When Flash Gordon was ‘again’ resurrected back (thanks, Princess Aura for the first time) into pop culture by Seth MacFarlane in his film, Ted (2013), I was filled with bemusement and joy. Ever since that day, walking home from school and coming across the giant movie billboard, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon has remained doggedly on my top ten list of favourite movies.
For three decades I felt alone being a fan of this movie. Mention it at film school and people would look at me as if something was fundamentally wrong with me. I remember critics panning it at the time, much to my dismay. They were worried about cardboard characters and cardboard sets. Again, to my utter dismay.
First up, it’s a movie.
Second, it did its job as a movie.
For me, a motion picture has two functions; to inform, or to entertain, or both. How a film achieves this is a technical matter, but as far as the 1980’s Flash Gordon is concerned, it did its job and continues to do so, as evidently, my generation, (McFarlane’s) remembers the film fondly enough to celebrate it. It hasn’t reached cult-status for no reason.
Stuff you all, you naysayers.
At least other critics at the time understood that Dino De Laurentiis wanted to pay homage to Alex Raymond and his creation. In this day and age, we take comic book adaptations for granted – all of a sudden everyone is now a geek or nerd. Cinemas around the world are splattered with superheroes of all colours and schools. Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm are pumping fantasy out every year with no respite in the foreseeable future. Yet these two paracosms owe a lot to Buck Rogers, Superman, and Flash Gordon.
Just as John Carter of Mars was used as a template by King Features/Alex Raymond to create their own space opera adventure comic strip, after trying unsuccessfully to buy a license to the material, so too was Flash Gordon used as a template to create Star Wars after George Lucas lucked out in trying to acquire the rights to it.
All this is part of the evolution of a genre that goes back a long way. Flash Gordon is a prestigious property with a lot of creative history, spanning the artwork and stories of Alex Raymond and others, the Buster Crabbe serials, the Steve Holland TV series and the animated TV series. The 1980’s film not only celebrates the past, but it also adds to it, especially the design work by Danilo Donati.
I once read an interview with Ridley Scott (who apparently once had an opportunity to remake the film). When asked what makes a great film, his response was, story and casting.
Add music to that mix, and that I believe is the magic recipe for making decent movies. There is nothing like a kickass soundtrack to reinforce a kickass story and a kick-ass cast.
Flash Gordon ticks all those boxes.
It’s a David versus Goliath tale, and this kind of story never gets old. As human beings, we all feel oppressed by something, whether it be an overreaching government, or an asshole boss, or some schoolyard bully. We all dream of standing up to them. But we all fear the cost of any such action. So it’s always nice to have someone lead the way. Pathetic as it may be, we humans put up with a lot of shit from our oppressors. It just takes one person’s defiance to open the floodgates of revolution.
In this case, Emperor Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe, is taken down by a mere Earthling from an obscure body in the SK System. How does this human from a backward planet achieve such an overthrow? By uniting all of Ming’s disgruntled subjects or ‘playthings’ and bring them to war against the god-like entity.
The screenplay by Lorenzo Semple is ambitious and delves right into the universe already established by the comic strip and serial films. Director Mike Hodges certainly had a monumental task in translating the words into film and manages it well considering the budgetary and technological restraints of the period. If they took that same script and filmed it today, it would stand up to, or even better, the humdrum crap that is pumped out these days.
Seriously, the original script rocks. It’s got Invisible Flash, Cloned Amazon Dykes, the plasma core Ming uses to destroy worlds, Tiger Man, a ‘sword of fire’, a duel to the death between Prince Barin and Klytus, and did I mention Invisible Flash.
As for the humour and campiness, Semple is on record on saying in hindsight, he would have written Flash Gordon less humorous and more serious. Whereas I do agree about making it a little more realistic, I disagree with scrubbing the fun out of the picture. An audience wants to be emotionally stimulated, and laughter and trauma are all part of the package. Here you have fun stuff, like Max Von Sydow’s lines “Klytus, are all your men on the right pills?” and Melody Anderson’s “We just got engaged.” We have football fights, reworked wedding vows, mixed in with traumatic stuff like tree stump snake/scorpion things, melting villains, multicoloured blood, bore worms, (we don’t see the bore worm’s but Ornella Muti’s face says it all, enough to scar anyone’s imagination.)
Structurally, Flash Gordon also has a decent middle act. Nothing sucks worse than a long and involved first-act, a brief middle-act, and a long and protracted final act. Many films skimp out on the middle action, i.e. the protagonist faces one or two challenges and that’s it, home stretch. In this film, after Flash arrives at Mongo, he’s clashing with Ming’s guards, gets himself executed, is resurrected, escapes to Arboria and fights with Prince Barin, ends up at Sky City and again fights with Prince Barin, and then leads Prince Vulcan and his Hawkmen out to battle against the rocketship Ajax.
This is a great middle act.
It’s no secret Sam J Jones was hired based on his look. Dino de Laurentiis saw something in the inexperienced actor that fitted the kind of picture he wanted to make. Yes, unknowns are a punt, they do random things, George Lazenby for example. But sometimes they are simply more suitable for the role. Had Kurt Russell donned the Flash t-shirt, (he turned it down due to the script’s blandness, yet ended up camping it up anyway with Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China) he could have pulled off a good Flash Gordon, but I doubt he could have significantly added anything more than what Jones achieved. Maybe just a little, but we’re splitting hairs. Jones had enough physical presence, innocent charm and goofiness to win over a kid like me, who’d never seen the Buster Crabb movies.
Luckily, Jones had help from a brilliant supporting cast. Yes, I admit they carried him a lot of the time, and mostly took over.
Melody Anderson’s enthusiasm played rather well, even with her “Go, Flash, Go.” I remember at the time she had the audience cheering during the Football Fight Scene, a rare thing in cinema. Only other time I’ve experienced such a thing was during Rocky 3 and Gladiator. If an actor can achieve something near to this, they’ve won.
Max Von Sydow inhabits one of the best antagonists in cinema history, his god-like presence is as imposing as his costumes. If ever there was a ruler of the universe, who manipulates whole civilizations as ‘playthings’, it would be something close to Sydow’s Ming for sure.
Topol certainly had fun with Doctor Zarkov, delivering his lines with enough gusto to make you forget that his science was a little off.
Timothy Dalton threw down the gauntlet and challenged everyone by playing it straighter than anyone on set. After hearing him throw lines like ‘lying bitch’ and ‘freeze, you bloody bastards’ I became this actor’s number one fan.
Ornella Muti dominated the screen like no other actress I’ve ever seen. To this day, I still blush every second she’s on. Brian Blessed wins with his bombastic performance as Prince Vulcan. Mariangela Melato and Peter Wyngarde are effective in their roles as General Kala and Klytus.
All in all, no director could really complain about this cast.
Produced by Queen, the musical score became greater than the movie itself. If Universal made any cinema ticket sales, it was because of Queen. I’ve probably listened to this album more times than I’ve seen the movie. Although it’s an official Queen album, it should be treated like a soundtrack.
What elevates Flash Gordon further than Brian May’s guitar riffs is the ‘woefully underrated’ Howard Blake orchestral arrangement. Unique and original, Blake’s music underscores many of the film’s key highlights, from Flight To Arboria to The Death of Klytus. Certainly well worth exploring for any true Flash Gordon fan.
The only aspect that brings this motion picture down are those ridiculous Lizardmen. Seriously, did they spent that much money on these costumes, that the director was obligated to use them?
And the science didn’t work for me. Even as a ten-year-old, I knew it was impossible to fly between the moons of Mongo and still have breathable air. But after almost forty years I think I’ve figured it out, even those Lizardmen.
You see, Ming is a god or a follower of the great god Dyzan, and he has the power to create a planet whose atmosphere reaches beyond its strangely deformed moons. Even the kingdoms of Mongo are populated by creatures created by Ming, for his own pleasure. That is why we have half naked green women, winged beings, and slaves with eyes inside their mouths. Ming is immortal, so he must get bored often.
As for the future of Flash Gordon, I hope whoever produces and directs a remake, that they don’t neglect what De Laurentiis, Semple, Donati, Queen, Blake and Hodges brought to Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon universe.