Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is a 1940 American twelve chapter black-and-white science fiction serial film from Universal Pictures, produced by Henry MacRae, directed by Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor, that stars Buster Crabbe, Carol Hughes, Charles B. Middleton, Frank Shannon, and Roland Drew. The serial was written by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Barry Shipman and was adapted from Alex Raymond's syndicated newspaper comic strip of the same name. It was the last of the three Universal Flash Gordon serials made between 1936 and 1940.
During the 1950s, all three of these Flash Gordon serials were directly syndicated to television by Motion Pictures for Television, along with many of Universal's other serial output. To avoid confusion with the Flash Gordon TV series airing around the same time, they were retitled Space Soldiers, Space Soldiers' Trip to Mars, and Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe.
In 1966 Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe was edited down into two feature-length films for television syndication, Purple Death from Outer Space and Perils from the Planet Mongo, by King Features Syndicate. In the early 1970s, a third feature version was re-edited for the 16mm home movie market, using story material from the entire serial. It bore the title Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe and later appeared on television during the 1980s. Afterward, all three edited feature length versions became available through various public-domain video sellers, first on VHS videotape and later on DVD.
In the mid-1970s all three complete Universal Flash Gordon serials were shown chapter-by-chapter by PBS stations across the US, bringing them to a new generation of science fiction fans, two years before Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. From the late 1980s onward, all three serials became available on the home video market under their original theatrical release titles, chapters, and running times.
A deadly plague is ravaging the Earth, known as the Purple Death because of a purple spot left on victims' foreheads. Flash Gordon and Dr. Zarkov learn that Ming the Merciless is behind the plague, when they spot one of his spaceships spreading the "Death Dust" in the Earth's atmosphere.
Flash Gordon, along with Dr. Alexis Zarkov and Dale Arden, return to the planet Mongo to find a possible cure, first seeking the assistance of their old friend Prince Barin. The trio continue to battle Ming and his allies, led by henchman Captain Torch, who has been charged with stopping the Earthlings by any means.
The three eventually find an antidote, called polarite, in Mongo's remote northern Kingdom of Frigia. They must now get the cure back to Earth in sufficient quantities to stop the ravaging plague.
Flash and Zarkov are able to successfully distribute the antidote by rocketship, the very same way the original Death Dust was first spread. Ming sends in an army of robot bombs after the three, and he succeeds in capturing Zarkov for a short time before Flash is able to set Zarkov free.
Before Flash, Zarkov, and Dale leave Mongo, they are finally able to triumph over Ming and his henchmen, who by accident have become locked in the highest tower of Ming's castle. Flash is able to parachute away from the rocketship he is piloting just in the nick of time. His spaceship is loaded with volatile Solarite, and its rapid momentum carries it forward directly into the tower, where a large explosion ends Ming's tyrannical reign. Shortly thereafter, Prince Barin takes his rightful place as the ruler of Mongo.
Ming's last words to Flash were "I am the universe!" Zarkov observes that with Ming's death "Flash Gordon has conquered the universe".
Plot points were taken from the preceding serial, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars.
The "chamber of the death dust experiments" was previously used in Universal's Buck Rogers serial. One money-saving device also used was inserting in the serial some exciting mountain climbing search and rescue scenes from the German film White Hell of Pitz Palu (1930), as well as using its music score.
Ming is portrayed as a military dictator in this serial, rather than as a Fu Manchu or Devil-like character as in the two previous Flash Gordon serials.
Co-star billing was given to Anne Gwynne, a Universal ingenue, whose role does not develop until the middle of the serial. This last-minute change in billing resulted in the complete elimination of Donald Curtis, as Ronal, from both versions of the screen credits, despite the fact that he, unlike Gwynne, is in every episode as Flash's primary aide, a major role.
Jean Rogers, who had played Dale Arden in the two previous Flash Gordon serials, was under contract to 20th Century Fox at this point, and neither she nor Fox wanted her to repeat the Dale Arden role; it was given instead to a recent Universal contract starlet Carol Hughes.
According to Jim Harmon and Don Glut, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe "was the most picturesque of the trilogy but surrendered much compelling charm for its cinematic sophistication."Les préludes by Franz Liszt
The entire Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe serial was nominated in 2016 for the 1940 Retro Hugo Award, in the category "Best Dramatic Presentation - Long Form", sponsored by The World Science Fiction Society and presented that year at MidAmeriCon II, the 74th World Science Fiction Convention held in Kansas City, MO.