Thursday, September 23, 2010

Retro View: Flash Gordon

Who's ready to go to Mongo?

The world is having problems. An unidentified planet is hurtling through space on an apparent collision course with Earth, which leads to mass hysteria. Traveling home to be with his father, famed polo player Flash Gordon (Larry "Buster" Crabbe) meets lovely Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) as they both have to bail out of their plane when it hits bad weather. And of course they happen to land right near a rocket ship created by Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon) and agree to go on his mad mission to save the world. And you can figure out the rest-they land on that unidentified planet called Mongo and meet the Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton) who decides to send Zarkov to his lab, marry Dale and get rid of that annoying blond guy until Ming's daughter Aura (Priscilla Lawson) gets the hots for our hero which helps him escape and establish ties with Thun the Lion Man, the rightful heir to Mongo's throne Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) and the boisterous Vultan (John Lipson), king of the Hawkmen in his attempt to save Earth. Will he succeed? Well considering I'm reviewing the three backwards I guess you can tell how it turns out in the last chapter.

I have to admit a soft spot for old Flash Gordon. He is-outside of John Carter-probably the best space hero ever created-a normal guy fighting to save the galaxy, rescue the hot babe and stop the bad guy's evil plot. It makes sense that virtually every "pulp" sci-fi creation since Alex Raymond's creation made his debut in the funny pages in 1934-from Star Trek to Star Wars to Avatar-owes more than a passing tribute to Flash, who himself was pretty much influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs. And I have a soft spot for this serial as well, even with its uneven acting, effects that seem laughable compared to today's technical wizardry and the bizarre lack of pants on the male characters.

What is probably most surprising is how faithful it is to Raymond's strip. The characters and the plot are all presented pretty much as they were in the comics, which is a rarity then and even now. The biggest scene stealer is Middleton who brings Ming-with all of his Fu Manchu influence-to life in a way that wouldn't make it past the PC Police today (if you doubt it, just remember how boring Ming was in that awful Sci-Fi Channel series from a few years ago.) Middleton is almost upstaged by both Lipson's funny Vultan (even though I admit to still liking Brian Blessed's take in the 1980 film best) and the female characters' skimpy outfits. As Flash Crabbe hasn't gotten comfortable with the character as he would in the next serial. Here he mostly shows off his athleticism and does have some moments with Rogers that adds some romance-something notably absent in the next two (I guess the kids weren't interested in the smoochy stuff.)

In the end is this the best serial ever made? Possibly (even though I still prefer Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars and Adventures of Captain Marvel). Is it the most fun? Definitely. Rating: **** out of 4.

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