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Category:    Home > Reviews > Serial > Science Fiction > Adventure > Space Opera > Buck Rogers (1939/Universal serial/VCI DVD)

Buck Rogers (1939 serial/VCI set)


Picture: C-     Sound: C-     Extras: D     Chapters: C



I will admit it.  As a young lad, I watched Buck Rogers religiously.  Maybe it was Gil Gerard’s debonair cheekiness, the playful antics of Twiggy, the pedantry of Doctor Theopolis, or possibly even a small juvenile crush on Erin Gray, but the modern incarnation of Buck Rogers was rather enjoyable television (I was always a big fan of Hawk’s ship).  Knowing that Buck Rogers began as a comic strip followed by a serial, it is still difficult to separate my childhood experiences when watch Larry “Buster” Crabbe’s Buck Rogers.  Released in 1939, at the height of Crabbe’s success as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers follows the adventures of Buck and Buddy as they help rid the Earth of Killer Kane and his thuggish gang.


Piloting a dirigible on an unspecified mission in 1939, Buck and Buddy are trapped in an ice storm that guarantees death unless something drastic happens.  Naturally, the zeppelin is equipped with nirvano gas which puts them into suspended animation, ensuring their survival.  Five hundred years later, Buck and Buddy are found by scientists from the Hidden City.  Since the story must advance in a timely fashion, Buck and Buddy are awakened and are quickly acclimated to the future, so much so that Buck can pilot space crafts and lead rebellions.  The twenty-fifth century is a dystopia where Killer Kane governs the Earth with an iron fist, comical it may be (the only crime identified in the film perpetrated by Kane is racketeering...racketeering!?  That’s the face of despotism?)  Buck is informed that Kane’s rise to power is a direct result of society’s inability to stamp out such lawlessness over five centuries ago (talk about your slippery slope).  In an effort to overthrow Kane and return freedom to the people of Earth, Buck leads a band of soldiers to travel to Saturn to enlist the help of the Saturians against Kane.  Unbeknownst to our hero, Kane has sent his men to Saturn to begin a futuristic smear campaign to valorize Kane as a benevolent ruler and the Hidden City army as dangerous rebels.  The Saturn Council of Wise accepts Kane’s version; and intent on suppressing any hint of anarchy, they arrest Buck and company upon arrival.  Obviously, Buck escapes and kidnaps Prince Tallen, the Saturian envoy, to stop him from signing a treaty with Kane.  What ensues is a series of mistaken identities and sojourns between the Hidden City, Saturn, and Kane’s castle. 


Unlike Flash Gordon and other notable serials, Buck Rogers relies too much on the same plot devices to drive the narrative.  As a rule, I wish to judge a film on its own terms, in its original context; but given that other contemporary serials reward loyal viewers with inventive cliffhangers and believability within the narrative, I reason my cynicism is warranted.  It seems as if every other cliffhangers is the result of mistaken identity, where Buck is flying one of Kane’s ships, or Prince Tallen being captured by one side or another.  But like many of the other serials, the enjoyment of the film is in the small details that portend the future of science fiction as well as provide unambiguous (and not very insightful) social commentary.  In an effort to force Tallen to sign the treaty, Kane utilizes a mind control device that turns Tallen into an obedient automaton.  In fact, Kane uses this technology to enslave the pilots from Hidden City who perform menial tasks below the city (bifurcation of the city as well as some stylistic choices found in the sets clearly echo Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis; but I assure you, the parallels end there).  However, on an ideological level, it is rather interesting that those in Hidden City are determined to overthrow Kane and liberate the world, but refuse to be considered rebels, as if rebellion is a four letter word.  It may be ascribing too much to the narrative, but how the film negotiates the discourses of rebellion and liberation might be an interesting topic of discussion, especially given the context of its production.  Likewise, the role of the scientist is worthy of discussion.  The leaders of Hidden City are stereotypical scientists, stilted yet inquisitive who wish for the technological fruits of their intellectual labor to serve humankind.


The full frame, monochrome image is second generation or so from prints that were distributed for early TV use, as the “Movietime” logos show, but they are still varied form chapter to chapter and even have some good footage to enjoy.  However, you can see form image missing on all four sides that this is a dupe, but it is watchable enough if you get interested.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono also shows the age of the optical mono on the prints, but it is not totally unbearable.  The extras are slight and makes one wish for more extras as VCI had done for their Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe set, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site.


Buster Crabbe is expectantly gregarious as Buck Rogers and Constance Moore’s Wilma Deering is fine (but she is no Erin Gray).  But the film itself would not top my list of recommendations for those interested in revisiting the old serials (see Flash Gordon).  Moreover, the transfer itself is a little washed out and parts of the audio track possess an occasional clicking sound.  Certainly, this is a product of the source material, but VCI did a rather fine job with Flash Gordon, that one would hope the same care would be afforded to this offering.  Also, the disc, a flipper, is extremely shallow, with only a photo gallery and other serial trailers as special features (when the cover boasts “animated motion menus” under special features, one should be weary).  As nostalgic creature, I usually frown upon reincarnations of classic cinema, but I will take Gil and Erin any day.  Yet, these films were clear inspiration for filmmakers like George Lucas.  These serials were designed to capture the imagination of the youth, so I guess in the end, it worked.  Otherwise, we would not have Twiggy, and perhaps even Chewbacca. 



-   Ron Von Burg


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