Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938)

Viewers can sit down with this 15-part serial and adopt one of two attitudes.

1. Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars boasts atrocious special effects, wooden acting from many of its actors and some of the dumbest soldiers serving a power hungry leader who wants to take over the universe. You'd be right on all counts.


2. Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars is a step back into the early days of science fiction on film. Special effects were nowhere near what audiences in the 21st century now take for granted. It's a chance to take a look at just how future technology was seen back in the Dirty Thirties. Flash Gordon features an all-time screen villain with Mongo's Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton). Love that name!

Put me in the latter camp.

Kiefer Sutherland and Fox's 24 owes a debt of thanks to Flash Gordon. Flash (Larry 'Buster' Crabbe) featured certain death at the end of each 15 to 20 minute episode. How often did you wonder how Kiefer's Jack Bauer would survive at the end of each hour? But he did. Time and time again. Pit Flash against fires, explosions, crashing spaceships or rays that appear to burn him alive and he still escapes, with little lingering side effects. Flash, you rock!

How about the technology? Well, the folks behind Flash were way off on just how fast a spaceship could travel ("at least 1,200 miles per hour"), but the paralyzer gun cooked up by Professor Zarkov (Frank Shannon) has the same impact as a present-day Taser. There's a subway that, if the sound effects are to be believed, looks like today's high speed rail.

Three Flash Gordon serials were made between 1936 (Space Soldiers) and 1940 (Conquers the Universe). Trip to Mars picks up where Space Soldiers left off. Flash, Zarkov and Dale Arden are headed back to Earth. But their triumphant return, including a ticker tape parade, is short lived.

Ming has teamed up with Queen Azura of Mars. A ray is sucking the nitron out of Earth's atmosphere. This leads to environmental catastrophes. How's that for another present-day circumstance Flash Gordon's makers got right? If anyone knows why nitron is needed to knock out an enemy, let me know.

The trio heads back into outer space, this time bound for Mars. They meet the clay people, who have been banished to live underground by Azura. Old ally Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) returns , guess when, shortly before an execution attempt.

Flash and company have ray guns, but most battles are waged with fists. It's impressive to watch a 50-something Zarkov beat the snot out of soldiers who are 30 years younger than him and apparently in the best physical shape of their lives. How do you do it, Zarkov?

The Flash Gordon serials will always hold a special place in Reel Popcorn Junkie's heart. I watched them on American television growing up. But even I have to draw the line on the addition of reporter Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr) to the cast. He's there for comic relief. I'm not laughing. Flash and Zarkov should have left him with the forest people. He's the equivalent of Scrappy Doo joining his uncle, Scooby Doo. Not. Needed.

But, give credit to Kerr. He appeared in a staggering 478 titles in his career. Most of them are not credited.

It's more fun to watch this serial than Flash's so-so return to the big screen in 1980, complete with soundtrack from Queen (who get it right when they describe Gordon as "king of the impossible").

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Wow. Richard Alexander, who appears as Flash's ally Prince Barin, was Westhus in the original All Quiet on the Western Front.

1 comment:

Divers and Sundry said...

"Put me in the latter camp."

me, too! i love watching the early efforts and think they're often great fun.