Roan Group // 1940 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // July 5th, 2004
In his mad ambition, Ming declared that he was the universe.
Almost forgotten today, the Saturday morning serials featuring such heroes as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Tarzan provided high-flying thrills for a generation of kids growing up in the years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Audiences could sit in the darkness and forget the outside world as they traveled to distant continents or even distant planets and partook in the rousing adventures on the silver screen. To be sure, many of these multi-chapter serials were cranked out quickly and on the cheap, often with fairly minimal attention paid to niceties like scripts; still, it wasn't a bad show for a nickel.
The serials served as a logical extension of the newspaper comic strip format, which had perhaps its greatest popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. In those days, ongoing storylines and "to be continued" adventures were much more common than they are today, having been mostly supplanted by humorous, self-contained jokes rather than long narratives. The influence of the comic strips on the new Hollywood serials is particularly evident in the source material chosen. Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Captain Marvel all made early appearances in the serials.
The 1930s and 1940s also saw an explosion in technological and scientific progress. It was a mere 24 years from the Wright Brothers to Lindbergh, and just another 12 years from there to Hitler's blitzkrieg. Horse-drawn transportation was quickly replaced by ever more modern automobiles, and wonders such as electricity and ultimately the movies spread even further than before. The imaginations of Americans were fertile ground indeed for a new crop of heroes and stories that incorporated fantastic new technologies and set their adventures in the wondrous new worlds of space. Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon and Philip Nowlan's Buck Rogers became the prototypes of this new breed of comic strip heroes, swashbuckling their way through stories that at least bore some resemblance to science fiction. In time, both of these characters found new life and new homes in the serials.
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is broken into 12 exciting chapters of right around 20 minutes each. For their short length, each episode manages to cram in quite a bit of plot, although a lot of clunky exposition is sometimes necessary to accomplish this. Flash faces his old nemesis Ming the Merciless, emperor of planet Mongo and fount of endless schemes to cause havoc and destruction on planet Earth.
People all over the Earth are falling victim to a mysterious, deadly plague that leaves a mysterious purple spot on the foreheads of its victims. Flash Gordon and Dr. Zarkov, traveling in Zarkov's trusty rocketship, discover that the source of the plague is an "electrified dust" dropped over the Earth by a rocketship from Mongo; Ming is obviously up to his old tricks. Flash, Zarkov, and the lovely Dale Arden set course for Mongo to enlist the help of their old friend Prince Barin, ruler of the country of Arboria and rebellious son-in-law to Emperor Ming.
Flash's battle to save Earth and defeat Ming takes him all over the planet Mongo. He must journey to the impossibly cold, frozen land of Frigia to find Polarite, the only known substance that can stop the plague. He must infiltrate Ming's palace -- several times, actually -- to rescue various and sundry comrades who become captured from time to time, such as Zarkov and Dale. He must face such perils as an avalanche, a flood, many falls from great heights, and an electrified rug. He must also face dangerous enemies, from Ming's trusted lackeys Torch and Thong to the Rock People to the Annihilatons, walking mechanical men that explode like bombs. He cannot fail; the freedom of the people of Mongo and the survival of the people of Earth (not to mention the excitement of moviegoers) rest on his shoulders.
(For a more complete plot synopsis and analysis, loaded with spoilers, consult Judy Harris's Flash Gordon fan page using the link supplied with this review.)
Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is the third and final serial featuring Alex Raymond's comic book hero. Gone are the charmingly cheesy alien beasts and races of people from the first two serials. Flash faces no truly memorable adversaries in this outing, although the Annihilatons are a nice touch. This is also the talkiest of the three Flash Gordon serials, with the action often grinding to a halt in favor of clunky dialogue. It almost seems that the filmmakers ran out of things to have Flash do after a while.
Larry "Buster" Crabbe (Tarzan the Fearless, Buck Rogers) ably portrays Flash Gordon. Crabbe, a gold medal swimmer at the 1932 Olympics, looks every inch the all-American hero, exuding a sort of clean-cut vitality and sincerity. Crabbe truly seems to enjoy the role, throwing himself into it with earnestness and enthusiasm that help even the weakest chapters in the story seem more appealing than they really are.
This was also the third swing for Charles Middleton (Jungle Man) at the role of Ming the Merciless. Middleton's long, spare frame, sharp features, and gravely voice are perfect for such a sinister character; as a matter of fact, in the 1931 musical short The Devil's Cabaret, he played the man downstairs himself. In the first two Flash Gordon serials, Middleton had some great scenes and gleefully evil lines. Here, however, his malevolent potential is mostly wasted. He spends very little time on-screen, and his lame machinations make it seem like he's used up all his really good evil plans in the first two serials. Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe suffers from the underutilization of Middleton, especially since the bumbling lackeys he sends out in his place never really establish themselves as credible threats to Flash and his friends.
Carol Hughes (Jungle Raiders) replaces Jean Rogers for this outing in the thankless role of Dale Arden. Dale exists primarily to scream, faint, get knocked cold, and be captured by Ming, who for some reason decides she is the woman out of the whole universe that he most wants to possess. The 1930s and '40s weren't exactly the most enlightened time for female roles and characters, but the depiction of Dale is worse than most.
This latest DVD appearance of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe comes our way from Roan Group Archival Entertainment, a branch of Troma. The episodes are presented in their full-frame original aspect ratio, in black and white, with a mono soundtrack and no subtitles. This comparatively undemanding setup allows Roan to fit all four hours of the serial on one side of a DVD. The picture quality is good, all things considered. Contrasts are nice and sharp, and fine details appear sharp and clean, at least most of the time. There are some variations from episode to episode, but it appears that this transfer came from a print that was in relatively good condition, with a minimum of nicks and scratches. There are some problems from the original source material, but a lot of this has to do with the abundant stock footage that was used to pad out the episodes. There are some problems related to the transfer, such as overly bright, sparkling whites that tend to wash the picture out noticeably in some scenes. Also, there are many instances of pixelation and mosquito noise around fine details, as well as notable edge enhancement. Audio quality is acceptable; at times there is a pronounced hiss audible under the soundtrack, but for the most part the audio sounds surprisingly sharp and clear.
The only special feature on the disc is a few brief text screens of background information on the serials, with a few biographical notes on Crabbe and director Ford Beebe.
Fairly forgettable cinema in its own right, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is clearly the weakest of Flash's three serial incarnations; the well seems to have run dry by the time this one came around. (Oddly, it also appears to be the one most often available on home video.) The other two were much more satisfying as entertainment, but in truth none of them were great films. The chief value of this serial is historical. The Flash Gordon serials are notable mostly for the impact they had on the budding young filmmakers in the audience, particularly the later television audiences. In particular, a youngster named Steven and a youngster named George owe a debt to these creaky old flicks. Both men, now relatively well-known directors, have cited old serials as one of their sources of inspiration from time to time. In particular, young George was so taken with these flights to other worlds that he first tried to obtain the rights to make his own version; when he failed, he created his own space serial, with updated special effects and storylines stolen from ancient myth and Japanese samurai films. The most notable contribution of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe to this little project was the use of a distinctive opening crawl, a brief text recap of events leading to this week's chapter.
It is also interesting to see how public perceptions of what was new and high-tech influenced certain choices in the film. For example, airplanes were still the new, hot ticket; the sound of fleets of propeller-driven aircraft was a sound of progress and technological triumph the way jet engines or NASA rockets are today. So, based on the expectations of the day, all of the rocketships featured here sound like propeller-driven planes, regardless of the fact that they have no propellers. That is simply what advanced, nifty flying machines were supposed to sound like back then, just as all the X-Wing fighters in Star Wars sound like fighter jets even though they are flying through vacuum. Scientific breakthroughs into subjects like radiation, electricity and electromagnetism were just starting to hit their stride in the real world, so naturally many of the evil devices of Ming or the inventions of Dr. Zarkov have those sorts of properties: the electrified dust that causes the Purple Death, the various special purpose rays developed by Zarkov, the radioactive metal deposits necessary to fight the plague, and so on. We view these bits of pseudo-science with some amusement today; one wonders how people sixty years from now will look at current films featuring cloning and genetic engineering, computer hackers, global climate disasters, and the like.
One of the keys to enjoying Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, or any similar serial, is to watch the episodes in small doses, as originally intended. If you try to watch too many of them in one sitting, the flaws in these flicks will eventually wear you down, like the death of ten thousand paper cuts. Spread it out over a few weeks, and your enjoyment will be much greater; you may even make it through the whole thing awake.
Guilty! Much as I hate to say it, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe really isn't very much fun. If you are truly interested in Flash's adventures, you would do much better to seek out the original Flash Gordon, or the even better Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars for a real taste of what a fun, action-packed serial can be.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2004 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Roan Group
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Film Background Notes
* Comic Strip Info at Toonpedia
* Judy Harris's Fansite -- Detailed Commentary and Analysis