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30 years on, Flash Gordon is still awesome

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Sunday, December 5, 2010

On December 5, 1980, a motion picture arrived in theaters that redefined nothing.

Its makers had been hoping that the movie would be a titanic success, in the same leagues as Star Wars. It was not.

Its cast, having signed on to star in two more sequels, were hoping that this picture would place their names on the A-list of Hollywood actors. It did not.

But in the years that followed, there is one thing that Flash Gordon became: a cult movie, one that I deeply enjoy even though I shouldn't. I can't help myself: Flash Gordon is great. It's a movie that shouldn't have been made the way that it was, and probably the kind of film that couldn't get made today even if it were planned out.

To realize how a goofy but perfect Flash Gordon got made, you have to appreciate the era in a show business context. It was the late 1970s. Star Wars had made a lot of money and begat a string of sci-fi films, some of which became hits in their own right. As rival movie studios tried to replicate the success of Star Wars and greenlight their own big budget space operas, there was also the smashing success of 1979's Superman which took the ingredients of the popular action/disaster movies of the 1970s and cast an unknown actor as Superman, while populating the supporting roles with well-known faces. Producer Dino de Laurentiis, fresh off the epic bomb that was the 1976 King Kong movie, got his Flash Gordon movie bankrolled due to a combination of these two factors. On paper, the equation looked appetizing to investors. Sprinkle in a hot musical super group that would do the movie's soundtrack (giving it a slight disco-y vibe, which was the future of music, don't you know?) and a big budget so that the special effects can sell the story to youngsters and what could go wrong?

 

 

According to the IMDb, Flash Gordon had a budget of $35 million dollars. One year previous, I remember the press going nuts about how expensive Star Trek: The Motion Picture was at $29 million dollars. Star Trek opened on December 9, 1979 on 857 screens and went on to gross $11.9 million dollars in its opening weekend. Flash Gordon, virtually at the same calendar time one year later and on 823 screens only managed to take in $3.9 million on its opening weekend. You do the math.

But let's get past the accounting and to the root of my enthusiasm for this film: it's truly the only movie of its kind to successfully pull off the look and feel of a golden age sci-fi adventure. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow may have had better technology and a more serious approach to the material but it failed to connect honestly to the source material, didn't it? Look at the world of Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon movie and tell me that there's a difference in logic from the serials that Buster Crabbe starred in. There isn't, and that's the magnificent beauty of this movie. It's not taking itself that seriously, and if you can accept that for what it is, then Flash Gordon becomes a fun escapist ride for you.

So, how is Flash Gordon awesome? Let me count for you the ways:

The hero. As a leading man, Sam J. Jones doesn't impress much more about his character than his physique, his limited intelligence and his steadfast determination that the bad guys need to have their ass kicked. He's loyal to a fault, he's hard to keep down and he does a better job at uniting different Mongo races that hate each other than any UN diplomat could ever do. Today's heroes have to multi-dimentional and show us a reason for them being the best secret agent ever or why they are the perfect guy to dress up in a batsuit and fight crime. Not so with Flash, and this movie is all the better for it.

 

 

The villains. When the time comes to write Max von Sydow's obituary (and let's hope it's many years away) anyone that knows his career must make mention of his Ming the Merciless. Von Sydow plays the role with relish and predation, from his cold calcuating demenor towards everyone that surrounds him to the salaciousness at which he lusts after Earth's Dale Arden. He's the perfect Ming, and he just needs to be a little more smarter than Flash in the movie.

 

 

As for Ming's henchmen, Peter Wyngarde's Klytus is an obvious Darth Vader clone but it's still great fun to see his eyes bulge out of his mask when he gets offed. General Kala has a weird S&M vibe to her but when her time comes she liquifies nicely.

The babes. All of the women in Flash Gordon are ridiculously hot. As Dale Arden, Melody Anderson has about 90 seconds of believability before she turns into acting like a teenage schoolgirl with the biggest crush of her life. As wincing as her "Go Flash Go!" cheerleading moment is to watch, imagine the internal horror she must have faced when performing that in front of cameras and with a roomful of people looking on.

But for all her sexyness Dale is still only a good girl. Flash Gordon wisely follows the model of the James Bond films and gives us a bad girl to lust for. As played by the Italian siren Ornella Muti, her Princess Aura wears spandex the way that it was meant to be worn. Plus, hearing her speak the line "Father, not the bore worms!" evokes an even warmer memory from my school age days.

Special note: the next time you watch this film, pay close attention to what the background actresses wear. As I mentioned in an article about this film a couple of years ago on another website, it's like the film's costume designer decided to create formal wear for strippers.

The trippy backgrounds. Has there been another sci-fi movie that's dared to have pink, purple, orange and yellow clouds swirling in the skies of their alien planet? Nowhere is this more emphasized than in the Hawkmen fight against Ming's rocket ship Ajax:

 

 

Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen. Blessed plays his role like a famished man at an all-you-can-eat restaurant. When he screams "DIIIIVE!" at the top of his lungs, his commitment to the craft of acting is almost enough to make you overlook just how bad his wings look on him.

 

 

Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin of Arboria. God bless English actors and for them to cut their teeth on Shakespeare plays. Something about working for a living and honing your craft on the Bard's words must prepare them for wearing ridiculous costumes and uttering lines of unbelievable dialogue while keeping their faces and delivery deadly serious. Thanks to Flash Gordon, Timothy Dalton is the poster boy for this kind of work. His Prince Barin costume looks like a poor man's Robin Hood get-up, just lacking in the feathered cap. And when it's called upon for Barin to pick up a mean-looking laser rifle and wield it, Dalton is so committed to his craft that he kicks over the mount that the gun was resting on. Yeah, that's right, take it out on the bloody equipment!

 

 

The lines. "Flash Gordon, quarterback, New York Jets."  "What do you mean, 'Flash Gordon approaching on a rocket cycle'?"   "Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!"  ... you get the picture. This movie's dialogue is filled with more cheese than what you'd find at a Cracker Barrel plant. But again, it's all golden material for this kind of picture.

 

 

There is one moment in all of this word carnage that gets to me. It can't help but stand out from what everyone is saying, and it comes when Flash is facing his imminent death. For the whole movie he's been pining for Dale and his love for her, turning down the advances of Aura and doing everything it takes to save her from Ming. And when all hope appears lost and his rocket ship is on fire, and when Flash is gunning for Ming's castle on a suicide course, he has this one moment of spoken clarity that is delivered with true drama: "Dale, what a damn shame."

It gets to me every time, this one brief moment of seriousness in a movie of insanity and comic book stereotypes -- but that's often the best place to place these kinds of moments, isn't it? The punch it delivers would have been minimalized if the entire movie were played straight.

Queen. If you remove the soundtrack from this film I'd wonder if it would have the same kind of appeal to me as it does with Queen's rocktastic songs. Everyone knows the title song and Freddie Mercury's pipes belting out, "FLASH! Ah-ha! He's save every one of us!", but Brian May's electric guitar makes love to the images you're seeing. This is Queen's best soundtrack, even over the material that they did for Highlander, because it's beautifully paired with the kind of movie that Flash Gordon is. You could try and separate them, and score this film with a traditional orchestra soundtrack, but I don't think that it would have worked. You can't have one without the other.

 

 

Flash Gordon might have come and gone from cinemas when it was released in December 1980 but I and many others have grown to appreciate it for all of its troubles and glories. I'm standing in good company with guys like comic book artist Alex Ross, whose painting of Sam Jones as Flash adorns the cover art for the last DVD release. "Is all of this ridiculous? Of course," wrote Roger Ebert in his review of the movie 30 years ago. "Is it fun? Yeah, sort of, it is."

I would agree with everything that Roger said, except the "sort of" part. Long live Flash, you've saved your Earth. Now go have a nice day.

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 9 years 1 day ago

Blessed is determined to let you see every tooth in his mouth during every second of his performance.

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 9 years 1 day ago

I have this film on DVD, I have the soundtrack on my iPod.  I love it!!!  My Pa took me to Chatham cinema to see this film when I was..... bloody hell, 6 years old or something!

I now need to Google Ornella Muti.  At that tender age, she was my first confirmation that bad girls can be really good!

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Quasar
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Posts: 7588
Posted: 9 years 1 day ago

Never have football skills been put to such good use in the real world. Well, there was that episode of Buck Rogers...

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 9 years 1 day ago

There's also that scene from the Disney's Robin Hood.

Quasar
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Posts: 7588
Posted: 9 years 1 day ago

I'm still pissed that didn't make it into the Russell Crowe remake.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
Jack S. Pharaoh
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Posted: 9 years 1 day ago

The Swollen Goi... wrote:

There's also that scene from the Disney's Robin Hood.

"Seize the fat one!"

That's the scene you're talking about, right Thursty? I'm surprised you would bring it up so callously, since it is not very considerate of the feelings of overweight people, and since you and I well know that fat people do not like being seized by anything, except fits of gluttony.

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 8 years 51 weeks ago

Jack S. Pharaoh wrote:

"Seize the fat one!"

Too...... many....... punchlines......

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Baelzar
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Posted: 8 years 51 weeks ago

Gotta admit a secret love for this movie.  And for Ornella Muti's perfect ass.

Actually, I'm pretty open about that.

"INDEED!"
tstone
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Posted: 8 years 50 weeks ago

Blessed randomly knocking out Klytus's goons during that "football fight".  The "nothing to see here" looks on his face, priceless.

I LOVE this movie.

 

In a universe of infinite possibilities, there indeed may be someplace where you don't SUCK. Fear the LURKING ASS