Flash Gordon (1936) (Part 2)

“Should I regret the departure of one who has thrown my entire kingdom into turmoil?”

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

 

 

 

The story so far:  Dr Zarkov travels in his rocketship to a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth, taking with him Flash Gordon, son of scientist Professor Gordon, and Dale Arden. Taken prisoner upon their arrival on Mongo, the three must confront Ming the Merciless, who declares himself “Emperor of the Universe”. After revealing that Mongo is under his control, and that there will be no collision, Ming forces Dr Zarkov to work in his laboratory and imprisons Dale, who he intends to marry; while Flash is pursued by Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura. The Earth people manage to escape both from Ming and from his allies, the Shark Men, and form alliances with Prince Thun of the Lion Men and Prince Barin, the rightful ruler of Mongo. However, they then fall into the clutches of King Vultan of the Hawk Men…

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CHAPTER 7: SHATTERING DOOM

—but it’s okay, because—

Well, actually it isn’t. Flash just passes out. Though not before Dale has proved Vultan’s point for him by screaming and fainting.

And of course it’s Aura who puts a stop to the torture, running in and waving a ray-gun as usual, but getting her way by explaining to Vultan that torturing or killing Flash is not actually going to help with his Dale-agenda.

 

Once Flash has been cut down, she hovers over him in a way that reveals the situation to Vultan. He orders his guards to take Flash to the laboratory, so that Dr Zarkov can revive him.

“Quick! To the electro-stimulator!” cries Zarkov, as the unconscious Flash is carried in.

Dale, dressed in clothes of Vultan’s providing, returns to the throne-room, still failing to pretend she doesn’t care about Flash, and gasping in horror when she misinterprets Vultan’s assertion that Flash, “Will not bother us any more”:

Dale:  “You killed him!”
Vultan:  “No, no, no, no! HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!! I gave him to Princess Aura.”

Vultan then sends for Zarkov, so that they can learn Flash’s condition; and while they are waiting, he tries to cheer Dale up by making shadow-puppets with his hands.

No, really.

(I wasn’t kidding about the pig-tails in the inkwell…)

Zarkov and Aura are helping the unsteady Flash when the former is called away; and much as I mock Dale’s one-word vocabulary, Our Hero isn’t much better: “Where’s Dale?”

A bitter Aura points out how Dale just stood there, while Flash was being tortured and, when he excuses Dale on the score of her “helplessness”, she pounces:

Aura:  “Yes! She was helpless! It was I who defied the king and saved you! Oh, Flash…don’t you understand?”

 

Flash lets her down, of course – not particularly gently – and as we might expect, Aura doesn’t take the whole “scorned” thing well at all. As Flash turns away from her, she grabs a—well, a “space-welder”, I guess. She draws near him with the flaming device held up threateningly:

Aura: “Promise me you will never see Dale Arden again! – or you will never see anything again!”

Aww, she doesn’t mean it.

(Priscilla Lawson nearly loses her top here: as Aura threatens Flash, her back-strap breaks; and as she turns away, dropping the welding-gun and clutching her head in her hands, she is also maintaining her modesty by holding the flimsy garment in place with her elbows. I guess we can measure the rapidity of filming by the fact they didn’t reshoot—or maybe it was meant as a gift for the sharp-eyed.)

Two Hawk Men come to take Flash back to the furnace-room, but he fights them off, rushing back to the throne-room – “Flash!” exclaims Dale – disarming a guard of his spear, and threatening Vultan with it—who, by this time, having also tried and failed to cheer Dale up with jewellery, welcomes his advent: “You can help me amuse her! HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!”

But instead, Vultan is amused by Flash’s fight with three guards, which ends with him cornered and pressed up against a wall—the same wall Urso came through. Vultan pushes a button, and Flash tumbles back through the gap.

Zarkov is ordered to the furnace-room, and told to bring a coil of wire. There he is forced to wire the wrist of the trouble-making Earth-man, who is then linked to a high-voltage charge. If he rebels again, it will be the last thing he ever does.

 

Zarkov complies with this – as always – but the arrangement gives him an idea. As Flash, Barin and Thun rest briefly behind a lead wall, he scuttles to them while the guards’ backs are turned and tells them his plan: that he is going switch Flash’s wire to a shovel; at the right moment, Flash must throw the shovel into the furnace—and get behind the shielding wall as fast as he can.

Meanwhile, Ming has arrived—and it turns out that it was Vultan who was to be “taught a lesson”:

Ming:  “I do not dine with unruly subjects! I come not for pleasure, but to punish you! You will apologise for firing upon an imperial ship, for holding my daughter a prisoner, and for seizing the person of my affianced bride, Dale Arden!”

Vultan is unimpressed by all this; indeed, he suggests to Ming that he might want to keep in mind where he is… At his signal, armed Hawk Men pour into the throne-room. An outraged Ming demands to know whether Vultan is actually daring to threaten him!?—

Vultan:  “Nnnnoooo…but perhaps we had better talk it over?”

Down in the furnace-room, Flash suddenly cries: “Back to the wall, men!” As his fellow-prisoners scramble for cover, Flash fights off a couple of converging guards and throws his shovel into the furnace, just as the guard in charge throws the high-voltage switch.

As Flash, too, dives for the wall, the furnace erupts—

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CHAPTER 8: TOURNAMENT OF DEATH

—but it’s okay, because of course Flash manages to dive behind the lead wall in time. And fortunately that wall proves sufficient protection against an explosion powerful enough to rock the entire sky-city.

Also fortunately, it turns out that the radium haze thrown off by the explosion poses no particular health risk. Flash, Barin and Thun find each other in the smog; Barin is sent after Zarkov, while Flash and Thun go to find Dale.

 

Just as Ming is insisting once again that the Earth-people belong to him, Flash comes bounding in, pushing aside one of Vultan’s ineffectual guards and relieving another of his sword. He holds Ming at its point, threatening to run him through if anybody moves—

—and for some reason Dale grabs his arm, allowing him to be captured. The hell, girl!? Thun is also rounded up without difficulty.

“This continuous interference annoys me!” grouches Vultan, ordering them both to the execution-chamber.

The “chamber” turns out to be a blank wall, against which Flash and Thun stand to face a firing-squad.

Zarkov, meanwhile, is keeping an eye on the gauge which measures the intensity of the rays supporting the city, telling the frantic Barin that he can do nothing to help the others, “Until it reaches 0.” It does so just as “fire” is reached after “ready” and “aim”: the sky-city lurches, sending everyone stumbling, and allowing the condemned prisoners to escape.

Apparently not having learned their lesson after the last episode of bounding into the throne-room, Flash and Thun bound into the throne-room, where more stumbling is going on. Flash’s attempt to grab Dale is met with the obvious response, but this time Zarkov is on his heels. The scientist announces that the beams supporting the city are dying out, but that he has in fact discovered a new ray, and can save it—and will, but only in exchange for his friends’ lives. Vultan immediately gives his promise; in fact, he swears solemnly, “By the Great God Tao!”

Zarkov:  “To the laboratory!”

 

There, Zarkov activates a doo-hickey, and the sky-city immediately rights itself.

Also immediately, Ming overturns Vultan’s promise:

Ming:  “As Emperor of the Universe, it is my right to declare a Tournament of Death!”

Um. Okay. I guess none of us are really in a position to argue the point, though I would like a glimpse inside the covers of the Emperor-Of-The-Universe Handbook.

Oh! – in fact, I really want a look at that Handbook; because Vultan, already outraged by Ming’s effective breaking of his word, has evidently read it right down to the fine print:

Vultan:  “If he survives, I hold you to his right: liberty, a kingdom of his own, and the bride of his choice!”

Curiously, Barin speaks up here—pointing out that these rules apply to anyone entering the tournament who manages to survive it.

And, hey! – turns out I’m a big fan of the Tournament of Death too, because its rules also compel Flash to put some pants on. Whoo!

As his valet-guard helps Flash on with his schmancy cape, he also informs him that he will be presented with his weapon in “the Arena of Death” (aka Vultan’s throne-room), where he is to face, “The mighty Masked Swordsman of Mongo.”

 

…and masked he is; but still…that pudgy figure looks somehow…familiar

And yeah: this is the swordfight that, in Part 1, I compared to little kids waving sticks at one another; and it just goes on and on and on… Nearly three minutes of it. Flash gets disarmed at one point, but manages to throw his opponent and recover his sword. Then he gets the advantage, forcing the Masked Swordsman to his knees and using the point of his weapon to rip off his mask:

“Barin!” gasps Dale, offering a welcome variation to her dialogue.

Barin apologises, claiming he was “forced into it”; though he will shortly offer a different explanation. Meanwhile, we can only assume that Barin has a local reputation as Mongo’s best fighter, because Vultan scoffs at the failure of Ming’s latest attempt to kill Flash (this from the man who had him facing a firing-squad about fifteen minutes ago!).

But Ming, being Ming, has something else up his sleeve:

Vultan:  “The Earthman won!”
Ming:  “He won—the right to fight the mighty Beast of Mongo!”

We get perhaps my honestly favourite Flash moment here, as he says sarcastically, “And what might that be—mighty Ming?”

Cause yeah, I was just about to comment on how, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, everything on Mongo seems to be “mighty”.

 

Flash retires briefly to his chamber and Barin follows him there to apologise more explicitly; though he also admits to entering the tournament with the hope of wounding Flash sufficiently to satisfy the judges (uh, I doubt that).

And remarkably, the explanation for all this turns out to be more than sufficient:

Barin:  “I love Princess Aura!”

Now of course I’m not for a moment going to dispute with Barin’s taste, but I do have to wonder when, as either Mongo’s rightful ruler or a treacherous pretender, he had the opportunity to fall in love with Aura? – other than in the broad general sense that we all have.

Flash then returns to the arena, where he is offered a small dagger as a weapon, and turns to confront—a huge and deadly orangopoid—

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CHAPTER 9: FIGHTING THE FIRE DRAGON

—but it’s okay, because Princess Aura yet again intervenes to save Flash’s butt.

Seriously

Of course we first have to have a lengthy hand-to-hand bout between Flash and the “orangopoid”, with the former getting his shirt badly torn and the latter – a tatty ape suit with a horn glued to its head – played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan.

 

While the fight is still going on, and badly for Flash, Aura sidles up to the High Priest – that’s the HP Mark 2, after the original one ticked Ming off during his abortive wedding – and persuades him to repeat the “ancient legend” about how the orangopoid may be killed—that is, that its vulnerable point is the white patch at the base of its throat.

Aura then runs down to a watching guard, snatches the spear from his hand, and runs into the “arena”. Ming cries out for the guards to get her out of there, but Vultan, that great reader of fine print, has him over a barrel:

Vultan:  “By your own laws, Ming, those who enter the arena must remain!”

Aura rushes up to Flash, gives him the spear, and – presumably: we don’t actually hear it, and there’s a brief cutaway at this point – tells him how to use it. The next time the orangopoid charges, Flash plunges the spear into its white patch, killing it.

Meanwhile, Dale gapes and screams.

Seriously

Ming starts making huffy plans for departure – “There has been treachery here!” he growls, while the High Priest twists his toes into the ground and whistles innocently – only to have Vultan yet again quote chapter and verse at him.

“Flash!” exclaims Dale, as he returns from the “arena”. He takes her in his arms—having said not one word of thanks to Aura.

Professor Gordon ought to have learned this polo-playing palooka some manners.

 

Ming seems to play along at this point, but insists that everyone return to his palace for the “celebration”. The only demurrer is Thun, who sensibly refuses to set foot in Ming’s domain.

And indeed, as soon as he plants himself on his own throne, Ming mutters about, “Taking control of the situation.” He gives HP-2 the job of removing Flash, “Secretly and definitely.”

Meanwhile, Zarkov is back in the lab and trying to contact Earth; remember Earth? Just in case we don’t, we get a complete repeat of the piece of footage from Chapter 4, including Professor Gordon’s speech about Mongo’s “wild rush”. He and his colleagues still can’t decipher Zarkov’s message, however.

Zarkov also invites Flash and Dale to look at what is to be seen on his own version of the spaceograph. “Is that Earth?” asks Flash, apparently confused by the absence of North America from the view.

Dale announces that – astonishingly enough – she, “Doesn’t trust Ming”; only to have Flash encourage her to, “Stop worrying” (!!!!). We now gather that they’re still hanging around Ming’s palace not just because Zarkov hasn’t figured out how to get them back to Earth yet, but because everyone is taking that whole “choose your bride” thing seriously (!!!!!!!!).

(Though no-one gets offered a kingdom. Least of all Barin.)

Flash starts canoodling with Dale in a corridor, while Aura glowers at them from behind a nearby column. She is caught in her spying by HP-2, who unctuously assures her of his good faith, and lends himself to her scheme to have herself chosen as Flash’s bride. He points out that Flash’s absence (as demanded by Ming) does not necessarily require his death:

High Priest:  “You might persuade Gordon to forsake this Earthwoman and go with you to the Sacred Palace of Tao, where you may live in happiness.”
Aura:  “But the only way to the Sacred Palace lies through the Tunnel of Terror!”

Of course it does.

 

Aura further protests that the “Fire Monster” would never let them pass. HP-2 replies that if they went at midnight, the Fire Monster would be sleeping; and that only a stroke of the “Sacred Gong” could wake it and place them in danger—which he promises her will not happen. He follows up by slipping her some pills: one a knock-out drop to induce “a death-like state”, the other to wipe Flash’s memory. Aura remains suspicious of his good faith, but is too enamoured of the plan to resist.

Aura sends drugged wine into the chamber Flash is sharing with Barin—along with a message saying that it is from Vultan. Some time later, she and HP-2 arrive with some litter-bearers to cart Flash away. Zarkov, Vultan and the groggy Barin later figure out what has happened, and since the guard who brought the wine and the message is silly enough to show himself, they are able to get a line on Flash’s whereabouts via the usual Hero’s Expedient of choking him until he talks.

The others are at the gates that guard the Tunnel of Terror. Flash begins to stir, and Aura quickly slips him the memory-wiping pill. HP-2 works the lever to open the gates, again assuring Aura that all will be well as long as no-one strikes the gong.

The arrival of a guard warning of the approach of Barin, Vultan, Zarkov and Dale spurs the party onwards—which is to say, Aura, the litter-bearers and their burden hurry through the gates. HP-2 stays behind and, smirking, strikes the gong.

The fire monster – which bears a suspicious resemblance to the dragon of Chapters 2 and 3, and which is in fact just called “dragon” here by HP-2 – appears through the smoke and flames. The litter-bearers drop their burden and depart with unseemly haste; while Aura – after screaming for one of the few times across this serial – runs back through the gates to confront HP-2:

Aura:  “You traitor! You’ve destroyed Flash Gordon!”
High Priest:  “I have obeyed—my emperor.”

As Flash lies helpless on the litter, the fire monster stalks towards him—

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CHAPTER 10: THE UNSEEN PERIL

—but it’s okay, because the others arrive just in time, with Zarkov lobbing at the fire monster a grenade he just happens to have tucked in his waistband (!!!!).

It turns out that despite living in fire, breathing fire, and being a fire monster, the creature in the tunnel is pretty darn inflammabilis.

(Apparently it was Glenn Strange inside the suit.)

 

HP-2 doesn’t miss a beat:

High Priest:  “Sacrilege! You have killed the fire dragon which guards the palace of the Great God Tao!”

The others completely ignore him, as Zarkov examines Flash and glares at a smug-looking Aura.

Back in the palace – and presumably some time later – the “choosing a bride” thing gets underway—once Aura has whispered to Ming that Flash will no longer remember Dale. When Flash approaches the throne, we learn that the “reward” for winning the tournament is non-negotiable:

Ming:  “Earthman, in order to preserve your life, you will now choose as your bride Princess Aura, my daughter, or the Earthwoman, Dale Arden!”

Flash’s response, that he has no wish to choose a bride “among strangers”, cues Barin to the fact that he has been given “the Draught of Forgetfulness”. Aura carries it off with a high hand, though, running to Flash and saying to him urgently, “You and I are not strangers!” He allows her to lead him away, as Dale cries against Barin’s shoulder.

 

We then get one of the most interesting touches in a narrative not exactly notable for the quality of its writing. Already wounded by Ming’s treachery, Vultan now undergoes a complete revulsion of feeling, ranking himself amongst Flash’s “friends” who he cannot remember, and vowing to rescue him. Ming responds by having Vultan taken prisoner.

Barin consults Zarkov, who warns him that if the drug is not counteracted quickly, the effects may be permanent. Barin is doubtful of his ability to get Flash away from Aura – I’ll say! – who is busy feeding him a heavily edited version of events. Everything is hazy, Flash replies…though he seems to remember Aura…

“Flash!” exclaims Dale in dismay, as Aura introduces her coolly as, “One of the Emperor’s wives.”

Dale is crawling away with her tail between her legs when Barin comes charging in. Of course Flash doesn’t know him…and when Aura insists that Barin is there to harm her, he leaps to his feet, draws a sword, and forces Barin to defend himself. We then get a few more minutes of kids waving sticks; though the difference in attitude here is commendable, with Barin trying not to hurt Flash, and Flash conversely trying to do some serious damage.

Fortunately Zarkov got tired of waiting for them. He bustles in and grabs Flash from behind, giving Barin a chance to knock him unconscious. Aura slips away to get reinforcements, while the others drag Flash to the lab.

As Flash is undergoing treatment with yet another “ray”, we cut to Earth, where Professor Gordon & Co. are still trying to overhaul their equipment to make it capable of properly receiving messages from Mongo—and sending others. Apparently they succeed; but although the two parties sort of make contact, no actual message is exchanged.

 

Meanwhile, Aura overreaches herself complaining to Ming, who decides that the simplest way if solving his problems – if not hers – is to order Flash’s execution. Again.

In the lab, Flash regains his memory just in time to learn from the squad of in-rushing guards that he is to be executed – “Here and now.” Flash makes his usual instinctive lunge, only for the head of the guards to warn him that if he gives them any trouble, his friends will die, too.

Zarkov intervenes, steering him towards one particular spot on one particular wall…between two particular electrodes.

The firing-squad levels its weapons—

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CHAPTER 11: IN THE CLAWS OF THE TIGRON

—but it’s okay, because Zarkov flicks a switch, and Flash becomes invisible

In fact, he does so just before the fade on the previous chapter, which seems a little careless. Furthermore—he’s still just standing there, invisible or not; so if the firing-squad had fired anyway…

 

But of course they don’t. Instead they panic and run away, while Dale gives a rather half-hearted scream. She also starts crying again, this time on Zarkov’s shoulder. You’d think she’d be glad that Flash is still alive, but apparently the whole “Inviso-Flash” thing is just too scary…

Seriously

Flash visible once more, the group discusses invisibility as a weapon against Ming. Zarkov has serious doubts, though: how long the effects work, and the possibility of damage to the doo-hickey. Barin volunteers, but Flash insists that it wouldn’t be appropriate for, “A prince of the royal house” (?). Zarkov does turn Flash invisible again, over Dale’s protests; and he leaves the others to defend the doo-hickey as he sets out on a particular mission…

The firing-squad is still trying to explain its failure to Ming when its individual members suddenly get buffeted and knocked down. Flash’s voice warns Ming that unless he releases him and his friends, he will have to suffer the wrath of Inviso-Flash: backing up his words by, sigh, choking Ming…

“I could take your worthless life, Ming,” says Flash’s disembodied voice, “but because of your daughter, Prince Barin asks that your life be spared.”

We didn’t actually hear Barin say anything of the kind, but if that was meant to divert Aura, mission accomplished.

Ming orders his guards to bar the door, but while they are trying, they are subjected to an embarrassing Inviso-Attack; and Ming to one last warning.

Ming is then beset on all sides:

Aura:  “You must do something, Father! You are in danger of losing your empire to the trickery of the Earth people!”
High Priest:  “This is no trick, your majesty! It is the vengeance of the Great God Tao!”

 

HP-2 betta watch it: the last High Priest who said something like that to Ming was never seen again; but

“Tao is displeased!” persists HP-2, and sure enough ends up getting hauled away.

A moment’s thought informs Ming that Zarkov is behind this: he orders his guards to the lab. Aura protests against any action being taken before Flash is visible again and, when Ming snarls at her that he has, “Humoured your whims long enough!”, argues that he can’t fight an invisible enemy. She offers to locate the source of the invisibility ray herself.

Meanwhile, Flash is busy freeing Vultan from Ming’s dungeon—with the always easily amused Vultan finding Flash’s Inviso-Terrorisation of his guards hilarious. Flash leads Vultan to the lab, while the bewildered guards again do that moronic thing where they report their failure to their tyrant du jour.

In the lab, we get our first hint of some sort of conclusion o this rambling tale: Zarkov has stored enough power in several containers, or batteries – “power magazines”, they are eventually called – for the journey home to Earth; now they just have to transport them to his rocketship. (Remember his rocketship?)

Just at that moment, Professor Gordon et al. finally get a message through, and are able to receive Zarkov in turn. The people on Earth learn that the rest are all still alive, “But in great danger.” However—they have their eyes on the prize; prizes:

Professor Hensley:  “Your son lives!”
Professor Gordon:  “Yes! – and Zarkov has conquered space!”

At Zarkov’s lab, Aura plants a listening device just in time to hear Zarkov order Barin and Dale to guard the doo-hickey, while he, Vultan and the re-Invisibilised Flash take the magazines to the ship. Aura sends the guard with her back to Ming, arranging to have Barin and Dale captured immediately, the others when they return.

 

Her plan doesn’t work out, though, because Barin spots the internal end of her bug. Whispering, Barin urges Dale to let him hide her, so that Ming can’t use her as a weapon; promising to hurry back to the doo-hickey after he has taken her to, “The catacombs under the palace.”

Hmm. But apparently he didn’t whisper quietly enough, because Aura dashes into the throne-room to report this new development. She presses Ming to set a trap for Dale, but warns him not to dare touch the doo-hickey until Flash is visible. A seemingly meek Ming orders his head guard to, “Follow her plan!” – though he follows up with an order to, “Destroy Flash Gordon instantly wherever you find him!”

Zarkov, Vultan and Flash have just had time to realise that Barin has left – or been taken from – the lab, when the guards arrive. Inviso-Flash attacks, and so does Very Visible Vultan—using the ever-popular “bounce them with my enormous belly” style of fighting. Flash becomes visible again in the middle of it; but this is counterbalanced by the arrival of Barin. He and Flash escape, while Vultan single-handedly blocks the doorway.

Aura, meanwhile, is consulting the “Priestess of Tigron” about locating Dale.

I bet can’t guess what a “tigron” is!

Anyway—the two women, with this mysterious and completely unfamiliar beast on a chain-leash, go searching the catacombs—and it must be said that the moment when the priestess can’t keep a grip on its chain any more doesn’t look entirely rehearsed.

Dale is sitting mopily on a stone bench when the tigron stalks towards her. She rises to her feet in terrified disbelief, and screams as it leaps for her—

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CHAPTER 12: TRAPPED IN THE TURRET

—but it’s okay, because Flash and Barin arrive just in time, with Flash wrestling the ferocious beast—though not before it makes some serious contact with Dale. Go, tigron!

(In fact, if that was actually a fierce alien animal instead of a tame cat with its claws clipped, well…)

Ming chooses this moment to tune in on his spaceograph – begging the question of why he hasn’t been spying on his enemies the whole time – and is just in time to see Flash strangle the tigron with its own chain—boo!! (Offscreen, but still— Boo!!)

(Moreover— A chain it clearly did not have during the fight scene. Boo!!!!)

 

Priestess:  “The Sacred Tigron has been killed!”

She arrived with Aura just in time to witness this tragedy; and it is the latter’s turn to exclaim, “Flash!”—

—which possibly explains what happens next.

Barin catches up with Aura in the tunnel, from where she is watching Flash reunite with Dale. (Don’t worry, that’s not a euphemism.) He scolds her, telling her that she can’t win Flash by harming Dale – which is exactly what Aura told Vultan in Chapter 7 – and that she should give up her wicked ways and help the Earth-people instead.

And she does. Just like that. She promises to be a good girl. She promises to help from now on. And while she doesn’t actually promise to love Barin instead of Flash, it’s kind of implicit.

Flash and Dale are slightly sceptical about this volte-face, though they go along when Aura promises to intercede with Ming for them. I would have thought helping them load the rocketship would have been of more practical value, but anyhoo.

Meanwhile, one of Ming’s guards has finally got the drop on Vultan. Holding him at ray-gun-point, the guard tells Zarkov, who as usual is just standing around watching other people fight, that Ming will “overlook his recent actions” in exchange for the secret of invisibility:

Zarkov:  “Your emperor has very little respect for my intelligence.”

 

At that moment, another round of Ming’s repetitive order-giving is interrupted by The Fab Four striding into the throne-room. As usual, Ming’s guards – or “guards” – do nothing while someone grabs a weapon and threatens Ming’s life, this time Barin:

Barin:  “If it were not for the love I bear your daughter, Princess Aura—”

If the “Flash!” drinking-game loses its edge for you, try taking a hit every time someone here points out that Ming and Aura are father and daughter.

Aura, by the way, reacts to Barin threatening her father’s life by giving him big doe eyes…which I guess makes a kind of sense.

While Ming makes meek speeches, he also gestures at his head guard, who goes to the lab to wreck the invisibility machine over Zarkov’s protests.

Barin goes on to insist that the Earth-people be freed, and Ming responds by saying something I have been asking myself literally since Chapter 1:

Ming:  “Why should I not be glad to speed your return to Earth? Should I regret the departure of one who has thrown my entire kingdom into turmoil?”

Without missing a beat, Ming then observes that since both participants in his tournament seem to have chosen their brides, they can get on with the accompanying festival.

Flash and Dale go to the lab to break the glad tidings to Zarkov and Vultan; though everyone agrees (duh!) that Ming is not to be trusted, and that the preparations for the return to Earth should be accelerated.

 

By now both ends of the communication system are functioning properly, and Zarkov is able to give Professor Gordon a detailed update. Weirdly, though Flash is standing right there, Zarkov takes a message for him rather than letting him speak to his father; and then the line drops out again.

(Apparently Mongo needs a new long-distance carrier.)

While the others debate taking refuge in Vultan’s city until their preparations are complete, sure enough Ming is issuing a new series of orders regarding them—and by now he is including Aura on his Enemies List. The latter, indeed, agrees that everyone would be much safer with Vultan. Barin offers to prepare his own ship for the journey; the others contact Thun on their spaceograph, and arrange to meet him in the sky-city.

Ming has ordered that everyone be watched—which turns out to mean that groups of large men stand staring in plain sight. Oblivious, as Barin loads his ship he announces that, “I’M TO MEET THE OTHERS AT THE TURRET HOUSE, AT THE LAKE OF ROCKS.” This is reported to Ming, and he of course despatches a squadron of his guards with orders to get there first.

Thun doesn’t set out alone, however: he leads a squadron of his own, in the Lion Men’s delightfully wobbly, Ed Wood-esque saucer-ships.

Just as the friends reach the doors of the guardhouse, they see a ship in the sky. They assume it is Barin—only for the vessel to start firing upon them:

Zarkov:  “Why should Prince Barin do that!?”

Hmm. No wonder Ming has very little respect for Zarkov’s intelligence.

“I don’t know, I can’t understand!” responds Aura, whose conversion to Good Girl has clearly had a detrimental effect.

The group scrambles for cover in the guardhouse—just as the ship fires a direct hit upon its doors—

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

CHAPTER 13: ROCKETING TO EARTH

—but it’s okay, because it’s not as if a huge explosion ever hurt anyone. Also for some reason there’s a trapdoor escape route immediately behind the doors to the guardhouse, and everyone manages to have taken cover by the time the ship’s fire hits its target. They are a bit shaken up – yeah, you’d think – and covered in dust, but only Vultan needs help walking away.

It turns out that it was Barin’s ship doing the firing, but Barin is of course in Ming’s custody, The latter gloats, as he watches the huge explosion on his spaceograph, “That finishes Flash Gordon and his friends!”…and unlike in Chapter 2, clearly this time he is beyond caring what happens to Aura.

 

Barin is taken away, and conveniently enough marched by his guards into the very tunnel by which Flash and the others are making their escape. (The geography of this place is fascinating.) “He wasn’t in the rocketship after all,” observes Flash, of whose intelligence we expect nothing. Barin is rescued in quick order, and they all retreat to the laboratory; while the guards yet again report their own incompetence to Ming. Seriously, fellas!

(There’s a weird shot here of Ming framed with a disembodied vase, and I can’t decide if it was meant to be a joke or not.)

Zarkov explains that he has a way of defending the lab, and as the inevitable guards descend, he rigs up a doo-hickey to electrify the door. “We can hold out indefinitely!” he announces—just as Ming, having gotten tired of waiting for his minions to do something right, arrives to oversee matters for himself and orders the power supply cut.

“The electric energy has been cut off!” observes the great scientist, to whom such a possibility evidently never occurred.

But just at that moment, an air-raid siren sounds: Thun and his men have arrived in their gyro-ships. Ming leaves his guards to take care of the arrests – and for once they manage it – while he goes to despatch his own squadron.

Upon arrival in the throne-room, Aura indignantly protests her treatment. Ming replies reasonably enough that if she chooses to consort with traitors, well…

They all crowd around to watch the air-battle on the spaceograph, and Ming’s forces get the worst of it. Nevertheless, he takes time to order the prisoners taken to the Tunnel of Terror, only for Thun and some of his men to burst in; that was quick. Dale and Zarkov cower back, as Flash, Barin and Vultan join the fight.

 

Ming, rightly deducing that this is not going to end well, takes a rapid departure by a passageway at the back of the throne-room. Having exchanged greetings, the victorious Flash, Thun and Barin go after him. Dale is of course left behind on the grounds that, “You’ll be safer here”; Aura of course goes after them, having not yet progressed, or regressed, to being kept out of things.

Ming finds HP-2 by the Sacred Gong – though he was last seen being “taken away” – and says something to him hastily that we do not hear. He then rushes to the gates, with HP-2, who has a weird smirk on his face, working the lever—and disappears into the smoky obscurity beyond.

This sequence is actually very clever in its ambiguity. Is this Ming refusing to be taken alive, or Ming faking his own death? Is this HP-2 helping Ming to fake his own death – or to commit suicide – or is he taking his revenge on Ming by summoning a fire monster?

Ming’s grandiose gesture would suggest the first – HP-2’s smirk the last – but we do not know. All we do know is that we’re left with a perfect set-up for a sequel, should one be required…

Anyway— HP-2 tells the others that Ming is dead: “The emperor entered the Sacred Palace of the Great God Tao, from which no man returns…”

Hey, wait a minute… Weren’t Aura and Flash supposed to “live in happiness” in the Sacred Palace of the Great God Tao?

Hmm…

Aura is sad, the others sombre, as they turn away. HP-2 smirks…

 

HP-2 also eavesdrops as Zarkov contacts Earth to announce their imminent attempt at returning home. Professor Gordon observes that Mongo is now further away than on the first journey, but Zarkov responds that it is as close as it is ever going to be again, and the three of them are prepared to take the risk:

Professor Gordon:  “You have one chance in a million!”

As they leave the lab, HP-2, chuckling evilly to himself, prepares a small bomb – a small ­egg-timer bomb, which I guess was the 1936 equivalent of using one of those little plastic lab timers as the trigger – and slips out to plant it in the rocketship, while the others are saying their goodbyes.

Aura has by now assumed power – YES!! – and receives the others in her throne-room. (I don’t fancy Barin’s chances of convincing her he ought to be in charge; amusingly, there’s no hint of that conversation here.) Aura begs the Earth-people to stay, but they are adamant about risking the journey home—“For the benefit of science!”

No-one can – or does – argue with that, so it’s off to the rocketship.

Aura:  “Whether they live to reach the Earth or not, Flash and Dale have found happiness.”

This completely out-of-character bit of morbid sentimentality is interrupted by HP-2’s evil chuckling: he stupidly informs those staying behind that the others certainly will not live to reach the Earth, thus giving them time to send a warning message. After a brief but frantic search, Flash locates the bomb. He then opens the door to throw it out…because, you know, they’re only in outer space…

As they approach the Earth, Flash contacts his father, relaying Zarkov’s message that they, “Cut all electrical power, as it may counteract ours.”

Oh, sure! – but when Klaatu does it, everyone makes a fuss!

 

Nor, I may say, are hospitals, planes in flight, etc., exempt this time: they just issue an order to, “Shut down all generators.”

And it must indeed take longer for the rocketship’s return journey, because on Earth there is time to print newspapers informing everyone of the situation…as well as that City Transfers Bond Millions To Sinking Fund and Limited Farm Bill FavoredYES!!!!

(Mind you, I’m not sure how they printed those with all the power off…)

We then get stock footage of milling crowds in London, for some reason.

And then the next moment, we have aerial stock footage of New York, as Zarkov’s voice informs us, “Flash – Dale – we’ve won! We made it! We’re about to land!”

Not that Flash and Dale seem to care, just at that moment: they appear to be contemplating future generations of dull-witted blond(e)s…

THE END

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

Afterword:  Flash Gordon was, as we have said, a huge success for Universal in 1936. It was noted, and appreciated, by the critics – and the fact that the critics were paying attention to a serial speaks for itself – that efforts had been made to elevate it above its run-of-the-mill competitors.

For one thing, there is very little reused material here, and most of what is, is stock footage anyway—like the rocketship taking off. A few clips are repeated, but the only obvious example is Dr Zarkov’s attempt to call Earth and Professor Gordon’s response.

For those of us who watch a lot of these things, however, perhaps the most striking thing about Flash Gordon is the lack of a flashback episode—which you usually count on to break-up a longer serial, partly to catch up any latecomers, but also – let’s be honest – because at some point the ideas would start running out. That isn’t a problem here; on the contrary, most episodes not only have a cliffhanger, they have a second, mini-cliffhanger halfway through—like Flash and Thun nearly being executed in Chapter 8, which ends with Flash’s fight with the orangopoid.

Furthermore, the introductory titles at the beginning of each chapter do a really good job of summarising the previous episode, so that there is less need for the characters to tell each other the story in order to keep the audience up to speed.

As far as the ideas were concerned, quite a lot of the material in Flash Gordon was lifted directly from Alex Raymond’s early strips, as many of its viewers must have recognised: a rare example of a “comic-book movie” sticking to its source.

But for all this, I have to say I found something lacking in Flash Gordon. For all its pleasing absurdity, it just isn’t quite as much fun as it should be.

 

We can possibly chalk this up to the serial’s elephant-in-the-room: it has no plot. The whole “Earth is threatened” thing is dispensed with, with the utmost casualness, midway through Chapter 2; after that, the entire serial consists simply of the characters running from one place to another, getting captured and escaping again, to no particular purpose. Ming’s lech for Dale, and Aura’s for Flash, are simply not enough of a hook to hang 13 chapters on. Perhaps a retooling so that Zarkov was always Ming’s aim – and with the rival factions fighting over his services, as Flash tries to rescue him – would have offered a bit more substance. (And more doo-hickeys.)

As things stand— Well, thank goodness for Aura: if this was just Dale and the boys, it would be pretty hard to take.

But I seem to be in the minority with my criticisms: Flash Gordon was and remained hugely popular, and Universal was quick to cash in. Later the same year, the serial was cut down into a 72-minute film version, which was released under the same title, and which was released again in 1949 as Rocket Ship. Later again, the complete serial played on television under the title Space Soldiers – to distinguish it from a rival, made-for-TV serial – and was then cut into a 90-minute TV-movie version called Spaceship To The Unknown. Copies of the full serial are today often titled or subtitled “Space Soldiers”.

It could be fairly said that Flash Gordon changed the face of the serial: over the five years following its release, almost half the serials made were science fiction, despite such stories usually costing more than the westerns which were still their main competition.

During 1936 itself, the other studios rushed to follow Universal’s lead; and before the end of the year there were rival serials in release.

Everything is relative, of course—and though Universal was on the verge of bankruptcy when it made Flash Gordon, the studio could still afford to pay for the rights to the comic-strip and to mount a comparatively expensive production. Other, smaller studios had to fall back upon copying the formula.

It was in this spirit that Republic entered the game: and if they didn’t dare set their Flash Gordon expy in space, they could at least set it in a suspiciously similar realm underwater; and if they couldn’t afford Buster Crabbe, there was always Crash Corrigan…

 
Who likes short shorts?

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13 Responses to Flash Gordon (1936) (Part 2)

  1. RogerBW says:

    That first “torture” scene is weirdly shot: I assumed I was meant to think that the sparky electrodes were right next to Flash, but later in the episode there’s a shot from the side where you can see the 2m gap, and someone even walks between the two.

    “I gave him to Princess Aura. And she is hard on her toys.”

    Aw, how cute: Zarkov was only following orders.

    Yeah, that Ming, definitely a stickler for the rule of law.

    “The electric energy has been cut off! If only we had a large supply of radium to shovel!”

    Smart Aura will soon realise that Barin makes a great public face of leadership to take the blame for the lack of a chickenon in every pot, while she gets on with the fun stuff.

    I can’t say that any of your criticisms are invalid; I like this a lot largely for nostalgic reasons, but it’s better in memory highlights than in reality, and I very rarely actually watch it.

    Like

    • lyzmadness says:

      Yes, it’s all forced perspective so that it looks like the sparky rods are touching him when they’re actually at a safe distance. It’s hard to keep that up in a crowded room, though.

      I find the attitude to Zarkov weird throughout, as if they had to keep reminding themselves that he’s only eccentric, not mad, AND one of the good guys.

      To be fair, all the radium got blown up. 😀

      The only real threat to Aura’s power would be the screenwriters: Barin on his own wouldn’t stand a chance.

      Well, I guess it wasn’t designed to be studied closely or even watched back-to-back, so we need to cut it some slack.

      Like

  2. dawn says:

    If ever a time needed the phrase, “But it’s okay, because…”, it’s now.
    Virus killing a million people (and counting)? “But it’s okay, because…”
    Innocent people being killed by police? “But it’s okay, because…”
    Wildfires over most of the western US? “But it’s okay, because…”
    And, what really seems to be freaking people out, a coin shortage? “But it’s okay, because…”
    If only we actually had a few ‘becauses’ in real life.
    This sounds like a hilarious way to spend a Saturday evening with friends and pizza. We’d have to be careful which drinking game to use, if we want to avoid alcohol poisoning.

    Like

    • lyzmadness says:

      The appeal of a world where things are okay, in spite of megalomaniacal dictators…

      Both options make great drinking-games because (i) you can count on 2 – 4 iterations per episode, and (ii) they are usually decently spaced out.

      So enjoy!

      Like

      • dawn says:

        My mom broke 2 vertebrae in her back in August (for real!), but it’s ok because she got a brace. Which she never wears.
        Fortunately, there is no risk of paralysis (like when she broke her neck (for real!) 7 years ago. Just some discomfort.
        The neurosurgeon told her she needed to wear her brace all the time then, because there was a risk of paralysis or death. Mom wanted to know what the chances were of each (she wasn’t worried about death, but paralysis would have been really annoying). The doctor said he didn’t know what the relative chances were. She asked why not. He said there had been no studies done. She said why not. He said that they really could not conduct a study with those outcomes ethically. She said, “I volunteer”. At this point, the doctor looked as if he wanted to crawl into a hole and cry. I pointed out that a study with only one subject would not be statistically valid.

        Like

      • lyzmadness says:

        Oh my goodness, I don’t know what to say except this goddam year… 😦

        I must admit I have occasionally been frustrated thinking about those questions that could be answered if only the right studies were possible. You know, not having Zarkov’s…flexibility.

        Like

      • dawn says:

        I can’t get to sleep here (12:27am, had a Diet Coke at dinner), so I was thinking of how to set up the metrics for that study. Just how many people are there at any given time with a broken neck? You’d need to have a control group. Then there would be the counting every day.
        “So how many today, Doctor?”
        “5 paralyzed, 3 dead.”
        No, somehow I don’t think the study would get medical approval.

        Like

  3. DennisMM says:

    Thanks, Mz. Lyz, for this and your earlier “Phantom Empire” two-part review. I’d write more, but it’s getting close to two o’clock…

    Like

  4. Gerhard Schifter says:

    Vultan making hand shadows gave me one of the best laughs in long time! Soon topped by the “orangopoid”!

    Been reading AYCAS a long time, first comment..

    Thanks for doing these reviews: I don’t have the patience to actually watch these epics.

    Like

  5. Look what’s happened since I ducked out of the room to take care of my own blog and some other reviews—you’ve gone and covered one of my favourite serials. (SPY SMASHER is at the top of my list, but then there isn’t nearly as much in that one for you to make hay out of.) As always, my friend, you’ve touched upon things in the chapterplay that I, too, noted, and things I did not and find interesting.

    My first viewing of FLASH GORDON came some forty years ago or so, when the local television station aired a chapter every Friday night as the lead-in to its “creature feature”. Having read so much about this seminal serial, I made sure I was there to see every episode. Not that I was much of a critical reviewer then, but one thing leapt out at me almost from the get-go: Princess Aura had it all over Dale Arden, anyway you wanted to look at it.

    First, from the “loin-stirring” perspective, of course. I waited for the moments when Aura would press herself against a wall and inhale. But, the blood hadn’t totally rushed out of my brain: it was obvious that, of the two ladies in the film, Aura was the one with the brains and the backbone. She moved events along, while Dale did nothing more than cower. (I hadn’t realised just how little she contributed to the adventure, though, until I read your write-up. Her one-word dialogue, her shrieks of panic, and her ability to quaver on cue.)

    If I had been Flash, it would have been “Dale—who?” fifteen minutes after the first time I was brought to Ming’s throne-room. Yes, Aura’s deeds were motivated by her own desire for Flash, but that was no downside for Flash. Nope, no matter how hard the movie tried to push me toward the notion that Dale was the heroine of the piece, it was obvious from all considerations that Aura was the one that Flash should have gone for.

    (NOTE: “Priscilla Lawson nearly loses her top here . . . ” Damn! Now I’m going to have to try and run down that chapter on YouTube or some place. I missed that the first time.)

    Speaking of Flash Gordon, I hate to say this because I’m a fan of Buster Crabbe—sure, he’s no Lord Olivier, but he has a screen presence that I like—but your criticisms of his character are spot-on. Again, something I missed in my original viewing of the serial. His Flash Gordon approached every situation by leaping at the closest physical threat—guard, hawk-man, or orangopoid. Aura did all the tactical thinking and Dr. Zarkov planned all the strategy. Flash himself didn’t expend a whole lot of brainpower, or leadership, given the fact that he’s the eponymous star. That’s where I disagree with your comparison of him to STAR TREK’s Captain Kirk. Yes, they were both physical (and you did give Kirk points for having more brains), but Kirk, at least, took the LEAD in making things happen, while Flash, more or less, waited for Zarkov or Aura to point him in the right direction.

    Something else I never realised until you pointed it out, Lyz, was that the serial has no real plot after the Earth is saved in chapter two. One might argue that the rest of the film is motivated by Flash and Dale and Zarkov’s efforts to escape Ming and return to Earth. But that notion is undone by the very dialogue you quoted, when Ming sensibly acknowledges, ““Why should I not be glad to speed your return to Earth? Should I regret the departure of one who has thrown my entire kingdom into turmoil?” If Ming was lusting after Dale to have a blonde-tressed wife, all the Earthlings would need to do was promise to send Ming a bottle of peroxide after they got home.

    But despite all of that, the serial is FUN. Yeah, I know, there’s no logic to it. It’s mostly a sequence of endless physical conflicts, but the enthusiasm that the performers throw into it makes up for the many flaws. Just as I’d rather watch a grade-B singer up on stage engaging the audience and having a good time, than a virtuoso just going through the motions.

    I’ve also seen the two sequel serials to FLASH GORDON, and they aren’t as fun as this one. They are a bit more polished, and maybe that’s why.

    Like

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