with Flash being, at different times, apparently drowned by an Octosac, electrocuted in King Vultan’s “sonic room,” crushed by a Gocko (a lobster-like dragon) and fried by a Fire Dragon, among other perils. The Gocko and the Fire Dragon, who seem to bear a family resemblance though they are clearly not identical species, are fairly impressive “suitimation” creatures (to borrow a term from Dave Sindelar of the Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings site). Both look a bit unwieldy but genuinely scary (particularly their heads); both were played by Glenn Strange, and both are skillfully made to look bigger than they are through well-done miniature work.
Above: The fire dragon attacks (left) as most of the principal characters react (right). In the right-hand still, you see (right to left), Aura, Barin, Dr. Zarkov, the High Priest of Tao (background), King Vultan–and Dale, kneeling above the unconscious Flash.
The giant “slurposaurs” (to borrow another Sindelar term)–in other words, iguanas photographed in miniature sets–are also pretty well-done for low-budget effects and are far more effectively integrated into the action than the “slurposaurs” in bigger-budgeted films like Irwin Allen’s The Lost World. The space-ship miniatures, though a bit toylike in appearance at times, are good, and I appreciate the special effects department’s effort to make the ships of the various planets and countries distinct from each other–Zarkov’s Earth space-ship, Ming’s rocket fleet, and the Lion Men’s “gyro-tops” are all differentiated in appearance. The Shark Men’s city too much like what it is, a table-top set (particularly in the shots of its partial destruction by flood), but King Vultan’s floating city is a memorable visual effect.
Although, as mentioned above, Buster Crabbe is occasionally saddled with some difficult dialogue, his Flash is one of the most likable serial heroes of all time. Unlike most cliffhanger protagonists, Flash, though stronger, braver, and nobler than most people, doesn’t seem much smarter or more level-headed than the average fellow, which makes him a lot easier to identify with. He continually rushes into danger head-first, and gets out of trouble either by sheer pluck or through the assistance of Dr. Zarkov or Princess Aura. His good-natured and casual acceptance of danger is also very appealing, as when he cheerily agrees to accompany Zarkov on his possibly suicidal space mission, or when he nonchalantly reassures Dale before asking Zarkov to turn him invisible for a foray into Ming’s throne room. And, of course, Crabbe the champion swimmer can handle the various athletics and acrobatics required of a serial hero quite convincingly.
Jean Rogers’ Dale Arden is a pleasure to watch; her stunning beauty has never been seen to better advantage. Her acting is also excellent, particularly in her reactions to the bizarre terrors of Mongo; critics have always seemed compelled to make silly comments about her propensity to scream and faint in times of danger or emotional stress, but one can hardly blame Dale for reacting with horror to some of the sights she sees (among them giant lizards, the Tigron, and King Vultan’s pet bear). Rogers’ Dale is so sweet and lovable right from the start, and has so much feminine warmth and charm, that I’m left scratching my head over those commentators who have treated her as an annoyance or an irritant. She’s as fully appealing a heroine as Flash is a hero.
Many serials divide the villainy between a “brains” heavy and an “action” heavy; Flash Gordon is one of the only cliffhangers that features what could be called a brains hero/action hero team. While it’s Flash that always handles the physical challenges, it’s Frank Shannon’s Zarkov who continually handles the mental challenges, whether it be creating various scientific devices to save a situation or formulating a plan to rescue his friends from various dangers. Shannon’s kindly but dignified countenance and his intense, serious delivery help him to bring real credence to the most impossible-sounding technical dialogue and help him to deliver fatalistically determined dialogue and stern, confident commands–like his ultimatum to King Vultan when the Hawk Men’s city is about to fall to Earth–in suitably impressive style.
The serial’s heavy is fully as remarkable as its protagonists. Whether sitting on his throne or stalking about in his flowing robes, always with a perpetual scowl and a hint of a cruel sneer, Charles Middleton’s Ming the Merciless is justly the most legendary villain in serials. Middleton makes Ming properly irritable and domineering, and at the same time very sly and subtle; he seems equally willing to use brute power or craft and misrepresentation to gain his ends. The sardonic “heh” with which Middleton punctuates his lines is priceless, as are the arrogant assertions of supreme power that he hurls at his enemies and his displays of autocratic temper, as when he irritatedly orders his High Priest, who has been badgering him about propitiating the Great God Tao, to the dungeon (“Take this babbling idiot away!”).
Priscilla Lawson is also very good as Ming’s daughter, and conveys as much conviction and believability as it is possible to give to such an oscillating character. Aura can be very unpleasantly aggressive, which is what one would expect of the daughter of a tyrant like Ming, but Lawson does not make the character so hard and mean that her occasional moments of softness–and her ultimate conversion to the side of the good guys–seem out of character.
Richard Alexander has one of the most unusual roles of his career as Prince Barin, the rightful heir to the throne of Mongo who allies with Flash against the usurping Ming. Alexander, usually a rough and tough action heavy (see Zorro Rides Again), handles his atypical part quite well, giving his character a proper air of royal dignity and command. He’s more effective when uttering terse lines, however, since he does seem to stumble over his more high-flown pieces of dialogue at times,. James Pierce, a silent screen Tarzan, is Flash’s other principal ally, Prince Thun of the Lion Men, also an antagonist of Ming. Pierce is likably rough-hewn and not particularly regal in manner–but that seems to fit with his character, since the Lion Men appear to be a more primitive people, “barbarian” holdouts against the technocrat Ming.
As interesting as all these characters are, however, John Lipson’s King Vultan of the Hawk Men nearly succeeds in stealing the serial whenever he’s onscreen. An enormously fat and muscular man, even bigger than Richard Alexander, complete with a huge pair of wings, Vultan’s charisma is equal to his physical presence. The character initially seems to be a villain, terrorizing Dale Arden and forcing Flash and Thun to slave in his atom furnaces, but he’s so jovial and boisterous (with an incredibly hearty laugh) that we rather like him in spite of his actions. The sequence where he treats Dale and Aura to dinner and seems to find it hard to believe that Dale is not interested in food is hilarious, as is his subsequent comment when Dale faints at the sight of Flash in the atom furnace (“Hmm! She is weak; she did not eat enough food!”) Also not to be missed are his impudent defiance of his ostensible overlord Ming and his attempt to entertain the dispirited Dale by making shadow pictures on the wall. Vultan, if a bit of a scoundrel, subsequently proves to be fair-minded where his word of honor is concerned, becoming the Earth people’s champion after Ming cheats on a promise to free them and finally helping our heroes in the defeat of Ming. It’s easy to accept Vultan’s joining the side of good, since we’ve liked him so much even when he was being bad.
Duke York Jr. only appears in three episodes, but is quite good as the smirking, hot-tempered King Kala of the Shark Men, who seems to be a once-powerful ruler reduced to dependence on Ming and determined to forget his reduced circumstances by being as nasty as possible to anyone who crosses his path. Theodore Lorch (who oddly takes over the part from the mild-mannered Lon Poff halfway through the serial) is incredibly but enjoyable hammy as the sly High Priest of Tao, rolling his eyes, leeringly double-crossing everyone, and laughing insanely. The dignified but rather elderly Earl Askam is the long-suffering Officer Torch, Ming’s right-hand man, and distinguished Richard Tucker plays Flash’s father, who makes appearances throughout the serial. George Cleveland also appears as one of Professor Gordon’s colleagues. William Desmond plays King Vultan’s second-in-command and minor B-western star Fred Scott is one of Ming’s guards, while Lane Chandler, Jerry Frank, and House Peters Jr. play Shark Men and Fred Kohler Jr., Glenn Strange, and Eddie Parker can be seen as Ming soldiers, John Bagni is a Hawk Man, Constantine Romanoff and Bull Montana are two of the grotesque “monkey-men,” and Al Ferguson is a laboratory worker of Ming’s.
Flash Gordon represents a near-perfect convergence of superior production values, imaginative scripting, and strong acting, and it’s easy to see how it sparked a tremendous upsurge in serial popularity when it was first released–and how it again led to revived interest in the serials when it appeared on TV in the 1950s, helping to keep the genre fresh in the minds of succeeding generations. Of all cliffhangers, it is easily the most famous and the most historically important, as well as being one of the greatest.