“No Vultan … it’s a rational transaction! One life for billions.”
Star Sam J. Jones is the first to admit Flash Gordon is corny and full of camp. No one is disputing this fact and some say screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (he who was responsible for the Adam West “Batman” series) wrote it that way intentionally on producer Dino De Laurentiis‘ request. (Semple has since stated that he feels this was a mistake since sci-fi legend Alex Raymond‘s source material was never meant to be portrayed this way.) But Jones was quick to follow up his admission during a post-screening Q&A with another statement: it’s also a visual masterpiece. While this type of declaration is in the eye of the beholder, you cannot truly dismiss its legitimacy. De Laurentiis went big and the result is nothing if not iconic.
This version (the comic strip was adapted multiple times since Buster Crabbe originated the role onscreen in 1936) is no cornerstone of the genre, but its cult status renders it a timeless work of art nonetheless—one whose aura of appreciation was reinvigorated by super fan Seth MacFarlane‘s Ted. You could say De Laurentiis tried to learn his lesson four years later with Dune‘s comparable scope retaining a dramatic severity, but David Lynch‘s epic also failed to garner critical praise. And don’t think Dino’s wish list of directors would have saved this Technicolor space opera by going serious either (Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Nicolas Roeg, and Sergio Leone were all supposedly approached). The producer wanted humor. Mike Hodges‘ finished product was exactly what De Laurentiis strove to achieve.
You cannot deny that this vision of Flash Gordon is therefore divisive or universally ingrained in pop culture consciousness. When someone says the title I think of Sam J. Jones in a white t-shirt adorned by his name—the star New York Jets quarterback unwittingly caught in an intergalactic war at the hands of evil Emperor Ming (inexplicably played by screen legend Max von Sydow). The Buck Rogers and Edgar Rice Burroughs inspirations are practically non-existent and the idea that Raymond is known as an icon of science fiction who inspired the creators of Batman, Superman, and Star Wars almost seems incongruous when the property is so intrinsically connected with intentional camp, Queen (theme song composers/performers), and a whole lot of red. The copy has usurped the original.
That’s okay because it keeps the brand alive. Some watch this version and seek out the comic strip or serials. Others embrace it as the one true iteration via personal taste, nostalgia, or counter-critical establishment views. At the end of the day Flash lives on regardless, his heroism inspiring generations upon generations of fans searching for examples of underdogs finding a way to defeat powerful nightmarish visions of apocalypse existing outside our imagination. Because beyond the over-the-top aesthetic are themes of community, collaboration, and perseverance. There’s the notion that scientists hold our future in their hands (even batty ones like Topol‘s Dr. Hans Zarkov). There’s the promise of peace by joining forces to unseat a totalitarian dictator. And of course there’s human spirit as conquering weapon of hope.
In a nutshell: Earth is brought into an ongoing example of space oppression on a whim. Ming wanted to torture a new planet and it just happened to be the next one on what was probably a long list of prospective prey. He and right-hand Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) throw earthquakes, tornadoes, and even “hot hail” on the unsuspecting earthlings to put everyone in a state of panic. Only Dr. Zarkov understands what’s happening—because why not? He’s about to exit our atmosphere and seek out the force causing us such harm when a private jet carrying only Flash and a travel agent he doesn’t know (Melody Anderson‘s Dale) crashes into his laboratory. He kidnaps them at gunpoint to assist on his journey, their capsule eventually landing on Mongo.
What they find is a bunch of species converging upon Ming’s throne—each obviously consumed by hatred for their “emperor” despite readying gifts for him. Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) leads the “tree people” and Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) the “hawk men”. There are others in elaborate costumes, Ming’s daughter Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) watching with her pet (Deep Roy), and Ming himself waiting to be honored. Being unversed in the culture of what’s happening, Flash cannot hold his tongue when seeing it. He calls Ming a maniac, catalyzes a brawl, and puts his life in danger when sentenced to death. Zarkov will be brain-wiped and Dale made concubine. The Earth will be destroyed and Ming will continue ruling with an iron fist. Or so it seems.
Allegiances shift, motivations change, and things aren’t always as they seem. There are entertaining sequences of unabashed sexuality (Aura holds nothing back when flirting with every male character onscreen), implausible action (Dale wreaking havoc in Ming’s palace, never forgetting to put-down and pick-up her heels when dispatching each red-draped, gasmask-wearing guard), and over-the-top feats of strength either of will (put your hand in this hole and hope a scorpion thing-y doesn’t kill you) or balance (push your opponent off a tilting disc with spikes before he pushes you). The best thing Flash Gordon has going for it is that it wants us to laugh at its absurdity. One-liners run the gamut of necrophilia, bore worms, and New York City being louder than a firefight—and they’re all unforgettable.
Oxygen is ignored as easily as monogamy, the competitions to win Flash’s, Dale’s, or Aura’s fancy more important than the fact that victory is never permanent. The backdrops are like lava lamps in color and texture, the sets lavishly adorned despite everything inhabiting them seeming as though nothing would have changed had they been made of cardboard. It all seems so magnificently expensive and cheap simultaneously, the costuming proving extremely gaudy yet intuitively effective in discerning character groups. We know who the “hawk men” are, Barin’s green-clad “knights”, Klytus and Kala’s (Mariangela Melato) proto Google Glass-wearing henchmen, and those nameless souls meant to die or disappear as necessary. The care taken confirms the whole as a labor of love; the performances reveal that everyone was having fun.
So why wouldn’t we have fun watching? The evil is “arch,” the heroics selfless and pure (“Keeping our word … makes us better than you”), and the special effects quaintly ludicrous in hilarious ways. Not only do we feel good laughing at it, we know we’re laughing with everyone involved. Jones took the stage afterwards shaking his head and quoting lines with a smile that he’s always deemed implausibly corny. There’s this unyielding charm to the experience that has endeared it to so many over the years with no evidence of stopping. It brings people together, opens eyes to the infinite possibilities of one’s creativity, and—as one sobering story from Jones describes—it saves lives. Flash Gordon isn’t a great film, but it is great.