Flash Gordon is a 1936 film serial which tells the story of three people from Earth who travel to the planet Mongo to fight the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless. Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Charles Middleton, Priscilla Lawson and Frank Shannon played the central roles. This serial has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
This first Flash Gordon
serial has been called "the American Siegfried
", referring directly to Fritz Lang
silent movie from the personality of its title character, its costuming, intensity, and special effects, as well as many plot similarities; and indirectly to Richard Wagner
cycle because of its (sensational but admittedly lesser and imperfectly cued) music — a collection of the science fiction and mystery theme music from the feature films of the Universal Studios
. The archetypal plot points common to both legends include the personality differences of the two main female characters, the monarch's desire for one of them and her magical seduction, and the hero's invisibility and his fight with a giant lizard.
Although the plot of the serial appears haphazard, it faithfully depicts much of the storyline of the first few months of the original newspaper comic strip (which would be recognized by the original audience) — but in black and white, not the garish color of the paper. Important divergences include Dale Arden not getting attacked by monsters, the explanation why Prince Barin wears a mask, and Zarkov's rocket not taking off vertically. And King Vultan's harem is not shown, either. This explains why the part was acted hamming Charles Laughton's Henry the Eighth.
The Flash Gordon serial was the most expensive of them all, the only serial advertised in some theaters above the name of the feature presentations, and probably the serial with the greatest attendance. It was the only sound serial with sexual tension, and it has become the best-remembered serial of them all.
Years later, in a television appearance in his native Oakland, Crabbe told an inteviewer that he was unhappy when Universal insisted on coloring his hair blonde to match the comic strip character.
Flash Gordon was followed by two more serials, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). During the 1950s, the three serials were shown on American television. To avoid confusion with a made-for-TV Flash Gordon series airing around the same time, they were retitled, becoming respectively Space Soldiers, Space Soldiers' Trip to Mars, and Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe. In the mid-1970s, all three serials were shown by PBS stations across the US, bringing Flash Gordon to a new generation, a full two years before Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind re-ignited interest in the science fiction genre. All three serials were later heavily edited and released on home video.
- The Planet of Peril: The planet Mongo is on a collision course with Earth. Dr. Hans Zarkov takes off in a rocket ship to Mongo, with Flash Gordon and Dale Arden as his assistants. They find that the planet is ruled by the cruel Emperor Ming, who lusts after Dale and sends Flash to fight in the arena. Ming's daughter, Princess Aura, tries to spare Flash's life.
- The Tunnel of Terror: Aura helps Flash to escape as Zarkov is put to work in Ming's laboratory and Dale is prepared for her wedding to Ming. Flash meets Prince Thun, leader of the Lion Men, and the pair return to the palace to rescue Dale.
- Captured by Shark Men: Flash stops the wedding ceremony, but he and Dale are captured by King Kala, ruler of the Shark Men and a loyal follower of Ming. At Ming's order, Kala forces Flash to fight with a giant octosak.
- Battling the Sea Beast: Aura and Thun rescue Flash from the octosak. Trying to keep Flash away from Dale, Aura destroys the mechanisms that regulate the underwater city.
- The Destroying Ray: Flash, Dale, Aura and Thun escape from the underwater city, but are captured by King Vultan and the Hawkmen. Dr. Zarkov befriends Prince Barin, and they race to the rescue.
- Flaming Torture: Dale pretends to fall in love with King Vultan in order to save Flash, Barin and Thun, who are put to work in the Hawkmen's Atom Furnaces.
- Shattering Doom: Flash, Barin, Thun and Zarkov create an explosion in the atomic furnaces.
- Tournament of Death: Dr. Zarkov saves the Hawkmen's city from falling, earning Flash and his friends King Vultan's gratitude. Ming insists that Flash fight a Tournament of Death against a masked opponent, and then a vicious orangopoid.
- Fighting the Fire Dragon: Flash survives the tournament. Still determined to win Flash, Aura has him drugged to make him lose his memory.
- The Unseen Peril: Flash recovers his memory. Ming is determined to have Flash executed.
- In the Claws of the Tigron: Zarkov invents a machine that makes Flash invisible. Flash torments Ming and his guards. Barin hides Dale in the catacombs, but Aura has her tracked by a tigron.
- Trapped in the Turret: Aura realizes the error of her ways, and falls in love with Barin. She tries to help Flash and his friends to return to Earth — but Ming plots to kill them.
- Rocketing to Earth: Ming orders that the Earth people be caught and killed, but Flash and his friends escape from the emperor's clutches. Flash, Dale and Zarkov make a triumphant return to Earth.
According to Harmon and Glut Flash Gordon
had a budget of over a million dollars. Stedman, however, writes that it was "reportedly" $350,000.
A lot of props and other elements were recycled from earlier Universal productions. The watchtower from Frankenstein (1931) appeared as Zarkov's base. The Egyptian idol from The Mummy (1932) became the idol of the Great God Tao. Shots of Earth from space came from The Invisible Ray (1936). The Rocket Ships were reused from Just Imagine (1930). Ming's attack on Earth used footage from old silent newsreels. An entire dance segment from The Midnight Sun (1927) was used. A laboratory comes from Bride of Frankenstein. The music was recycled from several other films.
Exterior shots, such as the crew from Earth's first steps on Mongo, were filmed at Bronson Canyon.
Crash Corrigan, who would later be the lead in other serials, wore a modified gorilla suit as the "Orangapoid".
Flash Gordon was intended to regain an adult audience for serials. It was shown in 'A' Theaters in large cities across the Unites States. Many newspapers, including some not carrying the Flash Gordon comic strip, contained half and three-quarter page feature stories in their entertainment pages with Alex Raymond drawings and stills from the serial.
Flash Gordon was the first outright science fiction serial, although earlier serials had contained science fiction elements such as gadgets. Six of the fourteen science fiction serials were released within five years of Flash Gordon.
The end of chapter five, where Vultan corners Dale Arden, is "one of the most erotic bits of film footage turned out by Hollywood after the reins of censorship were tightened in 1934" according to Stedman.