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April 30, 1999
KILLER SERIALS: 'FLASH,' 'BUCK' AND A BOY NAMED GEORGE LUCAS
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
"Star Wars" is about the mystic Force that moves history.
"Star Wars" is about humanity's destiny in the stars.
"Star Wars" is simply a rip-snortin' high-tech space opera.
Or maybe "Star Wars" is a new mythology for our culture, providing us with updated archetypes of good and evil.
All the above are, of course, true. But first and foremost, "Star Wars" is about a boy in 1950s America sitting wide-eyed in front of his dinky little black-and-white TV set thinking, "Boy, is this ever great!"
The boy is future filmmaker George Lucas, and what he's watching on that flickering tube are shopworn old prints of shopworn old entertainment fodder, "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers," sci-fi serials produced in the 1930s for weekly consumption by theatergoing Americans.
If you obtain a videotape copy of "Flash Gordon" today - and such tapes are easy to come by largely because the whole world knows Flash inspired Lucas to create his beloved "Star Wars" pictures - the impression it gives you is likely to be different than the impression it gave him back in that long-ago living room.
What young Lucas probably saw were fantastic, fast-moving scenarios involving streaking spaceships, otherworldly terrain, vast underground cities, stratospheric battles, pulsating energy transmitters, imposing humanoid villains, heroic saviors, gripping suspense.
What you will probably see are toy space ships on wires, wooden characters, stilted acting, threadbare sets and comic-opera costumes complete with capes and hoods.
Take the second serial, "Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars." The plot has Flash (Larry "Buster" Crabbe), his professor friend and his lady love whizzing back to Earth from the Planet Mongo, only to turn around again and head back to Mongo when it becomes clear the evil Ming the Merciless is focusing a deadly "nitron lamp" beam on our planet, wreaking catastrophe represented by a montage of film clips of hurricanes, earthquakes and the like.
But what's this? The brave trio, on the point of entering Menge's gravity well, find themselves hurtling instead to Mars, apparently right next door.
Ming has traveled to Mars and gone into cahoots with Azura, Queen of Magic, for the purpose of wiping out Earth. In no time the evil pair and their minions have detained Flash and company, who then escape and hie themselves to the Martian desert, where they fall in with the pathetic Clay People - Martian humanoids whose bodies have been turned into soil, thanks to the evil Azura.
Every few minutes, we are treated to a view of a table-top set featuring papier-mâché mountains and crags and valleys, where a couple of spaceship models evidently about five inches long sway around on wires and squirt smoke from their little tall assemblies. Then we cut to interior shots of the vessels, with Flash and the others grimacing through portholes at approaching enemy craft.
We are also given occasional exposure to the Martian outdoors, obviously shot in some bare stretch of acreage a mile or so from the Hollywood sound stage, with the hulking San Gabriel Mountains on the horizon.
It’s all pretty silly. On the other hand, when you insert your "Buck Rogers" videotape into the VCR, what you'll see isn’t quite as laughable.
True, the actors are still wooden (the hero is played, again, by Crabbe), and the plot is another flimsy cobweb of near-escapes, paranoid confrontations, evil overlords and square-jawed derring-do, but the sets, cinematography and overall design are actually pretty great.
Buck and his pal and his gal go from chamber to tunnel to temple to city to spaceship amid atmospheric lighting, clambering around and through weird-shaped windows and casements and winding corridors. The costumes are the same ludicrous junk that you saw in "Flash," but the producers lay it on so thick you start to take it seriously.
The problem, still, is the table-top spaceships, which haven't evolved at all since the days of "Flash." ("Buck" was made a couple of years later.)
Now slap this third tape into your VCR.
Here are the starship crew members in their bulbous helmets and utility belts, shouldering their weapons as the evil imperialists blast through the bulkhead, dispose of the opposition and rush to put the good galactic princess in chains. The evil leader is a honking great behemoth dressed in black, speaking in Shakespearean tones through what seems to be a kind of salt cellar fitted onto the front of his helmet, under his biker wraparounds. Cape and hood? He's got 'em.
You won't believe this, but two of the main characters are a couple of piles of nuts and bolts - two robots, one on wheels, the other bipedal but looking as though he could use a nice long soak in a tub of 40-weight. Presently these two are transported to the surface of a nearby planet, which suspiciously resembles California's Death Valley. And so on.
Fortunately for Lucas, nobody got it.
Nobody realized that his spellbinding "Star Wars" movie was actually a twisted, if fond, tribute to the melodramatic sci-fi junk that had intoxicated his little brain back in the '50s.
Or maybe some of them did get it, but it was beside the point. They took Darth Vader seriously as an avatar of evil, not as an over-the-top send-up of the black-mustachioed Ming. And they apparently never stopped to reflect that androids constructed of metal, bolts and wheels made no sense in a civilization capable of intergalactic travel.
A main reason that Lucas' brainchild escaped its intended fate as an elaborate piece of camp is that Lucas was smarter about using models than his "Flash Gordon" predecessors were. Nor does he waste any time about it.
No sooner has the famous "our story so far" crawl begun to fade (a move famously, and almost literally, borrowed from the "Buck Rogers" serials) than a vast interstellar craft sweeps through the theater (or living room) right above our heads. It's covered with little vents and circuits and nodules, and it really does seem huge - the whole underside of the vessel is like a cavern ceiling or the sky. Immediately we realize we're in a big universe with big spacecraft filled with lots of strange creatures.
Of course, the model in question probably was only a few feet across as compared with the several inches of the "Flash" space ships. The trick is in the detail, and in bringing the ship into the shot above the camera so that the audience feels as though the vessel is arriving from the great beyond. Suddenly the fake studio world of "Flash" has vanished in favor of an immense new universe people can actually believe in.
But all of this only holds true when you're talking about people like us - grownup '90s sophisticates. For that boy back in 1950s America, nothing is as exciting as the mysterious, flickering world on the other side of that black-and-white 12-inch TV screen.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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