The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe

This is a bitter sweet review for me. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, is the first serial I ever watched and it is what started this strange obsession of mine. It is also, unfortunately, the final instalment in the Flash Gordon trilogy. But take heart fans of cheesy, early sci-fi. I’m sure this will not be the last you hear about Flash Gordon on The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review.

Quick Facts
Released in 1940
Directed by Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor
Written by George Plympton, Basil Dickey and Barry Shipman
Starring Buster Crabbe, Charles Middleton, and Carol Hughes

Basic Story Line
Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov return to the planet Mongo to stop Ming’s latest attack on the Earth.

In terms of style and substance, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe falls in between its two predecessors.

The original Flash Gordon was noted for its aesthetics. Mongo was a different planet filled with strange creatures and landscapes. Frederick Stephani gave the Flash Gordon serial pizzazz and flair. Ford Beebe is a much more pragmatic director, who is more interested in the story and the characters than visuals. This is obvious when you contrast the first Flash with Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. In Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Flash and friends return to Mongo and therefore, Ford Beebe, has a visual template established for him. In some cases Beebe reuses footage from the original Flash Gordon. He tries to replicate the exotic feel of Mongo but doesn’t quite match what his predecessor achieved.

In my review of Flash Gordon, I referred to the characters as having all the depth of cardboard cut-outs. Although, that is perhaps true, when you compare the characters in the three Flash Gordon serials, to the characters in other serials, they look positively complex. This is particularly true with the women. In most serials the female characters are there simply to be captured by the bad guys and then be rescued by the hero. In Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe we have Dale Arden, played with spunk and determination by Carol Hughes. She has been with Flash and Zarkov from the beginning and the boys no longer even try to dissuade her from going on the dangerous missions, in fact they expect her to join them. We also have Princess Aura; her love of Prince Barin has mellowed her (And turned her blond) so she is no longer as interesting as when she was the bad girl in the first Flash Gordon. However, her history is still a part of her character and she shows her mettle when she stands up to her father, Ming. There is Queen Fria of Frigia, regal and self-possessed, and yet at the same time, reminds you of that spoiled rich girl you knew in high school who just couldn’t seem to wrap her mind around the fact that she won’t always get what she wants. Finally we have Lady Sonja, an agent of Ming’s and one of the few female villains in serial history. She is proud and vindictive. She is a villain you love to hate and you don’t feel bad when she dies with Ming at the end. Not only are these women reasonably well drawn characters, but there are four of them. When most serials only have one female character in total, four women, in significant roles, is almost unheard of.

Because of his attention to characters Beebe does a much better job at differentiating between the cultures on Mongo than his predecessor did. The people of Arboria are warm, welcoming, earthy people (who dress like they got their clothing from a production of Robin Hood.) The people of Frigia are cold, formal, with a sense of honour, but look after themselves first and foremost. There are the Rock People who are primitive, tribal, and isolated. In the first Flash Gordon the Shark people acted and dressed like the Hawk people and the only real difference was that the Shark people lived in a city underwater while the Hawk people lived in a city in the sky and had wings.

There is no solid story in the first Flash Gordon serial. Flash and his friends bounce from adventure to adventure with no constant goal. The second Flash Gordon serial has two distinct goals that are intertwined: Save the earth from the Nitron Lamp and help the Clay People reclaim Mars from Azura and Ming. In this instalment, Flash has his goals of saving the earth and freeing Mongo from Ming. However, about half way through the serial the story becomes unfocussed. After Flash and his allies defeat Ming’s original super-weapon, The Purple Death, Ming starts pulling out a series of other super-weapons. On the positive side, this is the one serial in the Flash Gordon series, in which Flash is directly responsible for the Death of Ming, giving it the most satisfying ending of the three.

It may not be the greatest serial ever made. It may not even be the best serial in the Flash Gordon trilogy, but Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is entertaining and well done, and a fitting end to one of the most celebrated names in serials.

Things to watch for
-A string tied to the foot of a crow. (And a fuzzy stuck on his head.)
-The same ray guns used in Flash Gordon’s trip to Mars.
-The same footage of Ming signalling a girl to bang a gong used in the first three episodes.

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: People dressed as Robin Hood is not a plot hole. Everyone having a ray gun or sword and yet dropping their weapons to get into a fist fight is. )
Odds of getting sloshed: High

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