Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars is a movie serial produced by Universal in 1938 as a sequel to the successful 1936 serial, Flash Gordon. Rumoured to have only half the budget of the earlier serial, it nevertheless achieved a similar degree of success.
No less than five of the principle cast of the first serial signed up to reprise their roles. As well as the Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, and Frank Shannon returning as the leading characters of the comic strip, Flash Gordon, Dale Arden, and Dr. Hans Zarkov respectively, Charles Middleton was back in the role of their dreaded enemy Ming the Merciless, and Richard Alexander once more lent able support as Prince Barin.
By 1938, the Flash Gordon comic strip had been running for four years, and in its narrative Flash, Dale and Zarkov were still engaged in a struggle against the Emperor Ming on the planet Mongo. The first film serial, by necessity, had concluded this storyline with an apparent death for Ming and a return home to Earth for Flash and his friends. The new serial therefore had a requirement to find justification for Flash once again becoming involved as an adventurer on a hostile alien world.
A long-standing myth suggests that this serial was originally intended to be set, like the first, on the planet Mongo, but that the idea was changed at the last minute following the extraordinary reaction to Orson Welles' infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which reportedly terrified some listeners into thinking Earth really was being invaded by creatures from the planet Mars. However, the Welles broadcast did not occur until Halloween night, several months after the release of Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars. It is likely that Mars was chosen simply to highlight the fact that this was a different story to the first adventure, and not some simple re-release of the first serial under a different title.
Although the comic strip version had never visited Mars, it was to be once again used for some source material, primarily for the character of Queen Azura. The character had appeared in the Sunday strip as a Witch Queen of Mongo, who had taken a fancy to Flash and drugged him with Lethium to erase his memory in order to control him. In the new serial, Azura, whilst not actually being called a witch, is a "Queen of Magic" and ruler of the planet Mars.
Azura would undoubtedly have made a credible enough threat to carry a 15-chapter serial on her own; the producers, however, would have been acutely aware of the popularity of Ming the Merciless, both in terms of the character and of the portrayal in the first serial by Middleton. Although Ming had been killed off, he was considered too good a draw to remain dead and so was resurrected to do battle with Flash Gordon once again.
The set-up of the storyline is actually almost a repeat of the first serial in that Earth is suddenly faced with imminent destruction from a nearby planet, which leads to Flash, Dale and Zarkov traveling to the alien world in a rocket ship in order to save mankind. The script this time around is much tighter than that for the original serial. In the first serial, the threat of Earth's destruction has practically been banished by the conclusion of the opening chapter, and the rest of the serial sees Flash virtually being pushed into one perilous situation after another with little sense of direction. In Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars, the threat to Earth remains throughout the serial, giving Flash a clear objective and underpinning the urgency for his struggle against Ming and Azura to be successful. This is later joined by a secondary quest, to free the friendly Clay People from the curse bestowed upon them by Queen Azura. Although there is still a lot of hopping back and forth between the same locations as is the case in just about every cliffhanger serial, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars does have a much stronger sense of progression as its plot plays out than was the case with its predecessor.
The change of setting to a different planet naturally precluded the return of most of Mongo's inhabitants, such as King Vultan, Princess Aura, and Prince Thun. A new character is added to the mix in the form of Happy Hapgood, a probing news reporter who unwittingly finds himself traveling to Mars with Flash and crew. Happy gives a few moments of comic relief, at other times he lends a significant hand in the scraps, but in the main he is left on the sidelines as though the writers don't really know what to do with him. His background as a reporter desperate for an exclusive story is quickly forgotten but at least in the hands of actor Donald Kerr, Happy tends to be a pleasing rather than irritating addition to the line-up.
In the first serial, Mongo was shown to be a world of true alien horrors, with a whole menagerie of different races and creatures. This sequel serial, mindful of its smaller budget, presents an alien planet bereft of dragons, Hawk Men, Monkey Men, Octosaks, Orangopoids and the like. Most of the life forms on Mars resemble normal humans, save for the Clay People and, in brief glimpses, some bulbous-headed creatures who play little part in the proceedings. The serial was, however, inventive in its portrayal of technology with new ideas including a Light bridge, a Vacuum Car, Bat wing suit and a Paralyzer Gun.
Despite the lower budget, the special effects are at least on a par with the first serial. As before, it is generally the model work which the passing years have not been kind to, and the masks of the Clay People fail to convince. However, some of the effects work holds up remarkably well decades later, despite their simplicity. The light bridge works well on screen and although only achieved by means of a simple cross-fade, the effect of the Clay People melting into the cave walls is still a little unnerving. The sets for the Forest Kingdom remain convincing to this day, still giving the impression of an alien environment that has both great height and depth.
The sexual element, a daring ingredient of both the comic strip and the first serial, was considerably toned down for the sequel. Flash and Dale show a lot less flesh, and the characters in the serial are not motivated by lust as was so often the case in the earlier work. Indeed, Ming seems to have completely forgotten his earlier fixation with Dale (perhaps he was only attracted to her blonde hair, she is brunette in this serial, to match her comic strip counterpart), and Azura's interest in Flash is kept low-key.
The characters of Flash and Dale have undergone slight adjustments, to their benefit. Although an athletic hero in the first serial, Flash was too short on dialogue and came across at times as almost brutish. Here, Flash is a much more eloquent, intelligent, and proactive champion, and Buster Crabbe rises to the challenge admirably with a magnificent performance, proving that he was not just there for the physical work. Dale is no longer prone to screaming or fainting at the slightest sign of danger (with one or two moments of exception), nor does she spend half of the serial moping about her beloved Flash. She is shown to be more intelligent and resourceful this time around, a reflection of the development the comic strip version of Dale was going through.
It is easy to make a sequel to a successful film, or film serial. However, it is very difficult to make that sequel a success like the first one. Perhaps miraculously, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars was a more than worthy successor to the 1936 serial. It left audiences still wanting more, and ensured that it would not be the last time we got to see Buster Crabbe's Flash Gordon doing battle with Charles Middleton's Emperor Ming.
- Chapter 201: New Worlds to Conquer
- Chapter 202: The Living Dead
- Chapter 203: Queen of Magic
- Chapter 204: Ancient Enemies
- Chapter 205: The Boomerang
- Chapter 206: Tree-men of Mars
- Chapter 207: The Prisoner of Mongo
- Chapter 208: The Black Sapphire of Kalu
- Chapter 209: Symbol of Death
- Chapter 210: Incense of Forgetfulness
- Chapter 211: Human Bait
- Chapter 212: Ming the Merciless
- Chapter 213: The Miracle of Magic
- Chapter 214: A Beast at Bay
- Chapter 215: An Eye for an Eye
- Flash Gordon : Buster Crabbe
- Dale Arden : Jean Rogers
- Ming the Merciless : Charles Middleton
- Queen Azura : Beatrice Roberts
- Dr. Hans Zarkov : Frank Shannon
- Happy Hapgood : Donald Kerr
- Prince Barin : Richard Alexander
- Clay King : C. Montague Shaw
- Tarnak : Wheeler Oakman
- Pilot captain : Kane Richmond
- Airdrome captain : Kenneth Duncan
- Zandar : Warner Richmond
- Bomber captain : Jack Mulhall
- Flight commander : Lane Chandler
- Turan : Anthony Warde
- Martian pilot : Ben Lewis
- Dr. Metz : Lou Merrill
- Dr. Dunord : Hooper Atchley
- Prof. Richter : James Blaine
- Captain Rama : Thomas Carr
- High Priest of Kalu : James Eagles
- General Rankin : Edwin Stanley
- Zarkov's servant : Ray Turner
- Clay Spy : Alan Gregg
- Radio announcer : Reid Kilpatrick
- Stratosled captain : Reed Howes
- Stratosled co-pilot : Jerry Frank
- Temple assistant : Jack Gardner
- Sergeant-at-Arms : Charles Murphy
- Lab worker turned to clay : Stanley Price
- Palace televisor operator : Charles Sherlock
- Martian soldiers : Roy Barcroft, George DeNormand, Earl Douglas, Al Ferguson, Herbert Holcombe, Fred Kohler Jr., Eddie Parker, Tom Steele, Charles "Bud" Wolfe
- Associate Producer: Barney Sarecky
- Directors: Ford Beebe, Robert F. Hill.
- Screenplay: Wyndham Gittens, Norman S. Hall, Ray Trampe, Herbert Dalmus.
- Art director: Ralph DeLacy
- Roy Kinnard, Tony Crnkovich, R. J. Vitone. The Flash Gordon serials, 1936-1940: A Heavily Illustrated Guide. McFarland, 1998. p. 86