Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938)

Released in 1938, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars was the second of the three Flash Gordon serials made by Universal. The original 1936 Flash Gordon serial was one of the best of its breed and Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars is a fairly worthy successor.

Flash (Larry “Buster” Crabbe), Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) and Dr Zarkov (Frank Shannon) have returned in triumph to Earth after their successful struggle against the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton) on the planet Mongo. All is not well on Earth. The Earth is being slowly destroyed by a ray from space which is draining all the nitron from the atmosphere. Dr Zarkov believes the ray originates from Mongo. In fact, as Flash and his pals soon find out, the actual source of the ray is the planet Mars.

Which doesn’t mean that Ming is not involved. He is very much involved. Ming has forged an alliance with the Martian queen Azura (Beatrice Roberts) whose magical powers make her a formidable adversary in her own right. Ming has offered to assist Azura in her war with the Clay People.

For this adventure Flash, Dale and Dr Zarkov are joined by a stowaway, a pushy but reasonably amiable newspaper reporter, Happy Hapgood (Donald Kerr). Hapgood serves no real purpose other than to provide some comic relief. Fortunately he’s not excessively irritating.

The potential problem with all serials was the difficulty in maintaining the excitement over so many installments without too many dull patches and without too many episodes that fail to advance the plot. This problem does not afflict Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars to any great degree. The action is fairly constant, the cliffhangers are exciting and the plot does move along. On occasions the serial does resort to some of the expected cliffhanger clichés but not to an excessive degree.

Apart from Ming and his minions and Azura and her minions there are two main alien races. The Clay People shamble about and look fairly sinister and have the unnerving habit of disappearing into the rock walls in their underground wall. They may not be as sinister as they first appear although they’re certainly dangerous. There is a secret to the origin of the Clay People, a secret that will be revealed as the serial progresses. The Forest People are creepier and they’re pretty creepy although not as impressive as the Clay People.

Azura’s magic makes this serial more science fantasy than science fiction but then Flash Gordon serials are hardly serious science fiction to begin with. The trouble with introducing magic is that it can make a character a bit too powerful but fortunately Azura’s magic has its limitations.

There’s the usual array of delightfully silly pseudoscientific ideas. The giant nitron lamp that is draining the Earth’s atmosphere looks cool and is a nifty idea. 

The spaceships in these 1930s serials are wonderfully silly although in their own way the designs are quite interesting. Of course the special effects are incredibly crude, the miniatures look like kids’ toys and the spaceships in flight are ludicrously unconvincing. All of which just makes me love these serials even more.

The budgets of these Universal serials were, by serial standards, reasonably generous. The sets look fantastic and the costumes are great (if often bizarre).

The acting is bad but it’s bad in a very entertaining way. Buster Crabbe makes a terrific square-jawed action hero, Jean Rogers does little more than look glamourous while Beatrice Roberts does her best to appear as diabolical as she possibly can. Of course the highlight is as always Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless, a superb melodrama villain just oozing evilness from every pore.

The plotting is tighter than you might expect - each episode actually does advance the main story line without to many irrelevant digressions.

The Madacy boxed set includes all three Flash Gordon serials at a very reasonable price indeed. The transfers are not stellar but they’re more than acceptable. 

You might want to watch the original 1936 Flash Gordon serial first - Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars assumes you already know the backstories of the major characters. After watching the original you’ll be keen to watch Flash’s second adventure.

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars has everything that a fan of 1930s movie serials could wish for. Highly recommended.

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