He may “save every one of us” (wailed Freddie Mercury in the Flash Gordon title song by Queen), but for a great deal of its development and creation, it was a miracle that the movie got finished at all, and wasn’t crushed mercilessly by a great many factors and tons of sequins.
Thankfully we didn’t end up with just a good looking corpse, and instead received a truly radiant pantomime of sublime, campness, utterly gorgeous levels of design, production, costumes, cinematography, special effects and acting by all concerned, it truly was one of those unique once in a lifetime situations, where despite the odds (and often the people involved) it somehow came together, creating something that far, far, FAR outreached the initial goals.
Inspired by the original serialised 1936 series created by Alex Raymond, an American cartoonist who had birthed the comic strip of the same name in 1934. Both mediums where an inspiration to an entire generation of kids and future creatives/artists all around the world, as they effectively and affectionately embraced what was to be the first modern hero (although Buck Rogers had been around since 1928), a clean cut decent (all American) man, taking on the forces of evil, despite all the odds, with apple pie and true space grit.
One such kid directly influenced by Flash, who later ended up in a position to almost (and REALLY wanted to) make a modern movie version of the space adventure was George Lucas, but he wasn’t deemed to be the right for the project by the producers. Instead, again directly inspired by Flash, Lucas made Star Wars instead.
The 1980 film version was produced by film mogul Dino De Laurentiis, once again who had been an enormous and loyal fan of the original series. Dino a colourful character as vibrant as the final film’s sets had a very particular and reverential vision in mind when commencing this project. He had initially wanted Federico Fellini to direct it, such was the enormous high regard he had for the property, then this changed to Nicolas Roeg who was hired to helm the venture.
Despite Roeg’s profound and undisputed film mastery, the vision he developed wasn’t in keeping with Dino’s and indeed was somewhat bleak, all too ‘real’ in tone and look, certainly not the celebratory, fun, chests pumped out hero, blood pumping stuff that was the ultimate goal. The script had been written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. who was responsible for the original somewhat camp Batman TV series in the 60s, so it was interesting that Roeg had been part of the mix, or indeed that Sergio Leone had been offered the position at one stage too.
Continuing the bizarre section process, the directorial prize ultimately went to English director Mike Hodges who was known for gritty, real life movies such as Get Carter (1971) and Pulp (1972), but apparently it wasn’t his ability to make superb movies that landed him the deal, but moreso that Dino ‘liked his face’. Such was the highly unique nurturing environment of the universe that was being built.
To the greater extent, everything had been set in motion, and Hodges was there to basically stop it crashing, which was incredibly difficult as everything that was created (costumes, sets etc) were to such extreme flights of creative fantasy and borderless perimeters, that they were often almost unfilmable with virtually zero consideration for technical needs. All this only adds to the utter flamboyance of it all, and creating a set where necessity really was the mother of invention, flying by space rockets and the seat of their rather tight fitting pants.
The production and costumes where mastered by one Danilo Danati who had previously worked with yet another film giant Federico Fellini, and it’s incredible to see how all these superior craftsmen came together for what is ultimately a popcorn movie. The thing is though, that you can see this craftsmanship in every single frame.
Having said that, whilst the unbridled creativity that seemed rampant and encouraged was responsible for visual marvels, there were a number of pieces and sets that had to be amended by Hodges, such as a pink forest.
Eventually Dino settled on an unknown new actor Sam J. Jones to be the lead, an all American who has served in the Corps, played American football as a semi pro and perfectly fit the look of the hero Flash represented.
As he was relatively unknown, he wouldn’t distract away from the character. Though that lack of movie career experience was to have a profound negative effect on his experience making Flash and subsequent career (as shown on the documentary).
All the pieces were now in place, and if you’ve ever pondered what would happen if you gave the creators of the TV series Pose hundreds of millions to make a space opera movie, or Star Wars In The House Of Space, wonder no more. ‘Flash Gordon’ (1980), and the hot hail is go!
Opening with the petulant musings of what could be a bored teenager, it is in fact The Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow) having a bit of an off day/life traipsing the universe kicking his galactic can around as he big boy bullies the Universe into submission to his fascist rule.
With the help of his right hand ‘man’ (it’s not really clear what he is) Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) they are on the look for trouble, and places to dominate. Unfortunately for the planet Earth, it has just wandered into the space laser destruction cross hairs as they start to mess with the Earth’s weather system, fortunately though, football hero Flash Gordon happens to be getting a private plane flight during the attack.
Also on the plane is Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) who develops an instant rapport with Flash, which is a very handy motivation if you are about to try to save the planet.
Something happens during the flight and the survivors end up, well more crash into the property of renowned (mad) scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), who has fortuitously for all been studying the recent very naughty weather shenanigans. One comedy mishap leads to another, and before you know it, we’re all on Mongo, the home world of the ruthless, and ever so slightly bitchy Ming the Merciless and his posse of over dramatic domineering malcontents in charmeuse and bondage.
The lecherous Ming immediately decides he’ll have Dale to be his wife (sex slave), much to the concern at love at first crash Flash. His concerns will however be immediately dealt with by being put to death. It’s one solution. The day really isn’t going so well for the good folk of Earth.
Understandably Ming isn’t so popular and help comes from unusual and kinky places, inspired by lust more than any real sense of justice. What follows in an ever-increasing beautiful flamboyant quest into colour, campness, catastrophe and chaos as our intrepid and ostentatious adventures battle to save our planet, whilst looking fabulous all the way.
Everything about Flash Gordon is utterly ridiculous, and that’s exactly why it is absolutely fantastic on every level. It’s a mainlined sugar rushed joy spectacle and celebration, in the way that our golden syrup coated memories have of the best moments of our childhood. Dino was apparently not overtly happy with the way the comedy had a campness to it (or certainly how it was being portrayed), and disrespectful to his childhood hero, which was interesting given the aforementioned script writer’s work on Batman, but it is that knowing sultry wink and licentious tongue in someone else’s cheek that glues it all together, the phenomenal soundtrack by rock legends Queen is the frosted icing on the space opera cake, that makes your heart race with every bite and battle cry beat.
Throughout the movie, the entire cast are incredible, everyone mentioned already, plus the iconic Brian Blessed (Prince Vultan), Timothy Dalton (Prince Barin), Ornella Muti (Princess Aura, Ming’s daughter) to name but a few. What is clear is that every single person was on their A++ game (including crew) during the making of this beautiful madness.
There are times for reality in films, and there are times for unmitigated joy, this is one such moment, that has never really been replicated since, which makes it all the more special.
It is, of course, the 40th anniversary of the movie, and the reason for this review is the incredible newly restored 4K version by StudioCanal that actually somehow makes it look better than when it first came out (it’s scanned from an original 35mm print), but it truly is stunning looking, with nearly every single frame having the potential to be a revered print on a wall. Elements have been cleaned, fixed and added to make it the pinnacle of entertainment it was always destined to be, all approved by Mike himself.
Absolutely bursting at the seams with extras such as documentaries, commentaries (the Mike Hodges one is awesome, both for its insights, and honesty), interviews and libraries, it only enhances the miracle that it all got made at all. Not forgetting that it’s also one of the most quotable movies EVER!
There is SO much more that could be written in praise for this movie, I’ve not even mentioned the spectacular skies which are some of my favourite visual effects ever used in cinema, but it just needs to be watched. It can be rewatched regularly and never become boring, and now that it really is in its ultimate version, that does complete justice to Dino’s dream. He’ll be smiling in heaven, and we’ll be laughing and cheering every time we watch it. “Go Flash Go!”.
‘Flash Gordon’ 4K is available on digital streaming, Blu-Ray and UHD Collector’s Edition boxset. Pre order here on Amazon. Look out for our awesome Flash Gordon competition later in the week…