“I will conquer the sea – the air – the earth – the universe!”
Director: Frederick Stephani and Ray Taylor (uncredited)
Starring: Larry “Buster” Crabbe, Jean Peters, Priscilla Lawson, Charles Middleton, Frank Shannon, Richard Alexander, Jack “Tiny” Lipson, James Pierce, Duke York, Theodore Lorch, Richard Tucker, George Cleveland, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, Glenn Strange
Screenplay: Frederick Stephani, Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton and Basil Dickey, based upon the comic strip by Alex Raymond
Foreword: The success of Mascot’s The Phantom Empire in 1935 sent most of the other studios, large and small, scrambling for science-fiction themed stories that could be converted into serials. It was Universal who secured the right to adapt one of the era’s most popular comic strips, Alex Gordon’s Flash Gordon, which had debuted in January of 1934.
Having established himself as King Feature’s leading cartoon-artist with the espionage adventure, Secret Agent X-9 (scripted by Dashiell Hammett), Raymond was asked to create a science-fiction strip for the Sunday papers that could compete with the National Newspaper Service’s Buck Rogers In The 25th Century. Working with an uncredited Don Moore, Raymond created the space adventure, Flash Gordon, about an athletic young man who – in company with a beautiful young woman, Dale Arden, and a brilliant if eccentric scientist, Dr Zarkov – finds himself transported to the rogue planet, Mongo, and tangling with its “insidious” ruler, Ming the Merciless (aka “the Emperor of the Universe”).
Rapidly, Flash Gordon established a large and enthusiastic audience, attracted by Flash’s bizarre adventures, derring-do, and supporting cast of strange peoples and creatures—and possibly also by Alex Raymond’s remarkable art-work, though it may only have been with hindsight that this really received its due.
In 1936, Universal Studios were in dire financial trouble (something I have addressed in the context of Dracula’s Daughter, The Mummy’s Hand and Flesh And Fantasy), and they took a risk by investing in a comic strip, be it ever so popular—but it was a risk that paid off. It was commonly said afterwards that it was Deanna Durban who saved Universal, via her first starring vehicle, Three Smart Girls, which was the studio’s highest-grossing production of 1936; but Flash Gordon ran her a close second. Part of this success can be attributed to the studio’s unusual handling of this serial, which they screened in the evenings in addition to the standard matinee slot; deliberately courting a wider audience.
Looking at it these days, it can be hard to accept that Flash Gordon was intended for an adult audience as much as for children; yet we have to keep in mind that in 1936, nothing of this kind had really been attempted before: the space travel, the rockets and other gadgetry, the alien races, were all new and different. Small wonder that the serial did exactly as its producers hoped, and drew in a paying audience that might not have bothered with a more familiar scenario.
It also helped that Universal did not spend nearly so much on Flash Gordon as contemporary advertising would have us believe; the inevitable “$1 million” budget dwindling to a more believable $350,000 in most accounts—which was nevertheless a vastly greater sum than was generally invested in this sort of production.
Though contemporary critics noticed and praised the efforts to separate this serial from its more prosaic rivals, the reality is that during filming, corners were cut at every point they could be—which today constitutes a great deal of the serial’s fun. In addition to recycled costumes from all over, the tower set from Frankenstein was turned into several different interiors in Ming’s palace; other sets and props were lifted from The Mummy, Bride Of Frankenstein and The Invisible Ray; whole chunks of footage from Just Imagine and the now-lost silent film, The Midnight Sun, were reused; and the score was culled piecemeal from half a dozen or more different Universal productions. Exteriors were – of course – filmed in Bronson Canyon; while after making its debut in The Phantom Menace as part of “the scientific city of Murania”, here the new Griffith Observatory basically plays itself.
We might also be inclined to suggest that corners were cut with respect to Flash Gordon’s casting—though the reality is, the serial made a star out of former swimming champion, “Buster” Crabbe, at the time trying to build an acting career in small roles at Paramount. It also stereotyped him, as Crabbe would later lament; though if we are honest, it is hard to imagine that he would ever scaled any heights. His acting might best be described as “earnest”; though to be fair, he isn’t any worse than anyone else; nor can you fault the physical enthusiasm of his performance: pretty much every scene has him fighting someone – often several someones at once – or rescuing someone else.
Anyway, it is rapidly clear that Buster Crabbe wasn’t cast for his thespian abilities. The way that his physique is exploited here is unexpected and amusing: the writers keep finding excuses to put him into the least clothing allowable at the time, while the camera lingers on his exposed flesh, which is frequently oiled up (supposedly to mimic sweat, but, you know…). This arrangement has unfortunate consequences for the rest of the male cast-members, who are not, to put it mildly, flattered by the shorty-short-shorts-based costume design—least of all Frank Shannon as the spindle-shanked Dr Zarkov, and conversely Richard Alexander as an unexpectedly bald and pudgy Prince Barin.
(My favourite costume touch, however, is King Vultan’s chest-plate, which was apparently designed to accommodate Jack Lipson’s man-boobs!)
But it certainly wasn’t just the serial’s leading man whose physical attributes were put on display here. Apparently the Hayes Office wasn’t playing close enough attention during the production of Flash Gordon—which, as its episodes began to screen, was the target of irate communications from the censors regarding the revealing outfits worn by the serial’s leading ladies, both of whom spend most of their screentime in a series of bikini-top / long clinging skirt or pants combos. (Priscilla Lawson’s outfits, in particular, are, um, very informative.)
Few productions have ever embraced their good girl / bad girl dichotomy as thoroughly as Flash Gordon, which pits blonde Earthwoman, Dale Arden, against Ming’s brunette daughter, Princess Aura. Unfortunately, what this means in practice is that Dale is completely useless, doing nothing but gaping, screaming and fainting—in between being regularly threatened with – gasp! – marriage. Aura is much more interesting, and much more fun, getting a serious lech for Flash the first time she lays eyes on him, and consequently running interference between him and her father’s plans for his gruesome demise.
Priscilla Lawson also got the better of the deal inasmuch as she was allowed to stay a natural brunette. The producers forced both Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers to turn themselves into bottle blond(e)s—the former to mimic Flash’s appearance in the comic strip, the latter to copy Jean Harlow: in the comic, Dale has dark hair. Rogers took her makeover with equanimity, but Crabbe was self-conscious and embarrassed over his fair locks: he took to wearing a hat the entire time the serial was in production, refusing to remove it even when politeness demanded it.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Flash Gordon is that – presumably for budgetary reasons – the various peoples that Flash encounters are for the most part reduced from being genuinely alien to just ordinary joes in silly costumes.
(The Hawk Men can actually fly, but we get only one brief clip of them doing so. The rest of the time they just stagger around on foot, bumping into things with their wings.)
Yet while we say that—
Perversely, these complaints really only serve to emphasise the subsequent influence of Flash Gordon upon the science fiction / adventure genre. In particular, the line of descent between this serial and Star Trek is almost startlingly clear—and startlingly straight. The later production might have distinguished itself in terms of its ambition, and the quality of its writing – sometimes – and its acting – sometimes – but in most other respects – the dodgy costumes and makeup, the not-very-special special effects and the almost indistinguishable “aliens” – the two are often unnervingly similar in spite of the thirty-year-long gap between them.
And honestly—what justification is there for making fun of Flash Gordon’s hand-to-hand combat with the “orangopoid”, once you’ve watched James Tiberius Kirk fight the Gorn?
CHAPTER 1: THE PLANET OF PERIL
Apparently assuming its audience’s familiarity with their source material, the writers of Flash Gordon waste no time in getting to “the good stuff”: it opens at an observatory, where Professor Gordon and his colleague, Professor Hensley, agreeing that the Earth is doomed, due to a rogue planet which is rushing towards it on a collision course—“And no human power can stop it!”
Having said that, though, Hensley expresses a degree of faith in one “Doctor Zarkov”. Gordon, who has just agreed that, “Soon the Earth will be smashed to atoms!”, scoffs at this—opining that Zarkov is “mad” – hmm, sounds like a qualification to me – and that there is no way he could actually reach the rogue planet in his rocketship. He adds that the entire world is in an understandable state of frenzy, showing Hensley telegrams to that effect, which he has received from all over; while we are shown scenes of panic and/or prayer from London, Rome, Paris, Shanghai—and India, Africa and Arabia, where evidently no-one knew the names of any cities (or thought the audience wouldn’t).
Still—Gordon does manage to find a tiny silver lining in all this doom and gloom, when he is handed another telegram.
Oh, for the days when you could introduce an action hero like this!—
Professor Gordon: “It’s from my son, Flash! He gave up his polo game just in time to catch the trans-continental plane!”
Well, you know how it is: times like these demand sacrifice, amiright?
However, Flash’s plans to spend The End Of Days with his father hit a snag, when his plane encounters some of the atmospheric disturbance that is the first manifestation of the rogue planet’s malign influence. In fact, the storm is described as a meteor shower. Conditions are so dire, the co-pilot makes the frightened passengers an offer: they can stick around while the pilot attempts to land the plane, or—they can all bail out: “You’ll find a parachute on every seat.”
Astonishingly, every one of them does—though the pretty blonde Flash has been eyeing all through this hesitates at the last. “Scared, huh?” laughs Flash; and, rather than don his own ’chute – he has of course seen everyone else out the door ahead of himself – he grabs the blonde in his arms and jumps out of the plane with her…
…somehow managing between shots to shift his grip to something a bit more secure, namely the straps of her parachute. As they descend, we cut away to watch the plane explode as it is hit by a meteor.
Flash and the young woman make it safely to the ground—and turn around to spot a rocketship, just sitting there – “Some fool trying to fly to Mars,” Flash suggests – and to find a bearded individual holding a gun on them. However, he lowers it when Flash introduces himself: “Professor Gordon’s son?” And we learn at this point that the young woman’s name is Dale Arden.
Rocketship + Mad Scientist = Doctor Zarkov, Flash realises. Zarkov glowers at him, accusing him of having been sent by his father to try and stop him:
Zarkov: “Your father thinks I’m mad! They all do!”
Zarkov reveals his theory, which is that the onrushing planet is not only inhabited, but “intensely radioactive”; and that, if he can land on it, he might be able to, “Control its power”, and so divert it from its collision course.
Um. I don’t think radioactivity works like that…
Zarkov then reveals bitterly that his assistant has “turned coward” on him, preventing his take-off. He pleads with Flash to volunteer, as their only chance of saving the Earth, and of course he does—once Dale has been taken to “a place of safety”.
“There is no place of safety!” retorts Zarkov impatiently, which naturally prompts Dale to insist upon going with them.
Flash’s insouciant attitude all through this introductory sequence was, I’m sure, supposed to make him look like the two-fisted type capable of taking anything in his stride, but truthfully it makes him seem a bit dull-witted—unable to absorb the magnitude of his danger, rather than oblivious to it. Fortunately he gets over this on Mongo and reacts to his environment and its various perils with a far more believable degree of shock. Here, however, we have to put up with his absurdly off-hand response to Zarkov’s rocket and his own imminent trip into space.
The rocketship somehow takes off from a prone position upon the ground, while Flash and Dale hang onto some railings. In a remarkably brief space of time, Zarkov is suggesting to Flash that he look through the telescope. He does, and we get the first use of one of this serial’s odder touches: a shot of the Earth from space, tilted to show us South America and Africa; the only angle ever used (and it is used repeatedly), and a rare instance of a Hollywood production not focusing upon North America.
Suddenly, Dale starts coughing and choking—passing out for the first but by no means the last time; though the only time for an actual physical reason:
Zarkov: “In the excitement, I forgot to turn on the oxygen!”
The rocketship continues its journey through a strangely clouded stretch of space (this footage was lifted from Just Imagine, where the rockets were for atmospheric travel), until Zarkov, after twiddling a knob or two, announces that they are safe—“We’ve just passed the Death Zone!… It was the only thing I feared!”
Almost immediately, the ship approaches Mongo, where Zarkov and Flash wrestle with its “counter-magnets”, in order to prevent it – and them – being “smashed to bits”. Zarkov manages to put the ship down – a bit nose-first-y, but never mind – and also manages to land right next to some of Mongo’s more exotic wildlife: two iguanas dressed up as dinosaurs.
The three space-travellers hop out without stopping to check the atmosphere or conducting any other unnecessary tests. Dale deplores their “desolate” surroundings, but Flash – calm as ever – points out a distant city. Zarkov urges them towards it – “This planet may crash into the Earth at any moment!” – and the three set out…in the opposite direction…and almost walk straight into a honking big lizard.
Upon which, Dale screams—for the first but by no means the last time…
The three turn and run; and it is Zarkov who trips and falls, somehow without the others noticing. Flash wrestles with the door of the rocketship – Zarkov locked it – ordering Dale to, “Keep a look out!”
An instruction which she obeys by almost literally walking into the second lizard dinosaur…failing to notice it standing six inches away from her.
What was I saying about Flash being dull-witted?
Dale screams, of course – and trips as she backs off, of course – but fortunately the creature takes no notice whatsoever as Flash runs over to pull her up and carry her away. They find Zarkov and the three take cover, as we suffer through a distasteful interlude of the iguanas being forced to fight one another. Things get worse before they get better, with a flying machine appearing overhead and shooting rays at the creatures, which both fall dead.
(Alas, that won’t be our last bit of animal-related nastiness.)
The ship lands, and three men – one in amusingly confining “armour”, which almost prevents him disembarking – climb out. They ignore Flash’s proffered hand:
Captain of the Guard: “You are to be taken to Ming, Emperor of the Universe!”
Flash responds to this as he will respond to pretty much everything, going forward: he throws a punch. Zarkov hastily intervenes, reminding Flash that, in fact, they want to be taken to Ming, Emperor of the Universe. The three are loaded into the guards’ ship.
We then get our first glimpse of Ming himself. It is inescapably true that in appearance, costuming and gesture, Charles Middleton is in full-on Fu Manchu mode as Ming, with all that would have conveyed to audiences of the 1930s; but we should note that Ming’s accent is faint and irregular, and that he never resorts to “Confucius say” type dialogue. In this way, the characterisation is rarely allowed to be more than an allusion.
The captain reports the capture of the three prisoners to Ming:
Ming: “Was there any resistance?”
Captain: “No, your highness…except from the blond giant!”
Oh, yeah, except for that.
Zarkov presses forward to explain that Mongo is on a collision course with Earth, which it turns out that Ming knows already: he is, he boasts, in complete control of Mongo, and its approach to Earth was intentional. “I will destroy your Earth in my own way!” he announces, without offering any hint of why he should want to do so. I guess megalomaniacs are just like that.
Learning that Zarkov designed the rocketship that brought the Earth people to Mongo, Ming is impressed—which he illustrates by having Zarkov taken away to work in his own laboratory:
Ming: “Give him everything he requires…except his freedom!”
As Zarkov is being led away, the Princess Aura makes her first appearance—literally shoving one of her father’s guards out of her way. Her gaze falls first upon Dale, who bridles in response to Aura’s quick and slightly contemptuous up-and-down; but then she sees Flash…at which point she takes her time about her visual inspection…
(Hey, Aura: his eyes are up there!)
And apparently it’s a family thing: Ming has by this time noticed Dale. He closes in on her—
Ming: “Your eyes! Your hair! Your skin! I’ve never seen one like you before! You – are – beautiful – !”
Flash: “You keep your slimy hands off her!”
And yeah, okay— Where is de white women at, I guess; yet even though this is the most overt Yellow Peril-ish touch in this serial, it still doesn’t really feel like they’re operating on that level; or at least, it only does so just at this moment. Later on we hear about Ming’s wives, so maybe he just likes variety? On the other hand, Aura’s instant hots for Flash are definitely reminiscent of Fah Lo See’s behaviour in The Mask Of Fu Manchu.
It is only fair to mention that everyone else on Mongo is a brunette (to the point where it is sometimes difficult to tell the women apart); so perhaps these reactions aren’t so unlikely.
Flash here has the first of many brawls with a group of Ming’s soldiers. He is eventually seized and confined; and Ming orders him to be thrown into the arena. At this he struggles free again and tries to find a way out of the throne-room. Ming looks on, confident he is only delaying the inevitable, and gloating over the “rare sport” he anticipates.
At that, pushy Aura pushes forward again, demanding of Ming that, should Flash survive, he should be hers: a prospect which causes Dale to gasp in horror.
Finally the whole throwing-into the-arena thing happens – we should not that this caged area takes up fully half of the entire throne-room – and as Flash pants and gathers himself, he is confronted by three adversaries at once: Neanderthal types with fangs, wearing only loin-cloths, who growl and hiss at him before they attack.
(By the way, anyone who thinks J. T. Kirk always lost his shirt too easily has never been introduced to Flash Gordon.)
Apparently the rare sport that Ming was looking forward to didn’t include Flash winning. He looks disappointed as the young Earthman handles his three attackers, while Aura smirks triumphantly; but adds that, “He shall not escape the pit!”
“No, Father!” protests Aura. She runs from his side, down the steps to the gates of the arena, where she shoves the guard out of the way, and to Flash’s side. “He’s earned the right to live!” she cries.
A small squad of guards are sent in; and as Flash tangles with one of them, he forces him to drop his ray-gun—
—which is a moment we should note, as it highlights this serial’s weird attitude to weaponry. Of course in this advanced space civilisation, people carry ray-guns; but this is one of the rare moments when someone uses one; with Aura being their most frequent exponent. I can only suppose the producers were either worried about too much real killing, or realised that such weapons would put their protagonists in real danger. In any event, most of the subsequent fight scenes are either hand-to-hand, or sword-fights—the latter conducted in the spirit of small children waving sticks at one another.
Anyhoo— Aura snatches up the dropped weapon and rushes back to the side of Flash, who has just overcome his last attacker.
“The pit!’ insists Ming—apparently beyond caring whether Aura gets caught up in this or not. “No, no!’ she cries, and fires her weapon at the guard obeying his Emperor’s orders—but his hand was already on the lever controlling the trap-door in the arena. The guard falls—and so do Flash and Aura, plunging into the depths below the throne-room—
CHAPTER 2: THE TUNNEL OF TERROR
—but it’s okay, because it turns out Ming wasn’t beyond caring about Aura. He barks out: “The net! Save my daughter!” – and luckily, Flash and Aura are falling slowly enough for another guard to cross to the control panel and deploy the net, which slides across the shaft and catches them before they can land in a pit of lizards dinosaurs reptiles.
(Aura’s crown bounces off here, and to the continuity person’s credit, she never gets it back.)
Ming orders the two recovered; he also orders Dale taken away to the palace.
(At this point I should mention that one of Ming’s handmaidens is Carroll Borland, who the previous year made such an impact in Mark Of The Vampire. Alas, it’s another silent and far briefer role.)
Aura leads Flash out of a door in the wall. They head down the tunnel outside, but must hide when they hear the guards approaching. As they press back in a side-tunnel, Aura takes the opportunity for a little snuggling-up and bicep-feeling…
Flash’s virtue is saved when the thwarted guards pass back in the other direction, and he and Aura go back to trying to escape the tunnel.
Meanwhile – now sporting an embarrassing play-suit type outfit – Zarkov is rather enjoying himself in Ming’s laboratory; as was I, trying to name which films his electronic doo-hickeys were sourced from. When Ming comes sashaying in (really, that’s the only word for it), Zarkov admits frankly that between his facilities on Earth and Ming’s R&D department, there is no comparison:
Zarkov: “This is a scientist’s paradise!”
I think he’s referring to the Conical Flasks Filled With Mysterious Coloured Fluids, of which there is an ample supply.
Zarkov asks after his friends, and is told that they are being taken care of; which is the cue for a cut to a luxurious room in the palace, where several handmaidens are trying to force Dale into her wedding-robes, under the eye of Ming’s High Priest.
It’s hilarious, isn’t it? – how the threat was always marriage; which I guess at least had the benefit of being more time-consuming.
Back in the lab, Ming is wandering around showing off his doo-hickeys:
Zarkov: “The store of radioactivity here is enough to conquer the universe!”
Ming: “Which I intend to do—with your aid, Zarkov!”
Meanwhile again, Aura and Flash escape the tunnel and find themselves back out in the wastelands. Aura persuades Flash to wait in the flying machine used by Ming’s guards, while she returns to the palace, arguing that only she can save Dale from her father; but as soon as he is safely closed in, she mutters through her teeth, “You will never see Dale Arden again!”
Inside, Flash finds an extra uniform, and exchanges it for his own tattered Earth-clothing: donning the pair of shorty-short-shorts that will be his trademark for the rest of the serial.
The High Priest then turns up at the laboratory to report that Dale refuses to obey Ming’s commands:
Ming: “She refuses to become my bride?”
High Priest: “Yes, your majesty.”
Ming: “Then—you know what to do!”
High Priest: “You mean—the Dehumaniser?”
Uh, yeah. Not to be rude or anything, but when it comes to Dale, that seems like supererogation.
The High Priest worries about possible long-term effects, but Ming tells him that the “hypnotic spell” need only last long enough to get her through the ceremony. As his henchman departs obediently, Ming turns to Zarkov and purrs, “Science can overcome all things!”
Maybe. Another underling suddenly reports that, “The gyro-ships of the Lion Men are coming to attack us!” He knows, because he has seen their approach on a conveniently universal surveillance system known as “the spaceograph”. The ships’ arrival in the skies coincides with Flash figuring out how to operate the guards’ flying-machine. Ming observes what he takes to be one brave individual rushing to his defence – “He will be royally rewarded! – if he lives” – and orders out the rest of the fleet. (I guess he means squadron.)
And Flash actually fires upon the newcomers! – presumably mistaking them for Ming’s forces. The guards’ machine is very stupidly designed, unless designed for two: Flash keeps having to hop up out of his control-seat to use his weapons. This possibly explains how he comes to collide with one of the ships of the Lion-Men; no less than that of Prince Thun himself. Locked together, the two machines plunge to the ground and explode—
—but it’s okay, because its not as if crashing and burning ever hurt anyone. Both Thun and Flash stagger out of the wreckage; with Thun recovering quickly enough to be waiting for Flash, sword in hand, when he wanders away from the crash site. Flash rapidly disarms and throws him, however, but spares his life; having introduced themselves, the two form an alliance: the enemy of my enemy, yada-yada.
Though the “Lion Men” here are just skinny guys with wild hair and bushy beards, we can’t strictly complain about this: they changed form several times over the various iterations of Flash Gordon; and it was quite late in proceedings before they showed up as lion-headed men with tails and fur. I believe, however, that even at this point they did have tails, so we’re allowed to feel a little aggrieved by the exchange of those for more shorty-short-shorts.
While Flash and Thun make their way back into the palace via a convenient “secret tunnel”, Dale is being subjected to the Dehumaniser, a doo-hickey which causes her to go blank blanker zombie-like. Ming then orders the High Priest to determine whether, “The god Tao is favourable to the marriage”, which is a cue for more footage from Just Imagine.
Flash, Thun and a guard held at sword’s-point then enter the lab. Zarkov reports the good news, that Mongo is no longer on a collision-course with Earth; though of course there’s also some bad news…
Flash forces the truth out of the guard—this sequence illustrating his disturbing propensity for literally choking what he needs out of people. Thus he learns that the wedding will take place in “a secret chamber underground”:
Flash: “Take me there!”
Guard: “I can’t!”
Because it’s SECRET, you big jerk! Oh— Wait, no; it’s because, “It’s guarded by huge beasts!”
Flash and Thunn head off according to the guard’s directions; while Zarkov, under guise of congratulating Ming, gets himself invited to the ceremony.
Zombie Dale, now compliant – and clad in a white bikini top / long clinging skirt combo – is guided to the secret chamber by a group of handmaidens. The marriage ceremony itself consists of thirteen strokes upon “the sacred gong”, which helpfully gives both plenty of warning and time to intervene…if required.
Flash and Thun fight a group of guards. As Thun takes on the last one, he sends Flash on ahead. He finds his way barred by two heavy wooden doors: first struggling with them, then discovering the switch that releases the lock. He plunges into the tunnel beyond, only to find himself confronted by—
—a terrifying dragon-like beast that seizes him in its claw—
CHAPTER 3: CAPTURED BY SHARK MEN
—but it’s okay, because Thun, having disposed of the last guard, now runs up and shoots the creature with his captured ray-rifle, as it plays with its Flash Gordon action-figure dangles Flash in one of its deadly claws.
Yet another stroke of the gong then reminds the two what they’re there for, and they run off in search of the, ahem, “wedding chapel”. As the High Priest performs the ceremony, Flash slips in and takes out the gong-striker; the image switching to shadows only as, presumably, Our Hero strangles the poor schmuck for real.
“Why does not the sacred gong sound the final note that completes the marriage ceremony?” demands Ming in a perfectly natural and unforced manner.
He gets his answer when the suspiciously Egyptian Great God Tao begins waving his flail. There is a genuine gasp of terror from all present at this, which becomes full-on panic when Tao takes a sudden nose-dive off his dais and into the wedding-chapel.
The next moment Flash has snatched up Dale and retreated into the passageway behind Tao’s alcove. Ming orders his reluctant guards in pursuit, impatiently waving away his High Priest, who interprets all this as Tao’s change of heart towards the marriage and starts nagging the exasperated Ming about it. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the next time we see Ming’s High Priest, it’s a different High Priest!)
Ming then realises that the passage Flash and Thun have taken is one with a water-trap; one which, when activated, will, “Deliver them to Kala, King of the Shark Men!”, according to Aura. She insists again that Flash must not be hurt, but given to her; and when her father ignores her, she runs off after the fugitives.
Zarkov – who, as always, as just kind of hanging around – asks Ming whether his new orders amount to a death-sentence?
Ming: “Death will not come to them so easily!”
Truer words were never spoken.
Ming orders a message sent to Kala that – should they survive the water-tunnel – the fugitives are to be taken prisoner, Aura included.
As Thun tangles with the last of Ming’s guards, Flash carries Dale away down the tunnel, until their way is blocked by a locked door. At this moment, Dale begins to shake off the effects of the Dehumaniser…which is kind of a pity, if you ask me—the only significant difference between Normal Dale and Zombie Dale being that the latter screams a lot less.
“Flash!” she exclaims—and if nothing else about Flash Gordon grabs you, you can at least amuse yourself by shrieking, “AHH-AHH!!” after each iteration of the single word that constitutes about 90% of Dale’s dialogue. (Trust me, it’s a lot safer than turning it into a drinking-game and taking a shot every time.)
Just at that moment, one of Ming’s guards activates yet another of Ming’s many trap-doors, sending Flash and Dale plunging into the waters below; while a smirking Ming watches their struggles on the spaceograph. Three, ahem, “shark men” swim towards them, and a rather long and splashy fight ensues.
As with the “Lion Men” on the surface, the “Shark Men” are Shark Men only because they choose to call themselves so; they don’t have fins, or gills, or anything; which is a detail you might want to keep in mind going forward…
Back in the tunnel, Aura comes running up to Thun, insisting that she can save the others. He is suspicious, but points out to her where they went. The two arrive at the trap-door just in time to see Flash and Dale taken prisoner. Aura tells Thun that she can get into King Kala’s palace if he will help her.
The prisoners are taken to Kala in the underwater version of everyone else’s flying-machines. Along the way, the newcomers are horrified by the various “monsters” that inhabit this aquatic world—and so am I, when we have to watch stock footage of an octopus being attacked by a moray eel. Yecch.
One of Flash Gordon’s sillier conceits makes its first appearance here, as we learn that it isn’t an octopus at all: it’s an octosak. This tweaking of fauna identities will continue throughout—usually with some tweaking of anatomy, too, though here they seem to be assuming that viewers wouldn’t be familiar with octopuses.
The shark-men begin donning oxygen helmets, giving one to each of their prisoners, as well, in anticipation of what the “octosak” might do to their “hydro-cycle”. But as so often, it isn’t the human animals who get damaged: this time we’re forced to watch a fight between an octopus and a small shark, which have obviously been thrown together in a tank for that purpose.
Just stop it, okay?
Now mysteriously dry and perfectly coiffed, Flash and Dale are taken to the throne-room of King Kala:
Kala: “His Supreme Intelligence, Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe, has ordered that you, Dale Arden, be returned to him.”
Flash then taunts Kala into a hand-to-hand, which fills up another few minutes demonstrates the Earthman’s physical superiority. Kala is impressed; and after ordering Flash and Dale taken to their – separate – quarters, he tells them they will be released in the morning.
Dale’s “quarters”, by the way, consist of a bed in the throne-room (!), divided from it by a clear plastic curtain (!!).
Flash, meanwhile, is precipitated into what looks rather like a prison-cell—or, more correctly, a tank: Kala not taking his defeat quite so well as it seemed. Crossing to a control-panel, the king throws a switch—and water begins pouring into Flash’s sealed room. He struggles frantically, but there is no way out…
Dale, meanwhile, is watching Kala with growing suspicion—having first parted her clear plastic curtains to get a better look (!!!). She sneaks up on him as he is making a sycophantic report to Ming on his own spaceograph, and hears again that she is to be sent back to him; as is Aura, when found; while as for Flash—
Kala: “The Earthman will not trouble you again!”
When Dale demands to know what he is doing to Flash, he is only too happy to show her. As she stares in horror through a window into Flash’s rapidly-filling cell, a gleeful Kala throws a lever, opening a door in one wall—and Flash must now battle a deadly octosak––
CHAPTER 4: BATTLING THE SEA BEAST
—but it’s okay, because the octosak is really inept. It keeps trying to drag Flash underwater, one tentacle tip hooked around his ankle, but never succeeds in holding him down.
This is one of the worst-executed bits of “special effects” in Flash Gordon, the inadequacy of the model octosak (which honestly challenges the beastie in Bride Of The Monster) only underscored by cut-in stock footage of an octopus.
Forced to watch by a shark-woman, Dale here executes her first fill-on faint of the serial, sinking back gracefully into the woman’s arms and then being carried back to her see-through bed-chamber.
Fortunately for Flash, the rather more competent Aura then arrives in company with Thun, he armed with a sword, she with a ray-gun. Threatening Kala with her weapon, she forces him to start draining the tank. She then demands to know how to get into the tank; and we are not entirely surprised to learn that there is “a secret passage”. Kala tells the shark-woman, Zona, to show her the way. (Some secret…)
Aura leaves Thun guarding Kala. She soon realises that Zona is literally leading her astray, however; and it takes a brief cat-fight to give Aura possession of the key to the tank. She finds the door and begins struggling with the tank’s elaborate locking-mechanism.
Dale then comes out of her faint – “Flash!” she whispers – and runs back to the control area. “We have to save Flash!” she says to Thun, who replies – not without a hint of irritation – “We’re trying to.”
The water finally drains away, leaving the octosak high and dry.
“Flash!’ exclaims Dale.
Aura lets herself into the tank—and you know? – granted she’s doing it for selfish purposes, but you’d think there’s be some acknowledgement here, either from the scriptwriters generally or from the man himself, of just how many times she saves Flash’s life along the way. He grasps here that she was the one who let the water out of the tank; but instead of, oh, I don’t know, thanking her, he immediately inquires, “Where’s Dale?”
So it is perhaps not surprising that after a tiny pause, Aura tells him that Dale and Thun have escaped in a hydro-cycle; and that the two of them are to meet the others at “a place of safety”.
We then get a cutaway to the almost forgotten Zarkov, who is trying to contact the almost forgotten Earth. Professor Gordon and his equally buttoned-down colleagues are receiving these signals intermittently, but cannot decipher them; however, Gordon has a theory:
Professor Gordon: “I believe that the sounds, which have so far defied scientific detection, are signals from that strange planet whose wild rush towards the Earth stopped so suddenly and mysteriously.”
Ming then comes swanning in, so Zarkov hastily leaves the communication system and returns to doing what he was presumably meant to be doing, making a number of Ming’s doo-hickeys light up and blink and spark.
Zarkov learns from Ming that his friends are being “cared for” by Kala; and that Kala can be trusted because not only is his city made of metal constructed in Ming’s laboratory, but it is held underwater by “a magnetic force” likewise controlled by Ming. He is therefore in Ming’s power; but this is only a first step—
Ming: “I will conquer the sea – the air – the earth (Earth?) – the universe!”
Wait a minute: isn’t he already “Emperor of the Universe”? Or is that just a nickname his friends use?
We get a very strange interruption here, as more footage from Just Imagine on the spaceograph is interpreted as a battle between “the outer guards” and the forces of “Queen Lura”; a character who otherwise does not appear and is never mentioned again (though I note that some of the advertising art for Flash Gordon has Priscilla Lawson playing “Lura” rather than “Aura”, so maybe there were some rewrites).
Zarkov, meanwhile, is telling Ming all about “a new ray”, which should be great help to him in that whole conquer-the-universe business.
The hell, Zarkov!? However, I almost forgive him for this appalling act of collaboration in light of the delicious gobbledygook he uses to describe it to Ming; is it possible he’s pulling the emperor’s leg?—
Zarkov: “The ray is a variation of the one you’ve been using, but being of a higher frequency, it’s much more flexible. It is sent out from the negative side, rather than the positive.”
Back in Kala’s palace, Flash and Aura have made it to one of the city’s main control-panels. Flash tangles with the single guard, who grabs for his ray-gun. This proves a mistake since, when Flash disarms him, the always ray-happy Aura scoots in, grabs the weapon, and obliterates the entire control-panel—which, she tells Flash calmly, means the end of the city’s air supply and the pressure which keeps the water out. “It’s our only means of escape!” she insists.
Flash, during this, has again been busy strangling someone for keeps via shadow; so he’s hardly in a position to criticise; and indeed, he keeps his eyes on the prize:
Flash: “But what about Dale and Thun?”
Over Aura’s objections, he goes back looking for them; having by this time figured out that her they-left-without-you story might have a few cracks in it.
Dale – who, as we know, is low-oxygen-sensitive – is the first to feel the effects of Aura’s actions: she begins to gasp and choke, and then passes out. Panting, Kala convinces Thun that a call to Ming is their only hope—and by “their” I’m pretty sure he means just the three of them!
Flash, followed by Aura, makes it back to the control-room; but by the time Ming’s people interpret Kala’s message, everyone agrees it is “too late”. Kala, Thun, Flash, Dale and Aura recoil in horror as a terrifying wave of in-rushing of water engulfs the control-room—
CHAPTER 5: THE DESTROYING RAY
—but it’s okay, because the inrushing water then has the consideration to recede again, somehow, and let the characters escape: which is to say, it lets Flash, Dale, Aura and Thun escape; Kala is never seen again.
Meanwhile, watching on the spaceograph, Ming observes somewhat belatedly, “There might be one chance to save them.”
Moving in a leisurely fashion, and giving Zarkov a leisurely explanation of his intentions, Ming activates another of his seemingly infinite array of “rays”, which pushes the shark-palace towards the surface of the water. Ming also orders a rescue-party despatched.
Just as the city breaks the surface, The Fab Four make it to an external door. Aura explains to the others what must have happened.
Then we get this—
Dale: “But what’s become of Kala and the sea-folk?”
Flash: “Ehh, it’s too late to worry about them now.”
Oh, charming! And yes, as in The Phantom Empire, apparently we’re not supposed to be the least bit bothered that an entire civilisation has just been wiped out.
Likewise, I do generally support Aura through this thing, but— Jeez Louise!
(There are edits of Flash Gordon out there that remove the shark-men episode pretty much in its entirety; now we know why. This is also why the visual quality tends to fluctuate at this point.)
The four non-shark-people survivors then argue over what to do next, with Aura tagging along when the rest accept Thun’s invitation to his father’s palace. It isn’t clear how they mean to get there, but anyhoo…
And now a complete stranger – wearing armour and a helmet, but also the de riguer shorty-short-shorts – just wanders into Ming’s laboratory:
Barin: “I am Prince Barin, real ruler of Mongo. I was dethroned when a child when Ming the Merciless killed my father.”
Barin wants Zarkov’s help in overthrowing Ming, and agrees to save the others in exchange for his services. The two set out together in Barin’s rocketship, knowing they must beat Ming’s people to the scene.
By this time, the four have somehow made their way back to land and into the wastelands (!?), where they are immediately attacked by a squadron of King Vultan’s Hawk Men—“Deadly enemies!” says Thun.
(This is the only time the Hawk Men are seen flying, so enjoy. It is never made clear whether their wings are supposed to be natural or artificial.)
Flash engages the Hawk Men, ordering Thun to, “Take the girls away.” Thun has his hands full with a struggling Dale, which allows Aura to slip back, to keep and eye on Flash; meaning that only Thun and Dale end up captured.
Barin and Zarkov then arrive. Hearing that the prisoners have been taken to Vultan’s palace in the sky, Barin offers his rocketship.
Meanwhile, an unconscious Dale is being subjected to the influence of yet another doo-hickey, when a guard announces, “King Vultan!”
Perhaps the best way I can convey Jack Pison’s performance as Vultan is to say that if you didn’t know precisely who Brian Blessed plays in the Dino di Laurentiis version of Flash Gordon, you’d know immediately from Lipson’s first appearance.
On the other hand, as Vultan bounds and roars and chuckles and eats and leches, my suspicion is that Jack Lipson was drawing as much upon Charles Laughton in The Private Life Of Henry VIII as upon his comic-strip model.
And yes, I did say “leches”; because as soon as Vultan lays eyes on Dale—
Moreover, Vultan’s juvenile and distinctly gropy “courtship” style is enough to make any woman appreciate Ming’s restrained approach.
Thun, we learn, has been condemned to Vultan’s “atom furnace”, where an overseer whips people in a rather counterproductive manner, someone else moves the hands of a large dial stolen directly from Metropolis, and the prisoners are forced to—
—shovel radium into the furnaces.
Um. I’m very sure that radioactivity does not work like that.
“Flash,” murmurs Dale, regaining consciousness; “Flash!”
“She calls for a flash,” observes Vultan. “We shall have to provide a flash, if that is what she wants! AHHH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!! HO-HO-HO!! HA-HA-HA!!”
Dale takes one look at Vultan and bolts for the door, where a guard stops her. Vultan stomps forward purposefully, but is briefly halted by news of an enemy rocketship approaching.
“Destroy it with the melting ray!’ Vultan says impatiently. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Dale and Vultan then conduct a very undignified game of “dodge” all over the throne-room. The king, still howling with laughter in a way that makes us wonder what he’s been huffing, opens a sliding passage, and lets his pet, Urso, into the room, apparently just to give Dale a good scare. (Next he’ll be dipping her pig-tails in the inkwell and punching her on the arm.) He then orders the animal out again, giving it a slap on the rump when it dawdles.
(Urso is a bear painted with badger-stripes. Don’t ask me.)
Up in the stratosphere, Barin is finding his ship’s function disrupted by the “gravity-defying rays” that hold Vultan’s palace in the sky. This is soon the least of Our Heroes’ problems, though, as Vultan’s melting ray is turned on the ship (in the amusing form of a studio spotlight!). Barin responds with his “resistor-ray”, but he’s only delaying the inevitable: “Our resistoforce will soon be exhausted!”
Just then, Vultan’s men score a direct hit with their melting ray—causing Barin’s ship to plunge from the sky—
CHAPTER 6: FLAMING TORTURE
—but it’s okay, because the ship passes through one of the “gravity-defying rays”, which breaks its fall.
Somehow this situation ends with the passengers being taken prisoner, which as it turns out is just as well for Dale, struggling desperately against Vultan’s sweaty clutch:
Vultan: “Do you decline the honour of becoming my queen!?
Aura rather unfairly abuses Vultan for firing upon a ship carrying her, and the two exchange threats—she to call in her father’s army, he to keep her as a hostage. However, Vultan’s eye soon drifts back toward Dale.
It turns out he has “heard so much about” Flash; and he knows Barin; and once Zarkov is introduced, it turns out that he, too, has a laboratory in need of a “great scientist” to work its doo-hickeys.
Flash, however, is ordered to the furnace-room; and when Barin intervenes, he is sent to join him.
Word reaches Ming, via one of those first Hawk Men, that Dale and Thun were captured and taken to Vultan’s palace:
Ming: “Vultan will doubtless compel the Earth girl to marry him. It’s a habit of his!”
I beg your pardon!?
Ming also learns about the meeting of Flash and Zarkov with Prince Barin – “that treacherous pretender!”
Ming orders out his rocket-fleet, meaning to travel to Vultan’s palace and “teach him a lesson”. It isn’t clear whether he means pretender Barin or bride-snatcher Vultan.
We cut back to the furnace-room, where Flash is wearing only his shorty-short-shorts and a lot of oil as he, sigh, shovels radium. Skinny Thun and pudgy Barin have also been stripped to their shorts, but for some reason the camera doesn’t dwell on them in quite the same way.
We cut again to Zarkov, who is indeed making Vultan’s doo-hickeys – which bear a distinct resemblance to Ming’s doo-hickeys – blink and spark.
Vultan then comes stomping in:
Zarkov: “Your majesty, the supply of radium activity in this laboratory is quite strong.”
Vultan: “Yes. My city is supported by the gravity-resisting rays thrown out by the atom furnaces, Dr Zarkov.”
Zarkov: “I understand. What if something should happen to your furnace? What if your supply of radium fuel should become exhausted?”
Vultan: “It would mean complete destruction!”
In fact, in a moment of atypical sensibleness, Vultan sets Zarkov to developing an alternative fuel source. He follows this up by letting him know that, while he has been spared, his friends have all been condemned to the furnaces – all but Dale, but no-one envies her – and that they will stay there until he develops that new fuel.
Zarkov: “The radium will kill them!”
Vultan: “It’s a very pleasant death.”
I BEG your pardon!!??
Meanwhile, Aura is trying to convince Dale that the best way she can help Flash is by playing along with the lecherous Vultan. Dale recoils from the suggestion, prompting a sneering Aura to observe that she cares more for herself than she does for him. Dale is finally persuaded to go along with her plan, but (i) she’s a terrible actress; and (ii) not even Vultan is that stupid.
On the contrary, he devises a test of Dale’s change of heart—though it is equally prompted by “mutiny in the furnace-room”.
Meanwhile – in the furnace-room – the mutiny is being quelled. The head guard warns the mutineers that if anyone moves, “You’ll all be destroyed”…which of course motivates Flash to try and attack him with a shovel.
The prisoners have been put back to work by the time Vultan, Dale and Aura get there, with the overseer regularly bringing the whip down on Flash’s shoulders, much to the king’s amusement. This prompts the ever-helpful Dale to let fly with a shrill scream; she then faints in Vultan’s arms. Vultan has the defiant Flash sent to “the static-room”.
Elsewhere, Aura is berating Dale for giving her feelings away:
Aura: “You miserable coward! You haven’t grit enough to save the man you love!”
Sorry, whose side are we supposed to be on?
Of course, as always Aura has her own agenda here; but her point remains valid.
Vultan then turns up, giving Dale a second chance. She claims that it was the heat of the furnace that made her faint, and that she only cared for Flash, “Before I met your majesty.” The sceptical Vultan has her and Aura taken to the static-room, where Flash is strung up and being tortured—
[To be continued…]