Should I Watch..? 'Flash Gordon' (1980)
What's the big deal?
Flash Gordon is an action sci-fi epic film released in 1980 and was based on the original comic strip character of the same name created by Alex Raymond. The film stars Sam J. Jones, Max Von Sydow, Topol, Melody Anderson, Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed. The film's intentionally camp style is both a result of Lorenzo Semple Jr's screenplay (who wrote in a similar style for the Sixties Batman TV show) as well as an attempt to mirror the style of the original comic strip and film serial adventures. The film is also notable for the soundtrack by British rock band Queen. Despite earning more than double its budget, the film received a lukewarm reception from critics with Jones earning a dubious Razzie nomination for his performance. In the years since, the film has become a cult favourite with fans and has proved influential to a number of film-makers like Edgar Wright and Seth MacFarlane.
What's it about?
During a variety of bizarre astrological phenomena, football star "Flash" Gordon boards a flight with journalist Dale Arden which is unfortunately struck by a meteorite. They crash-land safely near the remote research station helmed by disgraced scientist Dr Hans Zarkov who believes that the strange events occurring around the world are due to some force pulling the Moon towards the Earth. Duping Flash and Dale to accompany him in his rocket to investigate, the three of them blast off but find themselves caught in a wormhole which sends them to the alien world of Mongo.
Captured by the troops belonging to evil overlord Ming The Merciless, the three find themselves in immediate danger - Zarkov is apparently brain-washed by the metal-faced head of the secret police General Klytus, Dale is led away to become Ming's concubine while Flash is to be executed. But Flash's indomitable spirit leads to him escaping and he sets off to rescue his friends alongside the rebellious Princes Barin and Vultan...
What's to like?
If ever a film was unintended to create passionate debate then this is it. But I really can see both sides of the argument and for those in the pro-camp, their first big statement is how good the soundtrack is. Queen are actually a perfect fit for this type of material, full of pomp and circumstance was the correct way to go and no-one could ever forget their iconic theme tune. In truth, while the campness of the film won't suit everybody, it was really the only way to do it right.
The original comics and the film serials from 1936 haven't dated particular well (especially after the game-changing success of Star Wars) so it could be argued that ropey effects and over-the-top performances was perfectly justified. Certainly Blessed, Topol and Von Sydow give the film the appropriate level of tongue-in-cheek gravitas whilst the rest of the cast behave as though they aren't in on the joke. The film also contains scenes of surprising tension such as the whip-fight between Flash and Barin on a tilting platform but it goes without saying that younger viewers might be more inspired than adults. Cynicism can be such a burden at times...
- This was the first of two films Queen performed the music for. The other was Highlander which included the song "Who Wants To Live Forever?" - which is almost a line of dialogue spoken by Brian Blessed in this film.
- Most of Jones' dialogue was dubbed over by another actor after a disagreement between Jones and producer Dino De Laurentiis over payment. Jones refused to go back into the studio to record the lines.
- Referring to the numerous problems that plagued the film's production, director Mike Hodges once described the film as "the only improvised $27 million movie ever made".
What's not to like?
Meanwhile, those who have a negative disposition towards Flash Gordon have an equally solid argument. Unfortunately, some of their opinions are about some pretty major issues - Jones and Anderson are a dreadful combination and never convince as Flash and Dale, respectively. Jones is astonishingly wooden as Flash who is supposed to be heroic, physically imposing and intelligent (the character graduates from Yale, remember) - sadly, I wouldn't trust Jones to tie up his shoelaces if he didn't have adult supervision and a diagram.
The effects are almost as vibrant as some of the ridiculous costumes and just as distracting. The film's story seems incoherent as Flash finds himself in different places and making either random friends or random enemies while completely forgetting about others - the ever-charismatic Topol is sorta forgotten about after the initial scenes while Anderson only has to worry about her impending wedding to Ming. But Jones' soulless performance is almost magnetic in that you can't take your eyes off him in case he stumbles over some piece of the set or fluff his lines. The only other time I felt this sorry for a cast member was Quinton "Rampage" Jackson's stilted performance as BA Baracus - a role purposely created for the legendary Mr T - in the ill-fated remake of The A-Team.
Should I watch it?
I do understand what they were trying to do but harking back to traditional sci-fi was the wrong decision in the aftermath of Star Wars with its cutting edge effects, memorable characters and a universe that felt different from what went before it. Flash Gordon isn't that bad a movie - there's plenty of fun to be had with either the material itself, that brilliant Queen soundtrack or laughing at the film's misfortunes. But compared to George Lucas' vision and stunning effects, this is a long way behind the competition.
Great For: fans of the original film serials (anyone?), Queen fans, Eighties-themed nights
Not So Great For: epileptics, serious sci-fi lovers, people who eat cheese before going to sleep
What else should I watch?
Space may well be the final frontier but for movie-makers, the heavens have provided more than their fair share of films. Even without wallowing in George Lucas' ever-expanding universe, there are the numerous Star Trek movies involving both William Shatner's crew and Patrick Stewart's merry band of space explorers. Failing that, Marvel appear to have assembled their own team of space-bound heroes in the fabulously off-the-wall Guardians Of The Galaxy, a sequel for which is presently being developed. I cannot wait.
According to the blurb for the still-fantastic Alien, nobody can hear you scream in space - which is good news for viewers of the likes of Pitch Black and Event Horizon as they both offer brutal shocks and scares to the right audience. Presumably, no-one in space can hear you laugh either because plenty of sci-fi films also have a comedic edge from the satirical Galaxy Quest to Mel Brooks' spoof Spaceballs. However the less said about the so-called sex comedy/parody Flesh Gordon, the better - let's just say, it's not exactly for kids.
Sam J. Jones
Max Von Sydow
Ming The Merciless
Chaim Topol (credited as Topol)
Dr Hans Zarkov
Lorenzo Semple Jr *
Release Date (UK)
11th December, 1980
Action, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Worst Actor (Jones)
© 2016 Benjamin Cox