Flash Gordon

Tagged: Film | Comics | Character | Radio

1. US Comic strip created by artist Alex Raymond for King Features Syndicate. Flash Gordon appeared in 1934, at first in Sunday, later in daily newspapers. Its elaborately shaded style and exotic storyline made it one of the most influential sf strips. It was taken over in 1944 by Austin Briggs, then in 1948 by Mac Raboy, and since then has been drawn by several artists, including Dan Barry (with contributions from artists Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood and writer Harry Harrison), Al Williamson, Gray Morrow, and Kevin VanHook. The daily comic strip ended in 1992; new Sunday strips were produced by writer/artist Jim Keefe from 1996 through 2003, when the strip was discontinued.

Various episodes have been released in comic-book form – including a nine-part series from DC Comics written and drawn by Dan Jurgens (1988), a two-issue series written by Williamson (who did the covers) for Marvel Comics (1991), and a seven-part series from Ardden Entertainment written by Brendan Deenan with art by Paul Green (2008) – and also in book form.

The scenario of Flash Gordon is archetypal Space Opera. Most episodes feature Flash locked in combat with the villain, Ming the Merciless of the planet Mongo. Flash's perpetual fiancée, Dale Arden, and the Mad Scientist Hans Zarkov play prominent roles. (In later episodes Zarkov's craziness was played down and he became a straightforward sidekick to Flash.) The decor shifts between the futuristic (Death Rays, rocket ships) and the archaic (Dinosaurs, jungles, swordplay) with a fine contempt for plausibility, rather in the manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs's romances. Although begun quite cynically in conscious opposition to the earlier Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Flash Gordon quickly developed its own individuality, emphasizing a romantic baroque against the cool technological classicism of its predecessor, to which it is artistically very much superior.

The strip was widely syndicated in Europe. When, during World War Two, the arrival of various episodes was delayed, the strip was often written and drawn by Europeans. One such writer was Federico Fellini (1920-1993).

The Flash Gordon comic strip has had many repercussions in other media. It led to a popular Mutual Radio serial, to a short-lived pulp magazine (Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine), and in the late 1930s to several film serials starring Buster Crabbe; later came a television series and a film (see below). A full-length film Parody, Flesh Gordon, appeared in 1974. The radio serial exactly paralleled the Sunday comic strip, so you could see in the paper the Monsters you'd heard on the radio.

An early Flash Gordon novel (preceded by Big Little Book adaptations of the strip) was Flash Gordon in the Caverns of Mongo (1937) by Alex Raymond. A paperback series of five Flash Gordon short novels, based on the original strips, with Alex Raymond credited, consisted of Flash Gordon 1: The Lion Men of Mongo (1974), Flash Gordon 2: The Plague of Sound (1974), Flash Gordon 3: The Space Circus (1974), Flash Gordon 4: The Time Trap of Ming XIII (1974) and Flash Gordon 5: The Witch Queen of Mongo (1974). The first four were "adapted by" Con Steffanson, a House Name; #1-#3 were the work of Ron Goulart; #4 was by Bruce Cassiday and #5, also by Cassiday, was published under his fiction pseudonym Carson Bingham.

2. Serial film. 13 two-reel episodes (1936). Universal. Directed by Frederick Stephani, starring Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Charles Middleton, Frank Shannon, Priscilla Lawson. Screenplay Stephani, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Ella O'Neill, based on the comic strip. Black and white.

The film Flash Gordon was the nearest thing to Pulp-magazine space opera to appear on the screen during the 1930s. Flash, Dale and Zarkov go to the planet Mongo in Zarkov's backyard-built Spaceship to find the cause of an outbreak of volcanic activity on Earth. Ming the Merciless (a wonderfully hammy performance from Middleton) is behind it all and plans to invade Earth. Our heroes spend the next 12 episodes surviving various exotic hazards before outwitting Ming in the final reel. Though more lavish than the average serial (the budget was a record $350,000), Flash Gordon has the cheap appearance of most: unconvincing special effects, sets and costumes borrowed from a variety of other films, and plenty of stock footage. However, it remains great fun, romantic and fantastical. Ill-edited versions of the first and second halves were released theatrically as Spaceship to the Unknown (1936) (97 minutes) and Perils from the Planet Mongo (1936) (91 minutes).

The follow-up was Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938), directors Ford Beebe, Robert F Hill, with the same leading actors – Ming is back again – and Beatrice Roberts as the evil queen who turns humans to "clay people". 15 two-reel episodes. Screenplay Ray Trampe, Norman S Hall, Wyndham Gittens, Herbert Dolmas. The setting is changed from Mongo to Mars. The 99-minute edited-down version was The Deadly Ray from Mars (1938).

The final Flash Gordon movie serial was Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940; vt Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe), directed by Ford Beebe, Ray Taylor, with the same leading actors except that Carol Hughes replaced Jean Rogers as Dale Arden. 12 two-reel episodes. Screenplay George H Plympton, Basil Dickey, Barry Shipman. This, the weakest of the three, kills off Ming (again) at the end. According to one account the true title shown on the original episodes was Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe; the soldiers would have been Ming's, and Flash is trying to stop him. This would explain the oddity of the usually accepted title, since Flash was not a universe-conqueror by disposition. The 87-minute edited-down version was Purple Death From Outer Space (1940).

The three Flash Gordon film serials continue to have a cult following and are regularly revived on television and in the cinema.

3. American tv series (1954), which aired on the Dumont network, starring Steve Holland, Irene Champlin, Joseph Nash. While this German-American production featured the iconic trio of Flash, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov, it was otherwise quite different from previous incarnations of the character, modeled more on other sf series of the early 1950s than the original Comic strip and serials. Set in the Far Future, this Flash Gordon was a roving agent for Earth's Galaxy Bureau of Investigation, and he could not only roam throughout the Galaxy, but engage in Time Travel as well. Since it was filmed in West Germany, the series at times had an unusual look – one episode made effective use of a still-unreconstructed area of West Berlin as a setting – but was otherwise consistently silly and melodramatic, very comparable to the contemporary series Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954). While the series had once been all but forgotten, videocassette and DVD rereleases of this completely preserved series have brought it to the attention of a new generation of viewers, and several episodes which fell into the public domain are now available at the Internet Archive.

4. Film (1967), referred to in English as Flash Gordon's Battle in Space (original title Baytekin – Fezada Çarpisanlar), starring Hasan Demirtag. This obscure, and very low-budget, Turkish production has been described as laughably awful in all respects.

5. US animated tv series (1979-1980), sometimes referenced as The New Adventures of Flash Gordon. This Saturday-morning cartoon series was generally a faithful adaptation of the 1930s serials and initially followed their format of an extended plot before shifting to short, separate episodes in its second season. Some episodes were edited as the tv movie Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982).

6. Film (1980). Columbia/EMI/Warner. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis. Directed by Michael Hodges, starring Sam J Jones, Melody Anderson, Topol, Max Von Sydow, Brian Blessed, Timothy Dalton. Screenplay Lorenzo Semple Jr, based on the early episodes of the comic strip by Raymond. 115 minutes. Colour.

As a producer, De Laurentiis has always had a weakness for over-the-top, fantastic Parodies (sometimes successful, as in Diabolik [1967] and Barbarella [1967]) but here his instincts let him down badly. Apart from the fetishistic costumes (leather, spikes, etc) there is little of interest in this tongue-in-cheek, lurid fantasy, which tries to make a Comic-strip virtue of wooden acting. The plot is largely derived from the 1936 film serial, and the rushed special effects similarly recall the ludicrousness of that film. The romantic elements are subjugated to a rather listless kinkiness.

7. Canadian animated tv series (1996), which transformed most of the characters into teenagers and provided them with hoverboards while emulating the comic strip and serials in other respects.

8. American tv series (2007), which aired on the Sci Fi Channel, starring Eric Johnson, Gina Holden, Jody Racicot. This was a generally disastrous attempt to "update" the character by making him a young athlete who travels through a Wormhole to find Ming the Merciless ruling over another Dimension. Reviled for its terrible acting and weak scripts, it was cancelled after one season. [PN/JB/JP/GW]

see also: Cinema.

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