Study Guide for Flash Gordon (Rocket Ship)

1. Filmographic Citation

Flash Gordon. Dir. Frederick Stephani. USA: Universal, 1936. 13 Chapters. F. Stephani, George Plympton, Basil Dickey, Ella O'Neill, script. Based on the cartoon strip by Alex Raymond. Condensed into a 69 min. feature by Video Images, 1991.

2. Cast

Flash Gordon: Larry "Buster" Crabbe Dale Arden: Jean Rogers
Emperor Ming: Charles Middleton King Vultan: John Lipson
Dr. Zarkov: Frank Shannon King Kala: Duke York, Jr.
Officer Torch: Earle Askam High Priest: Theodore Lurch
King Thun: James Pierce Zona: Muriel Goodspeed
Prince Barin: Richard Alexander Prof. Gordon: Richard Tucker
Princess Aura: Priscilla Lawson

3. Original Chapters

  1. "The Planet of Peril"
  2. "The Tunnel of Terror"
  3. "Captured by Shark Men"
  4. "Battling the Sea Beast"
  5. "The Destroying Ray"
  6. "Flaming Fortune"
  7. "Shattering Doom"
  8. "Tournament of Death"
  9. "Fighting the Fire Dragon"
  10. "The Unseen Peril"
  11. "In the Claws of the Tigron"
  12. "Trapped in the Turret"
  13. "Rocketing to Earth"

4. Summaries and Comments from Film Historians

From The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993):

The film . . . 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 behind it all and plans to invade Earth {or is talked into invasion rather than destruction--RDE} 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), FG 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.

From James Robert Parish and Michael R. Pitts, The Great Science Fiction Pictures (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1977) 126-27 {also for chapters}:

Alex Raymond's comic strip first appeared in 1934[,] and Universal bought the rights two years later. It spend $500,000 in producing this thirteen-part cliffhanger.

Seen today, the serial still holds up remarkably well. . . . Of course Crabbe made the perfect movie serial hero: intelligent, virile[,] and courageous. In contrast to the idealized heroics of Flash, there is virginal Jean Rogers as Dale Arden, with her slightly-attired body giving more than a hint of implied sexuality. In direct contrast is Charles Middleton, representing the apex of serial villains as the slick, culpable, ruthless Ming the Merciless, the ruler of the gypsy {i.e., wandering} planet Mongo.

Although the scripting of this serial was rather commonplace, the individual thrills in each chapter kept audiences coming back week after week. Not only were there futuristic rocket ships, ray guns and the like, but the hero encountered such terrors as dinosaurs, monkey-men, a "saceograph" TV device, shark-men, a floating city . . . the tortures of the horrible atom furnace, a tournament between Flash and assorted monsters, a memory-restoring ray, and the horrible Gocko, Ming's dragon, which had lobster claws and other unpleasant assets.

From Michael Benson, Vintage Science Fiction Films, 1896-1949 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1985) 93-96:

Hollywood was shocked when Universal announced their allocated budget of over $1 million to produce the 13-episode chapterplay Flash Gordon (1936).

Flash, a blonde Yale graduate and famous polo player, along with friend Dale Arden, are taken to the planet Mongo in a rocket by Dr. Alexis Zarkov (Irish character actor Frank Shannon) as Earth faces total destruction from the approaching globe. There they meet evil Emperor Ming, tyrant of Mongo, who hates Flash and takes a lustful liking to Dale {immediately in both cases --RDE}, At Ming's side is Princess Aura, hopelessly enamored of our hero.

In the comic strip Dale Arden was a brunette. For the serial, dark-haired Jean Rogers dyed her hair blonde, as Universal reasoned audiences would associate blondes with good and brunettes with evil For the same reason, Princess Aura had darker hair in the serial than in the comic strip.

Actor Larry "Buster" Crabbe also had to lighten his hair for the part, a facet of his role that made him ill-at-ease on the set. Crabbe donned a cap between takes, complaining that men whistled when he removed it.

Despite the big budget {whichever estimate you accept}, the studio went out of its way to save money during production. The Frankenstein (1931) ends up on Mongo. The statue of the alien planet's "Great God Tao" {Tao = the Ground of Being in Chinese philosophy--RDE} was previously used as an Egyptian deity in The Mummy. Rocketships...were borrowed from Fox's Just Imagine (1930).... Yards of silent newsreel footage showed massive destruction. A dance sequence--erotically attired women writhing for Ming's amusement--was spliced from The Midnight Sun (1927). . . .

Further money was saved by shooting almost exclusively on interior soundstages or on back lots. The limited location filming was done in Griffith Park's Bronson Canyon, a bowl-like quarry. . . .

. . . According to film historians Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut..."Raymond's comic strip was virtually a movie storyboard for whole sequences and the costumes, which Hollywood's Western Costume Company fashioned with the most meticulously accurate detail. One major difference between the strip and the serial was the Mongonians' skincolor. In the strip they were Oriental yellow, but no mention of this pigmentation appears in the film. Later the aliens were presented as Caucasians in the newspapers as well.

[Plot of full serial starts with Mongo] hurtling toward Earth.... Flash and Dale are on an airplane struggling through atmospheric disturbance when [the plane goes] into a tailspin and [the passengers] bail out in the nick of time. Landing by parachute near the lab of Dr. Zarkov (whose name is Hans in the comic strip and Alexis here), they are shown the scientist's missile[,] which he hope to pilot to Mongo and then prevent the catastrophic collision . . . . They land [on Mongo], evade the deadly breath of giant iguanas [in Mongonian "garb"], and are captured by . . . Officer Torch . . . and two robot soldiers who hold them at bay with scientifically-advanced rifles. They are taken to Ming. . . .

Ming is completely bald. His Fu Manchu mustache droops. . . .

His daughter Aura . . . falls for Flash at first glance -- a common malady among screen villainesses -- but will kill him if she can't have him for herself.

Mongo is a combination of the futuristic and the primitive. Though their technology is advanced, their Hollywood costumes resemble those of the Roman Empire. Mongonian soldiers, despite their superior arsenal, would prefer to draw swords for battle.

Ming, deciding Dale will be his wife, drugs [her] into subservience. Flash is hurled into the "Arena of Death" for Ming's entertainment. . . . Flash is saved from doom by Aura. . . . Dr. Zarkov convinces Ming . . . to preserve Earth so it can be conquered, setting up the framework for 12 more episodes. . . .

. . . Ming's empire is attacked by Mongonian dissidents known as The Lion Men. . . . whose gyro ships pepper Ming's palace with fire. After evading Aura's seductive nails and escaping from a giant reptile pit, Flash battles Thun [King of The Lion Men] and subdues him. Realizing their common enemy, they join forces and head to save Dale. First they must battle Ming's army and survive the "tunnel of terror," the residence of a dinosaur monster with lobster claws (Glen Strange). The monster is about to super-pinch Flash when Thun zaps him with his ray gun.

Before the serial was through, Flash was forced to defeat a menagerie of grotesque monsters. When he is captured by The Shark Men . . . he is thrown in[to] a tank with the tentacled Octosac. Flash encounters winged Hawkmen who live in Sky City, a floating community supported by light rays. During Ming's "Tournament of Death," flash battles a horned hairy ape, the Sacred Orangapoid. . . . Again he is saved by lovesick Aura. . .

5. Comments and Questions

A. Stuff left out of the condensation:

As the summary indicates, we don't see all of The _______ Men of the original serial; we also don't see at least one of Flash's big encounters with the monster creature. More important, the condensation cleans up the serial a bit. Left out are a lot of shots of nasty Ming voyeuristically looking at those scantily-clad (naked?) writhing women, which those so inclined in the audience can condemn, enjoy, or both simultaneously. (That's the nice thing about having villains do things we might like to: we can both enjoy and feel virtuous.) Also left out is a sequence when Flash is tortured by The Hawk Men by being symbolically crucified, while...well, it looks like very large carbon-arc rods are put together close to his yet-again-bare chest. As the condensation stands, the "beefcake" still balances the "cheesecake"--we may even see more of the guys than the gals--but they've omitted some of the mild kink and borderline blasphemy (Flash as futuristic Christ-figure).

B. Politics:

National: Want to make anything of changing "Hans Zarkov" (Germanic) to "Alexis Zarkov" (more Slavic)? Do not make too much of what to us--or the older "us's" --are Nazi salutes; the Nazi salute is a variation on the Roman, and it was commonly used; I've even seen a picture of a US Boy Scout reciting the US Pledge of Allegiance to a US flag with arm stretched out. Still, note date of film and look for our-world parallels to Mongo's politics.

Racial: The granddaddy of all the "Flash-Gordon Stuff" was Buck Rogers and "Buck Rogers Stuff": Philip Francis Nowlan's "Armageddon 2419" (Amazing 1928) and "The Air Lords of Han" (Amazing 1929). These two works are openly racist, warning against "The Yellow Peril" and reaching a happy ending with the genocide of the Han people--who aren't really Terrans, as a postscript adds, but unEarthly Aliens (apparently even Nowlan had a problem with the destruction of an entire race of pure-bred Terran humans). The Flash Gordon movies don't go anywhere near that far, but what do you make of an emperor Ming, follower of the God (?) Tao? Aside from the ignorance of Chinese philosophy--and the willingness to throw around Chinese words-- what should we make of Ming and his Romanoid followers? What should we make of the "Light Woman"/"Dark Woman" cliche? Do you think there was a racial "subtext" for the moguls at Universal's reasoning that audiences "would associate blondes with good and brunettes with evil"? Note that in the 1930s, "racial" had a dangerously wide meaning, and the contrast here may be between the "Aryan" blond and "the duskier 'races'" of all sorts, emphatically including Mediterraneans in general and Jews et al. in particular.

Sexual: Where are The Hawk Women, Shark Women, and Women Women generally? Should we see the Mongo folk as sexually monomorphic (all males), except for one princess and a kind of Writhing Women TV show? Might that explain why Ming wants to marry Dale? (Do you think they could reproduce? Is it narrow-minded to question marriage between members of species necessarily more distant than, say, you and a squid?) Does it make more sense that Aura would want Flash?
Why do the few females around have such trouble finding clothes that cover their bodies, and why does Flash have so much trouble keeping his shirt on? (Want to make anything of guys' whistling at Crabbe?)

Gender: Dale Arden is strong and active on Earth. Does she become something of a wimp on Mongo, and, if so, why would Flash still want her? Age, Generation, Body Type, Brains: How do older folk come across in Flash Gordon? Fat men? Are there any fat women on Mongo? How does an intellectual like Dr. Zarkov come across? If Flash--Yale grad though he may be--comes across as body and Zarkov as brain, it may have been a big moment in US popular culture when Superman and Batman opened labs and got intellectual. (Note that in the next Flash Gordon serial, on Mars, Princess Aura is at least highly skilled at magic: a woman with brains.)

C. Science Fiction:

Is Flash Gordon science fiction? If so, where is the science? Does the condensation title, Rocketship, imply that the film is S.F. because it's got the right S.F. paraphernalia--the "icons" of S.F.?

Like, for all the talk of science, would it make much difference if Zarkov were a wizard and the rocket ship a magic carpet?

Are the dragons on Mongo that much different from the dragon that bothered Beowulf's Geatish kingdom in Northern Europe, on Earth, ca. 600 C.E.? Dragons in Chinese lore or contemporary fantasy? (Hint: Fantasy dragons often talk [although in Horror they don't].) Might Flash Gordon be an example for Harry Harrison's argument that S.F. is a subset of fantasy, with a fantastic plot given additional verisimilitude with a veneer of "science"?