Flash Gordon

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Charles Webb , Matthew Fantaci

Flash Gordon (1980)
Director : Mike Hodges
Starring: Sam Jones, Melody Anderson, Topol, Max Von Sydow, Brian Blessed, Timothy Dalton, and Ornella Muti

This week, Charles Webb and Matthew Fantaci will be taking a look at the 1980 comics-to-film adaptation of Flash Gordon and the curious treatment Alex Raymond’s space-faring serial hero got in this sci-fi bomb.

Matt: Wowsa. Where to begin? Dino De Laurentiis seems like a good starting point since his trademark male leather thong and shaky miniatures are all over this puppy.

Charles: DDL, as I'm sure he was never known, had his sticky mitts all over many of the odder, more shoddily-produced films of the 70's and 80's. Did you know in the middle part of his career DDL actually produced some of Fellini's films? It seemed the last two decades of his career was a downward trajectory from the art and high-minded fare of his earlier career. King Kong Lives. Halloween 2. Some other things...

Matt: Yeah, I know. I went to an anniversary screening of Nights of Cabiria a few years ago and was amazed that DDL was the producer. I knew about him only from movies like Diabolik and Barbarella. And Flash is right up that latter alley. In fact, I kept thinking that Flash Gordon is the male equivalent of Barbarella in the De Laurentiis canon. He's innocent, fearless, and a romantic at heart - just like Jane was. Though I have to say, Sam J Jones is no Jane Fonda.

By the way, if Wikipedia is to be believed, then Fellini was De Laurentiis' first choice for Flash Gordon, being that the director had originally worked on the comic strip in some capacity.

Charles: Sam Jones may be no Jane Fonda but at least the movie had the Ornella Muti as Princess Aura.

But let's back up a bit and set the stage. The movie was released in 1980, 3 years after the huge release of Star Wars. The rights for Flash Gordon had long before that been snatched up and the project went through several choices in directors before settling on Mike Hodges (who among other things directed the brilliant Croupier back in '98). The movie stars Sam Jones who had prior to this done a little TV, a part in Blake Edwards’ 10 and a spread in Playgirl, Topol of Fiddler on the Roof, and the magnificent, unbridled Max Von Sydow.

This movie has an insane pedigree.

Matt: Absolutely. I never would have linked Mike Hodges to Flash Gordon. This movie is a far cry from his gritty Brit-noirs.

As for the casting, it is a very strange brew indeed. Max Von Sydow as miraculously makes his lines sound ...sensible. Which is hard for a script that makes no sense whatsoever. Ornella Muti is - as you pointed out - a good excuse to keep blinking down to a minimum. And Brian Blessed... there are no words for the greatness of Blessed. You told me before I sat down to watch this for the first time that his portrayal of Prince Vultan was one of many treats and you were right on the money, Charles.

The leads, on the other hand, are harder to watch. Much harder. Painful, even. I kept see-sawing back and forth as to whether Sam Jones and Melody Anderson hurt or helped my overall enjoyment of the movie. Was their acting so bad it's good, or just so bad it's really, REALLY bad.

Of course, complaining about the quality of acting in a movie like Flash Gordon is missing the point really, isn't it?

Charles: Brian Blessed knows what kind of movie he's in - and I wouldn't necessarily say it’s a bad movie, really. I think it's sky high camp. I’m excited to see what he’ll do as Odin in the upcoming Thor movie coming out of the House of Ideas (although I think he’d make a better Volstagg).

I have a bit of patience for Sam Jones as the lead. He's just so earnest in the role that he kind of sells it. He plays Flash (who helpfully wears his name on a tee shirt at the opening of the film) as a good-hearted jock who just wants to do the right thing. Another aspect is that his Flash is a figure from another era – when jocks weren’t just celebrities, they were heroes. He’s like a walking, talking ideation of late 70’s/early 80’s Americanism: successful, dedicated to a nebulous idea of “freedom,” strong, handsome. The idea is that to like Flash is to like the projected values of liberty and all that good stuff.

It's no wonder he was later cast as Denny Colt, aka the Spirit in a made-for-TV movie that never aired in the 80's.

Melody Anderson fares less well, kind of reaching in every scene to find the right tone for the character. My instinct is to say the role needed a hard edge like Margot Kidder in Superman.

Matt: True.

I think the problems stand out to me more so, being that I am just now seeing it for the first time. And as an adult to boot. And sober. Many of my favorite cult films suffer from similar problems but many viewings have erased them for me. Only the awesomeness shines through.

Speaking of which, I was blown away by the mind-wipe scene and the many grotesque death scenes, among which (not to spoil anything for that only other person out there who hasn't seen it yet) is the "eye popping spikes" moment.

Charles: I think spoiler territory is okay for a movie approaching its 30th anniversary. That awesomeness of which you speak I think has to do with the almost fever dream manner in which the movie was shot and even scored (by rock gods Queen). The mind-wipe sequence, the trippy space vortex sequence, and the costumes - everything is bright, colorful, occasionally gory, and cranked to 11. There's not even the merest hint of subtext or subtlety.

Maybe it's the weird sincerity of the whole production that I find endearing. Everyone hates Flash (until they don't), everything is about to go sideways (until it doesn't). Even the delicious space hussy (Muti) has a change of heart before the final scene.

And again that soundtrack - if you've never heard the whole thing separate from the movie - I'm almost of the belief that somewhere along the lines this was a rock opera that ultimately wasn't. The presence of Richard O'Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) reinforces that belief.

Matt: I've known the theme song for years. But I didn't know they did the whole score until the opening titles (which, pre-Marvel/ DC film production, must have been one of the coolest use of comic imagery in film - until Creepshow a few years later, a personal favorite of mine).

My favorite lines from the movie are toward the end, and I think they perfectly sum up the spirit of the film. It's when Muti is helping Timothy Dalton escape:

MUTI: :They've changed the pass code!
DALTON: : I've changed too, Aura!
MUTI: I've changed too!

As you say, there's no subtext. Everyone wears their emotion (and even their motivation) like a badge.

Charles: So would you say you enjoyed the movie? Would you recommend it to someone else?

Matt: I did enjoy it, and I would recommend it but only to people who are usually drawn to cult films, or admirers of other De Laurentiis productions that are in the same vein.

I think there are reasons that this movie didn't enjoy the commercial success that other science fiction films of this time did. The majority of people, I think, were turned off by that lack of emotional subtlety, the over-the-top acting, and (strangely for a movie that cost 28 million USD) the seemingly low-budget effects and design. For other people, who cherish those things as a style choice, I think this movie can be very entertaining.

Charles: It feels like a weird time capsule/snapshot into filmmaking back then, particularly European studios getting hold of foreign concepts and going crazy with them, like the Canon American Ninja films or all the Golan Vietnam movies. There was this acceptable level of cheese as long as product was being churned out.

In the case of Flash it feels like there was some kind of vision at the start and genuine love but no one really had any idea what they (and the audience) were getting into.

If you haven't seen it before, I'd recommend checking thjis movie out, even if only for the costumes and the soundtrack. But dig a little deeper and you might find a genuinely enjoyable movie at its core.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of Charles Webb's work at Monster In Your Veins

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