Flash Gordon is perhaps the most famous of all movie serials. Universal pulled out all the stops for this production. The budget was $350,000 - very generous indeed for a serial. Universal were hoping for a major hit and Flash Gordon delivered the goods.
One of the problems with most movie serials is that there’s not quite enough plot to sustain somewhere between twelve and fifteen weekly installments, which tends to lead to plots that repeat themselves somewhat. That’s not a problem with this production - Flash Gordon has plenty of plot to go around. Combine that with a host of exotic settings and a cast of bizarre and colourful characters and you have a serial that grabs the viewer’s attention right from the start and doesn’t let go.
Flash Gordon was the first of the great space adventure serials. It starts with a bang - civilisation is about to be destroyed by a mysterious planet hurtling towards the Earth. College athlete Flash Gordon (Larry “Buster” Crabbe) bails out from an aircraft and together with a pretty fellow passenger, Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) he finds himself at the laboratory of the brilliant but eccentric Dr Zarkov (Frank Shannon). Dr Zarkov believes he can save the Earth. He has designed and built a spaceship which he intends to fly to the mysterious planet. Flash and Dale will accompany him on his flight.
They reach the mysterious planet, which they will learn is named Mongo. And once there the adventures come thick and fast. They will be imprisoned by the shark men from an underwater city, they will befriend the courageous Lion Men, they will visit the city in the clouds ruled by the bizarre bewinged King Vultan (Jack Lipson), they will be menaced by giant lizards and fire-breathing dragons, Flash will be condemned to the dreaded radium furnaces, in fact there will be more than enough dangers to ensure a suitably thrilling cliffhanger ending for each of the twelve episodes.
Flash’s main enemy will be the Emperor of Ming, known as Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), who claims dominion over the whole of the planet Mongo. Almost as dangerous as Ming is his daughter, the Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson). Flash and Dale Arden are obviously in love but Aura is determined to win Flash for herself. Her father Ming has meanwhile set his sights on marrying Dale Arden.
Buster Crabbe was not exactly a great actor but he had the square-jawed good looks and the physique (he was an Olympic swimming gold-medallist) to be an action star. It has to be admitted that none of the performers in this serial were likely to be Oscar contenders but the performances suit the material perfectly. Charles Middleton is delightfully wicked as the aptly named Ming the Merciless. King Vultan is a bizarre larger-than-life character and Jack Lipson gives a bizarre larger-than-life performance. Frank Shannon is convincingly eccentric as Dr Zarkov. Jean Rogers has little to do other than look vulnerable and appealing, which she does quite successfully.
The special effects are extremely variable. Some are excellent; others are laughably poor. It doesn’t matter - even the bad special effects are great fun.
The sets are superb. They’re one of the serial’s major strengths, adding both variety and exoticism. Ming’s laboratory is a highlight. Best of all is the radium furnace room where captives are forced to shovel radium into the atom furnaces.
The monsters are also variable in quality. Using ordinary lizards as giant monster reptiles works as badly as that technique always worked although that wouldn’t stop countless future film-makers from trying the same trick. The fire dragon is quite cool though, as is the fearsome Orangapoid (in my book a guy in an ape suit is a welcome addition to any movie).
The spaceships are wonderfully baroque but they’re excelled by the gyrocopter-ships of the Lion Men - surely the most delightfully ludicrous flying machines ever put on film.
Flash Gordon is excessive in every respect. So many sets representing so many strange places, so many monsters, so many fight scenes, so many dangers from which our heroes escape by a hair’s breadth - this serial succeeds by throwing everything at us. There’s as much action in a single episode as there is in many feature films of the period. And there’s romance as well.
Flash Gordon effortlessly lives up to its legendary reputation as the greatest of all the movie serials. Highly recommended.