Flash Gordon (1936) – Chapters 11-13 [50 Films Older Than Me #11d]

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.

You can read my original review here and my comments on Chapters 1-4 of the full serial here, chapters 5-7 here, and chapters 8-10 here.

Here are the final round of notes, each written as I went along during chapters 11-13 (of thirteen) of the full serial:

Chapter 11 – In the Claws of the Tigron

Two episodes in a row that are made up of entirely new material! Or more accurately, material that was entirely cut out of Spaceship to the Unknown.

The big highlight here is that Flash spends a lot of the episode invisible. This makes him basically invincible to his enemies, mostly because his enemies are kind of incompetent. Seriously, Ming’s guards know there is an invisible guy there, and they can see their Emperor is having the life choked out of him by someone they can’t see, right in front of them. And yet they just stand their, dumbfounded. Actually, it’s even worse–they are there when Flash goes invisible for the first time (thanks to the unparalleled genius of Dr. Zarkov) just before they are about to execute them, and they run away in terror.

This is, I guess, even worse than Dale Arden’s typically unimpressive reaction–she just screams and then keeps begging Flash not to do it again because she finds it so creepy.

Princess Aura is up to her old tricks here, acting so fully like a villain that she sends a tiger (“tigron”) after Dale. The Tigron is a pretty impressively realized thing. Because of seeing the abridged version of the story already I know that somehow she ends up on the side of the good guys, but with only two episodes left I just can’t imagine how it’s going to happen.

This is pretty good episode for King Vultan who gets to let out a lot of belly-laughs and then just ram his torso into his enemies in order to defeat them. He’s seen to be as impressive of a fighter as Flash Gordon here, in his own way. Significantly, the episode also sets up tension between Ming and his high priest, which I think will go a decent way to explain some things that I know are coming up later in the story.

I’ve noticed a funny thing with the episode titles lately. This one is called “In the Claws of the Tigron”, which is an event that happens in the chapter’s closing seconds. The last one was the same: Flash Gordon himself was “The Unseen Peril”, but not until the last moments of the chapter. Next episode is called “Trapped in the Turret”…should we assume that is how the episode will end? We’ll find out soon!

Cliffhanger:  The vicious Tigron attacks Dale Arden!

Cumulative Runtime at ending:  3:16:03

Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @1:13:30

Chapter 12 – Trapped in the Turret

Yes, well as predicted, the “trapped in the turret” part of this story comes at the very end of the episode, for a far shorter time than Flash fights the dreaded Tigron. I have to say that the footage of Flash fighting that Tigron is some of the most impressive that the serial has given. It’s quick and fleeting but definitely looks like a guy fighting an actual animal, and not just a dude in a tiger costume. So that’s pretty cool.

I’m not sure if we just saw Princess Aura’s redemption here–she just agrees with Prince Barin’s suggestion that she’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and actually attempt to help the earthman she is interested in rather than constantly trying to kill the woman he loves. But knowing this movie maybe that’s as much of a character arc that she is going to get. Does she ever actually confess love for Barin? Or is she just settling for second best?

Anyway, it’s not the most exciting episode but it does advance the plot. It also finally links back up to Spaceship to the Unknown now that all Flash and company are almost ready to head back to earth, and to fight their climactic battle with Ming. Ming is still acting like he’s someone who can be trusted, but the heroes know better–they just don’t know how devious he is! Have they underestimated him to the point of their doom??! One more episode to find out!

Cliffhanger:  Flash, Dale, Aura, Vultan and Zarkov are all trapped in the turret, being blasted by one of Ming’s ships.

Cumulative Runtime at ending (counting recaps):  3:32:56

Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: @1:24:00

Chapter 13 – Rocketing to Earth

My big question as I was going into this was whether the climax of the story, where Emperor Ming is killed, made any more sense than it did in the feature-length reduction of the story, Spaceship to the Unknown. And the answer is…no, it doesn’t. In both versions, Ming’s enemies are attacking so he runs away and whispers something unheard to his High Priest. The High Priest opens a special door which is full of fog and stage lights, and Ming walks in with great pomp (even though his enemies are chasing him). Ming stand in a very stylized and operatic sort of way. Smoke machines activate and he is obscured. When Flash and friends catch up, the High Priest informs them and us that Emperor Ming is dead! No explanation is given for what has just happened.

However, the full length of the serial does add one major plot at the end–that same High Priest, in the longer version, plants a time-bomb on board Flash, Dale and Zarkov’s ships with the intent to kill them on their return to earth. However, counter-productively, he boasts about this to Prince Barin, Princess Aura and the others so they are able to call Flash on the space-phone and warn him. After a quick search, Flash finds it and dispose of it.

I was hoping that all of this was going to lead to a reveal that the High Priest was lying about Ming being dead, and that the Emperor would be back for one last attack, but it wasn’t to be…apparently Ming really did just kill himself in the room with the smoke machines. Maybe something is explained in the sequel?

Anyway, as a film goes, it still not very good, but there is some inventive stuff here and there and its miles better than Spaceship to the Unknown.

Conclusion:  Flash’s spaceship finally returns to earth!

Cumulative Runtime at ending (counting recaps): 3:52:00

Runtime of Spaceship to the Unknown at same point: 1:37:52

Obviously, that’s the total length of both presentations. There are similarly-lengthed versions of the sequels, but I don’t feel strongly compelled to watch them, I’m afraid.

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