Monday, August 30, 2010

Retro View: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe

It's been a while since one I wrote one of these and with its 70th anniversary this year let's take a look back at the final entry in the original space hero trilogy.

As usual the Earth is facing a new threat-a "purple death" that leaves a purple mark on its victim and is causing mass hysteria. While trying to find the cause of this outbreak, Flash Gordon (Larry "Buster" Crabbe) and Dr. Zarkov discover a ship from the planet Mongo nearby discharging particles into the atmosphere. A quick trip to Mongo and sure enough they discover its their old arch nemesis Ming (Charles Middleton) is behind the new threat. And for the next 12 chapters Flash and company attempt to stop the "purple death" with an antidote found in the frozen wasteland of Frigia, stop Ming's fiery projectiles, rescue Dale Arden (Carol Hughes) from marriage to Ming, navigate the "land of the dead" filled with Rock Men and big lizards and save the universe. In short the same as always.

I admit I like these old serials. The best ones are fun throwbacks to an era of movie making no longer in existence where you had good guys and bad guys, not a bunch of heroes with emo problems (yes you Spider-Man and Batman.) That being said Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is probably the weakest of the three serials. Part of it is probably because distributor Universal didn't plan on making a third one but instead a sequel to the previous year's Buck Rogers, which also starred Crabbe but when that one failed to perform up to the first two Flash Gordon epics, the studio slapped this one together. And it shows as it basically repeats elements from the first two-an unknown threat from space, Ming's sudden lust for Dale, the Rock Men in place of the Clay People from Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars, even some of the same footage of rockets landing and taking off and the poor lizards with false scales glued on. Granted this one does expand and show some of the locations from Alex Raymond's original strips-notably the frozen Frigia and the kingdom of Aboria and there are the standard fist fights and cliffhangers but it's been done before and better. Crabbe does his best but even he later admitted it was his least favorite while the best performance comes from Middleton whose Ming still commands attention-even though nothing compares to his turn in the later chapters of Trip to Mars where he really gets unleashed.

And yes this one does have the intros that go up the screen that George Lucas borrowed for Star Wars. So while the first two are full four-star serials, this one gets **1/2. (I'll offer up my thoughts on the other two soon.)

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