BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of The Film Preservation 2015 Blogathon that is being co-hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod and Wonders in the Dark.
After the phenomenal success of Star Wars (1977) every studio was eager to capitalize on the movie-going public’s renewed interest in feel-good space operas. This resulted in numerous rip-offs and wannabes with arguably the most hyped of them all being Flash Gordon (1980). It was the brainchild of legendary film producer Dino De Laurentiis who, ironically, was responsible for Star Wars when he bought the film rights for Alex Raymond’s comic strip when George Lucas was unable to thereby paving the way for him to create his own science fiction epic.
Alas, Flash Gordon was a debacle from the word go. Early on, De Laurentiis decided that the movie should be filled with humor and hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to write the screenplay. Semple had written several episodes for the 1960s Batman television series and proceeded to apply a similar camp aesthetic to the movie. During filming there was some confusion between the cast as to the tone of the movie. The end result is a lavishly mounted production with absolutely stunning production and set design, which is in contrast to the rather silly tone for a fascinatingly jarring effect.
As a result, Flash Gordon barely surpassed its budget at the North American box office but performed well overseas. However, it failed to reach the dizzying heights of Star Wars that De Laurentiis was hoping for and was derided by many critics that felt it was a horrible, cinematic trainwreck. Then, something happened. Over the years, Flash Gordon quietly became a cult classic among science fiction fans, counting director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), comic book artist Alex Ross and comedian Seth MacFarlane (Ted) among its admirers who have all paid tribute to this much-maligned movie.
The movie sets its peculiar tone from the opening credits that feature Queen’s bombastic theme song playing over panels of Raymond’s comic strip interspersed with Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) wreaking havoc on the Earth’s weather system. “Flash” Gordon (Sam J.Jones), the star quarterback for the New York Jets football team, meets travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) on a small airplane that struggles with turbulence, which mysteriously turns into a meteor storm coupled with an unscheduled solar eclipse.
The “irrational” Dr. Zarkov (Chaim Topol) is convinced that the storm is an attack and plans to launch a counterattack with his own rocket. After a meteorite hits their plane causing the pilots to mysteriously and suddenly disappear (?!), Flash and Dale manage to crash land right into Zarkov’s laboratory. The clearly mad scientist tricks Flash and Dale into his rocket and the ensuing struggle accidentally manages to launch them into outer space where they pass out from excessive g-forces.
The rocket finds its way into the Imperial Vortex where it is guided by Ming’s forces to the planet Mongo. Our heroes are captured by Ming’s troops, sporting a curious mix of samurai and Star Wars stormtrooper armor. It is only but one of many odd touches that populate Flash Gordon – like the enigmatic Lizard Man, a guy dressed in a poorly-made costume, and who is quickly vaporized by Ming before he can make any kind of meaningful impression.
Flash, Dale and Zarkov are led through a red-saturated hallway that answers the question, what if Dario Argento applied his 1970s era Giallo aesthetic to a space opera? They are brought to Ming’s throne room where they meet a truly odd assortment of characters: Prince Vultan (Brain Blessed) and his Hawkmen clad in skimpy armor and giant wings, and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and his men that come across looking like a futuristic riff on Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Along with Ming, they participate in a bizarre ceremony that is intended to demonstrate their loyalty to the emperor.
Another odd detail includes the fact that the women populating Ming’s throne room are scantily-clad in some of king futuristic bikini outfit, chief among them Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Ming’s daughter, who becomes mildly aroused when Flash employs some of his gridiron moves to best a few of Ming’s finest troops in a wonderfully cheesy sequence that involves Dale doing her best cheerleader impression and Zarkov employing slapstick comedy to end the struggle. As a result, Dale becomes Ming’s concubine and Flash is imprisoned, scheduled for execution. He must figure out a way to escape and free Dale while convincing Barin and Vultan to unite against their common foe.
The tonal shifts among the cast are illogical and could almost give the viewer whiplash, but they only add to the wonderfully absurdist vibe of Flash Gordon. God bless ‘em, Sam Jones and Melody Anderson play their characters with aw shucks earnestness right out of a 1950s sci-fi movie while Chaim Topol and Brian Blessed ham it up for the cheap seats with the latter looking like he’s having the most fun of anyone in the cast. Max von Sydow and Peter Wyngarde play it absolutely straight almost as if they’re reciting Shakespeare with the former perfectly cast as Ming and making the most of hi s character’s evil plans monologues. Part of the fun of watching this movie is to see these contrasting performances bounce off each other as the cast try to spout the ridiculous dialogue convincingly. It makes for a heady experience that you either submit to or reject – there is no middle ground with Flash Gordon.
At times, the dated special effects, especially the extensive use of rear projection, look pretty bad and yet there is something authentic about it. The old school effects and astounding sets have a tangible quality that is missing from a lot of contemporary SF epics. In particular, the effects for Mongo’s atmosphere are quite breathtakingly beautiful and one has to admire the filmmakers’ audaciousness. The movie also has several exciting action sequences, including a surprisingly bloody gladiatorial battle between Flash and Barin on a platform that is constantly shifting and with spikes emerging and disappearing with unpredictable frequency creating a real sense of danger. Seeing this fight play out at a young, impressionable age scared and thrilled me in equal measure. Along with David Lynch’s Dune (1984), Flash Gordon is one of the most distinctive-looking SF movies to come out of the ‘80s.
Flash Gordon’s weakest aspects are the obvious attempts to ape Star Wars with nods to stormtroopers, a flying droid and General Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), Ming’s second-in-command, serving as a poor man’s Darth Vader. He gets little to do except bark orders and supervise torturing Princess Aura. The movie is at its best when it subverts aspects of Lucas’ film, like taking the earnestness of Luke Skywalker and placing it in a football player’s body or splitting Princess Leia into two characters – the bland eye candy that is Dale Arden and the duplicitous Princess Aura who has a kinky streak (what’s up with her pet dwarf Fellini?) and the hots for Flash.
After writing the screenplay for a remake of King Kong (1976) for legendary Italian movie producer Dino De Laurentiis, Lorenzo Semple Jr. was given a coffee table book of the Italian translation for the Flash Gordon comic strip and told that it would be the basis for his movie. He was told to make it funny: “At the time, I thought that was a possible way to go, but, in hindsight, I realize it was a terrible mistake. We kept fiddling around with the script, trying to decide whether to be funny or realistic.” Semple admitted that he didn’t think the character of Flash in the script was particularly good, but that “there was no pressure to make it any better.”
Initially, Nicolas Roeg was hired by De Laurentiis to direct Flash Gordon. He had just come off another science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) when the producer approached him to direct. He wasn’t sure and took some time to read Raymond’s comic strip. Roeg came to the conclusion that Raymond was a “genius, an absolute genius.” He became really excited at the prospect of making a Flash Gordon movie and went off to write the screenplay. His concept for the movie was Flash as a “metaphysical messiah.” Roeg spent a year writing and showed it to De Laurentiis who didn’t want to make that version. He wanted to make his version and Roeg left the project.
Mike Hodges was approached to direct the sequel and turned down the offer but when Roeg left the project, the former changes his mind because “it was totally different from what I had previously done.” The director admitted that he was not a fan of the science fiction genre and didn’t consider the movie to be part of it but instead wanted to “keep to the comic book version.” According to Hodges, Raymond’s original comic strip became the bible that was referenced while making the movie.
One of De Laurentiis’ family members saw Sam J. Jones on the Dating Game show and from that he received the call to meet the producer. The aspiring actor consulted a few friends that were fans of the old Flash Gordon serials and they brought him up to speed on the character. He was flown into London and interviewed by De Laurentiis. Soon afterwards, he was cast in the movie and almost immediately immersed in rehearsals, costume fittings and daily workouts in order to prepare for the role. In addition, his hair was dyed blonde and he tried on blue contact lenses but they hurt so much that he did not end up using them. Lacking in experience, Jones worked with an acting coach on the set every day. Jones not only did most of his own stuntwork but also helped choreograph all the action sequences.
Melody Anderson was set to appear in a television series when she received a phone call from De Laurentiis who proceeded to convince her to do Flash Gordon instead. She flew all night from New York City to London only to be taken immediately to the studio where she had her blonde hair changed to brown, costume fittings, screen tests and a meeting with Hodges. Twelve days later, she found herself in Scotland with filming starting the next day. “We didn’t have any preparation time at all … It’s such a large special effects picture, the actors really are secondary in it.”
The massive production was spread over six sound stages at Shepperton Studios, the Star Wars facility at Borehamwood, and an aircraft hangar at Brooklands. Principal photography was synchronized with the special effects department because most of the live-action footage would be matched with opticals in post-production. To add to the chaos, the crew was a mix of Italian and English crew members who did not know how to speak to each other.” Anderson said, “The actors were caught in the middle.” Semple blamed the chaos of the production on the “great leeway given to the art director, Danilo Donati,” who had worked with Frederico Fellini, among others, describing him as a “crazed Italian who literally never read the script, but instead went off on his own.” Semple said that an example of the rampant spending on the production was the $1 million Donati spent on the Arboria set, which was only used in one shot!
Jones and the rest of the cast were instructed to play their parts seriously and he said, “When the crew watched the rushes and were laughing hysterically, Dino said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ And they discovered they had a comedy.’” Anderson backs up Jones’ approach to acting in Flash Gordon: “I’m surprised that (people) are laughing, because we weren’t out to make a funny film. In fact, De Laurentiis was very upset when he showed the film and people started to laugh, because he thought they were laughing at it and not with it.” Semple said, “And Dino, especially, had no idea what he wanted. He wanted something Flash Gordon, and I adored Dino, but he didn’t have much idea about the difference between sort of camp and Star Wars.”
For the movie’s score, Hodges persuaded De Laurentiis to take a chance and have the popular rock band Queen compose it. Lead guitarist Brian May said, “As I remember the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, was not convinced that rock music could work as score i.e. as background music for a film that was not about rock music!” The band spent a week creating demos of all the themes for the movie and played them for De Laurentiis. May recalled, “He was pretty stony-faced. At the end, he said something like, ‘I don’t think this music is right for my film,” and left. The band was understandably crest-fallen as a result, but Hodges assured them that it would work out. A couple days later, they heard that their music was approved.
Unfortunately, the experience of making Flash Gordon was a bittersweet one for Jones who was sued by De Laurentiis for breach of contract. He, in turn, counter-sued, claiming that he hadn’t been paid according to the original agreement. This, and the movie’s poor performance at the North American box office, doomed any prospects of a sequel.
Flash Gordon does what a movie of this kind should – transport us to strange new worlds that don’t resemble our own. The movie is pure escapist entertainment. Cinema needs more ambitious oddball movies like it that refuse to play it safe and dare to risk failure. These fascinating trainwrecks are often more memorable than the ones that adhere to the same old tired formulas. In retrospect, the ‘80s was a great time for eccentric genre movies with the likes of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986) managing to navigate their way through the studio system and find their audience thanks to home video where they could be rediscovered and watched repeatedly. Watching this movie again, it really is amazing that something like this exists. Only a European sensibility fused with the desire to ape the success of an American blockbuster could result in something like Flash Gordon and the world is a better place for its existence.
Brender. Alan. “Mike Hodges: Director of the New Flash Gordon.” Starlog. March 1981.
Kennedy, Harlan. “Bad Timing.” American Cinema. January-February 1980.
Khoury, George. “Hail Flash Gordon!” SFX. February 2008.
Swires, Steve. “Lorenzo Semple, Jr.: The Screenwriter Fans Love to Hate, Part Two.” Starlog. September 1983.
Willson, Karen E. “Melody Anderson.” Starlog. December 1980.
Willson, Karen E. “Sam J. Jones.” Starlog. December 1980.