Recently, as part of my Fifty Films Older Than Me series, I watched Flash Gordon, the original science fiction serial from 1936, starring Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Priscilla Lawson, and Charles B. Middleton, and directed by Frederick Stephani.
Except I didn’t quite watch it. I actually watched the much later television edit, which reduced the story down to about 100 minutes (from an original of close to 400).
Then I discovered that I could watch the whole serial on Youtube. So I’ve been doing that, one episode a day, making short notes about each episode as I go along, especially in comparison to my (quite negative) view of the abridged version of the story.
Here are the next round of notes, each written as I went along during chapters 8-10 (of thirteen) of the full serial:
Chapter 8 – Tournament of Death
It started before this but see clearly here that there is stress between Ming and Vultan, showing that Ming is having some trouble with his despotic ambitions. However, Ming doesn’t come across as particularly savvy or clever, which doesn’t help the character. This is a case where maybe some Star Wars prequel trilogy-style political maneuvering might have helped, something that would have made Emperor Ming a bit more like Emperor Palpatine. It emphasizes the sense I have that serials like this would have helped inspire later creators like George Lucas to do things like this, but make them awesome (not that I’m arguing the prequel trilogy was awesome).
Dr. Zarkov is sort-of the boss in this episode, saving all of the Hawk city from toppling over, and using his sudden clout to get Flash and the others set free.
A lot of this episode is taken up with two extended hand-to-hand fight scenes, both in arenas, due to whatever weird laws Mongo is subject to. First, Flash fights a masked opponent in a sword-fight…it’s not hard to figure out that this is Prince Barrin (the character is mysteriously absent from the scene otherwise). It’s a bit of a surprise that he’s doing it because he’s in love with Princess Aura, and (presumably) because part of the prize for winning the battle is the right to marry anyone you want! Flash, as a real bloke, understands this motivation.
Later, Flash has to fight “the mighty beast of Mongo”–an “orangopoid” which strongly resembles a Mugato from Star Trek. Dale stares at this battle for several minutes, only screaming when it’s time for the cliffhanger. Before this, Dale does almost nothing in this chapter, except for getting in Flash’s way during an action sequence in such an abrupt and blatant way that I was wondering if I’d missed her getting mind-controlled again.
There are less than 25 minutes of Spaceship to the Unknown remaining, but a nearly an hour and a half of the original serial still to go, which says to me there’s a lot of this story that I haven’t seen.
Cliffhanger: After an extended battle with the orangopoid–Flash seems overwhelmed and doomed!
Cumulative Runtime at ending: 2:22:51
Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @1:13:30
Chapter 9 – Fighting the Fire Dragon
The action of this chapter is the sort of thing that the abridged Spaceship to the Unknown desperately needed–a change of place and a bit of a respite from the running around and punching and shooting. We’ve got a quieter story here, where are most of the runtime has got a “calm before the storm” sort of vibe, as well as some good ol’ fashioned palace intrigue.
That’s not to say it’s not still full of hokey drama. Everything seems resolved, but Ming is still planning his revenge, and Princess Aura is about to cross some serious lines in terms of her obsession with Flash. The chapter strongly develops the character of the High Priest, who seemingly helps Princess Aura go behind her father’s back to kidnap Flash and to wipe his memory, but is really trying to ensure Flash’s death in a way that doesn’t implicate his emperor. This leads us to the fearsome fire demon of the title.
Disappointingly, there is not much actual fighting the fire demon in this episode–maybe that is still to come. Instead, there is just screaming at it and wincing in horror. The fire demon itself looks better than anything Doctor Who put on the screen in the first couple of seasons, although we haven’t yet seen it actually interact with any people.
On the whole, this one of my favorite chapters of the serial so far simply because it allows the character to breathe a little bit, which is really the best thing the original version of this story has over the later truncated version.
Cliffhanger: Flash lies drugged and unconscious as the enraged fire demon moves toward him…!
Cumulative Runtime at ending (counting recaps): 2:41:05
Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @1:15:55
Chapter 10 – The Unseen Peril
For the second time, we have an episode here that is completely absent from the abridged Spaceship to the Unknown. The Fire Demon from the previous story turns out to not be a big deal thanks to a hand grenade that Dr. Zarkov is carrying around with him. Zarkov is once again the show’s biggest hero here, both killing the Fire Demon and restoring Flash’s memory. And then in the last seconds of the story he apparently saves Flash from execution by turning him invisible. At least, that’s what I assume is happening–Flash just stands amongst one of Zarkov’s pieces of equipment and then vanishes. It explains the title of the episode, The Unseen Peril, which until that final moment I thought seemed pretty strange.
Most of the episode is about how Flash has lost his memory thanks to the shenanigans of Princess Aura. Dale again proves herself to be as inept as ever–Aura is spinning lie after lie to Flash, right in front of her, but she basically doesn’t do anything to try to convince Flash of the truth or to counter her rival’s account of things. Instead she just looks distraught and bemoans her helplessness. We do too, Dale, we do too.
Cliffhanger: Just before Flash is executed, a machine of Dr. Zarkov’s makes him disappear!
Cumulative Runtime at ending (counting recaps): 2:28:55
Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @1:15:55
Only three episodes left! There are about 54 minutes left for the full story, but only about 20 left from Spaceship to the Unknown. Even taking out recaps and so on, that’s a lot of material.