Saturday, April 26, 2014

From Savior to Slaughterer...the Saga of MING!

After dominating three movie serials, Ming did not appear in the 1950s Flash Gordon tv series.
But when a big-budget feature film came about in 1979-1980...
...the man called "the Merciless" was front-and-center!

Minor segue: In the 1970s, a young filmmaker (and major Flash Gordon fanboy) named George Lucas wanted to do a feature film version of Flash.
The character's owner, King Features Syndicate, turned him down, feeling that a guy with only two films (THX-1138 and American Graffitti) didn't have sufficient cinema cred to do the character they sold the rights to Dino DeLaurentis, who had already done successful movies based on Euro-comics Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik!
(BTW, George Lucas, despite the heartbreak of not being able to film his childhood idol, still does occasional work in the entertainment industry...)
Dino, who was a major European comics fan, but knew little of American material, gave the scripting assignment to Lorenzo Semple, Jr, who had shaped the campy style of 1960s Batman tv show, and the directing reins to Mike Hodges, a competent director who had never done a big-budget film before.
Add a leading man as Flash who re-defined the term "wooden", and even Dino realized he needed someone with serious acting chops to kick-start the on-screen action.
He got Jesus Christ.
Correction, he got the award-winning actor who played Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told...Max von Sydow!
Many are the rumors as to why von Sydow, noted for doing Ingmar Bergman movies and similar high-brow cinema, would do such a film, but it came down to two things...lots of money, and a chance to experience the movie equivelent of hanging out with lots of friends and having fun!
While Sam Jones as the lead was almost a black hole on screen, the supporting cast included Timothy Dalton, Ornella Muti, Topol, Mariangela Melato, and Brian Blessed.
Yet, von Sydow dominates them all.
From the trailer, featuring the voice of Ming (and how often does the villain's voice dominate a movie promo?)... every scene he's in...
..von Sydow demonstrates his range from smirking satisfaction to almost primal-scream rage, and everything in between.
In this incarnation, Ming is the ultimate over-the-top villain.
He doesn't need a logical motivation for doing what he does, just his own desires and lusts.
And his own child takes after him, in her own unique way...
Ming dominates the film to the very end, escaping certain death as he did in the serials, leaving the door open for his almost-inevitable return...
BTW, you can read the comic book adaptation of the 1980 feature film HERE!
It's drawn by Al WIlliamson, who not only illustrated a number of Flash's comic adventures, he also did the comic book versions of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi!
(Yes, it's a George Lucas link between Flash and Star Wars...)

Every version of Flash Gordon since, live-action tv/animated/comic, has featured Ming as the antagonist.
No other villain is as connected to a hero as Ming is to Flash.
There have been Superman productions without Lex Luthor, Batman movies without The Joker, but Flash Gordon without Ming is all but inconceivable!

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Spaceman Always Mings Thrice in FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE*!

Space hero Flash Gordon returned to the silver screen for the third time in 1940's Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, along with...
...aww, you guessed!
Yes, we know.
He "died" at the end of the previous serial...and the one before that!
This time, there's no explanation for how he survived, he just did!
Not only that, but he managed to re-establish his base of power in Mingo City.

But Ming doesn't control Mongo as he once did.
War rages across the planet as the Forest People led by Prince Barin and his wife, Aura (Ming's daughter) fight to keep freedom alive allied with the inhabitants of the Ice Kingdom.
But Ming makes the mistake of testing out his new "ultimate weapon", Purple Death Dust, in Earth's atmosphere.
Once Dr Zarkov deduces the poison is from Mongo,  he rounds up Flash and Dale, and it's off to Mongo where they discover they were wrong about Ming's death.
But, they do what heroes must...try to stop the Most Evil Man in the Universe...who, in fact, is so evil, that he declares that he is the embodiment of the Universe!
(Which explains why a good guy like Flash would want to conquer anything, much less the Universe!)
Buster Crabbe returned as Flash for the third time, after taking a break to play the other big-name spaceman of the 1940s, Buck Rogers.
Frank Shannon reprised Zarkov, and none but Charles Middleton could have donned the now-European military-style mantle of Ming!
In fact, though adapted from a plotline from the Flash Gordon comic strip, this serial seemed steeped in current events with Ming paralleling Hitler and the Forest and Ice kingdoms filling in for besieged England and Scandinavia under constant air raids from Ming's aerial fleets!
(Ming also had slave labor camps and Gestapo-like secret police!)
The action never stops as Flash and Ming match wits for twelve chapters from the icecaps and jungles of Mongo to the Land of the Dead!
Ming stops at nothing, even risking his own daughter's life to capture or kill the rebels and Earthmen, but the end is never really in doubt...

Note the hint that there's one way for Ming to escape...but that "he'll be too frightened to think of it".
Now, is this finally, really and truly, once and for all, the End of Ming the Merciless?
Be back tomorrow for the startling answer!
To paraphrase Mel Brooks: "It's good to be the Ming!"
*I dare you to come up with a better post title!
And for more villains than you can boo and hiss at, see the other contributors to...
by clicking HERE!

Monday, April 21, 2014

"Ming is Dead! Long Live Ming! Oh, Wait...He's Back!"

Due to the incredible box-office generated by the Flash Gordon movie serial, a sequel was planned, again using a plotline taken from the comic, involving Azura, the Witch Queen of Mongo.
The storyline was moved from Mongo to Mars...along with the studio-demanded addition of Ming, who wasn't in the originial comic story...

But wait!
Ming was incinerated in a creamatorium at the end of the previous serial?
How did he survive?
As he demonstrates by walking through a wall of flame in the video above, his robes are fireproof!
Note: a number of sources claim the serial was set on Mars instead of Mongo to capitalize on Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio show hoax.
But the serial opened in March of 1938, seven months before the Halloween radio show!
The more likely explanation was to be able to include Ming (who didn't appear in the "Witch Queen" plotline in the comic strip) in exile on Mars, planning to use the Martian army to retake Mongo.
But, to do that he has to convince Mars' ruler, Queen Azura, that he can provide her with a weapon that can defend Mars from any Mongo counter-attack: Ming's Nitron-ray, which he tests against Earth, leading Zarkov, Flash Gordon, and Dale to investigate, seeting the serial into high gear!

The original cast, including Charles Middleton as Ming, returned, along with Beatrice Straight as Azura.
Ming received a bit of a makeover, with the elimination of the taped-up "Asian" eye make-up (which was painful to apply and remove) and addition of a skullcap.
However, Ming is uncomfortable in any alliance, thus, he also plots to eliminate Queen Azura, and once Flash and crew arrive, plans to use them as scapegoats.
While Ming initially convinces the Martians that the Earthlings are dangerous, Flash and the others win over individuals, then groups, then, finally, the Queen herself!
In desperation, Ming orders Azura's death, then hastily tries to have himself crowned ruler of Mars.
But Flash arrives with witnesses to Ming's treachery and the fiend tries to escape, but is determined to kill the Earthman who spoiled everything first...
The Earth is saved from destruction.
Mars is saved from becoming Mongo II.
The box office is saved with ticket sales equal to the first serial's!
And Ming is dead (Flash said so)!
So is this, really and truly, the End of Ming?
Find out tomorrow!

Note: a couple of months after the serial ended its' run, Orson Welles unleashed his Halloween War of the Worlds radio show hoax on America, and the country went Martian-mad!
So, a feature film compilation of the serial entitled Mars Attacks the World, which had been scheduled for release over the Christmas holidays, was moved up to before Thanksgiving, and did very good ticket sales.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

And Men Shall Call Him "Merciless"! For He is...

...for decades, the single greatest menace in movies.
There have been cinema villians who threatened cites, threatened countries, even threatened whole planets!
But only one has ever proclaimed that not only did he rule the Universe, that he was the Universe!
Conceived in 1934 as the antagonist of the brand-new Flash Gordon newspaper comic strip, Emperor Ming of Mongo was a futuristic version of the "Yellow Peril" menace popularized by Sax Rohmer's insidious Fu Manchu and the Han, conquerors of Buck Rogers' 25th Century America!
When Universal Studios adapted Flash Gordon into a 13-chapter movie serial in 1936, they defied movie convention by keeping Ming as the villain and faithfully adapting the strip's plotline.
(Studios usually made radical changes to comic strip and pulp characters they used, most frequently replacing the original pulp and comic villains with the studios' own creations.)
With handsome Olympic athlete-turned-actor Buster Crabbe as the embodiment of an all-American hero, who could portray the ultimate villain to oppose him?
How about a guy who also tried to kill Dick Tracy and Jack Armstrong: All-American Boy in other serials, as well playing opposite Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers (and even sang a song with Groucho and his brothers in Duck Soup*)?
Charles Middleton, who could not only chew the scenery, but spit it out like toothpicks, got the role, and certainly made the most of it...

...making Ming the most hissable foe any movie hero ever faced!
When not plotting to destroy and/or conquer Earth, and lusting after Dale Arden, Ming also had to keep an eye on his own daughter, Princess Aura, who lusted after Flash Gordon, and kept saving him!
By the end of the serial Ming had been fried to death in a creamatorium, Earth and Dale were safe, Aura fell in love with Prince Barin, the true ruler of Mongo!
And that was the end of the man called "Merciless", right?
Be back here...tomorrow...for the answer to that, and many other questions!
And for more villains than you can boo and hiss at, see the other contributors to...
by clicking HERE!