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Pulp Corner: Flash Gordon, The 1936 Movie Serial

Flash Gordon is a touchstone of both the science fiction and adventure genres that’s gone on to influence a staggering amount of what’s come after it (ever hear of Star Wars?). Starting first as a comic strip by Alex Raymond it debuted in 1934. 2 years later its success quickly led to 3 different sets film serials. The first one simply titled, Flash Gordon from 1936 will be today’s focus in the Pulp Corner.

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Movie serials were mainly aimed at children and consisted of short segments (generally a little under the length of a tv show episode) of a longer piece designed to play in the movie theatre prior to the feature length film. It was basically one lengthy movie cut into chapters and serialized (hence the name) each ending on a cliff hanger. The idea is that even if you don’t care about the movie it might draw you back to the theatre the next week to find out what happens. Basically a clever way to draw more ticket sales. The concept is rooted firmly in the pulp tradition. Flash Gordon set out to become a serial targeted for adults but kids could also enjoy and had a very high budget for the time. It also has the distinction of being the very first sci-fi serial ever made.

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The set up of the first of the 13 episodes is kind of pointless, but let’s get it out of the way. Earth is danger because the strange planet Mongo is on a collision course with it. The residents of earth begin to panic. Yale polo player, Steven “Flash” Gordon and the beautiful Dale Arden (whom he met on a commercial flight hours earlier) stumble upon a rocket ship created by Flash’s father’s assistant, Dr. Zarkov. Flash, Dale and Zarkov take that rocket to Mongo to stop the world’s eminent destruction only to find themselves at the mercy of the cruel Emperor Ming. This is where the fun begins.

Let’s take a look at all the main players in the series.

 Flash Gordon

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Our handsome young lead. It’s hard not think he wasn’t inspired by Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series. Flash is a man displaced by on another planet and is a hot headed yet courageous ass kicker. He doesn’t think anything through ever, his immediate reaction is to just pummel his way out of the situation in an attempt to save Dale Arden.

 Dale Arden

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Our lovely leading lady, Dale Arden sadly is really no more than a one dimensional pretty face in the series. Her sole purpose is the damsel in distress and is used as a bargaining chip. She screams and faints in terror at least once an episode.

 Dr. Zarkov

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Intelligent scientist and Levon Helm look alike whose genius and know how is constantly being exploited by Ming The Merciless.

Ming The Merciless

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Self-proclaimed Emperor of the Universe and ruler of Mongo. He’s pure malevolent evil and takes an interest in the human woman, Dale Arden. You can’t tell what ethnicity the actor is, which makes him perfect for an alien race. He also boasts the single greatest pimp collar ever seen and is father to Princess Aura.

Princess Aura

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Probably the most interesting character and the one that has the most depth. The daughter of Ming is a grey area. She’s “evil” but also loves Flash and chooses many times to help herself rather than aid her father or necessarily help the Earthling’s cause.

This all results in a rollicking Sci-Fi adventure that’s above all else fun. There’s a reason Lucas emulated this in Episode IV. Think about how much less serious that installment compared to Episodes V and VI. The fun side of pulp is often lost in the dark world of crime off shoots with The Shadow and many others like it.

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We see all kinds of creatures, alien races and inventions that may seem a little cheesy by today’s standards but were top of the line back then. I’ve always loved seeing past renditions of what people thought the future would be like and this is by no means a disappointment. It also helps add a little camp value to the series. Some aliens on the surface of the world are nothing more than reptiles with something extra attached to their skin and shown as close ups to create the illusion that they’re huge. The two Earth men once on Mongo are outfitted in short shorts and sweaters with a star in the center, the women are constantly rocking mid drifts with tight tops (which is pretty unbelievable for the time). Ming’s soldiers wear medieval armor and carry swords AND ray guns. It all makes no logical sense, but it doesn’t have to and that’s the best part.

Most of the story focuses on Flash, Dale and Zarkov being put into various predicaments and trying to outwit Ming, stop the planets collision course with Earth and escape back home. Their journeys bring them in contact with Prince Thun of the Lion Men, King Kala of the Shark Men, Prince Barin the rightful ruler of Mongo (whose in love with Princess Aura) and King Vultan of the Hawk Men whom oppose Flash at first but later befriends him and his cohorts. It’s an interesting and exotic cast of characters.

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What about the Star Wars connection, Biff? You’ve already mentioned twice. Well all things considered the end result of both are very different, but it’s more how Star Wars was conceived. George Lucas had originally wanted to remake the Flash Gordon serials he saw when he was a kid but couldn’t secure the rights. So he decided to create his own version of the Flash Gordon series. Starting right with the serialized installment (Lucas originally conceived Star Wars as an extensive multipart series that would last much more than 6 movies). Not to mention the opening scroll text of those movies are all directly from Flash Gordon. They aren’t found in this particular serial but in the third serial, Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe. Cloud City in the Empire Strikes Back is clearly inspired by King Vultan and the Hawk Men’s Sky City.

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I’m not even going to get into all the character archetypes with Luke/Flash Gordon, Han/Prince Barin, Emperor Palpatine/Emperor Ming etc. Lucas was smart enough to use these Flash Gordon serials as jumping off points and combine them with other genres, stories and myths to create his own world out of it.

One thing I noticed, blew my mind and I couldn’t find a trace of it anywhere on the internet. So hopefully, I’m breaking my findings to the world. The creators of the 80’s cartoon Voltron must have been huge fans of Flash Gordon because a majority of the names on the show are eerily similar. In most cases only a letter or two off.

For example:

Dr. Zarkov/King Zarkon

Princess Aura/Princess Allura

…and the big one

King Vultan/VOLTRON

(Not specifically Flash Gordon related but another 1930’s comic strip and movie serial called Mandrake The Magician features a character named Lothar which is very close to Voltron’s Prince Lotor, but I digress).

I also have a feeling there’s a reason that DC comics Hawkman bares a strong resemblance to Flash Gordon’s race of Hawkmen…

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Each episode of the Flash Gordon serial also recaps by showing you the last few minutes of the previous episode (the cliff hanger moment) so theatrically in case you weren’t at the theatre last week you could get caught up quickly. Not unlike the Back To The Future movies. I’m not saying there’s any connection there, but dammit it makes me like Flash Gordon even more.

If you like seeing old school sci-fi with some high adventure and swashbuckling tossed in or you’re interested in seeing where a lot of modern sci-fi began, definitely check this out. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a little unintentional camp to it and that could hinder or enhance your viewing of it. This is the second time I’ve watch it all the way through and can’t wait to check out the second and third serials and some of the original comic strips.

All images and characters depicted are copyright of their respective owners.

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About Biff Tannen

Film Noir, Pulp, Comic Books and Hitchcock.

Posted on April 5, 2013, in Features, Geekology, Movies, Pulp Corner, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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