Flash Gordon (Spaceship to the Unknown) [50 Films Older Than Me #11]

Just lately, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #11.

Spoilers ahead.  

Flash Gordon (aka Spaceship to the Unknown)

Directed by Frederick Stephani

Release Year:  1936 (34 years before I was born).

Sort of, anyway. Flash Gordon is a 13 episode serial which was released in 1936. But Spaceship to the Unknown is a 90 minute distillation of the serial which I think was released for TV in 1966. That’s the only version of the film that I could find available, and is what I actually watched. But even so, I’m still counting this as my 1936 selection.

What it is about:  When an alien planet is detected on a collision course for earth, the brilliant scientist Dr. Zarkov manages to recruit the help of the young Flash Gordon and Dale Arden. The planet, Mongo, is under the rule of Emperor Ming, who becomes smitten with Dale and enraged at Flash because of Dale’s affections for him. Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura also falls for Flash and attempts to win him from Flash. Flash and his friends have many adventures dealing with Ming, which brings them into contact with many other galactic races and rulers. Ming sets his sights on earth but is ultimately defeated.

Starring Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, Jean Rogers as Dale Arden, Charles B. Middleton as Ming the Merciless, Priscilla Lawson as Princess Aura, Frank Shannon as Dr. Zarkov, and Richard Alexander as Prince Barin, Jack Lipson as King Vultan, and James Pierce as Prince Thun (all leaders of different interplanetary races).

Flash Gordon is the first film adaptation of the comic character Flash Gordon that Alex Raymond created in 1934. This was the first of three film serials starring Buster Crabbe as the character.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I’m vaguely aware of the classic Flash Gordon story thanks mainly to having half-seen the cheesy 1980 film. And knowing that fact that this was (or was originally) a serial film tells me something of what to expect…quickly paced storytelling heavy on the adventure and light on dramatic depth.

Reality: Well, “light on dramatic depth” is an understatement. Not only is this project a 1930’s movie serial with little interest in digging into anything so nuanced as real emotions, it is also severely abridged–down to just above a third of its original runtime (245 minutes down to about 98)! So forget about depth or relationships or themes or anything like that…there’s barely time for anything but plot and movement and punching.

The serial was quite big budget for its day, and there is certainly some inventiveness with the effects and the odd impressive explosion here or there. But overall of course they are pretty laughable and the production design badly dated. Now, I am no stranger to overlooking production limitations for the sake of a good story–after all, some of my favorite things are 1960’s Doctor Who, classic-era Star Trek, 1970’s Doctor Who, 1980’s Doctor Who…well, you get the idea. But the problem with Spaceship to the Unknown is that there just isn’t the good story to carry us through. Or if there is, it is llost in the awkward pacing and choppy editing. So the obviously model spaceships, the little animals pretendng to be monsters, or the odd costume choices (a lot of men are wearing shorts out there in space, it seems)…well, it all become painful to watch.

The rushed storytelling doesn’t leave much room for characterization, beyond the most basic of tones. Flash Gordon is courageous and quick to throw a punch (seriously, dude is always ready to jump in and start beating people up), and that’s about it. His enemy Ming is villainous and untrustworthy, though not particularly cunning. Dr. Zarkov is earnest and worried. Prince Vultan is boisterous and likes to belly laugh. And that’s about the depth of things.

The worst might be Dale Arden, the story’s female lead. She is smitten with Flash and likes to scream a lot, and seems otherwise completely incapable of helping herself. And if she’s not screaming, she’s either hypnotized, and thus being carried around like a rag doll, or she’s fainting–neither of which are a great look or your story’s heroine.

Fairing a little better is Princess Aura (Ming’s daughter), who at least gets to do a bit of scheming. She actually shoots a guy and at one moment suddenly charges into a battle arena with a spear–I thought she was going to kill Flash’s opponent (a horned ape-like creature that looks a fair bit like a Star Trek “Mugato”) but in the end she just passed the spear to Flash. Oh well, it’s better than nothing, I guess. She’s written as being toxically in love with Flash for most of the story, but then just seems to change her mind off-camera–which, given the original serial’s editing, is actually completely plausible.

I didn’t get a lot of joy watching Spaceship to the Unknown, but it is interesting from a film history perspective. It is the earliest full science fiction serial that was ever made, and ended up being the first of many such productions.

It has been recognized by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as culturally or historically significant. It’s fascinating to imagine how a film like this may have inspired the future filmmakers in the audience. It’s easy to see how someone like George Lucas could have seen a film like this (although clearly not on its first release) and being stirred to tell similar stories, using more modern techniques to wow later audiences just as this film might have done so for those in 1936.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Like I said, I didn’t actually enjoy Flash Gordon. But one might feel I’m being quite critical about a film that was made 85 years ago mostly for kids, and which I’ve actually only seen less than half of. And it’s true, I’m probably judging it pretty harshly for what it was. But still, I’m watching it now and not then, and I’m watching it in this format, and as interesting as I think idea of the movie is, I found actually watching it to be a pretty tedious viewing experience.

However, having said all that, I have just discovered that the full serial is actually available on Youtube! With a nearly four hour run time it will take me a while to get through, but I’ll make my way through it and offer some follow up thoughts when I can.

See here for the Master List.

One thought on “Flash Gordon (Spaceship to the Unknown) [50 Films Older Than Me #11]

  1. Thanks for this review that really clarifies how far we’ve come in all our sci-fi evolution.

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