You'll be thrilled! You'll be chilled! You'll be amazed at how "Independence Day" and "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" could get away with such shabby visuals after watching "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe"!
I wasn't around to have seen this quintessential, Saturday-morning adventure serial when it appeared in 1940, but I eagerly awaited every chapter when it was released to television many years later. In fact, as recently as a few years ago my wife and I caught all twelve episodes on a local PBS station.
Of the three complete sets of "Flash Gordon" serials made by Larry "Buster" Crabbe from 1936 to 1940, this final one in the trilogy is generally acknowledged as the smoothest and most exciting, if, perhaps, not the most inventive. Of course, it's corny and juvenile but that's the point. It's also great fun, and it's presented complete on three sides of two discs, four chapters to a side, some 237 minutes in all. What's more, this Special Collector's Edition DVD set even comes with bonus items, including interviews, commercials, and newsreel footage.
Like fellow Olympian Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe followed up a successful swimming career by going to Hollywood and starring in "Tarzan the Fearless," then a turn at Buck Rogers, a succession of B-grade Westerns, and finally a television show, "Captain Gallant of the French Foreign Legion." But it is for the Flash Gordon serials, based on the newspaper feature created by Alex Raymond, that he is best remembered today.
If you have never seen a genuine, matinee cliffhanger before, this is the place to start. "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" is hardly great art but it's pleasant diversion. And you don't have to watch all twelve chapters at once; watch them one at a time each week the way they were supposed to be seen. That's part of the convenience of DVD. It's also why it has taken me longer to review this issue than anything I've done before. I started to view an episode a week, but I finally fudged and watched the last five or six installments straight through.
The plot is relatively unimportant, but for the record it starts with the bombardment of Earth by a "Death Dust." Amid the rise of dictatorships and the war in Europe, the "Purple Death" plagues the world! These "electrified particles" are the work of Emperor Ming of the planet Mongo, still keenly intent upon conquering the universe. Needless to say, no one can save the world but the man who defeated Ming twice before, Flash Gordon, and his intrepid assistants Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov. Ming the Merciless is again played by Robert Middleton, Dale by Carol Hughes, and Zarkov by Frank Shannon.
In addition, we have the usual suspects, Prince Barin; Ruka; Ronal; Ming's daughter, Princess Aura; Fria, Queen of the Ice Kingdom; Ming's agents, Torch and Sonja; the Rock Men; plus a multitude of settings from the Prince's palace to the Land of the Dead; and a typical assortment of gimmicks like Zarkov's antidote for the Death Dust, "Polarite," and his later inventions to thwart the Dust, a "Thermal Control" and an "N" ray. It's all wonderfully silly, especially the cute, little toy spaceships. And played out to the continual strains of Franz Liszt's "Les Preludes," it's quite heroic, too. Directed by Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor, the series was originally made for Universal, the chapters lasting approximately twenty minutes apiece.
Considering the film's age and that it's not digitally restored, the black-and-white print is remarkably well preserved. There are occasional age specks and scratch lines, to be sure, and closely spaced horizontal lines show some signs of flutter, but none of it is distracting. For the most part, the picture is clean and free of damage.
The monaural audio does sound its age, though, which probably adds to the nostalgia of enjoying the show the way it first played in theaters. Frequency and dynamic ranges are limited, naturally, and voices are a touch edgy, but, fortunately, background noise is kept to a minimum.
In addition to the twelve chapters, each of the discs contains supplementary material. There are three 1970 and two 1975 interviews with Buster Crabbe that last from ten to twenty minutes each, several TV commercials featuring the actor, and some brief footage of the Tenth Olympiad. It's all laid out conveniently, and from the main menu one can choose to watch chapter segments individually or all at once without interruption.
Two minutes into "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe" and we see where George Lucas got much of his "Star Wars" themes and imagery. The old serial may seem primitive by the standards of today's technical effects wizardry, but that doesn't make it any the less enjoyable. In fact, that's one of the main reasons for watching it. Besides, you couldn't ask for a more handsome or dashing hero than Buster Crabbe. One final note: There is a ninety-minute edited version of this material called "Purple Death from Outer Space" that sometimes shows up on television. It robs the film of many of the cliffhangers essential to the action. Go for the real thing.