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Gordon's Alive? Flash Gordon on the Screen.

PrintE-mail Written by Robin Pierce Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Future Imperfect - by Robin Pierce


As our multiplexes slowly recover from the tsunami of super hero films that defined the traditional summer blockbuster season, with a similar wave imminent next summer, we at Starburst thought it was time to take a look at where it all began. The first sci-fi comic strip hero to be adapted for the screen, providing action, suspense, excitement and adventure for generations of kids, inspiring, among others - a gawky kid, watching wide eyed at his parents TV in Modesto California, who would try and secure the rights to make a film in the mid 70s, be refused and proceed to create .... But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning.

The story of Flash Gordon is practically as old as the story of comic books. 1934 was the year, the first signs of recovery from the Great Depression were becoming evident as American unemployment fell to 21% and there was a glimmer of light at the end of what had been a very long, dark tunnel. Newspapers had begun to run comic strips which were moving away from the mirthful cartoons of the early thirties to a more action/adventure based theme.

The new optimism was giving rise to a hopeful future and that promise of a bright new day was being brought vividly to life in the science fiction pulps which had been around since the late twenties. The most eminent of these was Amazing Stories, which published a story entitled Armageddon 2419 AD in 1928. The story of Anthony Rogers who was rendered into a state of suspended animation for 492 years by a radioactive gas was quickly adapted as a syndicated newspaper strip, debuting in 1929 - with the character’s name being changed to the snappier, more dynamic Buck Rogers.

Buck Rogers was an instant hit, and five years after his debut, there was an appetite for further exotic, far flung adventures against an escapist science fictional backdrop. Enter Alex Raymond, an artist who was asked to create and develop a space travelling hero in the Buck Rogers mould for the King Features syndicate who supplied comic strips for hundreds of newspapers across America. Raymond had a meticulous style as a draughtsman with an eye for sweeping art deco influenced spacecraft, buildings and backgrounds. His art often mixed futuristic gadgetry with clothes, armour and flowing cloaks that seemed almost medieval.

Flash Gordon made his first appearance in a Sunday supplement. Demand for new adventures was high as readers clamoured for more and Flash began appearing in daily papers. As the strip’s popularity grew internationally, being translated into various languages, one of the writers responsible for writing the Italian version of the comics very early in his illustrious career was none other than director Frederico Fellini.

The initial story, introducing Flash as a present day adventurer who travels with his companions to the hostile planet of Mongo to save the Earth from annihilation at the hands of evil tyrant Emporer Ming the Merciless came to the attention of Universal Studios who wasted no time in securing the film rights, and this is where our story properly begins.

Universal poured a budget of $350,000 into a 13 part epic that would run for a total of four hours and five minutes. Money was saved by re-using sets from other of the studio’s productions, particularly an interior of the watchtower from Frankenstein(1931) a lab set from Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and an Egyptian idol from The Mummy (1932). This cost saving measure had the added bonus of making the serial look even more lavish and extravagant.

Taking the role of Flash Gordon was Olympic athelete Clarence Linden Crabbe, a swimmer who had won a bronze medal in the 1928 Games and a gold in 1932 and had cut his acting teeth when he starred in the title role of the "Tarzan the Fearless" serial in 1933.

Nicknamed "Buster" his lean athletic build and earnest demeanour made him ideal for the role, though in later interviews he claimed to be hesitant about having his dark hair bleached peroxide blonde for the part.

Jean Rogers was cast as his girlfriend Dale Arden, Irish born Frank Shannon retained his native accent as he played Dr Alexis Zarkov (renamed from the original Hans Zarkov) with B movie character actor Charles Middleton in the all-important role of Ming, who is portrayed here very much like a Fu Manchu type of super villain as had been seen in "The Mask of Fu Manchu"(1932) with Boris Karloff in the title role.

Despite the fact that it fails to stand up to any logical scrutiny, Flash Gordon was an action packed space opera from its very first installment, in which Earth is under attack from the planet of Mongo - hurtling towards us on a collision course and causing worldwide climate catastrophe.

Having to abandon his flight home during one of these storms, Flash Gordon parachutes out of his plane with fellow passenger Dale Arden. They land near the home of crazy scientist Zarkov who has built a spaceship in his back yard with the intention of flying to Mongo. Zarkov takes Flash and Dale along for the ride (apparently the extra load wasn’t a factor).

Landing on Mongo, they are taken to Ming, who takes an instant lusting to Dale, while Ming’s daughter Princess Aura has plans of her own for Flash. The casting of Priscilla Lawson as Aura was a direct opposite of Jean Rogers as Dale. Whereas Rogers’s Dale was blonde, petite, vulnerable and wholesomely virginal, Lawson’s Aura was a dark haired, sultry voluptuous temptress.

Being forced to fight for his life against three mutants in the arena at the end of the first chapter was the beginning of a saga that would introduce Flash and audiences to Prince Thun of the Lion Men (a race that bear an uncanny resemblance to ZZ Top) Prince Kala of the Shark Men, King Vultan of the Hawk Men (oddly, no mention of Lion, Shark or Hawk Women) and Prince Barin of Arboria, while fighting for his life against Octosaks, Orangopoids, giant lizards and a Gocko - a dragon/dinosaur hybrid with lobster claws, he survives electrocution, shrugs off an Incense of Forgetfulness and becomes invisible for an episode. He also lives to tell the tale of being enslaved to work in the Hawkmen’s atomic furnace. All this while dealing with the duplicitous Aura, trying to rescue Zarkov who has been put to work in Ming’s lab and trying to retain and protect Dale’s virtue from Ming’s attentions. But, it all worked out well at the end, Aura fell in love with Barin, Ming apparently met a fiery doom while Flash, Dale and Zarkov rocketed for home to live happily ever after. But their bliss was short lived as, due to the overwhelming success of the serial with audiences of all ages,  a sequel was inevitable.

The story chosen for adaptation was called "Flash Gordon and the Witch Queen of Mongo", however Mongo was changed to Mars and herein lies a bit of confusion.

The year was 1938. On October 30 of that year, Orson Welles stunned America with his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Audiences who tuned in didn’t realise that they were listening to a dramatisation as news broadcasts of increasing urgency cut in on dance music programmes (themselves a part of the overall performance). For a long time it has been assumed that the change of location for the serial was to exploit the sudden interest in the planet Mars following the radio show. However, this simply isn’t the case. Production on Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars was completed and the serial premiered with its first episode "New Worlds To Conquer" on March 21, 1938 - seven months before Welles’ radio show.

What is true is that Universal released a feature length edited version of the serial late in 1938 to capitalise on the publicity attracted by the radio broadcast. This version was called "Mars Attacks the World".

Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars was a fifteen part story with a running time of almost five hours.

Our three adventurers are back - or rather, we start the story as they return to Earth for a hero’s welcome before another galactic crisis hits the planet. We’re losing Nitron (a fictitious element) from the atmosphere and this is causing meteorological mayhem across the globe. Flash and Zarkov determine that a ray from Mars is responsible for zapping our precious Nitron and head off, with Dale, to investigate. Also aboard is an unbelievably irritating comic relief stowaway, reporter Happy Hapgood. (Hapgood really is the 1938 equivalent of Jar Jar Binks.)

The picture on Mars is grimmer than they thought (apart from the fact that Mars bears a stunning resemblance to Mongo). Martian ruler Queen Azura (Beatrice Roberts) is an ally of Ming, who has survived cremation and they are working together to conquer Earth.

They make a formidable team, Azura is every bit as evil and tyrannical as Ming is. Maybe even moreso - all who oppose her have been literally turned to clay, doomed to live a miserable underground existence in the clay caverns of Mars. The sequences where the Clay Men make their first entrance, appearing out of the clay walls to the accompaniment of Franz Waxman’s "Bride of Frankenstein" score is a truly memorable moment of eerie cinematic weirdness that is hard to forget.

Despite being captured and held prisoner by the Clay Men, Flash and his team quickly become their friends and agree to help them overthrow the Queen and restore them to their normal form. To accomplish this, Flash must acquire the white sapphire, which is jealously guarded by the Tree Men. (Disappointingly, the tree men don’t actually resemble trees, or even bushes - they’re pretty underwhelming and seem to have wandered in from a Tarzan movie set)

But also, of course there’s the powerful Nitron Lamp aimed toward Earth, sucking away at our atmosphere to deal with, and in the ensuing battle Azura is defeated and Ming is tossed into a disintegration chamber, while the Clay Men are rid of their curse and take their rightful place in society. Once again, the planet is saved and even Happy Hapgood survives.

You’d think that two strikes, both ending in near death would be enough - that Ming would have the good sense to look elsewhere for a fight, but no. In 1940, he visited a deadly virus upon the Earth in the form of the Plague of the Purple Death. The symptoms were unmistakeable, instant death and a purple spot on the forehead. The plague was being spread by Ming’s ships spreading death dust in the atmosphere (presumably we had somehow got our Nitron back.) So it’s off we go once again for the stunningly-spoiled-by-its-title Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Stopping off at Mongo, Flash, Zarkov and Dale (now played by Carol Hughes) are informed by their old friend Prince Barin that there is indeed an antidote to the Purple Death. They must go to the frozen land of Frigia and mine for Polarite, avoiding clumsy "walking bomb" robots.

Real life events were imprinting themselves on the entertainment of the media, and Charles Middleton’s interpretation of Ming’s character evolves through the three serials. From the sneering evil oriental stereotype in the first, to a more satanic look in the second to a full blown Hitler-esque fascist dictator in the third, complete with spies and secret police. Ming’s final line is "I AM the Universe" before a spaceship packed with Solarite crashes into his base, spreading his atoms all over the universe. Flash is said by Zarkov to thus have conquered the universe, hence the spoilerific title. Running at 12 episodes over 3 hours 40 minutes, this is the shortest of the trilogy and the least satisfying, despite the fact that it can be said to be the best looking. The plot is more threadbare - yes there are Rock Men and the kamikaze robots I mentioned earlier, and there’s a death ray - but compared to Flash’s previous outings, the writing was on the wall, Flash’s flame was spluttering out.

The influence of the serials continues to resonate. It’s well documented that George Lucas sought to acquire the rights to make a film of the character, was declined and created his own space opera instead in Star Wars. In fact, in a roundabout way, Lucas still managed to pay homage to the serials in The Phantom Menace (itself named after a villain in the comic strip) - listen to the sound of the intercom on the trade federation ships in the opening sequences and you’ll hear exactly the same sound created for the "spaceograph" audio visual communication screens in Flash Gordon.

The serials were shown on American TV networks in the 1950s, but as there was a TV series of the same name which was filmed in Berlin being broadcast at the same time, Flash Gordon was retitled "Space Soldiers"to avoid confusion. Subsequent VHS and DVD releases of the serial are under this title. The original serial was editied in one long epic and released theatrically in the mid seventies to a whole new generation of fans - including myself and, in 1996, received the ultimate accolade of being selected for preservation in America’s National Film Registry by the Library of Congress being classified as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".

But the end of the serials wasn’t to be the end of Buster Crabbe’s involvement with the character - there would be one final bow in 1979 - a fan pleasing, show stealing cameo on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s "Planet of the Slave Girls" episode as Brigadier Gordon, out of retirement to help Gil Gerard’s Buck Rogers. After complimenting Gordon’s flying skills, Rogers is told "Young man, I’ve been doing that sort of thing since before you were born". A tribute not only to his portrayal of Flash Gordon, but of his starring role in the Buck Rogers serial of 1939.

In 1980, in the wake of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, science fiction was in vogue and studios were clambering over each other to get as many science fiction properties on to the big screen as possible before the bubble burst and a new craze was embraced by a fickle viewing public. Producer Dino De Laurentiis had acquired the rights to bring Flash back to the silver screen.

The plot is to all intents and purposes, a reimagining of the original serial from 1936, but told in the unique style of screen writer Lorenzo Semple Junior, whose speciality is parodying his source material. He struck gold with this style initially with his work on Batman in 1966 where the over the top camp humour quickly became an overnight hit which lasted two seasons before becoming tiresome in the eyes of the audience and Batman was cancelled after a lackluste third season. Unfortunately, Semple failed to realise this and was continuing his "humorous" takes on popular culture years after the train had long left the station, as in De Lautentiis’s lamentably disappointing take on King Kong in 1976. It’s hard to believe that this was also the writer responsible for scripting Steve McQueen’s Papillon (1973) and Robert Redford’s Three Days of the Condor (1975)

To play Flash, a virtual unknown was selected. Sam J. Jones was plucked from obscurity - his previous role was an appearance in the romantic comedy 10. As with his predecessor, Jones had his hair bleached blonde and had a suitably athletic build. Sadly though, he portrayed Flash Gordon with all the range and depth of a block of wood. But, to be fair, Jones’s wasn’t the worst performance in the film. That honour went to Brian Blessed as King Vultan of the Hawkmen. Blessed’s misguided interpretation of acting is to bellow out his lines as loudly as possible, while simultaneously opening his mouth as wide as possible. Melody Anderson as Dale, was earnest but ultimately clueless and was basically only on board to be rescued.

Visually, the film owes as much to Chinese architecture with the apprearance and colours of Ming’s city as it does Barbarella, another De Laurentiis production from 1968 (coincidentally, Barbarella is often touted as a female Flash Gordon). The costumes in many instances seem to have been bought from a bondage store.

Despite these obvious handicaps, the film has some highlights. Max Von Sydow makes an excellent Ming the Merciless presiding over Mongo with malevolence, aided and abetted by Klytus - a character that resembles Marvel’s Doctor Doom in many ways. Topol was reliably convincing as Hans Zarkov. A pre- Bond Timothy Dalton was a suave and dashing Prince Barin, in love with and relentlessly exploited by Ming’s daughter Aura. As with the original version, Italian actress Ornella Muti played Princess Aura as a direct opposite of wholesome girl-next-door Dale, but taking it a couple of steps further than Pricilla Lawson had in 1936. Muti’s Aura wasn’t just a temptress, she was virtually a nymphomaniac.

Despite an open ending with a mysterious hand picking up the ring of the defeated and destroyed Ming and a final caption reading "The End ?" - it really was the end. Audience reaction was tepid and plans for a sequel were shelved. Despite disappointing box office returns, the film gained momentum and popularity a couple of years later due to home video and is today a bigger, more fondly remembered hit than it was at the time of its release 21 years ago.

On the small screen, there were several Filmation cartoon series starring Flash in the late 70s to the 80s. Some adopted a sophisticated serialised format evoking memories of the strip’s cinematic origins, though this approach was abandoned in favour of one off self contained stories. There was also The Defenders of the Earth, a super hero squad which was basically the King Features version of the Avengers or the Justice League with the syndicate’s other prominent comic strip characters Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom also in attendance, joining Flash in a struggle against a team of super villains led, naturally by Ming. Flash and Dale were even re-invented as a pair of skateboarding teens at one point.

However, another low ebb was to come in the low budget, low interest, low viewed TV series of 2009 which, although announced for a full 22 episode season, was dumped after a miserable 13 episodes and universal derision.

It was rumoured for a while that following his success with The Mummy and The Mummy Returns that director Stephen Sommers would helm a remake of Flash Gordon, set in the 1930s, which would no doubt have been an intersting take. However this never came to pass.

Currently, Breck Eisner (director of The Crazies remake of 2010) is attached to the project to bring Gordon back to our screens in 3D - reportedly in 2012. Like all great heroes, Flash may well be down, but he’s never out. And as they said in the movie serials - To Be Continued...


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