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Category:    Home > Reviews > Serial > Science Fiction > Adventure > Space Opera > Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (Universal/VCI DVD)

Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (VCI set)


Picture: C+     Sound: C     Extras: B-     Chapters: B-



As a child of 70’s, my relationship with cinema is often a balance between cynicism and wonderment (I am still undecided on the Annie Hall-Star Wars debate, but I lean toward the latter).  Therefore, reviewing a movie serial like Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe requires a particular disposition that foregrounds questions of historical context and intended audience.  The serials were indeed an important part in the history of the American film-going experience, specifically geared toward the kids that returned each week to enjoy the moving picture show.  Although the serials rarely spun a complicated yarn or engaged in poignant social criticism, I am certain the serials would be a welcome alternative to all the commercials and previews that precede today’s feature presentations.  Second-hand nostalgia aside, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the third and final installment of the Flash Gordon serials, is rather dated.  Spoiled by spectacular modern technology, today’s younger viewer will find the storylines contrived and the special effects comical.  But once one moves beyond limitations of the serial and appreciates the context of its production, Flash Gordon, based on the Alex Raymond comic strip, becomes a fun and intriguing text that has inspired the future of the science fiction genre.


The serial follows the adventures of Flash Gordon (Larry “Buster” Crabbe), Dale Arden (Carol Hughes), and Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) as they defend the Earth against the malevolent plans of Ming the Merciless, Emperor of Mongo (Charles Middleton).  The people of Earth are mysteriously dying from a “Purple Death” dust.  Flash Gordon is commissioned by his father to investigate the source of the dust, and all signs point to Ming and his desire for interplanetary conquest.  Gordon blasts off in his rocket ship that resembles a clumsy dart to uncover the mystery of the dust and defeat the alien disease.  Although they find the cure for the disease, Polarite, on the frozen planet, Frigia, relatively early in the serial, Gordon is still in hot pursuit of the dreaded Ming.  Gordon’s attempt to defeat Ming is thwarted by exploding robots, Rock Men, giant lizards, and captured compatriots.  As a serial, each chapter, twelve in all, ends with a cliffhanger.  Most often, these hooks are contrived and forced.  But the value of the serial is not found in the story itself, but the narrative and symbolic devices within the film.


Since the film does not have the same appeal as it would have for a teenager in 1940, I found reading the film in historical context much more fascinating.  At the time of its release (1940), the United States had yet to engage in the war in Europe.  Yet, the Americans were clearly allied with the British and French and very much aware of the imperialistic German war machine.  This is not to suggest that Flash Gordon was a tool of propaganda, but the lessons of the story suggest clear ideological bents based in a larger democratic narrative.  Despite Zarkov’s capture at Frigia, Flash is insistent they return to Earth with the antidote, Polarite, because “many lives are more important than two.”  Likewise, all questions of sacrifice are always put into context of defeating a rather fascistic Ming the Merciless.   However, their fight is not without honor.  When Flash captures one of Ming’s commanders, Torch, Gordon insists that he is given a fair and proper trial.  This democrat narrative echoes throughout the story, where the only way Flash and company can infiltrate Ming’s base is through the sympathy of a couple of rebels.  Flash continually efforts to ally himself with others against Ming, cultivating a rebellious spirit in the face of Ming’s imperialist tendencies.  Many argue that films geared toward kids naturally present rather uncomplicated stories with an identifiable ethical agenda.  While Flash Gordon succumbs to such a critique, the inventiveness of how they display those “lessons” in the narrative are in themselves rather fascinating, especially given the context of production and reception. 


Although Flash Gordon is not as complicated and insightful as later science fiction fare, its impact on the iconography and characterization of the science fiction genre continues today.  The journey to fare-off lands, mysterious malefactors, sleek uniforms, robots, ray guns, and rocketships have all become staples in science fiction (although, how they hold their weapons violates all sensibilities).  Moreover, Flash Gordon highlights an often overlooked stylistic feature of science fiction, the anachronistic elements that blend artifacts from the past, from feudalism to fashion, with the hypermodern future: the knightly armor of Ming’s men and the rebels dressed like Robin Hood’s Merry Men.  Intellectually, I always knew Spielberg and specifically Lucas were inspired by these serials, but the stylistic similarities to Star Wars are uncanny.  For example, the foreword crawl that opens each Star Wars film is a clear homage, in both style and content, to the preface to each chapter in the serial.  There numerous others, but the fun in watching such a film is finding the references. 


The film itself, from VCI Home Video, is in surprisingly good condition.  Presented in original black and white (thankfully, colorizing is fading away) with Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono sound, the film is an enjoyable view.  However, just as interesting as the film itself are the extras.  In addition to a photo gallery and biographical information that are the same on each disc, there is almost an hour total of interviews with Buster Crabbe.  Although the interviews are broken up across each disc, they come from two separate interviews in 1970 and 1975.  Crabbe is rather affable and the interviewers do a fine job of asking questions that precipitate moments of nostalgia and extended harangues on the nature of contemporary films.  He laments over the loss of Hollywood and the proliferation of violence and sex in film and on television.  I guess thirty years later, the discourses are still the same; and yet it still does not seem like our society has plummeted in the abyss of depravity.  Moreover, Crabbe recounts the pressures of a six week shooting schedule and romance of the studio systems Golden Age.  Other special features include actual Olympic footage of Crabbe’s gold medal winning race and commercials he did for Hormel Chili and the Magic Mold Body Shirt, a girdle for men (and they say metrosexuality is a relatively new phenomenon).


All told, the film is enjoyable and intriguing for those interested in the history of science fiction and exploring an important chapter in American cinema.  But, one must watch it knowing what to expect, and not to compare the film to modern incarnations of science fiction.  However, I guess if you are interested enough in Flash Gordon to read this, you may already know what is in store.



-   Ron Von Burg


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