Flash Gordon (1936)

TV review by
Emily Ashby, Common Sense Media
Flash Gordon (1936) TV Poster Image
Campy classic still entertains but shows age in stereotypes.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Because of its age, the show includes some stereotypes that might be seen as offensive by today's standards. Ming's character is played by a white actor in make-up designed to make him look Asian, and he's an evil tyrant who delights in others' pain. Women are second-class citizens, typically damsels in distress, and rarely able to fight their own battles. And, of course, Flash is the ubiquitous golden hero, complete with chiseled abs and a knock-out smile.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Flash is a well-rounded hero, skilled in weapons and in man-on-man combat, and never without his dashing charm. He's also quick to rush to the aid of anyone in distress, and his loyalty wins him many new friends. Ming, on the other hand, is the picture of evil, wielding his power to dispense of anyone who threatens his dominance, and treating women like conquests.


Fistfights and wrestling matches abound -– marked by strangulation and sword fighting –- and laser guns are the weapon of choice. There's not a lot of blood, but some characters do die. It is disturbing how much enjoyment the evil Ming gets from subjecting victims to torture like fighting oversized lizards and human half-breeds. There's always a sense of impending doom, and cliffhangers leave the heroes' fate in question.


No nudity or sex, but it's implied that Ming gets physical pleasure from the beautiful women who surround him. He also keeps devices at hand that can hypnotize and force the women to do his bidding, as when he arranges to marry an unwilling Dale. Men are often shown shirtless.


This film serial was inspired by a comic strip of the same name and in turn inspired multiple movie and TV show follow-ups.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Flash Gordon (1936) was the first of many film serials, movies, and TV shows about a classic comic strip character whose intergalactic travels brought him face to face with an evil emperor and his loyal minions. This 1936 version is rife with stereotypes, from the classically handsome blonde hero to the Asian-inspired tyrant (played by a white actor, of course) who delights in torture and control. Likewise, women are chronically helpless and forever in need of rescuing, and they're often pawns in men's power struggles for dominance. Flash is subjected to all sorts of potentially fatal predicaments –- facing off with sea monsters, giant lizards, and half-breed humans –- and people on both sides use ray guns, swords, and knives in addition to wrestling-style brawls. Even so, there's little blood and the hero always emerges all in one piece.

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What's the story?

FLASH GORDON is a 1936 action series inspired by the comic strip of the same name. At its start, scientists fear the worst when they spot a distant planet hurtling through space on a collision course with Earth. The brilliant scientist Doctor Zarkov (Frank Shannon) teams up with Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and unwitting bystander Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) to travel to the planet Mongo and divert it, but when they arrive, they're taken prisoners by the cruel Emperor Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), who tries to have Flash killed and attempts to woo Dale. Meanwhile, Ming's daughter, Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson), falls for Flash and plots to keep him for herself, and a parade of outlying space people drop by to get in on the action.

Is it any good?

Not all entertainment ages gracefully, especially after 75 years or more, but despite its antiquated special effects, and racial and gender stereotypes, Flash Gordon still manages to transport audiences to a faraway planet populated by odd half-breed humans and mutant animals. Sure, any modern kid with a video camera and some run-of-the-mill editing software could improve on the special effects (most notably the toy rocket cruising jerkily across the screen), and you have to set aside everything you know to be true about space travel, but these vintage qualities just add to the show's authentic charm.

It's doubtful that this black-and-white superhero classic will compete with the flashy, CGI-enhanced offerings at kids' disposal today. By comparison the show comes across as a corny B movie-type, with glue-and-string effects that hardly amaze, dramatic cliffhangers that don't pack the punch they did in the '30s, and a cast of characters often more comical than intimidating. Nonetheless, it's always fun to revisit classics, if only to see how much has changed in cinema and to pay homage to the ones that paved the way for the blockbusters of today.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Flash Gordon ranks among modern-day superheroes. Is he intimidating? Does he have any super powers? What arsenal of weapons does he employ? Would he stand a chance against the likes of Batman or Superman? How does Ming stack up against other villains?

  • How have our expectations of entertainment changed since the era of shows like this one? Have we seen it all, or is it possible for a movie or series to surprise us? What can explain the recent rise in popularity of reality series? Do we crave entertainment with at least a smidgeon of real-life drama?

  • Discuss how this serial's violence quotient differs from today's. Was any of the content frightening? Does the black-and-white cinematography downplay the violence? What about the vintage effects?

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