The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: Flash Gordon

Probably my worst kept dirty little secret is how much I like old serials. Once upon a time when you went to see a movie you did not have to deal with the loud noises coming from the arcade in the corner of the multi-multi-multiplex. You did not have to mortgage your house or sell an organ to buy your tickets. You didn’t have to sit through half an hour of commercials and trailers before you saw your movie. Instead, what you were given with your movies, was a news real, a cartoon and a cliff hanger serial.

The serial was an approximately  3 to 4 hour story, divided into 20 minute chapters. Each chapter always ended on a cliff hanger. People would have to come back the next week to see how Flash Gordon survived falling off the cliff, or how Zorro got out of the burning barn.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to discuss some of the greater and the lesser (I’m looking at you, Undersea Kingdom) serials from the 1930s and 40s. As well, I will give you some history of the serials, why I feel they are still worthwhile, and what the rules are to The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Drinking Game.

Quick Facts
Released in 1936
Directed by Frederick Stephani
Written by Alex Raymond, Ella O’Neill, George Plympton, and Basil Dickey
Starring Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, and Charles Middleton

Basic Story Line
Ming the Merciless, ruler of the planet Mongo, has launched an attack against Earth. Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Doctor Zarkov travel to Mongo in an attempt to stop him.

Flash Gordon is one of the most iconic and influential of all the serials I will discuss. Life for Flash Gordon started as a comic strip, it was then turned into three serials, there were comic books and three different television series. Flash returned to the big screen in 1980, in an underrated film with a rocking Queen soundtrack. There is rumoured to be another film in 2012, but the only thing on imdb right now is a page with a date on it. Both the style and material of the Flash Gordon serials influenced later film makers like Ray Harryhausen, James Cameron, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The first Flash Gordon serial can now be found in the Library of Congress, preserved for its historical, cultural and artistic significance.

When watching this serial, a modern audience might be inclined to dismiss it as just bad 1930s sci-fi, but you have to remember that when Flash Gordon came out science fiction was still in its infancy. Flash had the same influence on the genre that Star Wars would have forty years later. This serial was not the first science fiction put on film, but did popularize it, in the medium. Even Buster Crabbe was reluctant to accept the role of Flash. He had been a fan of the comic strip, but couldn’t see the idea of flying around in a space ship as translating to film. Fortunately, for sci-fi lovers everywhere, he was wrong.

As with all serials the story is simple. Ming, an evil tyrant, ruthlessly rules over his planet. He is eventually driven from power by a group of disparate allies. When cornered, he commits suicide rather than surrender. A present day viewer might find it hard not draw parallels between Ming and Hitler.  An interesting comparison, but false. The original Flash Gordon was released before the Second World War had even started. A more likely comparison would be to the American’s Independence Myth. The idea that a small band can rise up against tyranny and win their freedom.

There is no doubt that Flash Gordon has its problems. The characters are flat. The story meanders. The science is sketchy at the best. There is no explanation as to why Flash knows how to wield a sword like Robin Hood, just as there is no explanation as to why Dr. Zarkov can look at any alien technology and know how it works. Although, in future Flash serials, Dale Arden does take on a more proactive role, in this one her main reason for being seems to be to look pretty and faint. Both of which, she does extremely well.

Most of these problems have to do with the era and the restrictions of the format. You have 20 minutes to hook your audience, show them a good time, and make them want to come back next week. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to explain things. Sci-fi being a relatively new animal on film, audiences didn’t know what to expect or what to demand. It was also 20 years before anything, let alone anyone, even made it into orbit.

The special effects are old but work. The story is simple but fun. The characters are flat but colourful. It’s filled with spaceships, monsters, sword fights, and an evil villain. There is some cool camera work, some shadow play, and in some scenes, Buster Crabbe can be a pretty bad ass Flash. It is a fun sci-fi adventure, 1930s style.

Things to watch for
-Flash Fights a giant octopus.
-King Vultan has a pet bear, that has stripes painted on it to make it look more alien.
-King Vultan tries to entertain Dale by doing hand shadow puppets.

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: Characters wearing funny helmets is not a plot hole. Characters fighting with swords, when technology has advanced to the point where ray guns are available, is.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Medium to High

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