I just had a blast watching the Buck Rogers serial from 1939. Divided up into twelve twenty minute segments, the serial originally played before the feature film that the audience had payed for. Full of guts, fists and action Buck Rogers didn’t disappoint.
Larry “Buster” Crabbe, the king of serials, took the lead role as Buck Rogers who was backed up by his sidekick Buddy Wade and Lt. Wilma Deering. In this version, Buck Rogers crashes a dirigible among snowy mountains in 1940 and is locked in suspended animation by a special gas until 2440. His copilot Buddy Wade revives with him. Brought back to the Hidden City, Buck meets Lt. Wilma Deering and Dr. Huer who tell him about how the Hidden City is the last pocket of resistance against the ruthless Killer Kane.
Killer Kane’s ships control the skies but Buck isn’t frightened for a minute. Joining the Hidden City’s forces, Buck breaks through Kane’s ships and reaches the High Council of Saturn. After putting an end to Kane’s trickery Buck enlists the aid of the Saturnians and infiltrates Kane’s stronghold to free the men who have been reduced to robots by Kane’s mind controlling helmets. After leading the charge against the tyrant Buck is made the leader of Earth’s new air force and his sidekick Buddy is promoted to serve beside him.
The serial had a shoestring budget so the special effects, sets and props look poor. But, just like Buck himself, Hollywood had a lot of guts back then. With paltry special effects we have a science-fiction story involving spaceship battles, visits to other planets and plenty of ray guns. Fifty years later very few studios wanted to make science-fiction stories over fears that their special effects wouldn’t be good enough.
A few failings were hard to overlook. Although I loved the buzzsaw sound of the rocket engines, the spaceships were awkward-looking and ugly. People were knocked unconscious often and too easily. Ray guns that would normally be used to kill opponents were often set to stun. The surface of Saturn not only looked a lot like southern California but had solid ground and a breathable atmosphere(!). But these shortcomings didn’t spoil the story. The action and optimism swept me along. I enjoyed the story and the attitudes that permeated each scene. These characters were never afraid of the opposition. They were never at a loss for ideas. They always assumed that they could either find the right idea or hang in until help arrived. I wish modern science-fiction movies could take some cues from the classics.
One really interesting thing about this film is the use of the word “robot.” The word had not yet been firmly established in the minds of the public in 1939. When Killer Kane’s men put mind controlling helmets on captives the captives lose all of their memories along with their free will. They become listless and follow orders. In this condition, they are called “robots” even though they have no mechanical parts at all. When the helmet is removed the captive returns to normal and is no longer a “robot.”
From the standpoint of a true science-fiction fan I wished that more attention to detail had been allowed to enter the story. The technology of 500 years in the future didn’t seem that different from 1939. The airplanes fly farther and faster, the parachutes are more portable and the radios work over greater differences but no revolutionary new technologies had transformed society. The breakneck pace doesn’t allow any time to look at Buck and Buddy adjusting to a world 500 years removed from their own. Buck is enlisted right away into the Hidden City’s military and no mention is made of training.
Still, all points considered, Buck Rogers was a lot of fun to watch. If you have the time and the inclination, I’d give this serial a try. It fits on to just one DVD.