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.
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.
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.
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!’
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!
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.
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.