Movie review: “Flash Gordon” (1980)

“Who are you?”

“Flash Gordon! Quarterback, New York Jets!”

“Dale Arden…Your Highness. Live and let live…that’s my motto!”

“My name is Hans Zarkov. I kidnapped them both here to save our planet, Earth.”

(To Ming) “An obscure body in the S-K system; the satellite that has provided you so much amusement…recently.”

Arguably the quintessential cult movie of the 1980s, the Dino De Laurentiis production of Flash Gordon arrived already fully enveloped in, if not choked by, the shadow of the original Star Wars – a strange irony considering the rich back story and surpassing influence of both that property and its namesake hero. Legend tells that George Lucas only authored his sprawling sci-fi epic/epoch in response to being denied the rights to first adapt the story of Flash, gridiron hero turned intergalactic adventurer of Sunday comic and Saturday morning serial fame. In terms of both what was omitted and committed, we thus have one of the most consequential turns in film history. Because audiences of the time were disinterested to the point of open antagonism towards most any film galaxy outside of that very specific one located far, far away, our Flash Gordon died a quick and ignoble death at the box office. That in itself is no surprise. The pyre of history is littered with far more shameless imitators, who, in Jedi cosplay and with apologies to Shakespeare, strutted and fretted their own respective hours (or less) upon the stage, and were then heard from no more. Why should Flash Gordon have been any different? Can we, at first and at least, agree that it was different? Any, even so, why should it have somehow lingered, and smoldered, before finally catching fire in an oxygen-rich if largely uncharted realm far beyond the spotlight’s searing glare, going on to become one of the defining moviegoing experiences of childhoods beyond count, mine among them?* What, if anything, makes it special? 

*All those children grew up to be nerds, incidentally…but, of course, you already knew that. I always loved “Star Wars” more, and I still do, but, in a way, watching “Flash Gordon” on HBO on a might-as-well-be endless loop in 1982 is my origin story.

I’d answer that question with a statement, since practically everything about Flash Gordon is special, a heady mixture of honed entertainment instincts, bold choices made in details beyond count, calculated risks in the pursuit of homage, and, occasionally, of blind luck happily rewarded. A popular phenomenon like nothing before or since, Star Wars landed like a bomb in 1977, instantly and irrevocably reconfiguring, among other things, existing public perception of how outer space and its various accoutrements should appear on film. Gone overnight was 2001’s sterile, black and white Postmodernism, replaced by a purposely lived-in future full of dents and rust and mammoth machinery simultaneously sophisticated yet somehow approachable. Most all of Star Wars subsequent hit parade of pretenders and parodists (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Battlestar Galactica 1978, Battle Beyond the Stars, et al), despite occasionally trading on established brands in their own right, followed this established “realistic” visual template, in hopes of siphoning Lucas’ peculiar brand of bottled lightning. Reflecting its origins as a vibrant 1930s comic strip and Saturday morning movie serial, which were necessarily a galaxy or two removed, Flash Gordon, by contrast, deviates from this new normal at every turn, providing a jarring, if often subjectively delightful, counterpoint in both sight and sound. Outer space and its environs have never looked quite like this, before or since. Much of the criticism historically levied at Flash Gordon, accusations of rank cheapness or unforgivable cheesiness, smack to me of knee-jerk laziness from people either incapable of looking beneath the surface of things, or unwilling to. It’s their choice, and, frankly, their loss.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our story so far: Vain and casually opulent, tyrannical and comprehensively cruel, Ming the Merciless (Swedish legend Max Von Sydow, offering just the right percentage of lean ham), imperious ruler of both the known and, as will soon be revealed to our collective discomfort, unknown universe, has of late become enamored, like a cat with a ball of yarn, with the planet Earth,** visiting it and its inhabitants with a barrage of increasingly extreme weather events and toying with its orbit. Only disgraced NASA scientist Hans Zarkov (Israeli philanthropist Topol, bridging the gap between his eventual Bond villain turn and Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof) recognizes these unnatural phenomena for what they are, an attack from outer space. Into his observatory/home base one dark morning literally crash blond adonis Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones, straight out of central casting) and plucky, prototypical “Girl Friday” Dale Arden (Melody Anderson, ditto), a classic Ken and Barbie couple who, as the lone passengers on a charter flight over, had barely even met cute before Ming’s timely intervention sent it to hell. Zarkov, whose grasp of the nuances of interplanetary warfare doesn’t extend to his own obvious inadequacies in that arena, conspires to spirit them away as some sort of half-assed counterinsurgency force. When their rocket bound for the exotic kingdom of Mongo, located several galaxies away through a black hole, finally lands, the trio is thrust into the fractious politics of a defiantly alien world on edge, subjugated by Ming and in desperate need of a unifying hero. 

**I always wondered why, if Earth itself was such a new concept to Ming, the pre-title command console menu from which he apparently dialed up ready-made natural disasters like “Typhoon” and the conceptually amazing “Hot Hail” also had an item for “Earthquake”. Where did he come up with that word? Wouldn’t “Quake” alone have sufficed?

Remember when I mentioned Flash Gordon’s penchant for rule-breaking? It takes maybe a minute, and probably less, to establish that this will be no standard-issue space opera on the order of what’s come before (or maybe opened last weekend). Ming’s self-satisfied cackle is only just dissipating as the heartbeat soundtrack of the opening titles begins, quadruple-time and insistent – Dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum – before being pierced by a crack of lightning and a crash of discordant piano thunder. “Flash!” (BOOM) “Aa-aaaah! Savior of the universe!” A squall of flamboyant guitar punctuation flares and is cut off by the reappearing heartbeat – Dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum – then, “Flash!” (BOOM) “Aa-aaaah! He’ll save every one of us!” Yes, replacing wholesale the symphonic score that every other Star Wars ripoff tried in vain to approximate with Brian May’s trademark regal guitar and the singular voice of Freddie Mercury, an inveterate showman never content to leave a single audience member behind, is the kind of choice known in dramatic circles as a tone-setter. Their Flash Gordon theme is bracing and invigorating, simultaneously a call to action, a call to arms, and an implicit promise to rock, dammit. I’m not sure whom exactly to credit the decision to enlist arena rock institution Queen in the cause, but it provides an instant infusion of drama and flair into the proceedings and immediately elevates Flash Gordon to an altogether different, contrarian plane from which it will never stray. I owned the Queen single on 45 record as a kid. I reflexively grin from ear-to-ear still, hearing it decades later. 

Delusions of grandeur done on a budget usually carry some liability or drawback, but not here. The Kingdom of Mongo Board of Tourism welcomes our intrepid heroes with open arms into an ecosystem veritably brimming with life, the likes of which, despite the presence of its own independent ice world, swamp world, and city suspended in the sky (Lucas was clearly taking notes in his days as a young fan), neither they nor we have seen on film before. Any viewer applying the standard of Star Wars will have the wind knocked out of them by the brazen inadequacy of these special effects, which don’t even attempt that sort of “realism” and instead filter everything through the prism of a serene 1938 Saturday afternoon spent in the third row movie theater balcony. The matte paintings of Ming’s palace and Vultan’s floating kingdom have an ornate Art Deco sheen ripped from the cover art of a pulp sci-fi paperback. The spaceships look like kids’ toys, sleek and shiny, with fins that would put a fifties convertible to shame and adorable blinking orange lights in place of what you might’ve imagined would be fiery exhaust pipes. Far from the fearsome (if still often inept), monochrome stormtroopers of Star Wars, Ming’s imperial guardsmen, with their gold lame metallic skull masks and crimson roller derby padding, are too outlandish from the jump to pose much credible threat, while his court, a grand procession of squabbling delegations from Mongo’s embarrassing variety of subject moons, is a glimmering, multi-color ocean of increasingly extravagant sartorial splendor. Even the skies, with their tie-dye cloud formations and patently unnatural hues, look downright psychedelic.*** 

***With apologies to “Superman: The Movie”, another hallmark of the era, and its own immortal tagline, you…yeah, you probably won’t believe a hawkman can fly. Just wait until you see a whole sky full of them try, though.

Perhaps the only lesson from Star Wars that De Laurentiis took to heart was its commitment to using conspicuously European actors (the literally inimitable Von Sydow, British television star Peter Wyngarde as Ming’s cheeky and subtly kinky lead interrogator/Chief of Staff General Klytus, Italian screen seductress Ornella Muti as Ming’s headstrong daughter Princess Aura, somehow even more Italian firebrand Mariangela Melato as the ruthless, humorless General Kala) that could project the appropriate vocal gravitas to populate his roster of villains, though he extends that strategy in a bold attempt to even out the ledger until his entire cast, save the two Yanks, bursts off the screen in a cavalcade of colorful tones and timbres. To a person, they are all instantly memorable, with voices and manners that enhance and occasionally embody their respective characters in a way you rarely see. In a way, the sound and style of these performances become just another aspect of the film’s underrated yet tremendous overall production design, whether its concept art, its meticulously constructed, brilliantly ostentatious costumes and sets, or, as already mentioned, that gutsy across-board substitution of stylized, “cheap” special effects as a thoughtful improvement, and even comment, on what was expected. As warring princes turned potential allies Barin and Vultan, Flash rival and future initial “serious reboot Bond” Timothy Dalton and irrepressible British raconteur Brian Blessed more than hold their own no matter the backdrop or circumstance. Flash Gordon is entertaining enough to both watch without sound and listen to without picture. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend either. I’m just saying you could pull it off with relative ease and still have a good time.  

To help demonstrate my theory, and luxuriate a bit longer in the company of these characters, I invite you to pause all pretense of critical thought for a moment (hard, I know, given the venue) in favor of a quick game. Match each of the following quotes, listed below in chronological order, to the one of Flash Gordon’s nine principal characters that uttered/bellowed it. Your choices are Flash himself, Dale, Zarkov, Ming, Klytus, Prince Barin, Princess Aura, Prince Vultan, and General Kala (answers at the bottom of the post).

  1. “Check the angular vector of the moon!”
  1. “Pathetic Earthlings! Hurling your bodies into the void without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here…”
  1. “I love initiations!”
  1. “Welcome back from the grave. I knew you were up to something but I confess I hadn’t thought of necrophilia!”
  1. “Promise if you kill me that you’ll team up with Vultan and fight Ming!
  1. “Agent Zarkov, you will be liquidated for treachery…”
  1. “I can’t help that. Keeping our word is just one of the things that makes us better than you…”
  1. “Open fire! All weapons! Dispatch War Rocket Ajax to bring back his body!”

Through all those exclamation points and hundreds more, Flash Gordon – the man, the myth, the only occasional Nordic non-entity – endures, and, finally prevails. Spoiler alert. In the end, he’s just too darn positive to ever have the sense to give up or cower in terror, and his brawny example and surpassing enthusiasm – as, in an act of almost reflexive defiance, he first wipes out Ming’s attaches in an impromptu game of tackle football only one side realizes it’s playing, is then publicly executed for his insolence only to be revived by the emperor’s equally amorous and rebellious daughter, survives being hunted through the man-eating swamps of Arboria, a duel to the death atop a tilting platform of spikes teetering just above a doozy of a first step, the comprehensive destruction of Vultan’s sky chalet, his first experience flying a Hawkman rocket cycle, leading the counterattack on Ming’s executive warship and then piloting its flaming remains into the mouth of an all-out artillery assault to keep his appointment with crashing Ming and Dale’s royal wedding just in time to save the girl from her honeymoon and our Earth from utter annihilation (DEEP BREATH)…well, let’s just say his enthusiasm is infectious. If by now the kid in you isn’t turning similar flips at these descriptions of derring do and already contemplating the fun of watching the whole thing unfold anew, whether for the first or hundredth time, I honestly don’t know what more to tell you. I worry about the breath I’ve already wasted. 

All I can say in closing is thank heavens that Lucas’ version of Flash Gordon never saw the light of day, thus paving the way for both an epic for all time (plus the movie industry it would single-handedly revolutionize/revitalize) and, in this unassuming little engine of unironic fun and wonder, nothing much beyond the perfect companion a nerd could have for any rainy Saturday. Isn’t that enough? Is it cheesy? Yeah, possibly. Campy? Eye of the beholder, mate. Cheap? Far from what you might remember, in truth, and totally done on the sly at any rate. It hardly matters. Incidentally, you can get a sense of Lucas’ vision, if you’re really desperate for it, by imagining how Attack of the Clones might’ve played with better dialogue, plot economy, and dramatic motivation. It’s no secret George largely treated the Star Wars prequel trilogy as his own stealth homage to the adventure serials of his youth. Peel back or scrape off all those epithets and unflattering comparisons and Flash Gordon, like its namesake hero, still endures. It was then, and remains today, special in almost every meaningful way I can think of, a throwback that is itself a throwback, though one that is nevertheless unafraid to test (taunt?) the limits of the marketplace and, of course, to relentlessly entertain. Almost forty years have passed, and I haven’t yet been able to shake this movie. I’ve also never wanted to. The heartbeat still moves me. 

1. Zarkov (Topol) | 2. Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) | 3. Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) | 4. Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) | 5. Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) | 6. Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) | Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) | 8. Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) | 9. General Kala (Mariangela Melato)

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