Flash Gordon Serial (1940)
By: Paul Ryan on June 1, 2009  | 
Beyond (Australia). All Regions, NTSC. 4:3. English DD 2.0 Mono. 234 Minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Ford Beebe, Ray Taylor
Starring: Buster Crabbe, Charles Middleton, Carol Hughes, Frank Shannon
Screenplay: George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, Barry Shipman
Country: USA
External Links
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People are dropping dead all over the world from a mysterious disease known as The Purple Death. Earth's scientists soon trace the disease to the dastardly intergalactic dictator, Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), ruler of Mongo, who has been seeding the planet with a toxin from space. This is the cue for Max "Flash" Gordon (former Olympic gold medal swimmer Larry "Buster" Crabbe), his winsome lady-love Dale Arden (Carol Hughes), and scientific genius Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon) to swing into action. With the aid of dashing Prince Barin (Roland Drew) and Ming's tearaway daughter Princess Aura (Shirley Deane), they battle Ming's soldiers, killer robots (quaintly dubbed "iron men" by Dr Zarkov), rock-men, dinosaurs (ok, stock footage of lizards filmed up-close) and the odd act of treachery…

It's not mentioned anywhere on the DVD cover, but this serial is actually Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the last of Universal's three Flash Gordon chapter serials. Following on from 1936's Flash Gordon and 1938's Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe doesn't really require the viewer to have seen the previous serials to work out who's who. This is simple, connect-the-dots programming for kids. Characters speak in blunt, exposition-heavy dialogue, and are drawn in broad strokes. And for what it is, it's perfectly enjoyable. Each chapter sees Flash and the gang get into another death-defying cliffhanger – which, come the next chapter, isn't as deadly as it seemed - whilst battling Ming's latest dastardly scheme. Production values are ramshackle, with an overload of stock footage, recycled sets and costumes from other Universal pictures, and deeply dodgy special effects, but that's part of the fun.

The influence of this serial – and indeed the entire serial genre – cannot be understated. George Lucas has widely acknowledged the inspiration Star Wars drew from these chapter plays, and it's all here to see. There's scrolling "the-story-so-far" text which begins each chapter, scene transition wipes, heroes disguising themselves as enemy soldiers, daring rescues, last-second escapes, speech-bubble dialogue, etc… If your only prior exposure to Flash Gordon has been the cult 1980 feature film, you'll be surprised how much it took – both in design and story elements – from this serial. It also has to be said that, as tacky as it all is, there is more action, pace, and general fun to be had here than in the recent – and deeply underwhelming – Sci-Fi Channel TV series.
Taken from unrestored prints and squeezed on to a single DVD-9, this video transfer has many problems. There are all manner of film artifacts throughout – lots of scratches, film breaks, etc – and the over-compression results in a constantly pixilated picture. Because of the heavy use of stock footage – itself taken from variable sources – the picture's sharpness fluctuates wildly throughout. Additionally, depending on your player, the disc stops dead when you play the first chapter from the scene selection menu, though pressing play again rectifies this. Also, trying this disc on my dual-laser Pioneer player resulted in an unwatchable, smeared mess, though it worked on other players.
For the first two-thirds of the serial, the mono audio is reasonably listenable, and more consistent than the video transfer. That is, until we hit chapter nine, whereupon the audio sync drops out by about a second, and stays that way for the rest of the serial. I tried the disc on three different players and they all featured this problem. If you try not look at the actors' mouths during these final chapters, it's less of an annoyance, but it still counts as a big mark against this disc.
Extra Features
The extras here are minimal, but nice all the same.

Buster Crabbe Bio: A nine-page text biography of the serial's star, covering his early life – Crabbe originally studied law – Olympic success, and film career. It is inevitably cursory, but still interesting, with a selected filmography at the end.

Photo Gallery: Not what you would expect, as this is taken from a personal collection of autographed photos of Buster Crabbe. Some of the pics are of Crabbe as Flash, whilst others appear to be family shots. The photo of Crabbe from his little seen 1974 comedy The Comeback Trail is a nice inclusion as well.

1932 Olympics Footage (1.57m): Original newsreel footage of Crabbe's 1932 400m mens freestyle win, with comments by Crabbe at the end. This is a nice, welcome feature and gives a bit more context to Crabbe's initial fame.

Television Commercials: Three late-career TV commercials featuring Crabbe as a spokesman for various products. These consist of a brand of antacid (29secs), canned chilli (31secs), and a body-sculpting singlet (1.29m). All three are in black and white, and are quite amusing.
The Verdict
Cheesy, hokey, and good fun, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is a vintage Saturday matinee serial. Sadly, despite some neat extra material, Beyond's DVD has some glaring quality-control issues, which may make viewing a trial for all but the dedicated.
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score

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