Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is a bracing, dazzling movie serial, 12 chapters of nonstop action that are as entertaining today as they were in 1940. The movie's visual appeal is still startling, its action taking place in settings that mix 19th century European opulence with spaceships and other futuristic inventions. The cast -- including Larry "Buster" Crabbe, Frank Shannon, Charles B. Middleton, Anne Gwynne, Roland Drew, Carolyn Hughes, and Don Rowan -- were at the peak of their powers as performers. Yet even beyond these attributes, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe also offers a unique mix of mythic imagery and 1940 topicality. Each of the three Flash Gordon serials reflected elements of popular culture sensibility and contemporary history that were unique to the particular time in which it was made. The first, Flash Gordon (1936), depicted Emperor Ming as a Fu Manchu-type character, with a distinctly Oriental appearance, both personally and in the design and costuming of his court. The second, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938), offered such conventions as the wisecracking reporter (Donald Kerr) and the presence of a Martian adventure at a time when the notion of possible life on the fourth planet was starting to be discussed widely (a period culminating with Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast).
The third serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, reflected the world of 1939-1940; in place of the Oriental robes that he wore in the first serial, Emperor Ming (Charles B. Middleton) now wears a European-style uniform cut along military lines and he employs stormtrooper-type soldiers in his attempt to conquer Mongo. The various kingdoms of Mongo now seem like an array of Central European-type duchies and principalities, and Flash Gordon (Larry "Buster" Crabbe) is the bold, impetuous Earth man who arrives to help lead them in their struggle for freedom while protecting his home planet. The equating of Ming with Adolf Hitler should have been obvious, but just in case it was missed by anyone, the first chapter includes a pointed mention of Ming's concentration camps and his efforts to control the thoughts of his captive populations. The whole serial is an allegory about World War II, with Crabbe's Flash Gordon representing a kind of American Siegfried, arriving to face the would-be conqueror Ming, who now relies much more on science than the magic and mysticism of the earlier movies.
The serial also reflects a growth in the role of women in chapterplays of this type. Often presented as little more than a reason to put the hero in jeopardy, heroines in 1930s serials walked a tightrope between being necessary characters and plot impediments, especially in the eyes of the usual majority audience for serials: pre-adolescent boys. In the first Flash Gordon serial, Dale Arden (as portrayed by Jean Rogers) didn't have much more to do than scream and faint while looking pretty enough to convince us that Ming the Merciless would go to any lengths to possess her. Four years later, in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe -- a serial that was aimed at a slightly broader audience than the usual chapterplay (it ran in major downtown theaters and was seen by some adults) -- and Dale (as portrayed by Carolyn Hughes) is shown piloting a spaceship in battle, quite capable of defending herself, and presenting a potential threat to Ming -- even as his prisoner. All of those elements, coupled with lush costuming and decor, in addition to the most glorious music score ever heard in a serial (largely derived from Franz Liszt's "Les Preludes"), resulted in an intensely complex and satisfying aesthetic experience, as well as a very diverting four hours of action.
Ironically, Crabbe himself never thought much of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, mostly because he objected to the producers having "cheated" in chapters two and three, in which they used large sections of stock footage from the 1929 German film The White Hell of Pitz Palu (scenes that, strangely enough, very probably included long shots of Leni Riefenstahl as an actress). Even that material, however, helped to make those chapters memorable and compelling. The special effects were up to standards, with excellent spaceship sequences (the final chapter, featuring a ship-to-ship escape, is genuinely exciting to this day) and some very eerie sequences involving Ming's deadly robot army midway through the serial. There are certainly a few flaws -- including some very hasty dubbing that is embarrassing at times -- but those are isolated moments. Potential purchasers are advised, however, to be wary of unauthorized editions. The copyright on Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe lapsed in 1968, and since then it has come out through various pirate distributors in editions of widely varying quality. The version issued by Image Entertainment on laserdisc and DVD, licensed by the Hearst Corporation (which owns the underlying copyright on the Flash Gordon comic strip), is the best looking edition and the only fully legitimate release of this title. The movie was also re-edited into feature-length films -- including the title Purple Death From Outer Space -- that convey only a fraction of the majesty of the complete serial. The serial's title, by the way, is explained in the final shot when Ming the Merciless declares "I am the universe!" As Zarkov explains, having defeated Ming, Flash Gordon has, thus, conquered the universe.