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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 4/28/00



The Flash Gordon Serials

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers


Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers
1936 (2000) - Universal/King Features Syndicate (Image)

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/C+/D-

Specs and Features:

245 mins, NR, B&W, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:55:58, at the start of episode 7), Snapper case packaging, film-themed menu screens, episode access (13 episodes), languages: English (DD 1.0 mono), subtitles: none



Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars


Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars
1938 (2000) - Universal/King Features Syndicate (Image)

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/D-

Specs and Features:

299 mins, NR, B&W, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, Snapper case packaging, film-themed menu screens, episode access (15 episodes - 1-7 on side A, 8-15 on side B), languages: English (DD 1.0 mono), subtitles: none



Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe
1940 (2000) - Universal/King Features Syndicate (Image)

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/D-

Specs and Features:

234 mins, NR, B&W, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:59:40, at the start of episode 7), Snapper case packaging, film-themed menu screens, episode access (12 episodes), languages: English (DD 1.0 mono), subtitles: none



Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe: Collector's Edition

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe
Collector's Edition - 1940 (2000) - Universal/King Features Syndicate (VCI)

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/C+/C+

Specs and Features:

Disc One: Episodes 1-4
Approx. 78 mins, NR, B&W, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, single-layered, dual-disc Amaray keep case packaging, footage of the 400-meter freestyle final (Xth Olympiad), Bisodol commercial, 2 Buster Crabbe interviews (circa 1970), video reel previews for The Lone Ranger, And Then There Were None, Gargoyles and The Southerner, Buster Crabbe bio, photo gallery, animated film-themed menus with sound effects and music, episode access (4 episodes), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none

Disc Two: Episodes 5-12
Approx. 156 mins, NR, B&W, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, dual-disc Amaray keep case packaging, Hormel Chile commercial, Magic Mold bodyshirt commercial, 3 Buster Crabbe interviews (circa 1970 & 1975), video reel previews for The Lone Ranger, And Then There Were None, Gargoyles and The Southerner, Buster Crabbe bio, photo gallery, animated film-themed menus with sound effects and music, episode access (8 episodes - 5-8 on side A, 9-12 on side B), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: none


Dr. Zarkov: "I'm sure the planet rushing upon us is inhabited, but it's also intensely radioactive. If I can reach it in my rocketship, I may be able to control its power and divert it from its course toward the Earth!"

Flash: "I'll bet on the long shot with you - when do we start?"

You've gotta love Flash Gordon. When people talk about the classic Sci-fi serials that used to play before the main feature in movie theaters, it's usually the Flash Gordon series that they're recalling. Talk about cheesy - you get it all here. There are the customary model rocketships dangling on wires, complete with smoking sparklers for engines. You've got mad scientists with goofy electrical devices, lizards and other animals dressed up with horns to make them look like giant monsters (PETA would have had a field day), barely-choreographed fights where fists and swords flail wildly - you name it. Even the episode titles are a crack-up, with such entries as Shattering Doom!, Tree-Men of Mars! and Flaming Death! Based on the popular comic strip by Alex Raymond, and starring the legendary Larry "Buster" Crabbe (who also played the title characters in Tarzan the Fearless and Buck Rodgers), these serials thrilled audiences and fired the imaginations of many a future filmmaker, including the likes of a young George Lucas.

I got my first taste of Flash Gordon in college, when they used to show episodes before screenings of movies on campus. The Flash Gordon serials were actually more popular that the features in many cases - everyone got into the act by talking to the screen, quoting favorite lines, booing the bad guys and cheering the appearance of the heroes. It was about as silly as it gets. And it was great fun.

Image Entertainment has recently released all three of the classic, multi-episode Flash Gordon serials on DVD and, by no coincidence I'm sure, VCI has also released one of them as a quasi-Collector's Edition. Are they worth a spin? Here's a hint: three of them are, but one of these DVDs just doesn't belong. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers (Image)

This first entry in the Flash Gordon series was based directly on the story told in the first year of the original comic strip, and opens with a mysterious planet rushing madly toward the Earth on a collision course. With the world in a state of pandemonium, the brilliant scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Frank Shannon) has built a rocketship to investigate firsthand. Meanwhile, a star polo player named Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) is returning home aboard a small plane to be with his father when the end arrives. Also on this plane is the lovely Dale Arden (Jean Rogers). Suddenly, the passengers are forced to bail out, and Flash and Dale manage to float to safety using the same parachute. Naturally, they land near Zarkov's rocketship. One thing leads to another, and Flash, Dale and Zarkov are soon zooming through space on a mission to save the Earth. Landing on the planet (which is known as Mongo), our heroes find themselves at the mercy of the evil Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton), and must soon fight their way through the many kingdoms of the planet to save their home.

Released in 1936, Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers was so popular, that even though it was a serial, it became Universal's second highest grossing release of the year. Audiences had simply never seen anything like it. Much of its success can be attributed to the likability of Crabbe himself, and the exotic locals depicted in the serial's 13 episodes. Despite the fact that the serial's $350,000 budget was triple the normal amount spent on such matinee fare, set pieces, props and music were recycled from previous Universal films (like The Mummy and Bride of Frankenstein). Also contributing to the success of Space Soldiers are the campy performances of John Lipson (as the boisterous Vultan, King of the Hawkmen) and Middleton (as the Fu Manchu-like Ming).

Image's DVD version of Space Soldiers looks surprisingly good, given that this was a 1930s release. The print is of fair quality, with all the dust, dirt and physical damage one would expect from an older piece of film (missing frames, scratches, etc…). But none of it really distracts - the video is completely watchable. The contrast is generally good, and while there's a little edge enhancement visible, there's far less digital compression artifacting apparent than I would have expected. On the audio side, Image has presented the original mono mix as a 1.0 Dolby Digital track, with the sound coming strictly from the center channel in your 5.1 configuration. It's also pretty good, with clear dialogue and only occasional defects due to age.

There aren't really any extras here, but the menus are nice looking, and allow you to quickly jump into any of the serial's episodes (which run about 20 minutes each). I didn't give the extras an "F" grade however, because the Snapper case's fold-out cover features an excellent bit of text on the history and production of Space Soldiers. It's not much, but it's more than enough in my mind. The episodes really speak for themselves anyway.

Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (Image)

Two years after releasing Space Soldiers, Universal revisited the franchise with the 15-episode follow-up, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars. This second adventure picks up almost immediately after the end of the first, with Flash, Dale and Zarkov arriving back on the Earth after their time on Mongo. No sooner do they arrive however, a mysterious energy ray from space begins sucking away the Earth's atmosphere, causing worldwide natural disasters. The three heroes soon blast off again in their rocketship, and discover that the new threat comes not from Mongo, but rather from nearby Mars. Mongo or not, the evil Ming is back and he's responsible (even when the good guys stop him, they never REALLY stop him). This time, he's aided by the alluring Azura, Queen of Mars (Beatrice Shannon). Azura is fighting the Clay People on her planet with Ming's help. But Ming has bigger plans - he wants Mars all to himself, and he's going to destroy the Earth in the process!

The funny thing about Trip to Mars, is that while it begins immediately after Space Soldiers, Dale has gone from blonde to brunette and our heroes' costumes have changed, along with the inside of their rocketship! Such continuity problems aside, all of the principal cast members returned here to reprise their roles, and there's a new addition as well - a stowaway newspaper reporter named Happy Hapgood, who provides comic relief (Hap-less might have been a better name for him!). With its more polished look (including comic-style intros), swifter action and such fanciful creatures as Tree-Men and Clay People, Trip to Mars is definitely the best entry in the Flash Gordon series.

On DVD, Trip to Mars looks even better than Space Soldiers. The print seems to be in somewhat better condition, with improved contrast as well. Once again, there's very little analog or digital artifacts visible. What makes that so surprising, is that program material of this age is almost always preserved on analog videotape, which is usually loaded with edge enhancement that DVD's MPEG-2 compression struggles with. Not so here - Trip to Mars looks clean and clear. As with the first serial, the audio here is presented in a 1.0 Dolby Digital mono, coming from your center channel. It's also slightly improved over Space Soldiers, if only because it's been somewhat better preserved.

As with the first DVD, Trip to Mars features efficient film-themed menus and a text history on the Snapper cover. Because of this serial's 2 extra episodes, the program has been spread over two sides of a flipper disc to keep the video looking good. No problem there - after watching the first 7 episodes back-to-back, you'll probably be in need of a bathroom break anyway.

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (Image)

After producing two successful Flash Gordon serials, Universal tried its hand at adapting the other popular Sci-fi comic strip of the day, Buck Rodgers (note to Image: how about putting that on DVD?). Sadly, old Buck just didn't do as well as Flash with moviegoers (even though the lead character was also played by Buster Crabbe), so Universal re-assembled most of the original cast for a third go-round - 1940's Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. This time, Flash, Dale (now played by Carol Hughes) and Zarkov must head back to Mongo, to stop the mysterious "purple death" which is raining down upon the Earth. Naturally, Ming the Merciless is behind the plague, and the only cure for it is found in the frozen mountains of Mongo's kingdom of Frigia. So it's there that Flash and company must go, pursued by Ming's forces and aided by friends old and new.

This final installment in the Flash Gordon series has the same polished look as Trip to Mars, but somehow it just isn't as satisfying. Think of it as Return of the Jedi compared to the rest of the Star Wars movies (only not quite THAT bad). Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe certainly has the necessary cheese-factor: among the creatures in this adventure are the Rock People, whose strange speech was created by actually playing their recorded dialogue backwards! At least there are no Ewoks. Speaking of Star Wars, notice anything familiar about the scrolling introduction texts which open each episode of this serial? Yep... that's where George got the idea.

This final DVD in Image's Flash Gordon trilogy is again improved over the previous titles, in that the picture and sound quality of the source is that much better. The contrast is good, with very nice blacks. There's much less dust, dirt and print damage visible, and very little film grain can been seen. You'll also find little in the way of edge enhancement or digital artifacting. For a 60-year old film, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe looks pretty damn good. The audio is again presented in a 1.0 Dolby Digital mono, and it's every bit as good as the picture.

With only 12 episodes this time, the program material fits nicely on a single side of a dual-layered disc. The same film-themed menus we've seen on the other two DVD releases are used here, along with the familiar text history on the Snapper's fold-out cover. Simple but effective.

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe: Collector's Edition (VCI)

So what makes VCI's version of the third Flash Gordon serial different from the Image edition? Well, to start with, it's a two disc set. Two discs were needed so that VCI could add a number of interview clips with Buster Crabbe (nearly an hour's worth), that were done in the 1970s by Bill Blair (the owner of VCI). Also included in this edition is archival footage of the Men's 400-meter freestyle at the Xth Olympiad in 1932 (in which Crabbe won the Gold medal) and TV commercials for Hormel Chile, Bisodol antacid and Magic Mold bodyshirts (which take inches off your waistline instantly, "even if you've allowed yourself to go to pot, and have a real corporation up front…"). The interview footage is of varying quality and is probably only of interest to serious fans of Crabbe. But the Olympic footage is very cool, and the commercials are a hoot. Sadly, the remaining extras don't add up to anything of value. They consist of a 9-page bio on Crabbe, a gallery of 8 photos that Crabbe autographed to Blair, a video reel of previews for other VCI releases, and a lame "death dust" Easter egg (a brief random video clip from the episodes). And a fold-out insert mistakenly claims that there are 3 discs in this set - what's up with that?

As far as DVD quality, both the video and audio on the VCI edition are inferior to Image's DVD release. First of all, it seems as if the print used for the film-to-tape transfer (however many years ago it was done) was of a bit lesser quality, in terms of overall condition, than Image's source material. There's also noticeable edge-enhancement and digital compression artifacting visible, that's not seen on the Image disc. On the audio side, the single mono track has been split into a 2-channel mono mix, which adds nothing to the quality of the sound experience. Dialogue is clear enough, but I definitely preferred Image's 1.0 center-channel mix.

Inferior video and sound quality aside, there's one thing (more than anything else) that really ruined my enjoyment of this DVD release. At the start of each disc/side, an FBI warning screen and a lengthy VCI logo animation plays. Your remote is completely disabled when these are playing, so you pretty much just have to suffer though it all. The VCI logo in particular is damn irritating - you start outside a movie theater and swoop inside through the isles and then wait for the curtain to rise, displaying the VCI logo. It might be cool, except that the video shimmers with digital noise, and the damn thing is more than a minute long - Ggggrrrrrrr! I got so tired of seeing it, that after a couple of times, I just gave up. As much as I liked the Olympic footage and the commercials, this two disc set is just too tiresome to deal with.

Summary

If you're in the mood for some great Saturday afternoon matinee fun, Flash Gordon is just the ticket. Thankfully, Image Entertainment's really done a nice job on their three editions, with discs that look and sound wonderful considering the age of this material. They're bare to be sure… but you can't miss with them. And if you're into classic Sci-fi, no DVD collection would be complete without them. On the other hand, if you've just gotta have the Buster Crabbe interviews and the other stuff on the VCI edition of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, try to find it on sale (I wouldn't pay more than $10-15 for it). Definitely avoid it if you're just interested in the serial - the Image version is in all other respects superior. VCI really needs to get their act together with DVD - their discs are very user unfriendly.

Now then… if you'll excuse me, Dr. Zarkov just called in from Mongo. Flash let Ming get away AGAIN, and I've got a rocketship to catch. See ya!

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers


Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars


Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe


Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (VCI)


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