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Thursday, May 24, 2012

ROCK MEN, PURPLE DEATH & SUICIDE BOMBER ROBOTS

Read/Watch 'em In Order #17


Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is an undeniably awkward title. There’s a line of dialogue at the end of the last chapter that attempts to justify it, but it really doesn’t make sense. Flash isn’t conquering the universe. He’s merely saving the Earth from destruction and Mongo from despotism.



Heck, he does that every other Thursday. Maybe that would have been a good title—An Average Thursday for Flash Gordon.

Well, maybe not. But the producers really needed to have given their title a little more thought.

But, despite the title, it’s a good serial—a nice ending for the Flash Gordon trilogy.

It seems Mongo’s been a busy place since we last visited. At the end of the first serial, Ming was presumably dead and Princess Aura & Prince Barin were ruling the planet. In the second serial, Barin comes to Mars to aid Flash in his adventures there and stays behind at the end to rule over the Martian Forest People. (There’s no mention of what Aura—presumably back on Mongo—thought of that decision.) Ming has supposedly been destroyed for sure this time—zapped while inside a disintegrator chamber.

Now, without explanation, Ming is alive and back in charge on Mongo. Prince Barin rules the forest kingdom of Arboria (as he did in the original comics) and is at war with Ming. Ming, meanwhile, is dropping “purple death” dust on Earth. Mongo has been a busy place since the last serial and its kind of fun the theorize on how this exact situation came about.

So Flash, Zarkov, and Dale return to Mongo to deal with this. They team up with Barin and are soon in the super-cold kingdom of Frigia, mining for a rare substance that can counteract the Purple Death.  This leads to an encounter with remote control robots rigged to explode when they approach Flash’s party.

Soon after, they must deal with another of Ming’s superweapons—projectiles powered by “zultrilnillium.” Of course, as any schoolboy knows, zultrilnillium projectiles have the power to set all Arboria aflame. I think that’s covered in second grade science class.

By the time this is resolved, both Dale and Princess Aura are prisoners of Ming, so Flash and his allies must now launch a dangerous rescue attempt.

It’s all great fun. Like the previous serials, this one makes great use of sets left over from Universal’s horror films and other A-movies. The fight scenes are energetic and the special effects are solid. I especially enjoyed the several instances in which Ming’s rocket ships engaged in dog-fights with Barin’s ships.



There were a couple of cast changes. Barin and Aura are played by different actors this time around. And Dale Arden is now played by Carol Hughes, who does a wonderful job of giving Dale some memorable spitfire moments when she vents her spleen at the villains.

Dale’s also been promoted from resident damsel-in-distress. Though she still fulfils this role, she’s also now described as Zarkov’s assistant and a skilled chemist and pilot. Good for her—she’s earned her spitfire moments.

And Zarkov has really moved up the “brilliant scientist” scale to obtain Reed Richards-level genius. He’s not just inventing stuff right and left this time around, but shows other skills as well. For instance, there’re a few chapters in which the heroes and the villains both have a run-in with the “Rock Men” who live in Mongo’s supposedly life-less Land of the Dead. They have their own strange language (bizarrely, this is represented in the serial by running the sound track backwards when they speak)—but that’s no problem. Zarkov recognizes it as a lost language of an early Earth culture, theorizes that many planets were somehow colonized by humans with a common language eons ago, and then begins to speak fluently in the supposedly lost tongue.

 I really need to mention Ann Gwynne, who plays Sonya, a girl in Aura’s retinue who is really working for Ming. She begins to play a major part in the serial about half-way through, when she arranges for Aura to be captured by Ming’s men. She’s a great villain, managing to exude a real sense of malevolence while still looking absolutely adorable the entire time.

Ming, by the way, has traded in his ornate garb for a more military looking uniform. He’s now called “Dictator” as often as “Emperor.” This is a reflection of the times—even in a fantasy, the war raging in Europe couldn’t be completely ignored. Charles Middleton continues to play Ming with menacing hubris.

The first serial is still the best. It edges past the others in imaginative imagery and, most importantly, had the best supporting cast. We continue to miss Prince Thun of the Lion Men and Prince Vulton of the Hawk Men through both the sequels. In Conquers the Universe, Flash has a couple of Barin’s men as sidekicks and these guys are perfectly likable. But two mere humans simply don’t match up against a Lion Man and a Hawk Man.

This last serial, though, does have one heck of a cliffhanger at the end of one chapter. Dale’s about to be tossed into a flaming pit by the Rock Men; Flash is risking his life trying to rescue a Rock Man prince trapped on a ledge (thus proving they are friendly); and Zarkov is about to become a snack for a giant lizard. It’s three cliffhangers for the price of one.

By the way, this is the serial that uses the same screen crawl at the beginnng of each chapter (reminding us of the events of the previous chapter) that George Lucas later used at the begining of the Star Wars films.

That ends our Watch ‘em in Order coverage of the Flash Gordon serials. We still have a few Pellicidar novels to go, but we need start up another film series. Someone suggested the Marx Brothers movies and I’m all for writing about them, but I don’t think they fit into the In Order format—they each exist as an individual entity with the boys technically playing different characters each time out.

So we need to go in a different direction. Even though I wrote briefly about one of the old RKO Dick Tracy movies briefly a few years ago, I’m leaning towards covering those four movies in detail. Then again, doing select Charlie Chan movies that each highlight one of his children might be fun (at least four of his sons and one of his daughters get time in the spotlight during the course of the series). Or I could do select episodes of my favorite TV series Combat, concentrating on several excellent episodes directed by Vic Morrow. I haven’t decided yet. And I am, of course, open to suggestion.


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