Welcome back to another installment of Insomniac Cult Movie Theater, the semi regular segment here at Ghosts of the Stratosphere where I, your humble host, Andy Larson, find myself munching popcorn and watching old movies from the 30s through the 70s instead of sleeping like the rest of the normal world.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve really reconnected with a staple of my film watching experience: The movie serial. Call them the MCU movies of their day, these were licensed movies incorporating some of the biggest names of comic books and strips in action packed, thrills a minute melodramas. Of course, they didn’t have the massive budgets that the MCU movies have, and really they were aimed directly at the kiddies in terms of giving them something to keep their fannies in the seats prior to the feature presentation, but the principle of delivering these famous folks from the funny papers to the masses has its roots in these rather simple 20 minute short subjects.
And as a comic book fan, I’ve been fascinated with them ever since I was a kid. I mean you have to realize that other than cartoons, growing up in the 80s, there weren’t a lot of visual ways to enjoy comic characters like there are nowadays. So these serials were some of the few ways I could see characters like the Green Hornet, Shazam, and of course my favorite space ace, Flash Gordon, in real life action.
Flash has always been my first love though, given Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe was the very first serial I ever watched thanks to a bargain basement VHS tape of the first 6 chapters he found at a local Value City. For a kid that grew up on Star Wars, you could see how the adventures of the sword swinging Buster Crabbe on the exotic world of Mongo would be instantly appealing. Of course, my hopes were soon dashed as I quickly discovered that the serial was more than 6 chapters long, and I had no volume 2 to complete that journey. These were the years before the internet too, so I really had no idea how long the entire serial was or how I would finish it.
In fact, it was 3 long years before I finally tracked down the final 6 chapters in a Walmart bargain VHS bin in 1991, and even that was a random leap of faith as the box didn’t even mention which chapters were being included under the overarching banner of “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe”. Luckily for me, it was the second part and I thought I had completed my epic journey to the furthermost reaches of outer space and back. However, I was wrong.
Given this was also the years before the world wide web, I had no idea that “Conquers the Universe” was actually the last of 3 Flash Gordon Serials Universal Pictures had made. This revelation didn’t come for another 2 years after that when I randomly popped on the SyFy channel one Saturday morning back in it’s infancy as a network in 1993.
It was then that I first saw a chapter of the serial that I’ll be reviewing today, “Trip to Mars”, which as I’ll elaborate on in a moment was the second of the Flash Gordon serials. Of course given I found the serial several weeks too late, I only was able to watch the final couple of chapters of Flash’s adventures on the Red Planet before they started into playing Conquers the Universe before yanking it off the airways all together.
Another 15 years later, I finally got a copy of Trip to Mars on DVD in a collection with the rest of the 2 serials from the 1930s and was able to watch it in its entirety. Which leads me today’s post, another 13 years after that point, when I recently re-watched it for the first time since that point and finally going to give a review of this serial. I have to say has been a long time coming so I hope it’s been worth the wait…
Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars
Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is a 15 chapter movie serial released by Universal Pictures in 1938 and as I mentioned above is the first second of 3 serialized adaptations of this famous character Alex Raymond creation on screen. At 15 chapters, it is also the longest of the 3, with the other two being 13 and 12 chapters respectively. It’s in someways a direct sequel to the original 1936 Flash Gordon serial as it picks up shortly after the original one ends with Flash, Dale, and Zarkov making their way back to Earth after foiling the plans of Ming the Merciless to crash his planet of Mongo into ours.
After returning to our planet, the three go into hiding mysteriously conducting secret experiments on Zarkov’s rocket ship which are eventually discovered by the press in the form of the serial’s comic relief/side kick character, Happy Hapgood. However, there’s no time for Happy to call in the story as he’s kidnapped by Flash’s crew who need to leave the Earth immediately due to an unexpected attack from the planet Mars. The Martians have developed a devastating weapon called the Nitron Lamp which is reeking havoc on our planet’s atmosphere.
Once they get there though, Flash soon discovers that Ming survived their last battle on Mongo and has traveled to Mars in order to form an alliance with Azura, the Witch Queen, with the sole purpose of using her planet as a base of operations from which to strike at the Earth. Through the course of the rest of the story, Flash joins forces with the Clay People, former Martians that have been transformed by Azura into half men/half mud folks for daring to speak out against the Queen, in hopes of overcoming the combined forces of these two devilish dictators.
As a result of it being a sequel, it features many of the same actors from the original continuing with their characters. Frank Shannon returns as Flash’s bearded scientific advisor/father figure Dr. Hans Zarkov. Richard Alexander returns as the burly centurion armor clad Prince Barin, although he doesn’t make his first appearance until nearly half way through the story.
Of course, you have the lovely Jean Rogers as Dale Arden, Flash’s love interest. Unlike the original Flash Gordon serial which was aimed at adults as well as kids, Dale in Trip to Mars is severely toned down in terms of her sexuality. Gone are the halter tops with exposed mid drifts and platinum blonde hair, as we get a modest full length dress albeit it with more comic book accurate dark brown locks. The story goes that Jean really wasn’t keen on the idea of doing a second serial and did ultimately ask to be excused from doing the third, which is why we get a different Dale for “Conquers the Universe”.
But most importantly from my perspective, we get the return of the two actors which really did make these serials something special in our lead protagonist and antagonist.
First of course, there’s the scenery chewing megalomania of Charles B. Middleton as Ming, Supreme Emperor of Mongo. Unlike the first serial, Ming has a lot more to do in this one as he actively plays the role of both humble servant and advisor to Queen Azura while at the same time, secretly manipulating both her and her subjects into doing his bidding.
It’s actually a wonderful use of Ming as more a cunning “Littlefinger” type schemer rather than a rather static figurehead sitting on a throne barking out orders. As a viewer, you can see that Ming is stringing everyone along for his own gain, being both charming and ruthless in a way that is quite fitting of a super villain of his status. Charles would go on to perfect this persona by “Conquers the Universe” in which he becomes a full on modern day totalitarian, power broking from behind the scenes at all times with no thought to the safety or well being of anyone in the pursuit of ultimate power.
However, the most important bit of casting in this entire franchise was Larry “Buster” Crabbe as Flash Gordon. Man, did this guy nail the part! From blond haired look to his athletic build to his stoic no nonsense demeanor, if there was an actor that was was born to bring Flash Gordon off the pages of the comic strips and on to the big screen, it was this fella.
It’s like giving Christopher Reeves Superman or Clayton Reed the Lone Ranger, some actors define a role for generations, and Buster Crabbe is no exception. In fact, it’s no wonder that George Lucas seriously considered giving Mr. Crabbe a cameo in his original Star Wars movie in honor of the work he did in being one of the first ever science fiction heroes in cinema.
I will say that since reading Jeff Parker/Doc Shaner’s take on Flash, I enjoy a much more fun loving, overconfident interpretation of the character than what is delivered in these movies, but for a classic Saturday morning movie serial, this is as classic as it gets!
2am Thoughts and Reflections:
Boy, there seems to be a real reason that unlike the other two serials in the Flash Gordon “Trilogy”, I haven’t watched this one as much as the others. With the first Flash Gordon serial, it’s a legitimate attempt to bring the comic strip as it existed to the big screen, with all the crazy alien races at odds with each other, the gigantic monsters, and the raw savagery and sex of the barbaric world of Mongo. “Conquers the Universe” replaced most of the titillation and unbelievable monsters with political drama and more relatable stakes i.e. Ming was cast as a Hitler-esque fascist locking people up in concentration camps on the eve of World War II.
Trip to Mars doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be and it’s apparent this was the case from the start. Originally, the serial was supposed to be an adaptation of the collection of newspaper strips that make up loosely what’s know as “Flash Gordon and the Witch Queen of Mongo” story line. This is where Flash falls under the thrall of the beautiful sorceress Queen Azura, who drugs him with Lethium into forgetting who he is. However, after the massive publicity stirred up about the planet Mars by Orson Welles “War of Worlds” radio broadcast, the production crew hastily rewrote the plot to happen on Mars instead of Mongo, and I think that’s the moment things start to go off the rails.
Instead of Azura being the self confident, power hungry, femme fatale that she is in the strip, she seems more like a simple puppet ruler being fed a steady stream of platitudes by Ming who has convinced her to attack the Earth for no real good reason. It doesn’t help that Azura is played unconvincingly by Beatrice Roberts, who acts like a vindictive prom queen than the capable leader of an entire race of warriors. As a result, despite her cruel ability to transform her subjects into clay if they speak out in descent, she really doesn’t carry very much menace and it’s hard to care about the fate of the Clay people that Flash is supposed to liberate.
That’s why ultimately the serial does pick up towards the tail end after Ming betrays Azura and takes his rightful place as the narrative’s main baddie. It’s not so much that Azura couldn’t have been a really wonderful villain for the entire series, it’s just that she was over shadowed and ultimately wasted to such a degree that it’s nearly pointless that she’s even around. Heck, she doesn’t even try to bag herself a Flash like she does in the comics, as the whole Lethium story line is reduced to a rather small subplot with Dale and the Tree People than a main point of conflict between Flash and Azura.
Ming on the other hand is ruthless and utterly driven in his quest to get revenge on the Earth for daring to oppose him. As such, its easy as a viewer to get behind Flash’s quest to stop his Nitron Lamp before it destroys Earth’s atmosphere. This in someways should have been the only real story line because it’s ultimately the only one any one including the actors seem to care about.
And don’t get me started on the inclusion of Happy Hapgood, as the bumbling every man sidekick. If anything most of his role as audience surrogate could have been given to Dale Arden instead which would have added some addition meat to her role instead of just being the typical damsel in distress. And yes, that means removing some of his more idiotic antics, as Dale doesn’t do slapstick comedy.
Final Grade: B-
Yeah, Trip to Mars is easily the worst of the 3 Flash Gordon serials. It’s actually more on par with the semi-related Buck Rogers serial which also starred Buster Crabbe in the leading role. I always viewed that serial as wholly inferior what with it’s interplanetary super-racketeers and veiled racism, so to lump this in with that definitely is somewhat of a slap in the face.
But as I mentioned above with the poor characterization of Azura and lack of focus, there are a good deal of strikes against this being decent. One that I didn’t mention is that it’s like 3 chapters too long. The more serials I watch, the more I begin to believe that the magic number is 12, and any serial that goes over that is going to suffer in terms of plotting. At 15 episodes, Trip to Mars has to stretch its already meager plot to accommodate those additional chapters which it attempts to do by just feeding us “reruns” from the original Flash Gordon serial.
And I mean that literally, as nearly two entire episodes are just Flash and Barin relating the previous events on Mongo through flashback, and they really don’t add anything to the plot at all. They just reinforce the fact that Ming was a jerk then, and he’s a jerk now. Oh and that Mongo was a much more interesting place than the same old spaceport and old rock quarry that we are forced to stare at for countless episodes.
I mean they had Hawk men and floating cities. Mars just has goofy helmets with massive lightning bolts plastered to the sides so you look like an idiot trying to go through doors for God’s sake!
But in the end, I can’t give even the worst Flash Gordon serial anything lower than a “B” grade even if it’s on the lower end of that range. Unlike Republic and Columbia that did a lot of their serials on the cheap, Universal did spend a decent amount of money trying to put out quality serialized film making. As a result, even the worst of the Flash Gordon serials is miles ahead of most other movies of this genre.
There is a major reason as I briefly mentioned above as to why these serials captured the imagination of a young George Lucas who then wanted to recreate them on the big screen. In fact, originally Lucas wanted to make a big budget Flash Gordon movie instead of a Star Wars film, and you can see all the subtle nods to Flash Gordon franchise peppered in to all of his movies that would eventually become a world wide phenomenon. From the opening crawl, to the dogfights in outer space, to cliffhanger style escapes, Star Wars fans should embrace these serials as the true roots of their “long time ago, in a galaxy far far way”.
So my recommendation is still that you should watch all of them, and that includes Trip to Mars. Honestly the first episode is really good, with the threat of the Nitron Lamp hanging like a guillotine and the mysterious nature of Zarkov’s rocket ship research. It’s just a shame the rest isn’t as solid as that…