Saturday, September 11, 2010

Retro View: Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars

Before he conquered the universe...

As our story opens, our trio of heroes-Flash Gordon (Larry "Buster" Crabbe), Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) have just returned from their adventures on Mongo to a find a grateful Earth giving them a hero's welcome. But there is no rest as the planet is soon racked with unexplained weather problems, leading to mass destruction. The cause as we soon learn is that precious nitrogen is being sucked out of the atmosphere by an unknown beam. It isn't too long before Flash, Dale and Zarkov hop back into their rocket ship and head off to stop the beam which they think is coming from Mongo. Instead they-and a hapless stowaway reporter (Donald Kerr) nicknamed Happy-discover that the beam is actually come from nearby Mars. Once landing they discover a war is going on between the despotic Azura (Beatrice Roberts), the self described "Queen of Magic" and the Clay People-former Martians turned into living clay and that Azura's Nitron Lamp is zapping the Earth's nitrogen for use in her bombers. And of course Flash and company soon discover Azura's ally-old Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton) who has his own plans for conquest. Can Flash save the day and both Earth and Mars?

Made two years after the first serial, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars is in many respects the best of the three Flash serials Universal would produce. Unlike the first one-which suffers from a slow pace at times-this one moves pretty fast, which is pretty impressive considering its 15 chapter length and manages to entertain the viewer, even if some of it might come across as silly to more cynical viewers. Yes there is still the space ships on wires, the sometimes silly dialogue, goofy costumes (especially love Dale and Azura's clothes-they both look like they're going to a dinner party), Happy-who basically is the Jar Jar Binks of his time- and the cliffhangers, even though they at least don't cheat as much as some serials.

But that's what makes this fun. It is 1930s pulp science fiction at its finest. The actors take it all with the utmost sincerity-especially Crabbe who is more comfortable here than the first time around and brings to Flash intelligence (something most of the other versions haven't) and a dash and vitality that puts most of today's comic book actors to shame. But upstaging even him is Middleton who steals the show as Ming. From the first chapter to the last he shows what a pure egomanical villain is-and definetly paved the way for everyone from Lex Luthor to the Emperor Palpatine. From a technical angle the serial also has a polish most serials lacked and I did like the episode intros using comic strip panels.

The only thing missing is a four armed Thark. Beyond that though this is probably the best Flash Gordon film ever made and pure pulpy fun. Just sit back and enjoy the ride (even though I would recommend spreading it out over a few days). Rating: **** out of 4

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