Directed by Mike Hodges
Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) of the Planet Mongo attacks the Earth and Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) along with Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) must save the world in this space opera cult classic.
They assembled a fantastic cast that not only got the material but fit the part as described in the source. Topol as Hans Zarkov. Melody Anderson as Dale Arden. Sam J. Jones whose celebrity status consisted of a Playgirl spread and an appearance in the film 10 was cast as Flash Gordon. He did not have much talent here, but in this camp environment it did not matter. It fit right in.
As a kid I knew nothing about Max von Sydow until this movie. Then again, I was like 5 when this movie came out so how could I? He seemed to be having fun up on screen even if this was a period in which he was getting tired of playing villains. He looked like he was reveling in the part and just hammed it up.
This was also the first time I ever saw Timothy Dalton on the screen. This is the first time I even knew he existed as well and from this point on I was a fan. He was so good in this as Prince Barin. Is that like two different things? Dalton gave the character of Barin complexity in his performance and you bought into the passionately obsessive love he had for the mercurial and manipulative Princess Aura (Ornella Mutias).
Ornella Mutias was perfect as Ming’s daughter. Her name alone should be proof. It is as exotic as the character she played. She slinked about the screen with a feline grace and could pull off petulant child and switch to intelligent seductress and make it feel all like one character.
But the real scene stealer as if I had to tell any fan of this movie is Brian Blessed. He just stole every second he was up there with his joyfully boisterous portrayal of Prince Vultan. This was a character you wanted to follow into battle because it would be glorious. Every word came with a booming jolly voice and a wild-eyed gleam in his eye.
Blessed has done so much since this outing, but this is perhaps his signature performance. And deservedly so. If you watch it, you cannot deny its charm. Blessed was pure magic here.
Flash Gordon falls into a weird category. It is an undeniably bad movie that for some reason you thoroughly enjoy. And by that I mean it is a movie that’s so bad it’s good. It embraced its flaws and the material which spawned it to become something very entertaining. It just reaches the little kid inside of you. It is fun and at times silly.
I saw Flash Gordon in theaters as a small child. I remember the scene where General Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) falls on the spike table and my mother covered my eyes just when he hit the spikes and just before he melted. It was quite a few years before I ever saw that scene in its entirety because the melting part was edited from television. Weirdly though melting seems to be the norm for Ming’s forces. General Kala (Mariangela Melato) melted too when she died. Why melting? Do not get me wrong, it is cool but why?
It is my understanding that many of the sets used in this film were in part or in whole left over from the old Flash Gordon movie serials. I applaud them for using them. It is a nice little call back to what came before. Plus they often translated directly from page to screen then and using these sets helps maintain the feel of the strip.
One thing that I take issue with is that it at times to closely embraced the source material. I am not talking about the costumes or the designs of the ships but rather that the assorted planets were these weird fanciful things. Arboria was half a planet. Frigia which was only briefly glimpsed was this weird ice thing. Sky City, home of the Hawkmen, was a floating palace with rockets that kept it up. Where is it going to fall to? There is no gravity in space. To a kid with Star Wars and Star Trek on the brain it just looked wrong.
I am torn here though as an adult now. If they had done the planets and even the space shots more realistic they wouldn’t have gotten the stunning overall visuals of the movie or even the amazing end battle scene with the Hawkmen swooping in and attacking the rocket ship Ajax. That really is one of the best science fiction battles.
I guess we are fortunate this movie was made well before Hollywood felt a strong need to update everything it tried to adapt. They only made a few tweaks to the storyline on which the movie was based. The only significant change was that Flash went from being a polo player at Yale to a football player for the New York Jets. A small change that did little to really change anything in the story. Other than that they embraced the look of the comics from costumes to ships to props and it worked. They brought the comic strip to life.
The soundtrack by Queen is amazing and stands out among film soundtracks. It is all electric guitars and the popular rock music of the time. And the theme song is amazing and gets you energized. It is one of those songs that communicates the spirit of the film correctly and was not thrown in just because. Music in film has strayed away from that to the detriment of the media.
The movie does not take itself too seriously. Well the impetus is preventing Armageddon; the movie is a fun adventure romp. You are meant enjoy yourself and not think too deeply. There are exciting chases and miraculous escapes galore in this movie like those of a film serial.
Flash Gordon came out before the dominance of home video. This film was made to be seen and experienced in a movie theater. You will not get the full effect on a small television. You will only come close on a large screen TV but to see it as it should be seen you must go to a movie theater. It is a genuinely beautiful film.
This is a fun cult classic. And it is indeed a classic. It is a faithful if at one or two points too faithful adaption of the character and his universe. Watch it for a good time. You will not be disappointed.