In Defence of… Flash Gordon

When I was in college, way back in what I believe is affectionately referred to as ‘the day’, a good friend and I used to spend many idle hours debating the merits and demerits of certain movies. The one that was the most polarising between us was 1980′s Flash Gordon. Long story short, he thought it was an abomination and I adored it. I recently caught it on television, watched it again after many years and…I still adore it! I haven’t spoken to my old friend in many a year but I did find myself wondering if he still finds it as repugnant as he ever did.

Back in 1980 the cinema industry was still reeling from the effects of the Star Wars phenomenon. Every studio was churning out science fiction movies like they were potential gold mines. Some of these films were dreadful knock-offs and some were classic additions to the genre. And then there was Flash Gordon, in a class all its own. Based on the 30′s comic strip, Flash Gordon was a strange case of Star Wars coming full circle. George Lucas had been inspired to make his sci-fi epic because of the influence of the original Flash Gordon serials of his childhood. And the success of Star Wars directly led to the green light for this big screen adaptation. A classic case of cinema feeding itself.

It was Dino De Laurentiis, responsible for the abysmal King Kong remake of 1976, who decided to resurrect the blonde-haired, all-American, beefcake hero. Updating the character from polo player to New York Jets quarterback, De Laurentiis engaged the services of British director Mike Hodges (Get Carter) to direct what he hoped would be an epic to rival Lucas. Needless to say, it wasn’t and it didn’t. Flash Gordon performed poorly in America, where audiences failed to buy into the movie’s garish pantomime stylings. However, it found its audience across the pond in Europe, specifically Britain, where appreciation for high camp is a little more prevalent.

See if you can guess which one is Flash.

Highlights

Casting – There’s nothing like some prime cuts of European ham, and Flash Gordon is a veritable butcher’s shop of Old World overacting. Max Von Sydow chews the scenery as Ming the Merciless, grabbing most of the movie’s best lines and delivering them with villainous disdain. Brian Blessed, who possesses a voice that can start avalanches, booms and cackles his way through his scenes as the winged Vultan. Meanwhile, the always excellent Timothy Dalton struts around in green tights, and makes even the most ridiculous lines seem credible. And Peter Wyngarde, who had disappeared for years after being caught doing naughty things in public toilets, oozes the right stuff this time as the evil Klytus. And let’s not forget the wonderful Topol, clearly having a blast as Dr. Zarkov. If I were a spaceman, ya ha deedle deedle bubba bubba deedle deedle dum. None of these performances was ever going to rattle Oscar’s cage, but they sure are fun to watch.

Brian Blessed. Great big, lovable hunk of ham.

Design – Italian designer Danilo Donati was responsible for the sets and costumes of Flash Gordon and he really did an astounding job. With his cavernous, art deco sets and bright, outlandish costumes (Von Sydow’s was so heavy he could only stand for a few minutes at a time), Donati created something which truly was in a world of its own. The designs in Flash Gordon are totally unique. It looks like The Wizard of Oz on acid, and no movie before or since looks quite like it. The costumes are all rooted firmly in bright, primary colours, and there are enough shiny things on show to satisfy even the most acquisitive magpie.

Men in tights, with whips. Who says homoerotic action scenes can’t be harmless fun?

Soundtrack – I’ve never been a great fan of Queen, for the same reason I never really got Meatloaf. It’s the whole Rock Opera thing. Too melodramatic for my tastes. However, there’s something irresistible about Queen’s score for Flash Gordon. Somehow, among the camp performances and skin-tight costumes, the music of Queen just fits perfectly. Mike Hodges had considered Pink Floyd for the movie’s score, and even though I’m a huge fan of The Floyd, I still think he made exactly the right choice picking Freddie Mercury and his merry men. All together now, ‘Flash! Ah-aah! He’ll save every one of us!’

Flash! Ah-aah! King of the impossible!

Dialogue – Usually when I hear corny dialogue in a movie I gag and spit in barely contained rage, but there is something utterly endearing about the lines in Flash Gordon. The small cult following that it has picked up over the years is largely based around how quotable its screenplay is. Here are a few choice cuts. I suspect you will either chuckle nostalgically over these or scratch your head and wonder what the hell I’m talking about. It’s been that kind of post. Hey ho.

Flash Gordon: Prince Barin! I’m not your enemy. Ming is! Let’s all team up and fight him.

Dale Arden: Flash, I love you, but we only have 14 hours left to save the Earth!

Princess Aura: No! Not the bore worms!

Kala: Dispatch war rocket Ajax to bring back his body!

Prince Barin: Freeze, you bloody bastards!

Ming: Remove the earth woman! Prepare her for our pleasure!

Dr. Zarkov: Don’t empty my mind! I’ve spent my whole life filling it!

Ming: Klytus! Are your men on the right pills? Maybe you should execute their trainer!

Lowlights

Sam J. Jones – There aren’t many movies that could survive the failings of its lead actor, but Flash Gordon is a triumph of generous compensation. Sam J. Jones was plucked from obscurity to play the heroic chump, and glumly headed back to obscurity afterwards, stopping only to pick up the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor. Any other movie could easily sink under such weight, being carried, as it is, by an actor without the heft to take the load. But Flash Gordon provides enough bright lights and dizzy distractions to pull your focus away from the fact that the guy playing the title role may just as well be a quarterback for the New York Jets, rather than an actor playing one. Jones fell out with De Laurentiis during production, and plans for a sequel had to be shelved. I wonder how many sleepless nights Jones has had over that decision.

Jones locates his lines. They’ve been helpfully written on Ornella Muti’s forehead.

Flash Gordon will always be one of those movies that you either love or hate, that you either get or you don’t. But few comic book adaptations have been as faithful to the look and style of their progenitors as this is. Flash Gordon perfectly replicated the campy, gaudy flavour of the original strip and got a lot of stick for doing so. Misunderstood among the dark, grungy sci-fi movies of its time (Star Wars, Blade Runner and Alien), Flash Gordon is a guilty pleasure that rewards the right frame of mind. Don’t take it seriously, leave your brain in neutral for a while, and you’ll have a ball. And if my old college friend is reading this (you know who you are), I rest my case.

.

.


19 people thought reading “In Defence of… Flash Gordon” would be a good idea. Stranger still, they left messages...

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention In Defence of... Flash Gordon | Celluloid Zombie -- Topsy.com

  2. Jennifer

    I think that this should move to the front of the line for prospective midnight movies, right behind Rocky Horror. Some of those lines are so delightfully bad that they could inspire a whole industry of mockage.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      The magic is all in the delivery, especially with Brian Blessed. ‘Gordon’s ALIVE!’ ;-)

      Good to see you here, Jen. :-D

      Reply
  3. Helen

    You’re a brave man to speak out publicly in defense of Flash Gordon!

    It used to play all the time (well, regularly) on a local TV station when I was a kid. Of course, it was pan and scan, broken up by a lot of commercials, and no doubt edited for content. Hm, maybe I _should_ give it another chance….

    Before your post brought it all flooding back, the only parts I remembered clearly were how awful that guy was who played Flash and a scene where he has to stick his hand into a tree stump where it may or may not be bitten by a deadly scorpion, which I always thought was really dopey, even by the standards of manhood rites.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      Ha! I laugh in the face of ridicule, Helen. Watch this space for In Defence of… Charlie’s Angels. ;-)

      It’s funny you should mention Flash Gordon being edited for content. I’m pretty sure it’s still never been shown on British TV intact. Unusual for a ‘family’ movie. And I loved the tree initiation! ‘Spare me the madness!’

      Thanks for commenting, Helen.

      Reply
  4. Deborah

    Wow, Richard, I remember this movie very fondly, too. I haven’t seen it in so long – I will have to resurrect it. It really did catch some of the spirit of the Flash, despite the awful acting of the hero–but actually it’s kind of hard to imagine who could play the Flash with a successful camp sincerity. I never thought of it in relation to the darker science fiction films of the late 70′s and early 80′s, but it makes sense that it didn’t succeed because it wasn’t what people had come to expect.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      You’re probably right about Sam J. Jones being just right, despite being all wrong. If you’re going to give a bad performance, this is the movie to do it in. ;-)

      Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      Seems that scene is the one that sticks with people the most. When I was a kid it was a popular scene because the guy who fails the initiation and gets stung was a kid’s TV presenter over here in the UK.

      Reply
  5. Superbru43

    Hmmm…this brings back a host of memories. I can sathat I enjoyed the cheeseyness then and I watched it again a couple of years ago and enjoyed it again. I wonder what a remake of this would be like in todays advanced special effects. Pretty darn amazing I think. At that stage we only were able to see the movie about two years after in South |Africa. And with the South African Board of Standards being so strict then the movie was probably cut to ribbons before it was suitable for children to view. Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      Thanks for reading, Superbru. I don’t think today’s special effects would do the movie justice. There just wouldn’t be that vital, thick layer of pungent cheese. It would definitely lose something. :-)

      Reply
  6. Marc

    Love it or hate it about sums it up; so put me in the LOVE category! Such an enjoyable and imaginative ride. Sure it’s cheesy but that’s OK if the fun is set to high as it kind of makes up for all other shortcomings. Plus it’s got Timothy Dalton who I just adore in everything. It’s a nostalgia ride for sure made all the best with the musical accompaniment of Queen.

    If you walk down the street and go “Flash , ah ah” any film fan worth their salt will go “saviour of the universe” without missing a beat:)

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>