Flash Gordon (1980)
What’s it about?
In this adaptation of Alex Raymond’s comic strip of the same name, the Earth is under threat from Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), the tyrannical ruler of the Planet Mongo. While he is in the process of attacking our planet by causing a series of disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes and hot hail, American Football star Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) is flying back from his vacation in the company of cute reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Things take a turn for the perilous as the plane is hit by a blast of Ming’s energy, causing the pilots to be whisked out of the cockpit and forcing Flash to attempt an emergency landing.
They crash-land into the laboratory of controversial scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), surviving the incident but killing the doctor’s assistant Munson (William Hootkins) in the process. Zarkov has long been aware of the prospect of an alien attack on the Earth, having built a rocket ship in preparation for such a day. With his assistant now dead, he forces Flash and Dale to accompany him at gunpoint as he flies to Mongo.
When they land they are captured by Ming’s forces. They are hauled into his palace and brought before him and his court, which is also attended by the various warring factions who live on the planet’s moons. Amongst these are the Arborians, led by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and the Hawk Men, led by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed). Flash makes an insolent remark about Ming and ends up being sentenced to execution. Dale is then forced to become one of Ming’s concubines, while Zarkov is sent to have his memory reprogrammed. However, Ming overlooked the whims of his stubbornly promiscuous daughter Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), who has taken a shine to our hero and helps him escape. He then attempts to mount a resistance effort against his tyranny.
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Why is it significant?
Producer Dino de Laurentiis acquired the rights to make a Flash Gordon film from King Features. George Lucas was keen to direct, but the legendary producer wasn’t interested as he had his sights on getting Federico Fellini. The latter ultimately declined, while Lucas went on to make his own unofficial tribute to the comic strip - the phenomenally popular Star Wars. Ironically, its massive success incentivised Dino to pull out all the stops on Flash Gordon and finally put it in front of an audience hungry for further space adventures. Director Nic Roeg was initially brought on board but Dino ultimately disliked his proposed interpretation (which was reportedly more of a metaphysical treatment than a straightforward comic book affair). After his departure, Get Garter director Mike Hodges ended up taking the helm. In interviews, he has stated that it was a chaotic shoot due to various factors, including the language barrier between the British and Italian crews, along with the hitherto little-known actor Sam J. Jones’s volatile temperament.
The film was released in December 1980 but didn’t quite end up becoming the Star Wars-size hit that Dino was undoubtedly hoping for. However, it was rather more popular in UK cinemas than elsewhere - in part because there was plenty of hype surrounding the fact that the film was shot on British locations, with a lot of homegrown talent involved. Critical reception was mixed, especially towards the film’s campily humorous tone. However, it has since gained a major cult following due to its flamboyant production design, self-aware jokes and lively rock soundtrack courtesy of Queen. Sequels were proposed but didn’t come to pass, partially due to the disappointing box office takings, and partially because Sam Jones had fallen out with Dino; he even refused to take part in post-production, hence much of his dialogue was dubbed by another actor.
How does it hold up?
There’s plenty wrong with Flash Gordon. Much of the acting is either stiff (Sam J. Jones) or outrageously hammy (Max von Sydow, Topol and Brian Blessed). The special effects weren’t all that convincing even back in 1979, and are really laid bare when seen in today’s high definition formats: rubbery prosthetics, alien costumes with noticeable glimpses of the performers’ skin peeking through, obvious miniature and process work, a floating robot that’s suspended on clearly visible wires. The tone is uncertain, veering between playing it straight and going for blatant comedy. For a supposedly family-friendly film, some of the material isn’t entirely appropriate. I’m not talking about the occasionally suggestive dialogue, which is cleverly designed to go over the heads of young children as per the Moore-era Bond films; I’m talking about the scenes with a gruesome and violent edge that’s likely to give young children nightmares.
Despite all of these issues, Flash Gordon is a whole heap of fun. It’s so unashamedly cheesy that these wonky elements fit in perfectly with the whole experience. Director Mike Hodges occasionally just sits back and fills the vast master shots with elaborately-colourful landscapes and costume-bedecked extras. However, it’s never a long wait before some moment of crazy brilliance is thrown at the audience: an impromptu American football match between Flash and a handful of Ming’s goons; a tense Russian roulette-style scene involving various characters putting their hands into the den of a deadly scorpion-like creature; Dale suddenly acquiring improbable kung fu skills and taking out several of Ming’s guards; a whip fight on a platform with retracting spikes; a battalion of Hawk Men swooping down on cue to Brian Blessed’s eardrum-shattering cries of “DIIIIIIIIVE!” There’s also the incredibly sultry Ornella Muti - surely someone no heterosexual male (or gay female) could resist. Even the uber-Shakespearean Timothy Dalton, who appears to be taking the whole enterprise far more seriously than everyone else, has some fun when he shoots it out with large numbers of Ming’s lackeys.
The Queen soundtrack is the absolute icing on the cake as it fits the bombastically excessive tone hand-in-glove. The whole thing works less as a spectacular Star Wars-style extravaganza, and more as a Rocky Horror-style audience-led musical indulgence - one that will undoubtedly be rediscovered and enjoyed in all of its gaudy glory for generations to come.
Runtime: 111 mins
Dir: Mike Hodges
Script: Lorenzo Semple Jr., Michael Allin, from a comic strip by Alex Raymond
Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Mariangela Melato, John Osborne, Richard O’Brien, John Hallam, William Hootkins