Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wait-a-minute!! Did Dale just STAB FLASH GORDON IN THE BACK???

Read/Watch ‘em in order #15

Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) picks up right where the previous serial left off—with Flash, Dale and Zarkov heading back to Earth after defeating Ming on the planet Mongo.

Dale is still played by Jean Rogers, but she’s now a brunette rather than a blonde. This was, of course, done to make her look more like Dale does in the comic strip. But it makes it look as if—in universe—Dale took time to re-color her hair during the trip home.

Gee whiz. Women!!

Anyway, there’s no peace for the heroic. A mysterious beam from outer space is wrecking havoc with Earth’s atmosphere. The trio (along with a stowaway reporter named “Happy” Hapgood) take off in a rocket trip and back track the beam to Mars.

The situation is thus: Mars is ruled by the pleasant-to-look-at but evil Queen Azura, who carries a white sapphire with her that gives her magical powers. (Azura, by the way, is a character taken from Alex Raymond's original strip, though I believe she was  based on Mongo in the strip.)

Ming the Merciless—supposed dead on Mongo—is now serving as Azura’s chief henchman. He is planning, of course, on double-crossing the queen and taking over as soon as he can manage it. To this end, at least one of Azura’s soldiers is really loyal to Ming and he’s also managed to make a secret alliance with the savage Forest People of Mars.

Azura has a sort of self-made problem. She transforms people who displease or betray her into Clay People, then send them off to live in remote caves. But now there’s enough Clay People to be a threat to her. So Ming builds a “nitron lamp” that is shooting out a beam to suck all the “nitron” out of Earth’s atmosphere, using that element to build powerful bombs with which to attack the Clay People. This will have the side effect of destroying all life on Earth, but Ming is perfectly happy with that since he blames the loss of his throne on Mongo on an earthman.

Got all that? It’s actually a pretty nifty set-up for some good adventure storytelling. In fact, it gets even a little more convoluted. The Clay People at first think Flash and his friends are also enemies, there’s a black sapphire hidden in a Forest People temple that can cancel out Azura’s magic and Prince Barin (Flash’s chief ally from Mongo) shows up about a third of the way into the serial.

The screenplay manages to juggle all these elements quite effectively. In fact, the various shifting loyalties and hidden intrigues help provide quite a bit of suspense on top of the race to save Earth.

It’s nice to see Barin again, though fans of the first serial can’t help but miss Prince Thun the Lion Man and King Vultan the Hawk Man—the other members of Flash’s original motley crew of heroes on Mongo.

Production values are good—the light bridge that connects the airfield in Azura’s city with her palace (and it’s exactly what it says it is: a bridge made of light) is a fun effect, as are the bat-wing capes that most Martian soldiers wear. These capes can work as parachutes or otherwise allow their wearers to glide short distances. One effect—the Clay People emerging from the walls of their cave—is a simple dissolve shot that still manages to look appropriately creepy.

I don’t believe I’ve watched this specific serial before. At first, I was worried about the character of Happy Hapgood. Clearly, he was meant to be a comic relief character. As much as I love the serials of this era, the one thing they never did well was comic relief. The “funny” guys are never funny and are usually completely useless in terms of helping fight the bad guys.

But Happy, though he does have some comic relief responsibilities, actually proves to be a worthy ally. In fact, he gets to save Flash’s life on one occasion.

So does Dale—who gets a Crowning Moment of Awesome when she steals a strato-sled (think sci-fi jet fighter) and uses it to bomb some Forest People who are about to overwhelm Flash and Zarkov. If there’s any one complaint that could be made about the first serial, it’s that Dale doesn’t get to do anything other than wait to be rescued. But this time around, she has opportunity to pull her own weight.

Of course, in a later chapter, she’s exposed to the “Incense of Forgetfulness” by the Forest People and—in what may be the single best cliffhanger moment in serial history—stabs Flash in the back. But that doesn’t detract from her previous Action Girl moment at all. Heck, that pesky “Incense of Forgetfulness” would throw anybody off.

There is one more thing that deserves mention. Azura’s powers (which include teleportation as well as transforming people into clay people) are unabashedly described as magic. I was half-expected an explanation from Zarkov at some point telling everyone that it’s really some form of super-science. But no—it’s magic.

And, though Flash Gordon’s universe is technically one of science fiction and not fantasy—this fits into the story’s ambiance just fine. The solar system according to Flash is a pretty gosh-darn bizarre place and there’s actually room for a little bit of magic.

In the end, Ming travels so far into Crazy Town that even his own minions start to doubt him. The Earth is saved and Flash’s posse heads back home to a ticker-tape parade.

Overall, the original Flash Gordon serial is the better of the two, if only because of a slightly more entertaining set of supporting characters and some cool visuals (such as the Hawk Men’s floating city) that this one never quite equals. But Trip to Mars is still one of the best serials of the decade—a worthy addition to Flash Gordon’s interplanetary career.

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