Buck Rogers (1939 serial/VCI set)
C- Sound: C- Extras: D Chapters: C
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.
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.
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.
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