Flash Gordon at 40 | The Camp Classic That Failed
Flash Gordon is a movie equally ridiculous and cliche driven. Released in 1980, it is one of those films which is so bad and camp it has taken on cult-like status. On paper however, it looks anything but a colourful disaster.
Adapted from the comic strip created by Alex Raymond in 1934, it very well could have been made by George Lucas, who by all accounts had an interest in bringing the character to the big screen. Featuring the late Max von Sydow, Timothy Dalton, the shouty Brian Blessed, Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brien, and directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter), everything was in place for an epic blockbuster. Throw in a soundtrack created by Queen, and all the hallmarks of something wondrous seem to come together. So, where did it slip off the rails?
The story is partially to blame, and perhaps points to why four decades later it has not spawned an equally disastrous sequel. Flash Gordon follows the story of the title American football player. This main role was turned down by Kurt Russell and 80’s superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger was rejected due to his accent. The lead role eventually went to an ex-marine-football player and then bartender Sam J Jones.
Wearing an eye-rolling t-shirt with his own name on it, Flash is the living embodiment of the American dream. He boards a small aircraft alongside travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). While mid-flight, due to some unusual and incendiary weather, the small plane crashes into the property of theorist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol). By chance, he is the only man on earth who knows the truth of this strange weather and luckily has a rocket ship. Zarkov lures both Flash and Arden onto his spacecraft and flies them to the planet Mongo which is attacking earth through climate change.
Here they find the evil Ming (von Sydow), who is so evil he out-acts everyone around him. Von Sydow is menacing, but nothing else really is. As the three ‘earthlings’ are presented, somehow a version of American football-based rebellion breaks out, where Flash provides ‘a new hope’ to those subjects under the iron fist of Ming.
But Flash is no inter-galactic MacGyver. He fumbles from one action sequence to another, whilst transitioning from one classy t-shirt to another. Even when he is sentenced to death, the daughter of Ming, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), decides she loves him and so he is spared. From here, chance encounters with Prince Barin (Dalton) and the Hawkmen led by Vultan (Blessed) all build to a climax, which has become famous. That is partially down to Seth MacFarlane’s comedy Ted where Flash Gordon star Jones plays a pastiche of himself. Nevertheless, this shows the crossing of the movie into the realms of childhood nostalgia.
That soundtrack by Queen turns the movie into a sci-fi opera, as Flash rides a rocket cycle from the fallen flying Sky City. The special effects are incredibly dated now. In fact, at the time of its release, they were probably considered tongue-in-cheek tacky compared to the advances of George Lucas and Ridley Scott with their respective sci-fi worlds.
Flash Gordon is wooden and camp, but there is still a thread of innocent wonder within the action sequences, and that is the cult-like appeal. Flash manages to draw out the assassins of Ming, the very British pilots aboard the Ajax war machine, who become overpowered by the Hawkmen. With the ship under the rebels’ control, Flash decides to take one for the team and drive the ship into the wedding of Ming and Dale, managing to impale Ming on the pointed top of the rocket. Then the cheesy finale begins where Flash manages to overthrow the regime and free the people. It’s incredibly goofy, yet alongside the blond-haired blue-eyed star, it becomes so bad it’s good.
One of the reasons the movie was a mild box office success was down to that soundtrack. Queen released a single before the movie, which went top ten in the UK along with the full soundtrack shortly after. The single “Flash” uses samples of dialogue from the movie thrown in, which cleverly built the anticipation of what was to be, or not as it turned out.
This did build momentum for the movie but did not solve the overall problem – Flash Gordon is disjointed. At times, it feels like it is not sure what kind of movie it is. Yes, it is a sci-fi flick but the intentional humour is lame, and the supposed serious aspects are actually the light hearted elements. The apparent script problems from the outset led to a struggle between Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis and writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. Both seemed unsure about aspects of the main character and the tone of the overall film.
A more successful recent movie that got this balance right was 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi – a superhero fantasy blockbuster balancing fun action set-pieces and a ton of humour, with a dramatic exploration of serious topics like loss. It’s no coinidence then that last year Waititi was said to be bringing Flash Gordon to the big screen through animation.
After four decades there is hope that a stylish, better executed approach to Flash Gordon might be on the horizon. But as of late there is little in the way of movement, and all sights are on the tried and tested Marvel Cinematic Universe.