Movies based on comic strips are all the rage today, as evidenced by the gigantic box office success of The Avengers. Still to come are a new Spiderman and a new Batman flick. These are all superhero movies. If you’ve got a thing for guys in tights and capes who can fly and knock over buildings that’s fine. But once upon a time, comic strips and movies featured non-super heroes. Just ordinary humans thrown into fantastic adventures— guys and gals you could identify with. The superhero phenomenon is some kind of geeky wish fulfillment. But the kind of sci-fi or adventure film I’m talking about is based on the idea that the hero is more or less somebody like you or me, and if we were in his situation we might be able to do the things he does. You don’t necessarily need super powers to be a hero.
Perhaps the best of this kind of comic strip movie was one made way back in 1936. There perhaps has never been a better one than the original Flash Gordon. Not the vapid 1980’s Flash Gordon feature film with Sam Jones. That was greasy kid’s stuff. I’m talking about Universal’s twelve chapter serial starring the real Flash Gordon, Buster Crabbe. I defy anyone to find a better example of a fictional character brought to life than Crabbe’s portrayal of Alex Raymond’s comic strip character. After he dyed his hair blonde, he was Flash. I can’t think of another comic strip character, or for that matter any fictional character, that has ever been better realized on film.
Buster was an Olympic gold medal swimmer, like his rival, Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan. He was in top physical condition when he got the part. He was totally believable as the earthman who travels to the planet Mongo with Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov in a rocket ship of Zarkov’s own design. Buster was completely convincing as a dashing hero, capable of battling Octosacs, Hawkmen, Lionmen, and of course, the Sacred Orangapoid of Mongo, who was in reality, stunt man Ray Corrigan in a gorilla suit with a horn glued on his forehead.
The serial opens with the world in cataclysm. A strange planet is hurtling toward Earth and will soon collide with it. The first scene shows Flash’s dad, who is an astronomer, telling his assistant at the observatory, that his son had given up his polo game to be home when the end comes. Of course, this begs the question, who in their right mind would be playing polo while the world was ending anyway? Nevertheless, Flash tries to get home. But he never makes it. The plane he is on gets caught in a geomagnetic storm, and the passengers are given parachutes to bail out. (Maybe that should be the Transporation Security Administration’s next rule. Parachutes for every airline passenger in case another pilot or flight attendant goes berserk.)
Only trouble is, they seem to be one parachute short. So Flash does what any Saturday matinee hero would do, he takes hold of the prettiest girl on the plane, who has a parachute, and jumps out the door, holding on to her. Clever boy, Flash! The girl in question is none other than Dale Arden, played by Jean Rogers, who was one of Universal’s contract players is still best known for her role in this serial.
They land in a field where they run into Zarkov (Frank Shannon) who’s trying to get his rocket ship in the air. But he’s got a problem. His assistant skipped out, I guess thinking it’s better to die on Earth when it gets sideswiped by the onrushing planet, than to get killed flying in a nutty professor’s rocket ship. Be that as it may, Flash and Dale agree to go up with Zarkov, saying “It’s worth a chance” to try and save the Earth.
This serial, directed by Frederick Stephani, moves at a brisk pace. No sooner do the earthlings land on Mongo than they are captured by minions of Ming the Merciless, Emperor of Mongo. Now, I gotta ask you. If you were a movie villain, could you possibly have a better name than that? I don’t think so. Charles Middleton played Ming in Full Sinister. His eyes squint narrowly, he taps his finger tips together, and says things like, “Send them to the Death Chamber!”
Now here the plot starts to get complicated. Ming has a hot-looking daughter. A brunette, totally opposite in type from the blond, virginal-looking Dale Arden. When Ming lays his evil eyes on Dale, he gets a yen to see if Earth Girls Are Easy. At the same time, Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura, played by Priscilla Lawson, has eyes for Flash.
Ming sends Flash into an arena to fight three guys that look like they took an overdose of HGH, and when he defeats them, Ming sends him through a trapdoor to certain death. Only Aura steps in to save him and they go down the pit together. Ming decides to force Dale to marry him, and Flash has to battle his way back to the chamber where the marriage ceremony will take place and be completed at the thirteenths stroke of a gong.
The rest of the serial is basically Ming trying to get Dale back in his clutches, and Princess Aura trying to eliminate Dale and make Flash forget about her. In the course of the story, however, important sub-plots are introduced. Ming’s plan is to destroy the Earth, but Zarkov convinces him to conquer the planet instead. It’s just a ploy for time, but Ming falls for it. In the meantime, Flash gets captured by Sharkmen who live in theMongoSea, taken prisoner by Hawkmen and flown toSkyCitywhere he meets Vultan, King of the Hawkmen. He also meets Thun, King of the Lion Men. These characters are all important.
Ming rules Mongo with an iron hand, subjugating all these various tribes of people. They all hate Ming, but they’re too afraid of him to fight him, so they go along with whatever he wants. Flash first has to fight all these different people through twelve exciting chapters. He defeats them in various forms of combat and proves himself a better man. And because of his courage and sense of honor, he actually makes friends with the leaders of these people. The story turns out to be about friendship and how friendship helps all these diverse people stop hating each other and unite to help defeat Ming. One heroic guy with a sense of honor frees an entire planet from the grip of evil and hatred.
All the different plot threads are cleverly resolved by the end of the 400 plus minute serial. Even Aura finds some one else to love in Prince Barin, once she realizes Flash can love no one but Dale Arden.
Flash Gordon is a classic of its kind. It is listed in American Film Institute’s list of all time great movies, and has been the inspiration for countless imitations, including Star Wars. George Lucas happily admits the idea for his six part space opera stems from Saturdays watching Flash Gordon as a kid.
Every so often I hear that someone is going to take another shot at doing a new Flash Gordon movie. There’s one in development right now. Fuggetaboudit. There’s no need. It’s been done and isn’t like to be improved on, even if you spend a gazillion dollars in special effects. I mean, where you gonna find another Buster Crabbe?
Universal made three Flash Gordon serials and they are all available on DVD. Check Amazon.com for information.