Fates Worse Than Death: Drums of Fu Manchu

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A man steps into a taxi; at every step of his journey, he is being followed as he makes his way to his destination. Just as the traveler reaches safety, one of the lurking pursuers attacks, throwing a knife that the would-be victim only barely dodges! The man? Sir Denis Nayland Smith of the British Foreign Office. His attacker? A Dacoit in the service of Smith’s deadly archenemy, Dr. Fu Manchu!

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Just as the first of the popular series of novels by Sax Rohmer (real name: Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward) begins, so begins Drums of Fu Manchu, the 1940 Republic serial loosely adapted from them. As in Rohmer’s books, the only thing standing between the fiendishly brilliant “devil doctor” and “nothing less than the conquest of Asia” is Smith (played by William Royle), a hero who stands midway between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (temporally as well as in style); and his assistant, Dr. Petrie (it was Dr. Petrie’s doorstep on which Smith was attacked in the first scene). There is usually also a younger man of action who encounters the diabolical conspiracies surrounding Fu Manchu and his secret organization, the Si Fan, as a newcomer, drawn in by some personal connection and allying himself with Smith and Petrie once the stakes are clear to him. In Drums, that young man is Allan Parker (Robert Kellard), son of James Parker, an explorer in possession of knowledge desired by Fu Manchu.

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Fu Manchu’s goal is to recover the sacred scepter of Genghis Khan, an artifact which will allow him to unite all of the peoples of Asia in rebellion against the white occupiers. According to prophecy, a leader will arise to take up the scepter during the “Holy Year”–Sir Nayland has spent months undercover in Burma observing Fu Manchu’s surrogates riling up the local tribes “from the Nihali Mountains through Branapuhr,” in expectation of the leader’s–Fu Manchu’s–arrival. From the point of view of the British authorities, the High Lama is a much better candidate to receive the scepter, as he promises peace (and continuing cooperation with the British, naturally). Both Fu Manchu and Sir Nayland Smith must work through the various clues left behind–scrolls, a plaque, a stone from an altar, and so on–to locate the missing tomb of Genghis Khan, each trying to recover the scepter first. Even once the action moves back to Asia and the scepter is found, the serial isn’t over.

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In order to accomplish his goals, Fu Manchu has (and will again) resorted to murder: the explorer Lionel Barton, whose transcriptions of certain scrolls revealed the existence of the scepter, is already out of the way. Dr. Parker will be next, and things aren’t looking too good for Professor Randolph, an expert on Mongolian languages who accompanied Barton on his expedition. Another victim is Wally Winchester, the radio columnist who is felled by a “gelatinous dart” hidden in his microphone, right before he attempts to reveal on-air the hideout in which Fu Manchu has Parker held captive! Elaborate murders, death-traps, and methods of torture are Fu Manchu’s stock in trade, and they complement the Republic serial style quite smoothly: many of the serial’s cliffhangers consist of traps or torture devices, the question of the hero’s survival left for the following week, and in other cases they are incidents along the way or the basis for action set pieces.

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Most of these killings are accompanied by the drums of the title: a sinister drumbeat that builds ominously, indicating the presence of the villain. It’s not always clear what or where the drums are: sometimes they are part of the diegetic sound of the film, and the characters call attention to them, knowing that they are threatened. At other times they are a spooky, atmospheric effect, ladled onto the soundtrack like gravy. In any case, they are never directly explained, but they are an effective dramatic device, and a symbol of the atmosphere of dread that hangs over the whole serial like opium smoke.

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At the center of this malign web is Fu Manchu himself, played by Henry Brandon. Fu Manchu is one of the great pop culture villains, perhaps the model of the criminal mastermind, and has been portrayed on screen by Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, among others (even Warner Oland, who would later give the best-known portrayal of Charlie Chan, took a turn as the devil doctor early in his career). Here’s what Sir Nayland has to say to Dr. Petrie in their first adventure together:

Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.

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The unironic use of the phrase “yellow peril” suggests, of course, that the character has little to do with the actual culture or politics of Asia and everything to do with the West’s anxieties and fears of same. (It should also be clear that, in addition to his vicious, criminal acts, Fu Manchu’s dream of throwing off British imperialism is enough by itself to make him villainous in Sir Nayland Smith’s eyes.) Fu Manchu embodies a host of troublesome, contradictory stereotypes: he is bound by a strong sense of honor, yet is underhanded, secretive, and treacherous; he is described in terms that seem physically inhuman and is completely exotic in his costume, yet his knowledge of white ways and mastery of disguise allow him to blend in undetected in Europe or America; he is coded as effete, even effeminate, but represents a sexual danger to white women (this doesn’t come through as strongly in the Hays Code-approved serial, but it often does in other representations of the character); in short, he can be anywhere and can be anything that inspires fear or disgust in his (presumably white) audience. (His command of all Asians also has the unpleasant side effect of making non-white characters appear suspicious, beyond even their usual portrayal as others: in this serial, just about anybody in a turban or robe could be a member of the Si Fan.)

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This is, of course, why none of the actors famous for playing the character were themselves of Asian descent, and a big reason why the character has made few official appearances in recent decades, even as he remains recognizable as an icon. Fu Manchu is now more likely to be spoofed (his last official appearance was in 1980, played by Peter Sellers) or subverted (consider the twist in Iron Man 3) than taken seriously: even among those who still traffic in “yellow peril” anxiety, the Asian villains have been updated to take advantage of current political and economic tensions. (But who knows? Even as I write this a trade war with China is in the offing, and the white nationalism currently embroiling the country has much in common with the panic over immigration that made Fu Manchu and other yellow peril characters so popular a hundred years ago; as much as I would like to consider these stereotypes as a purely academic matter, they are still very much with us.)

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Brandon’s portrayal hits these notes often and hard: he speaks in a high, querulous voice, drawing out words with exacting precision, and delivers his lines with haughty condescension. He is a “villain you love to hate.” (Although Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies is largely a riff on James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, there’s more than a little of Fu Manchu in him as well, particularly the scenes of gathering his varied henchmen around a conference table, so like the Si Fan council meetings.*) Unlike many other serials, Drums of Fu Manchu keeps its villain front and center, confronting the heroes face to face often rather than keeping distance between them. And why not? Fu Manchu is the star, not Sir Nayland Smith (a point made brilliantly in Gahan Wilson’s short story “The Power of the Mandarin,” which I recommend but won’t spoil).

*On the other hand, Dr. Evil is also said to be modeled on Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, and I’ve never seen Michaels and Fu Manchu in the same room together, have you?

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In Fu Manchu’s service are his Dacoits, mostly interchangeable goons sent on missions of burglary, kidnapping, and assassination, sometimes under the direct leadership of Fu Manchu’s daughter, Fah Lo Suee (Gloria Franklin). The Dacoits’ primary weapon is the throwing knife, but strangling nooses and blowguns–both “exotic weapons”–come into play as well. The word dacoit refers to a Burmese bandit or robber, but in Sax Rohmer’s books they are one of several cult-like organizations, along with the Thuggee, who serve Fu Manchu with undying loyalty. In the serial, the Dacoits have had their brains operated on to make them loyal, and they are recognizable by the grotesque scars left by the surgery. Only a few have names (chief among them Loki, Fu Manchu’s muscle and leader of the other Dacoits), and they are narratively equivalent to the zombies of Haitian voodoo (in fact, in one chapter Nayland Smith is himself threatened with being turned into a Dacoit, a true fate worse than death!).

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It should be evident from this partial description that there are quite a few characters in Drums of Fu Manchu, and that’s not even getting into the one-chapter characters like Ezra Howard, the eccentric collector from whom one of the clues must be finessed. I also haven’t mentioned Mary Randolph (Luana Walters), Professor Randolph’s daughter, first seen bringing the “Dalai Plaque” by train and joining the heroes’ forces after an attempted theft and the sabotage of the train. Mary is naturally paired up with Allan Parker as a romantic lead, and she also counters Fah Lo Suee, the other important female character. Allan Parker and Sir Nayland Smith essentially take turns as leads, one frequently falling into peril (when it isn’t Mary in distress) and the other arriving to save the day. Interestingly, Dr. Petrie (Olaf Hytten), Smith’s nominal sidekick, frequently fades into the background in the serial while other characters take more active roles.

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Drums of Fu Manchu is ultimately more like the popular image of serials than many of the serials I’ve seen: because Fu Manchu makes a personal appearance in every chapter, we are treated to many scenes of him delivering deliciously arch monologues to his intended victims, bound and awaiting death by some slow, gruesome mechanism: “I have a number of Oriental devices for extracting information from stubborn witnesses, but I’m honoring you by the use of an arrangement invented by one of your own countrymen,” he tells Allan Parker in a typical example. “You’re undoubtedly familiar with the admirable writings of Edgar Allan Poe? So you will have no difficulty in recognizing this device, described in his short story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.'” The rest of the scene, as they say, writes itself.

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Furthermore, whereas even many serials based on series characters are self-contained, Drums of Fu Manchu never lets us forget that it is but one episode in a never-ending struggle. “From the pages of fiction steps the most sinister figure of all time–FU MANCHU!” reads the opening crawl. “Schooled in the ancient mysteries of the Orient he is as modern as Tomorrow!” Even though this is Republic’s only Fu Manchu serial (a sequel was proposed, but was dropped because of the wartime alliance with China), his familiarity to audiences (in addition to the novels, Fu Manchu was a multimedia sensation, with previous film appearances, radio programs, and comics) provided a sense of continuity. The introduction of the characters in the first chapter implies earlier adventures, and–very unusually–the serial ends with a single scene of Fu Manchu, alone, still alive, and vowing to continue his war upon the West: “But there will dawn another day, a day of reckoning, when the forces of Fu Manchu will sweep on to victory! This I pledge.” To the end, he is far too dignified to shake his fist and cry, “I’ll get you next time, Nayland Smith!”, but the meaning is the same.

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What I Watched: Drums of Fu Manchu (Republic, 1940)

Where I Watched It: a 2-disc DVD set from VCI Entertainment

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No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death Dials a Number” (Chapter Six) In this chapter, Allan Parker is left tied up next to a telephone whose ringer has been attached to the fuse of an explosive; as soon as either Fu Manchu or Sir Nayland Smith attempt to call, it’s curtains for Allan!

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Best Cliffhanger: As often happens, the title of Chapter Nine, “The Crystal of Death,” foreshadows the cliffhanging peril that will end the chapter. In this chapter, Fu Manchu, having abducted Mary, brings her to the temple of the sun goddess Kardac. Sir Nayland Smith is already there, trying to gain the information from the temple priest that both he and Fu Manchu are seeking (both are in possession of a fragment of the temple’s altar, one the original and the other a replica). Fu Manchu reminds the priest that prophecy says the goddess will speak when the true fragment of the altar is replaced, and speak she does, demanding a sacrifice to atone for the desecration of the temple by outsiders (strange, though, that the goddess’s voice sounds so much like Fah Lo Suee’s!). Mary, placed in a trance by the “incense of obedience,” is laid out on the altar, and sunlight from outside is projected (via a series of mirrors) through the temple’s sacred crystal, which focuses it into a powerfully destructive ray. As the ray moves slowly toward Mary, the small idols on the altar burst into flame, showing just how intensely hot it is. Somewhere, the drums of Fu Manchu begin their relentless tattoo, the pulsing drumbeat that spells doom. . . .

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Sample Dialogue: “May I remind you that among my people, honor is a sacred thing, and those who defile it can expect no mercy!” –Fu Manchu to Mary Randolph, Chapter Three (“Ransom in the Sky”)

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Bonus Sample Dialogue: “Illustrious father, the switch is open; both trains are on the same track; and when they meet, the Sunrise Limited will be but a thing of twisted metal.” –Fah Lo Suee to Fu Manchu on the telephone, Chapter One (“Fu Manchu Strikes”)

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Death by Octopus? Of course.

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Death by Cave-In? You know it.

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Villain Disguises Himself as Hero? Without a doubt.

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Where in the World is Fu Manchu? Note the address on the packing crate: this must be on the same map as Gotham City and Yoknapatawpha County.

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What Others Have Said: “William Witney and John English, mentioned throughout this book as the most professional directors of movie serials, directed Drums of Fu Manchu. Working with photographer William Nobels, the directing team stressed the mystery elements inherent in the Fu Manchu novels, unlike most of their action-oriented photoplays. [There is still quite a bit of action, however. –GV] Most of their serial was photographed in shadows with the eeriest lighting possible falling upon Fu. Before he made his appearance the almost supernatural drums of Fu Manchu began to sound from nowhere. There was no denying the fact that the Witney-English Fu Manchu was more than human and possessed weird powers not even hinted at in the novels.” Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut, The Great Movie Serials

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What’s Next: I’ll be back in two weeks with a look at Captain Africa, the sequel/rehash of The Phantom. I hope you’ll join me.

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Fates Worse Than Death: Flash Gordon (1936)

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A strange planet is moving through the Solar system on a collision course with Earth, Velikovsky-style, bringing meteor showers and global panic with it.  Professor Gordon, stationed at an observatory, receives word that his son, Flash, has postponed his polo game so that he can take a transcontinental flight to return home before (presumably) the end of the world.  While on that flight, Flash (Buster Crabbe) and a female stranger (Jean Rogers) bail out at the same time, just before meteors cause the plane to crash.  They’ve landed near the rocket ship of Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon), a scientist (and former colleague of old Professor Gordon) whose plan is to fly to the invading planet and redirect it away from earth.  Needing an assistant, Zarkov coerces Gordon and the young woman, Dale Arden, into the ship.  The three blast off and soon arrive on the mysterious planet.

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The planet Mongo, as it turns out to be, is ruled by Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton), to whom the three are taken as prisoners.  Upon seeing the beautiful Dale, Ming desires to take her for his bride; upon learning that Zarkov built the rocket ship that brought them there, Ming puts him to work in his own laboratory, in order to conquer the Earth instead of destroying it.  As for Flash, his attempts to free his friends awaken Ming’s ire; he has him thrown into the arena to battle three beast men.  Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), however, has other ideas, and schemes to keep Flash alive for herself.

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Thus begins the epic, thirteen-episode Flash Gordon, which puts Flash and company into cliffhanging perils that include a flooding underwater palace, fights with fearsome beasts, torture, and even a machine that makes Flash disappear completely.  And did I mention the rays?  In addition to ray guns, there are gravity rays, melting rays, rays that restore health, and an invisibility ray (the explanation for Flash’s previous disappearance, of course).  Throughout the serial, our heroes encounter Shark Men, Lion Men, and Hawk Men, all with their own leaders and complex political relationships with Ming.  (Whatever its crimes against realism may be, you can’t accuse Mongo of being a monocultural “Planet of Hats” in the Star Trek vein.)  Beyond the physical threats, there are shifting alliances and treachery, and all the while Princess Aura plays both sides, helping Flash escape but working to keep him separate from Dale.

Alex Raymond’s comic strip had only been running for two years when Universal Pictures released its serial adaptation in 1936, scripted by Frederick Stephani, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Ella O’Neill, and directed by Stephani.  The producer was Henry MacRae, who had been a director of serials since the silent era and knew how to get the most bang for the buck. Although serials were known for their low budgets, Flash Gordon was lavish by comparison (the claim that it cost a million dollars has been disputed, but it is still easy to believe that it was more expensive than the average chapter play); it was the first serial to play in a Broadway movie theater and set the tone for much of the cinematic science fiction that followed.

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It would be damning with faint praise to say Flash Gordon looks good “for its time;” many of the shortcuts taken in its production—the use of stock footage, recycled sets and costumes, and a score cobbled together from previous Universal horror and adventure films—would have been more obvious to viewers at the time than they are now.  Three years after Willis O’Brien wowed audiences with the stop-motion in King Kong, the many monsters that Flash battles are either familiar animals with some outer space bling attached, or small animals filmed against miniature sets to make them appear gigantic—or both, like the dragon-sized finned iguanas that prowl the valley where Flash and his compatriots first land.  The exception is the bipedal papier-mâché dragon with lobster claws that inhabits the “Tunnel of Terror” in Chapter Two; with the addition of horns and a wall of flame, it doubles as the “Sacred Fire Dragon” in Chapter Nine.

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None of that matters, however, as the story unfolds with a swiftness that encourages suspension of disbelief, and a game cast that takes the material only as seriously as it needs to be, but no more.  First among them is Buster Crabbe as the title character, and I think it’s fair to say that Crabbe is ideal for the part.  Like Tarzan (whom Crabbe had also played), Flash Gordon isn’t a role to be acted: it’s a role to be embodied, and Crabbe has the physique (he had been a champion Olympic swimmer, winning a Gold Medal in 1932) and movie-star looks (with hair bleached to match Gordon’s comic-strip appearance) to pull it off.  That’s not to impugn Crabbe’s acting: while he isn’t called on to chew the scenery like Middleton as Ming or John Lipson as the Hawk Men’s King Vultan, he has a natural, unaffected screen presence, perfect for the kind of all-American hero who finds himself at the center of all this craziness.  Crabbe is engaged with the material and never sounds like he’s reciting lines from a cue card (more than can be said of James Pierce as Prince Thun of the Lion Men).

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Flash’s adversary, Ming the Merciless, is played by Charles Middleton, who long specialized in “heavies,” and brings a prickly grandiloquence to the role.  He’s the kind of seasoned actor who can deliver lines like, “Why did not the sacred gong sound the final note which completes the marriage ceremony?” and make it sound perfectly natural.  Ming is one of the great pulp villains, of course, and with his arched eyebrows, pointed beard and mustache, bald head, and long fingernails, he shares a great deal of DNA with that poster child of Yellow Peril racism, Fu Manchu. Like Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind, Ming is an invasive force, the perfect stand-in for overseas threats from Europe or Asia (before Pearl Harbor, the pulps and comics often replaced Japan and Germany with their own invented enemies, such as the “Purple Empire” that Operator #5 battled; sometimes such threats were even described as “Eurasian,” covering all the bases).  Hailing from outer space instead of a foreign country, however, Ming has a veneer of plausible deniability that has made it easier to keep him around in later decades. Opposing him, Flash Gordon is the ideal American of the 1930s who doesn’t start fights but isn’t afraid to finish them.

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Beyond his name and visual appearance, Ming embodies the stereotype of the “Oriental potentate,” cruel, decadent, and treacherous.  In the Universal production, Ming entertains himself watching combat in the arena and gaudy choreographic displays (courtesy of Universal’s library of stock footage); the costume of his empire is a mix of spage-age tunics, medieval robes, and Roman centurion armor for the men, and harem outfits for the women. The costumes (and most of the set dressing) are straight from Universal’s warehouses, but the mixture of styles isn’t that far off from Raymond’s comic strip design, which also borrowed freely from distant times and places from Earth’s history.  The question of how people on other planets might dress hadn’t really been settled: when Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan) sent John Carter to the planet Mars, he described the inhabitants as nude, or nearly so.  Artists illustrating his books preserved Earth standards of modesty by draping Dejah Thoris in Roman togas and other stylized garb.  While the comic strip Buck Rogers, which premiered in 1929, gave a more fantastical, futuristic appearance to its space travelers, Flash Gordon was mostly content to be Prince Valiant in space; despite the rocket ships and ray guns, Gordon was often shown fighting with a sword like John Carter.  It’s not for nothing that this genre became known as “space opera.”

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No character in the 1936 production illustrates this better than King Vultan of the Hawk Men.  All the Hawk Men (there are no Hawk Women, near as I can tell) have enormous, feathery wings sprouting from their backs, and wear Viking horned helmets and armor.  With his boisterous laugh and enormous appetites, Vultan is clearly modeled after Henry VIII (he’s even shown feasting on the drumsticks of what I assume is some kind of space chicken, and mention is made of his numerous wives).  However, with his truly over-the-top headdress and the exaggerated pectorals of his breastplate, he looks like Luciano Pavarotti as Brünnhilde in a drag production of Die Walküre.

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I like Vultan, though: unlike the humorless Ming and colorless Kala (King of the Shark Men, who can’t breathe water—I mean, where to even start?), Vultan is the only one who seems to really enjoy his villainy.  He is, however, a strong argument against those who feel that the 1980 feature version of Flash Gordon was too campy compared to the original.  Upon capturing Dale and (inevitably) deciding to wed her himself, he courts her by first terrifying her with his pet “Urso” (a bear painted with badger stripes) and then tries to entertain her by making shadow puppets on the wall.  This guy is all over the place; naturally, he becomes Flash’s ally by the end of the serial.

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And who is Dale Arden but a classic “damsel in distress?”  She mostly screams and faints and exists to be rescued (interestingly, only one cliffhanger actually puts her in danger); she is subjected to mind games by Princess Aura, who convinces her that she must make Vultan believe she loves him, or else he will kill Flash.  The role isn’t the fault of Jean Rogers, who does as much as she can with it and looks great in the part.  In fact, between Rogers as Dale and Lawson as Aura fighting over Flash, it’s not hard to imagine a Depression-era boy at a Saturday matinee developing a sudden, unexpected interest in polo.

An amnesiac Flash Gordon tries to decide between Dale Arden and Princess Aura, the Betty and Veronica of outer space.

An amnesiac Flash Gordon tries to decide between Dale Arden and Princess Aura, the Betty and Veronica of outer space.

And it’s not only for the boys (and their dads): I mentioned Buster Crabbe’s physique, but I didn’t get to how often he appears without his shirt, slick with sweat or bound and tortured.  The sensuality and overt (but still PG) eroticism of the 1980 version weren’t invented from whole cloth.

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When the plot isn’t being moved forward by Ming or one of the other rulers of Mongo, it’s often one of Princess Aura’s schemes that does the trick.  To my mind, she’s the real hero of the story, resourceful, determined, and intense.  No wonder she ends up on the throne at the end, paired up not with Flash but the loyal Prince Barin, who is so exciting and interesting that I didn’t even think to bring him up until now.

What I Watched: Flash Gordon (1936, Universal)

Where I Saw It: It’s on YouTube.  The first chapter is here.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: “The Unseen Peril” (Chapter Ten)

Best Cliffhanger: “Shattering Doom” (Chapter Seven): Flash, enslaved in King Vultan’s atomic furnace room, has an electric wire attached to his wrist, to kill him instantly if he rebels.  Doctor Zarkov surreptitiously attaches the wire to the handle of Flash’s shovel and instructs him to throw the shovel into the furnace when the time for escape is right.  Flash orders the other slaves to duck behind the safety wall and makes his move, triggering a massive explosion.  Will he get to safety in time?

Sample Dialogue: “Is there no way a man can conquer the sacred orangopoid?” –Princess Aura, Chapter Nine

With a Dry, Cool Wit Like That: “Scared, huh?” –Flash, as he grabs Dale and pushes her out of the airplane in Chapter One

Cheapest Special Effect: As much as I’d like to, I can’t count King Vultan’s shadow puppets, which are certainly odd but aren’t meant to be taken for anything else. Instead, I choose this fellow, the terrifying giant lizard of Mongo:

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Most Embarrassing Costume: I’ve already addressed the costumes in some detail, and while King Vultan’s appearance is certainly memorable, I think I’m going to award this honor to the Hawk Man servant who briefly makes an appearance in a full chef’s uniform in Chapter Six:

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Biggest Cop-Out: Does anyone believe Ming is dead at the end of Flash Gordon?  Even without the knowledge that there would be two sequels, did anyone believe it in 1936?

What Others Have Said: “They were flying over and they were forced down where there was a rocket ready to take off—I mean, if you accept that, you have no problem with anything. If it bothers you that they happened to be flying over a rocket made by Dr. Zarkov, why then, this movie isn’t for you.” –Lorenzo Semple, Jr., screenwriter of the 1980 Flash Gordon feature film

What’s next: In two weeks, join me again for a look at Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island.