Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars

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At the end of Universal’s 1936 serial Flash Gordon, Flash, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov are bound for Earth by rocket ship after saving the planet from destruction by the invading planet Mongo and its ruthless Emperor, Ming (who was, to all appearances, burned to death in the “Tunnel of Terror,” leaving his daughter Aura and Prince Barin to rule over Mongo with a presumably gentler hand). As the 1938 sequel Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars begins, the people of Earth are still awaiting that rocket ship, which successfully lands in the first chapter. That makes Trip to Mars a direct continuation of the original serial, and in many ways it’s a sequel in all the modern senses of the word: it has most of the same cast as the first (although as Dale Arden, Jean Rogers has inexplicably let her hair return to its natural brunette during the trip from Mongo to Earth), and is in all ways bigger, with more ambitious effects, more locations, and greater length (fifteen chapters instead of thirteen). There are even some flashbacks to the 1936 serial spliced in to explain plot developments.

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It’s worth noting that the practice of making sequels and series, what we now call film “franchises,” is nothing new, and wasn’t even new in 1938. Some of the long-running episodic serials like Hazards of Helen were closer to ongoing series than the closed narratives of the serials I’ve been examining here. Beginning in the silent era, popular characters such as Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, and Tarzan had proven that cinema audiences liked to catch up on the adventures of familiar characters just as much as book and magazine readers did. By the time Flash Gordon was taking his trip to Mars, the Andy Hardy series was already on its fifth installment, and it had only started the year before! Similarly, the Dead End Kids made six films for Warner Brothers between 1937 and ’39. The Blondie series, which would eventually run to twenty-eight films, also began in ’38.

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No sooner have Flash (Larry “Buster” Crabbe) and company returned to heroes’ welcomes (SUPER-MEN OF CENTURY WIN WORLD ACCLAIM! reads my new favorite newspaper headline) when Earth suffers an attack similar to that which opened the ’36 serial. Disasters and weather events threaten the planet, this time tied to mysterious beams of light emanating from the planet Mars. Suspecting the hand of their erstwhile foe Ming, Flash and his allies (joined by a reporter who stows away on the rocket ship) take off for Mongo. However, unlike Abbott and Costello, Flash does actually end up on Mars, as the deadly beam interferes with their ship and causes them to crash on the red planet.

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In a twist that will surprise no one, Ming (Charles Middleton, in fine scenery-chewing form) is on Mars, having survived the flames of the Tunnel of Terror (it’s eventually explained that he can walk through flames without injury), and he is cooperating with the Martian Queen Azura, using the beam to draw “nitron” from Earth’s atmosphere, which Azura can use as an explosive in her war against the Clay Kingdom (and without which the Earth will die, suiting Ming’s purposes nicely). Ming’s goals are conquest and revenge upon the Earthlings who thwarted him before; his previous goal of marrying Dale Arden is never mentioned.

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As the events of the serial take place on Mars, there are several new settings and exotic races for Flash and company to encounter and either overcome or win to his side. The Fire People live in a gnarled forest, dressed in caveman furs and worshipping idols; loyal to Ming, they imprison Flash the first chance they get, leading him to a reunion with his old ally Prince Barin (Richard Alexander), also a captive of the Fire People. The Martians themselves, Azura, and her palace are pure art deco space opera, equal parts Galactic Empire and Emerald City of Oz. In fact, the embrace of fantasy is even more committed here than in the first Flash Gordon serial: although there’s still a great deal of pseudoscientific rationalization with rays and “nitron” and “televisors” and so on, at some point the writers threw their hands in the air and said, “Fuck it, it’s magic.” The Glenda-like Azura is described as a “Queen of Magic,” with a white sapphire that allows her to teleport in a puff of smoke and lay curses on her enemies.

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The victims of one of those curses, the Clay People, were once normal Martian men until they rebelled against Azura, and she transformed them into mud monsters, exiled to a remote cave. As the Clay King, British actor Montague Shaw delivers his lines through an immobile rubber mask, the equivalent of casting Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in Star Wars and having them play Jawas. The Clay People occupy the moral middle ground that Vultan and his Hawk Men occupied in the first serial: waging war against Azura and suspicious of spies, they at first capture Flash and his friends, holding Dale hostage until Flash can bring the Queen to them and force her to undo their curse. After winning their trust, however, Flash and company find the Clay People capable allies, and they’re eventually able to help them regain their human forms.

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As far as the new additions to the cast go, reporter “Happy” Hapgood (Donald Kerr) is a typical sequel misstep: the “cool” character who comes along for the ride (in this case literally) to provide comic relief and deflate the stuffiness of the proceedings, but who doesn’t add as much as he detracts. Such characters are sometimes meant to be audience surrogates, seeing with fresh eyes the wonders that the heroes take for granted. In the case of Flash Gordon, however, that isn’t really necessary, as his essentially open nature is part of the character’s appeal; he may not be impressed by the likes of Ming, but he doesn’t really do “jaded,” either. Also, Hapgood’s one-liners, delivered with “make ’em laugh” intensity and frequency, just aren’t that funny. Fortunately, after the first couple of chapters he isn’t that prominent in the serial, providing Dale some company while she’s held hostage and providing the fight scenes an extra body when rough stuff is necessary, limiting his jokes to only one or two per chapter.

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On the plus side, I’ve made no secret of my appreciation for the haughty, imperious women who often turn up in the serials: think of Princess Aura, or Queen Tika from The Phantom Empire. So it will be no surprise that I enjoyed Beatrice Roberts’ performance as Azura, her eyes flashing and lip curling with amusement at the primitive Earthmen opposing her, and delivering lines like “Thus do I banish all traitors!” Of course, Azura learns what stern stuff Flash is made of, although it’s noteworthy that she doesn’t fall in love with him. Like Tika, she’s ultimately a tragic figure who realizes too late that she’s cast her lot with the wrong side. (Another connection to Tika is the presence of mustache-twirling character actor Wheeler Oakman, who played the treacherous Lord Argo in Phantom Empire. Here Oakman plays Azura’s captain of the guard Tarnak, who willingly serves Ming until he realizes that the Emperor intends to follow up destroying Earth by doing the same to Mars after it has served his purposes.)

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If anything, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars sets the template for Star Wars even more clearly than the 1936 serial: there are broad similarities, shared by many serials, such as the blend of exotic locations, flashy visuals (including cutting-edge effects and immersive production design), and fast-paced action, combined with the fairy-tale clash of good and evil. The stirring music (including a version of the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet) and remixing of ancient and medieval motifs with futuristic elements is also something that George Lucas would update for his space fantasy. But there are little moments, too, that stick out: the quirky music that accompanies the Clay People, for example, is echoed in the Jawas’ theme; the repeated back-and-forth as Flash and his allies return to Azura’s high-tech city for one reason or another–to destroy the “nitron lamp” that is slowly draining the Earth; to find an antidote for the “Incense of Forgetfulness”; to confront first Azura and then Ming–is one source for Luke Skywalker and the Rebels’ infiltration of the Death Star and their later raids on it (and its successor in Return of the Jedi). Flash even rescues Queen Azura from falling off a “light bridge” by swinging on a cable, a move borrowed from Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn and recreated by Mark Hammill with Carrie Fisher.

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It all comes down to a final confrontation, and although Crabbe would return as Flash one more time in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, it appears that Ming is defeated, and Mars, like Mongo, is left in better hands. The four heroes return to Earth, and to my amusement the newspaper headline again reads SUPER-MEN OF CENTURY WIN WORLD ACCLAIM! (I like to imagine an editor, knowing that he already struck gold once with that headline, saying to himself, “Why mess with perfection?”)

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What I Watched: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Universal, 1938)

Where I Watched It: It’s on YouTube in its entirety.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “The Black Sapphire of Kalu” (Chapter Eight). I usually define “good” chapter titles as having a certain punch or flair, or capturing the tone of the serial especially well, and there are several chapter titles in Trip to Mars that meet that standard. I chose this one, however, because of its specificity, a somewhat rare quality in chapter titles.

Best Cliffhanger: Just as Flash Gordon found its titular hero robbed of his memory thanks to one of Princess Aura’s schemes, so here does Flash’s paramour Dale Arden experience the “Incense of Forgetfulness” in the Temple of Kalu at the end of Chapter Ten. Convinced that she is a servant of the forest people’s god, she stabs Flash in the back when he shows up to rescue her. (Flash recovers from his wound, but only by returning to Azura’s city are Flash and Zarkov able to find an antidote so Dale can recover her memory.)

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Another Note About Costumes: In my review of Undersea Kingdom, I noted the prominence of Roman-style helmet crests and other kinds of cranial plumage in the costume design. Mars appears to have a similar taste for adornment based on the uniforms of Queen Azura’s soldiers (here, Flash, disguised as a member of Azura’s Death Squadron, pretends to hold Dr. Zarkov prisoner):

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And just look at this fellow on the left:

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Sample Dialogue: “I’d feel a lot better if I had a parachute instead of these Martian wings!” Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), just before bailing out of a “stratosled” (Chapter Four, “Ancient Enemies”)

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Bonus Sample Dialogue: “I wonder what the wife’s going to say when I get home!” –“Happy” Hapgood (Chapter Fifteen, “An Eye For an Eye”)

What Others Have Said: “We tried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon from King Features but the deal would have been prohibitive. They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer.” —Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times

What’s Next: After the epic length (about five hours) of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, I’m going to take next week to focus on a special topic: serials cut down to feature length.

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