Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars picks up almost exactly where Flash Gordon left off, with our courageous trio of interplanetary adventurers–Flash Gordon (Larry “Buster” Crabbe), Dale Arden (Jean Rogers), and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon)–returning to Earth from the planet Mongo. They are greeted to a royal welcome, since their voyage has saved the Earth from being destroyed by the late Emperor Ming of Mongo. Zarkov, however, attempts to curb the Earthlings’ ebullience by cautioning them that the defeat and death of Ming does not mean that their planet is free from other threats of extraterrestrial invasion. As usual, Zarkov is correct; shortly after his warning speech, the Martian Queen Azura (Beatrice Roberts) begins an operation designed to siphon off the “nitron” (aka nitrogen) in the Earth’s atmosphere. Azura’s primary goal is to create nitron-powered weapons with which to wage a war against her mortal foes, the Clay People of Mars. She’s indifferent to the devastating effect that it will have on the Earth, while her chief adviser and military consultant regards the destruction of Earth as the main attraction of the plan. That adviser is none other than Ming (Charles Middleton), still very much alive and longing for revenge on Flash and Zarkov for toppling him from his throne and driving him into exile on Mars.
As the Earth begins to experience catastrophic floods and storms, due to the effects of Azura’s “Nitron Lamp,” Zarkov, Flash, and Dale launch another interplanetary trip to discover the cause of the catastrophes, which Zarkov has determined are due to a beam that emanates from outer space. They discover an unexpected stowaway aboard after takeoff–reporter “Happy” Hapgood (Donald Kerr), who had set out to track down Zarkov and get his opinion of the world-wide disasters. Not long after arriving on Mars, our quartet of Earth adventurers find themselves embroiled in the war between Azura and the Clay People. The latter are one-time rivals of the Queen, who have been transformed into living clay by Azura’s magical powers and banished to underground caverns from whence they carry on a guerilla war against Azura’s forces. The Clay People’s king enlists the aid of Flash and his party, as both of them want to stop Azura’s nitron-collecting plans, and, with additional aid from Prince Barin (Richard Alexander)–who arrives on Mars to try to convince the Martians to expel Ming–Flash and his party pit themselves against Azura’s magic, Ming’s machinations, Ming’s savage allies the Forest People, and many other hazards, in their quest to save the Earth.
Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is fully as good as the first Flash Gordon serial, although its strengths are in slightly different areas. While Trip to Mars doesn’t measure up to Flash Gordon when it comes to colorful characters and fantastic monsters, its focused plotline surpasses the episodic story of the earlier serial. In Flash Gordon, the protagonists merely responded to the perpetual perils that were hurled at them by Ming, King Vultan, and King Kala, while Ming’s own plans for destroying the Earth were largely abandoned after the first chapter in favor of his attempts to marry Dale and destroy Flash. In Trip to Mars, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov initiate events instead of just coping with them, and Ming’s new grand design drives the plot far more strongly than his earlier one, giving the good guys a clear-cut objective (the destruction of the Nitron Lamp) beyond simple escape from Mongo.
While Trip to Mars has no characters to rival Flash Gordon’s King Vultan and no bizarre beasts like the Orangopoid or the Fire Dragon, it still has excellent other-worldly atmosphere. The sets are not as varied and intricate as in the first serial, but still surpass the backdrops of almost any other chapterplay. Especially striking are Ming’s “powerhouse,” with its laboratory equipment and its disintegration room, Azura’s massive palace with its unique architectural design (particularly the futuristic pocket doors), the Clay People’s eerie caves, and the wonderfully-designed realm of the Forest People, with its twisted trees, climbing vines, hidden tunnels amid tree roots, and treehouse-like observation platforms.
In addition to the big sets, there are dozens of other major and minor props and special effects that make Trips to Mars memorably atmospheric; there’s the the Martians’ flying capes, the Martian televiewer screens (which are cleverly incorporated into the recap sequences at the beginning of each chapter), the Clay People’s vapor-healing chamber, and the bridge of light that connects Azura’s rocket tower to the rest of her palace and is powered by a simple switch like any Earthling lamp (the scene where Flash and Zarkov are first forced to cross the unsafe-looking thing is quite funny), to name but a few. I also appreciate the fact that Azura’s spaceship squadrons–her “stratosleds”–are designed differently than any of the ships in the first Flash Gordon serial; one would expect the aerial fleets of differing planets to differ in appearance. Another neat touch of internal consistency is the use of three completely different forms of salute by the three principal Martian races–Queen Azura’s subjects, the Clay People, and the Forest People.
The serial’s screenplay maintains good continuity with the previous Flash outing, despite being the work of a completely different team of writers–Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas. The new writing team avoids any of the clunky lines that occasionally crept into Flash Gordon’s dialogue exchanges; they also, despite having to resort to a few flashbacks to the first serial for padding purposes, manage to make their plot fit its fifteen-chapter length quite nicely. The major plot thread of the heroes’ attempts to destroy Ming and Azura’s Nitron Lamp is skillfully interwoven with several subplots–the Clay People’s efforts to regain their natural shape, the attempts by both Flash and Ming to get hold of the Black Sapphire of Kalu (a talisman that can neutralize Azura’s magic), and Ming’s plot to undermine Azura and seize the Martian throne.
Trip to Mars’ script wisely spreads its plot developments over the course of the serial, instead of introducing all its ideas in the first chapter and letting them tread water until the final one: the Clay People aren’t introduced till the second chapter or the Forest People until the sixth, while Prince Barin first arrives in Chapter Seven. The Nitron Lamp is destroyed in Chapter Nine and rebuilt over the course of the following chapters until it must be destroyed again at the climax, and one of the principal villains is killed off in Chapter Thirteen.
The cliffhangers aren’t quite as varied as in the first Flash serial, due to the lack of the various monsters that frequently attacked Flash for chapter-ending purposes in the earlier outing. However, writers still manage to avoid excessive repetition; for instance, while there are three chapter endings involving stratosled crashes, each one is set up differently–the first has Flash crashing a stratosled into another stratosled to stop it from bombing Dale and Happy, the second has a stratosled crashing on top of Flash and Zarkov, and the third has Flash and the pilots of a ’sled grapping for the controls as it soars towards yet another crash. There’s also an excellent cliffhanger in which Flash, Dale, Happy, and Zarkov are surrounded by an ever-narrowing ring of fire in the Forest People’s kingdom, and a memorably unusual one that has a hypnotized Dale stabbing an unsuspecting Flash in the back.
Though Trip to Mars has no swordfights or wrestling matches corresponding to those in Flash Gordon, it still features a nice variety of action scenes–including stratosled dogfights, fights among the vines and treetops of the Forest Kingdom, and chases through Azura’s big palace; the palace sequence in Chapter Five, which has the nimble Flash vaulting through windows to avoid the guards, is a particular standout. Directors Ford Beebe (a Universal serial veteran) and Robert Hill (a talented director who rarely escaped from low-budget independent serials and B-films) do a fine job of orchestrating these action scenes, assisted by stuntmen Eddie Parker (doubling Buster Crabbe), George DeNormand, Tom Steele, Bud Wolfe, and Jerry Frank. All of the aforementioned stuntmen, except Parker, also pop up in minor acting roles.
The performances in Trip to Mars are all first-rate; the returning actors from the first serial are all just as good as they were in Flash Gordon, while the new major players fit in smoothly. Buster Crabbe’s Flash is just as tough, chipper, athletic, and likable as in the first serial–and a good deal more wise and resourceful than before, improvising strategy and coming up with plans in tough situations instead of just trying to batter his way out. Frank Shannon’s Zarkov, as consequence of Flash’s new-found intelligence, has a reduced part, not guiding the good guys’ actions as he did in the first serial; he still functions as the scientific brains of the group, though, and is still as intense, serious, and sincere as before.
Jean Rogers, with her long blonde hair bobbed and dyed brown to better match the comic-strip version of Dale Arden (she’s also dressed in less arresting fashion), isn’t as stunning as in Flash Gordon, but is still a warm, welcome, and lovely presence. Her part here is smaller than in the first serial, though, since Ming is not romantically interested in her this time out (Ming, though no gentleman, evidently prefers blondes). Richard Alexander’s Prince Barin is a lot more self-assured when it comes to delivering dialogue this time around (helped, no doubt, by the absence of any overly high-flown lines), while his convincingly royal bearing and his commanding size are as effective as before.
Charles Middleton’s Ming is even more entertainingly sinister here than he was in Flash Gordon, getting a good deal more screen time and given a more devilish appearance by a notably forked beard. Though still given opportunities to break into tyrannical and bloodthirsty rages (particularly in his insane rant in the final chapter), Middleton spends much of the serial displaying duplicity and sly subtlety instead, since his Ming must pretend to friendship with Azura even while plotting against her. Middleton carries off this slightly more multi-faceted version of Ming masterfully, winning a few laughs with his crafty cynicism while remaining thoroughly sinister and hateful.
Beatrice Roberts does a fine job as Queen Azura, eschewing the sneering, aggressive demeanor of other serial villainesses for a regal, dignified manner (with a wryly humorous undercurrent) that contrasts interestingly with her often cruel behavior. Her Azura comes off as selfish and ruthless, but not an abusive tyrant like Ming. Donald Kerr as reporter Happy Hapgood, the other principal new character, is as controversial among fans as most other serial comedy-relief characters are. Speaking for myself, though, I found him quite likable and entertaining; he provides an amusingly commonplace point-of-view towards the fantastic world of Mars and is never obtrusive, gratingly stupid, or obnoxious. Additionally, his character is allowed to be quite heroic and helpful when the chips are down, a far cry from one-dimensional cowardly “comic” pests like Sonny Ray in Perils of Pauline or Lee Ford in SOS Coast Guard.
Wheeler Oakman is very good as Tarnak, Ming’s wily lab assistant and co-conspirator against Azura. C. Montague Shaw, concealed under heavy makeup for most of the serial, conveys an impressive air of ruined dignity as the King of the Clay People and manages to seem both sinister and sympathetic at different times. Usual hero Kane Richmond brings appropriate depth of characterization to his key role as a Martian pilot, who proves instrumental in helping Flash overthrow Ming in the later chapters. Anthony Warde has a small part as Toran, king of the Forest People, but extracts as much snarling nastiness as possible from the role. Future director Thomas Carr is his second-in-command, Kenne Duncan is the officer in charge of Azura’s airdrome, Lane Chandler and Jack Mulhall both appear as pilots of her Death Squadron, and Warner Richmond has a small role as one of Ming’s palace cohorts.
Hooper Atchley and James Blaine pop up as self-important Earth scientists, propounding ingenious and inaccurate theories as to the causes of the damage brought about by the Nitron Lamp, while Edwin Stanley is the general presiding over a council comprised of these two and additional savants. Louis Merrill (a radio actor who played character roles in several feature films) has a brief but memorable turn as the blunt and slightly uncouth Dr. Metz, who alone among the scientists has the humility to admit that Zarkov is the only one capable of unravelling the riddle of the disasters. Merrill’s characterization is so vivid that one wishes the actor had taken a larger part in this chapterplay or in other serials.
Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is a nearly ideal sequel, in that it manages to preserve the basic strengths of its predecessor while deviating from it in some areas and improving on it in others. It’s also a nearly ideal serial, independent of its relation to the earlier Flash Gordon; it balances good acting, atmosphere, action, and plotting in such fine style that it would still be a notable achievement if it were the sole entry in the Flash Gordon series.