Flash Vs. Luke
I like Flash Gordon 1936 more than Star Wars 1977
I don’t think my relationship to the original Star Wars movie of 1977 is much different from other people of a certain age range.
It came out when I was 13, and like most kids of my age, they, like me, were roundly impressed by it. I saw the film four times that year, as it kept playing all year (and longer) at movie houses*, an unusual phenomenon at a time when films mostly came and left the theater screens every week or two and before the invasion of the suburban multiplexes where blockbuster films could take up residence all summer while other, lessor, fare could come and go on the abundance of extra screens. I remember the long, long lines to get in, and the audience whoops of joy and laughter at certain scenes of the film.
Since then that Star Wars film became a franchise of sequel movies and even had its name officially changed (“A New Hope Episode IV”) to better fit into the multi-chapter movie series story line, and has its own copyrighted (and for all I know, trademarked) religion called The Force. That summer with the success of all things Star Wars, there were innumerable objects festooned with that copyrighted celluloid religious proverb "use the Force" upon it, from posters, to T-shirts, to coffee-mugs, to bumper stickers. I've never seen a church that successful with getting its message out like Twentieth-Century Fox during the peak of the Star Wars craze.
In the wake of that year, I remained a devoted fan for a time, seeing Empire Strikes Back as soon as possible when it came out, and standing in line for hours to see the first showing of Return of the Jedi when it came out in 1983.
Years later after that I saw the 1936 Flash Gordon 13-chapter movie serial, and the “abridged” 72 minute version titled Rocketship, and the similarities to the George Lucas’ movies are obvious, and have been explored in many places elsewhere. But the thing I discovered was that I preferred Flash to Luke (or Han) and Dale Arden and Princess Aura to Princess Leia.
What are the differences? Flash hurls around his opponents and uses his blank, firm facial expression to defy the odds and keep fighting, often in desperate matches against overwhelming odds. By comparison, Luke verges on whiny, and Han is quick with a wisecrack, and in the original edit, quick to “fire first”, but I realized that neither character using only attitude (and without Buster Crabbe muscles) could struggle through 13 chapters of personal combat with everything that Emperor Ming threw out at Flash and survive.
Speaking of Ming, he appears out in the open on a throne like a demented counter-version of Fu Manchu in Rocketship instead of the hoodie-adorned and monster movie makeup of the Star Wars' Empire’s “emperor,” and we don’t even get a look at that nonchalant evil powerhouse until the 1980 Empire Strikes Back. Ming is our constant guest through most of the original Flash serial and in the 72 minute version. Though the special effects and costuming for the 1936 Flash don’t compare to the thirty-two million dollars spent on Star Wars, its still enjoyable to someone who can modulate their expectations and visual language to 1936, which in a way is what is required by all old movies, learning the inflections of a disappeared era.
I don’t write this to disparage the 1977 Star Wars. I enjoyed the film immensely then and can enjoy it now, and I'm in a minority of critical fans who found something positive to say about the ninth Star Wars film, the mixed up mess called Rise of Skywalker, so I've got no real beef to champion against the “Star Wars Universe,” whether we're talking about the films or the toys. I’m patiently waiting for the original version of the first three Star Wars movies to be put out on HD disk (versus the 1990s edited versions), something that may not happen in my lifetime (and may indeed never happen at all).
Lucas’s genius for putting together a good tale from timeworn elements and using and combining pop imagery disguised as sci-fi accouterments has my praise. The film is also a psychological microscope into the generations of the 1970s, and for all of the imitation it contains of older films, Lucas' gave it a fresh slant and while simultaneously invigorating the genre, he also filtered out a lot of the paranoia and bitter cynicism that was part and parcel of many sci-fi productions of that decade (and which has threatened to overcome the modern Star Wars franchise in the 21st century).
But I find Flash Gordon’s struggle more entertaining. Princess Aura and Dale do not have the wonderful sarcastic delivery of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia nor Lucas’ script of clever one liners, but the Flashians do a whole lot more in the tale with a whole lot less, indeed that might be how the entire Flash “epic” can be defined in a head-to-head contest with Star Wars, more is done with less.
Lucas' movie is smarter, and more controlled, plotted carefully to the ending where the medals are handed out (there's a kind of similar scene at the end of Rocketship). The primitive Flash Gordon veers mostly from one escape to another ambush to another escape until Flash finally has combined together a force capable of beating Ming. But getting there is a lot of fun and Buster Crabbe plays Flash a bit like Johnny Weismuller played Tarzan in the 1930s: once the hero fixes on what is right to do, he just keeps throwing himself at accomplishing it until its done. In a way that weird work ethic seems like an antithesis of the Star Wars heros being clever, and cleverer, until they're so clever they've outsmarted Darth Vader and the Empire which has built a Death Star with its bizarre tiny flaw in its defenses, like the missing scale on the skin of the otherwise indomitable dragon Smaug in Tolkien's The Hobbit.
I don't mean to criticise the fictional Empire engineers who built the Death Star and its "exhaust port" of doom, and Luke, Han and Leia beating the Empire was of course the ending I wanted. I just prefer Flashes fisticuffs and stick-to-itiveness.
*And I can tell you where I saw it in 1977: The Razorback in Fayetteville, Arkansas; the Malco in Hot Springs, Arkansas; then in Fairfax, VA and the Uptown Theater, Washington DC, in 70mm. I sat in the very first row, from that angle, C-3PO's legs were enormous and his head looked tiny.
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From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association
Original Page January 21, 2021