DVD. Region Free. Delta. “U”.
- The Purple Death
- Freezing Torture
- Walking Bombs
- The Destroying Ray
- The Palace Of Terror
- Flaming Death
- The Land Of Death
- The Fiery Abyss
- The Pool Of Death
- The Death Mist
- Stark Treachery
- Doom Of The Dictator
A typical product of my regular delvings through the thrift shops of Dunwich, this obscure box set release fits all “12 Dynamic Chapters” of Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe onto three discs. Eagle eyed viewers will notice that the serial’s actual title appears to be Space Soldiers Conquer The Universe and that the Space Soldiers in question are those of Ming’s army. Obviously the penny belatedly dropped with somebody that this wasn’t exactly a) striking the desired patriotic tone, or even b) what actually happens.
Originally conceived as competition for National Newspapers’ Buck Rogers strip, King Features’ Yale graduate polo player-turned-space jockey Flash Gordon (as inked by Alex Raymond and ghost written by Don Moore) became a byword for economy and elegance, massively influential on DC’s later Superman and Batman characters. Flash’s serial adaptation made it to the silver screen in 1936 and just to emphasise how far the imitator had outstripped the avatar, when Buck first boldly ventured into cliff-hanging chapter play, a full three years later, he was played by the same Larry “Buster” Crabbe who had already portrayed Flash in two serials.
Mr Gordon’s mortal nemesis, in print and on celluloid, was of course one Ming The Merciless. Although his authoritarian, militarist and expansionist policies are an obvious expression of contemporary unease in the liberal democracies at the rise of fascism and spectre of potential gas attacks from the skies, Ming’s manifestly oriental appearance and even the name of his home planet might seem like a quaint (or obnoxiously bigoted) Hollywood throwback to Sax Rohmer from the perspective of a Europe bedevilled by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, but this is no awkward anachronism. Consider the arguments of modern historians who contend that the beginning of WWII should be backdated to 1931, when Japan’s bombing of China was followed by an orgy of torture, rape and murder… and of course when America was finally attacked, it was by Hirohito’s imperial airforce (an aerial assault repaid with considerable interest less than five years later.)
The eponymous first Flash Gordon serial (directed by Frederick Stephani) is, perhaps predictably, the best. When Earth is threatened by collision with the erratically orbiting planet Mongo, world leaders take the logical step of dispatching a polo-playing Yale graduate and his motley mates to land on and scope out this new world. What they discover is an impressively imagined (and reasonably well executed) alien environment (even if Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson’s Vultan, King of the Hawkmen, was destined to be overshadowed by Brian Blessed’s barnstorming histrionics, 44 years later) plus a turbulent political situation in which the planet’s rightful ruler Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) has been supplanted by evil emperor and would-be conqueror of the universe, Ming (Max Middleton.) As an hors d’oeuvre, he wants to conquer FG’s sexy girlfriend Dale Arden (Jean Rogers.) In addition to fending off his unwanted advances, Dale’s obliged to keep a watchful eye on Ming’s slinky daughter Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), who has her own designs on Flash. Just to make things even more complicated, Barin is carrying a secret torch for Aura. A whole constellation of worlds colliding there… who knew that saving the universe would turn out be such a soap operatic business? Luckily Dr Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon) is left free to concentrate on countering Ming’s arsenal of fiendish futuristic weaponry by virtue of the fact that absolutely nobody wants to fuck him…
It’s pretty much the same story in Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars (1938), aside from a change of venue prompted by the contemporary Red Planet vogue that was sparked by Orson Welles’ notorious War Of The Worlds radio broadcast earlier that year. This time Ming is assisted in his nefarious schemes (which include the stripping of Nitrogen from Earth’s atmosphere) by Azura (Beatrice Roberts), an evil Martian Queen with the Circe-like power to turn rebellious subjects into Clay People. These memorable creations (and the equally memorable musical theme that accompanies their appearances) are among the redeeming features of a sequel that, in the directorial hands of Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill, generally lacks the pazzaz of its predecessor. On the plus side, Barin finally hooks up with Aura after a (thankfully uncompleted) fight to the death with Flash. After whipping off his mask and explaining his motivation, he’s immediately forgiven by FG, who obviously figures that all’s fair in love and interplanetary war.
Beebe and Ray Taylor co-directed this, the third serial, in 1940. By now there had been so much frantic shuffling between Earth, Mongo and Mars that energies were flagging and diminishing returns had inevitably set in. For instance the Rock Men, an obvious attempt to emulate the weirdness of the Clay People, fall pretty flat despite their Twin Peaks-like habit of talking backwards. Not even an upgraded Dale (Carol Hughes replacing Jean Rogers) could pep things up significantly. The action kicks off with deadly dust from outer space spreading the dreaded “purple death” (“yellow peril”, anyone?) across Earth… and no prizes for guessing who’s behind that. Flash and co head for Mongo to assist Barin in his bid to wrest control of Mongo from Ming. Zarkov devises an antidote to the purple death, ingredients for which must be gathered on the ice planet of Frigea, cue a blizzard of footage culled from the 1930 feature White Hell Of Pitz Palu. Furthermore FGCTU, like its predecessors, relies heavily on sets and props from contemporary Universal productions… much of the first two was shot in Dr Frankenstein’s various castles, labs and dungeons and here the costumes worn in Barin’s tree principality of Arborea seem to have borrowed from some kind of Robin Hood epic (see below.) Elsewhere the gang are kitted out in quasi-militaristic costumes from some kind of Ruritanian romance.
No sooner has the purple death been thwarted than Ming starts coming up with a head spinning plethora of WMDs, seemingly one per episode, with which to keep Zarkov on his toes. The counter measures he comes up with frequently need to be lugged across glaciers, magnetic deserts, etc, and personally delivered by Flash until Ming is definitively (and apparently permanently) defeated.
Herein lies the most charming aspect of FGCTU… its pantomime depiction of totalitarianism, the hokey nature of its WMDs and its reassuring insistence (eagerly swallowed by its frightened audiences) that any maniac willing to use them could be foiled by a simple sock on the jaw from a daftly named Everyman in a fruity costume. The industrialisation of murder represented by The Holocaust and the nuclear denouement to WWII were shortly to consign such optimism to the dustbin of history. Childhood’s end.