Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is far from the ultimate trip. It’s not even a very good trip. It’s the kind of trip where you go somewhere, go somewhere else, then somewhere else, then go back to the second place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the third place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the second place, then go back to the….
You get the idea.
Mars starts right after the previous serial, before Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and company have even returned to Earth. Earth knows they’ve saved the planet and there’s a big ticker tape parade for the returning heroes–Crabbe, damsel in distress and ostensible love interest Jean Rogers, and scientist Frank Shannon. Of course, it’s all stock footage and the cast isn’t present, but the sentiment is there. Pretty soon, there’s another threat to the Earth and the United States government is freaking out and reporter Donald Kerr realizes the only person who can save the planet–again–is Crabbe.
So right after getting back to Earth from the first serial–Rogers apparently got a haircut on the return rocket trip (in the first serial, which will come up in flashback footage, she had long blonde hair, in Mars she’s a sensibly cut brunette)–the heroes head back out into space. With Kerr a stowaway.
They’re headed to Mongo, convinced villain Ming (Charles Middleton), who they thought was dead, is out to get them again. They’re right, only he’s on Mars, not Mongo, so the rocket ship has to change course.
On Mars, Middleton has teamed up with Martian queen Beatrice Roberts, who needs Middleton’s help to destroy the Clay people, who are political exiles Roberts has turned into clay. Even though Roberts has a whole fleet of airships, she goes along with Middleton’s plan to drain the Earth’s atmosphere of nitron. Earth needs its nitron; Middleton’s got Roberts convinced he can use the nitron to make more effective weapons, but it turns out he just wants to destroy the Earth. And he’s got designs on Roberts’s throne.
Crabbe and company get into it with Middleton and Roberts in the Martian city, then have to go to the Clay kingdom, where the Clay king (C. Montague Shaw) is alternately hostile and laudatory, and eventually end up in this forest fighting the hostile Forest people. Along the way, they reunite with Prince Barin of Mongo (Richard Alexander), who has come to Mars for some reason or another. Turns out the Forest people are actually Middleton’s lackeys. They cause a lot of trouble for Crabbe and friends, including brainwashing Rogers for a few chapters, and just generally being exceptionally annoying.
Mars doesn’t exactly start off promising–the use of stock footage for the heroes’ arrival on Earth, their immediate disappearance from the action, the stock disaster footage (which isn’t terrible or unexpected or anything, just not exciting)–but it certainly doesn’t start on any kind of shaky ground. Crabbe, Rogers, and Shannon are all extremely likable and introducing comic relief Kerr to the team seems like it’s going to work out rather well. Middleton was a bit much in the previous serial, but he’s all right here. And Roberts is rather effective as the evil queen.
And even the Clay people stuff is good at the start. There are these awesome shots of the Clay men coming out of the walls. It’s not until Shaw shows up things start getting questionable. The screenplay–with four credited writers–never addresses how long the Clay people have been around, since Roberts is turning people into clay if she doesn’t like them and then banishing them. She’s got a magic jewel letting her do all sorts of stuff. Is Roberts immortal? Have the Clay people been around forever? Or is it more like a recent thing? Doesn’t matter. The writers are real bad at explaining the history of Mars, including how Middleton got there immediately after the previous serial.
The first half of the serial usually involves Crabbe trying to bring Roberts to the Clay people so she can break the spell–including a really awesome sequence where he saves her in a disaster and she realizes he’s a sap who doesn’t kill and she can exploit that weakness. Then there’s something with another jewel the Forest people have. It can negate Roberts’s jewel’s power, so for a couple chapters it’s a thing. Only Middleton (even though the Forest people are his secret lackeys–it’s not at all clear why the arrangement is secret) wants the jewel too because, pretty early on, it’s clear Middleton wants to double-cross Roberts. While she wants to kill all the Clay people, she doesn’t necessarily want to destroy Earth.
It’s also never addressed why she turns disobedient soldiers into clay instead of just executing them.
And Mars ignores how there are no female Clay people or female Forest people, though Forest people at least seem to know women exist–when they brainwash Rogers, she becomes a priestess or something. They’ve got a word for it.
All the action either takes place in the Martian city, the forest, or the Clay kingdom. Some of the city and most of the forest look good. The Clay kingdom, above ground, is just rocky terrain. The underground stuff is okay, though it’s never explained why Roberts lets the Clay people have advanced technology–in some cases more advanced than her own (including a subway system). The serial just bounces between the locations, unless it’s something in the airships, which actually happens quite a bit. The Martians have these gravity defying capes, leading–occasionally–to some decent action sequences.
But by the end of Mars, every new action set piece is just a regurgitation of a previous one. It’s rather tired by the end. Especially since the serial never improves on the most annoying aspects of the action sequences–entirely inappropriate stock music. They rarely use action music and when they do, it rarely fits. It kills all tension and most excitement, which is a real disservice to the cast–particularly Crabbe and Alexander–who always give it their all.
Crabbe clear runs out of enthusiasm towards the end, however. Maybe the last four chapters, he looks miserable.
There are some good sequences throughout the fifteen chapters–particularly Rogers getting to save the day (while otherwise just being damsel in distress)–but by the second half of Mars, it’s obvious the trip isn’t going anywhere new, just places its already been. And then it’ll go somewhere else it’s already been and then somewhere else it’s already been.
The frequent flashbacks to the first serial backfire too, just revealing how much better the production values were on the original compared to this sequel.
Only Kerr and Alexander are able to maintain energy during the last few chapters–Rogers theoretically should have a big arc thanks to the brainwashing but she doesn’t and Shannon’s just around. Middleton gets nuttier and nuttier as it goes along. His performance getting worse. Roberts’s material (and, inexplicably, her direction) gets worse too, really ruining her performance. There’s no character development in Mars, even though some characters desperately need it.
And Shaw’s super annoying. Most when he prostrates to Crabbe, which seems to happen all the time. But he’s also kind of insincere about it, like at any moment he might double cross the Earth people. Sadly he never does, because such a twist is too much for Mars.
Wheeler Oakman is almost good as Middleton’s chief flunky. Anthony Warde is comically godawful as the king of the Forest people.
Crabbe, Rogers, Alexander, and Shannon (and Kerr to some degree) have enough charm to keep the Trip tolerable but there’s really nothing they can do with the concluding chapters, when it all starts collapsing. It was always flimsy, it just had momentum. Without momentum, without any good finale set pieces, without a decent plot, the Trip flops out. It could be much worse, sure, but it’s still majorly disappointing.
Almost anything would help Mars significantly. Real music. Another set. Better performances–heck, just keeping Crabbe engaged through the finale–almost anything. Sadly, there’s nothing.
It’s worse than disappointing; it’s a defeat.
Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Wheeler Oakman (Tarnak), Anthony Warde (King Turan), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).