If there’s one thing I love, it’s post-Star Wars sci-fi/fantasy from the late ’70s and early ’80s. I truly can’t get enough of various other producers attempting to cash in on the craze of throwback Saturday Afternoon Serials done with up-to-date special effects. The “up-to-date” part of that phrase is often up for debate, and what brings me such joy when watching these things. One producer who was always up for a good cash-in was Italian super-executive Dino De Laurentiis, who was behind arty films by the likes of Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini, but also uber-schlock like Danger: Diabolik! and Barbarella. He mined his experience with the latter space adventure for his 1980 color-saturated space epic, Flash Gordon.
Flash Gordon is the kind of movie I like to call “delightfully stupid;” it’s preposterous and hokey and ridiculous, but there’s a real quaint charm to it that makes me, for whatever reason, really take to it. It’s campy, but intentionally so, in a way that Star Wars purposely avoided. In order to hammer home Flash‘s campiness, De Laurentiis hired Lorenzo Semple Jr. to write the screenplay. He, of course, was the writer and executive story editor for the 1960s Batman TV series, which was camptastic to the max. Whether or not people were interested in a campy space opera in 1980 is another story, of course. The film was also directed by Mike Hodges, a veteran British director, whose most famous film to date was probably 1971’s Get Carter, about as un-campy as you can get.
The film stars Sam J. Jones as the titular hero, a star quarterback from Earth. Early on, his private plane, which also holds travel journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), crashes due to a meteorite, a natural disaster caused by the evil Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow). They happen to crash very close to the laboratory/greenhouse/abandoned field belonging to Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), who just happens to be an inventor who has built a spacecraft he means to use to investigate the alien menace nobody else but him seems to have noticed. Zarkov lures Flash and Dale aboard the ship to go with him, and they make for Ming’s mobile planet, Mongo, whereupon they are immediately captured and Dale is prepared to be part of Ming’s pleasure cavalcade. Gross.
Ming is an emperor who empires over many different kingdoms. One of them is Arboria, a tree-covered area ruled by the Errol Flynn-ish Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and another is Sky City, ruled by the Hawkmen and their leader Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed). Yes, they’re people with wings who can fly. The Hawkmen and the Arborians don’t like each other, but they also don’t like Ming, him being merciless and all. Also in the story are Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), who is Barin’s lover and who knows waaaaaay too much about her father’s sexual habits; Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), the masked leader of Ming’s secret police; and General Kala (Mariangela Melato), another of Ming’s higher-ups. Enough characters for you?
Flash has to convince the Hawkmen and then the Arborians to join in his attempt to overthrow Ming, rescue Zarkov from being brainwashed, rescue Dale from being a sex slave, and prevent the total annihilation of the planet Earth. You know, pretty standard stuff for an NFL quarterback.
I think it goes without saying that there’s some pretty silly-ass shit in this movie. There’s a whole “fight” sequence where Flash tosses around an inexplicably-football-shaped orb and tackles Ming’s guards, all while other people just stand around and watch/cheer him on like it’s a sporting event. Hilarious. There are some really enjoyably dumb sword fighting scenes as well, plus the romance between Flash and Dale happens entirely too fast, even by the standards of a swashbuckling adventure film. They talk about having kids at one point and they’d been separated for the bulk of the movie. But, again, I think the fact that we’re talking about a movie where the main character wears a t-shirt with his own name on it, which also happens to be the name of the film, which also happens to be in the font of the film’s logo, means we’re dealing with people who know what kind of movie they’re making.
All the goofiness aside, there’s actually a lot to like about Flash Gordon. The costumes and sets, true to a De Laurentiis production, are lavish and vibrant with everything color-coded by which kingdom the characters inhabit. The space effects aren’t nearly as impressive as the ones in Star Wars, but they also aren’t trying to be; they’re making an updated version of the classic 1930s Flash Gordon serials, and for that, they look amazing. The Hawkmen flying is equal parts impressive and cheesy, but the battle sequences in the air are actually really well-shot and exciting.
The cast is an interesting mixed bag. Sam J. Jones famously received a Razzie nomination for his portrayal of Gordon, but that’s not his fault at all, really. Evidently, he and De Laurentiis had some kind of squabble and so all of Jones’ dialogue was dubbed by a different actor, whose identity is still a mystery. As a result, he sounds sort of wooden and unnatural. Melody Anderson is also quite generic in her role as Dale Arden, but she’s meant to be a sassy 1930s broad, so it comes across as a bit weird in a 1980 film.
The rest of the cast is largely made up of really brilliant stage and screen actors. You can’t have Max Von Sydow, Brian Blessed, Timothy Dalton, and Topol in a film without getting a bit of ham mixed in with Shakespearean diction, but they all perform the scenes really well, and actually I’d have totally watched a movie just about Dalton’s Prince Barin, who is kind of the Han Solo of this picture.
Easily the best and most memorable part of the movie, though, is the original soundtrack written and performed by Queen. Their distinctive camp rock style was perfect for a movie of this nature, and they seemed to revel in the task of writing songs about Flash (Ah-AH!), who will save every one of us. There’s really no mistaking Brian May’s guitar or Freddie Mercury’s vocals, and hence Queen became another lead of the movie, like we’re watching Flash Gordon’s exploits through the lens of a popular glam rock band. View it through that lens in the future. It makes a lot of difference.
Ultimately, American audiences didn’t respond too well to Flash Gordon, though it performed much better in the UK and Italy, probably due to the people involved. Even though it was likely produced because of Star Wars, it tried to be something different, a little sillier, a bit more fanciful, and, a few obviously dumb things aside, I think it’s actually really fun. I’d heard such bad things about it over the years, but actually it’s better than a lot of the other ripoff movies that came after 1977. It might be up there with the hilariously awful Starcrash for movies I just enjoy in spite of myself. I think you will, too.
(And it’s interesting that just today, we have news that Fox is looking to reboot Flash Gordon. Coincidence… or IS it?)