Buster Crabbe played the iconic Flash Gordon like a man obsessed, giving the legendary movie serial its high-octane action and frenetic speed.
He didn't wait around for help when faced with certain death, and leaped into action. Somehow rescue always came after the cliff-hanger that ended each episode.
Likewise, the creators of the then high-cost production didn't mess around to make sure all scientific details matched reality or potential possibilities of space-time theory. They created staged sets complemented with electricity arcs, surreal noise and big machines with concentric circles of blinking lights. They fuzzed over details when it came to power sources, transportation and various high-flying technologies. The bird men's floating city comes to mind.
Doctor Zarkov in his introduction to the dungeon-like palace laboratory immediately figured out the nuclear energy source that enabled Ming the Merciless to rule over all of Mongo and threaten the hapless planet Earth. Things that make you go, "Hmmmm," to quote Arsenio Hall found no answers in the script.
Society could use such enthusiasm and blind faith about now. The debate over climate change has dropped out of the presidential campaign. And energy independence is coming to mean relying on burning coal and natural gas. But sordid, particulate-filled air will soon be determined to be the most costly disaster in the history of mankind.
We could use a hero.
Mongo and climate change
Eugene Robinson with the Washington Post calls out the president and his challenger on climate change, saying "neither has mentioned the subject in the debates."
That's a problem. The nations of the world are racking up a huge debt in the form of carbon spewed by everything from cook fires to aging diesel truck and coal-fueled power plants. Most scientists warn of dire consequences should the increasing rate of its production not be reversed.
Author and climate activist Bill McKibben says we don't have much time to engage this enemy. In a piece for Rolling Stone, McKibben says the Earth's average temperature can increase just another 2 degrees Celsius before it succumbs to significant effects of climate change. He says that equates to 563 gigatons of carbon dioxide.
More drilling, really?
Robinson points out that President Obama stoked his fossil-fuel credentials in the second presidential debate, saying, "We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years." Meanwhile, he quotes GOP hopeful Mitt Romney saying, "I'll do it by more drilling."
The "it" to which Romney refers is energy independence. But energy, at least from fossil fuels, is controlled by world markets. To say all domestically produced fuel should be used only in this country would be against the very free market beliefs that Romney espouses. In other words, increasing extraction of domestic fossil fuels won't matter much.
The presidential campaign "is an opportunity with complicated implications for global prosperity and security," Robinson surmises. "Unfortunately, Obama and Romney have chosen to see this more as an opportunity to pretend that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an approaching train."
Or Ming the Merciless.
Danger Will Robinson
As in the inaugural episode of Flash Gordon, (metaphorical) meteors are cascading down upon the planet. Only in this case, we don't have a Flash to go off seeking solutions. It's got to be accomplished by slow and methodical investment into alternative energy solutions. Sure, it'll cost money. What doesn't?
Director Frederick Stephani created those initial Flash Gordon episodes, using what then was the best technology of the day. Suspension of disbelief and storyline allowed the viewer to disappear into Mongo along with Flash, Princess Aura and Dale Arden. No matter that the entire alien population of a marauding planet speaks perfect, although stilted, English. As for the fact the planet has an atmosphere and perpetual daylight even though it doesn't orbit a star … big deal. Not everything needs explanation.
Stephani uses sets like current sci-fi directors employ armies of workers to create computerized graphics. Many scenes look as if they're stage productions. The same caverns appear over and over. The interior of every space ship looks the same, and some of the characters, a bearded James Pierce as Prince Thun comes to mind, look as if he grabbed the first beach bums from Los Angeles to play minor parts. "Who are you? Beard looks good. You'll do," is how I imagine Stephani casting some the prince role.
In other words, he made it work. We could do the same with alternative energy.
Stephani and the producers certainly recycled sets. Imdb.com reports that "despite its large budget (about three times its contemporaries), this serial utilized many sets from other Universal films, such as the laboratory and crypt set from 'The Bride of Frankenstein,' the castle interiors from 'Dracula's Daughter , 'the idol from' The Mummy 'and the opera house interiors from' The Phantom of the Opera. '"
Yet, with the exception of Crabbe, most of the people involved in the original Flash faded from the limelight. I had initially thought Priscilla Lawson was in some way related to "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." Perhaps a homage as was "To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" to its namesake.
No such luck. Despite the splash, especially amongst young theater-goers, made by the cast of Flash Gordon, Lawson, Charles Middleton (who played Ming), Jean Rogers (who played Dale Arden) and others faded quickly from celluloid view.
Princess Aura returns
Here's a bit of Priscilla Lawson, one of the most mysterious of Hollywood's mysterious women. Her film career peaked with Flash Gordon.
Roy Kinnard, author of the book "Science Fiction Serials," says Lawson's career was too short. "She immortalized and endeared herself to generations of movie fans, who, after seeing her, have wanted to know more about her," he says in a post on Tony LoBue's Flash Gordon website.
Maybe that's what happens to the earliest players in a trend. Perhaps many of those who pioneered clean energy will be forgotten until the mainstream realizes their importance and the significance of their message. Then you can be sure the posts and tweets will start burnishing their image.
Or maybe not. It would be nice to see a Flash Gordon leap into battle with no weapons and stand in front of the enemy. Oh that's right, Daryl Hannah did that in northeast Texas in October 2012, blocking construction crews working on the Keystone XL pipeline.