Flash Gordon

The original Flash Gordon comic was published in 1934, 9 years before I was born. He was preceded by Buck Rogers and several others in comic form, and of course in science fiction magazines and books. Many were termed “space opera” in the same way western films were usually “horse operas”, with a good guy, an evil villain, assorted sidekicks, a favorite horse or vehicle, and so on. Of course there was always a girl along as a sidekick, a spouse, or a love interest.  Although they are of much higher quality, even such acclaimed and superior films as the Star Wars franchise exhibit many of these same qualities.

In the earliest 50s in Phoenix, when I was 7 and 8 years old, I was taken to the YMCA on Saturday afternoons for activities like “swimming” (which I never learned to do), exercises, snacks, and several weekly serials (one reel a week of an adventure story of some sort).  Many of the serials dealt with spies (with an evil German or Asian villain) attacking the USA during WWII.  But we also got to see all 13 episodes of Flash Gordon, produced in 1936 and originally showing in movie theaters for Saturday matinees.  The black and white films of course ended each week with a “cliff hanger” where it seemed that Flash was doomed; of course each week he would miraculously escape from the danger and continue on to the next one.

A couple of years later my best friend’s family got a TV and every Thursday evening at 7 pm we would get to see Flash Gordon on TV.  They were both the original serial and a couple of the later serials made in 1938 and 1940. We eventually got a TV in late 1953, a 7 inch Silverstone from Sears. The screen was actually round with the top and bottom masked off. But the left and right edges were rounded. We had to sit very close to the TV to see it, and we kids would gather around closely to watch a show.  The special effects on Flash Gordon were abysmal. You could sometimes see the wires that the “space ships” were on as they “flew” across the screen.  The actual ships were simple metal or wood models with a sparkler in the back of them, with sparks falling down due to gravity (which they wouldn’t in space).  But we still thought it was cool, even though even as children we knew they weren’t real.

Tonight we watch the 1980 Flash Gordon film that still had the same main characters with new actors and a similar plot line. Flash Gordon had to save the earth from destruction by the evil Ming The Merciless, who still looked like a stereotypical Chinese villain straight from the 30s. Of course it was in color and the special effects were slightly better, though there was no attempt at all to make it look as realistic as Star Wars or other high end films. There were lots of laughs and fun watching it. Gail of course hadn’t seen it, and somehow I’d missed it along the way too. An interesting way to spend a Friday night that brought back lots of old memories.


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