Monday, April 13, 2015

1980 Week: Flash Gordon

          For many geeks of a certain age, Flash Gordon conjures warm memories of seeing the film in theaters, listening endlessly to the soundtrack LP featuring original songs by Queen, and revisiting the picture during its regular airings on cable. Over the years, the movie has generated not only a large cult following but also plentiful ancillary material—action figures, DVD reissues, a loving tribute nestled inside the comedy blockbuster Ted (2012), directed by Flash Gordon superfan Seth McFarlane. That’s quite an afterlife for a flick that producer Dino Di Laurentiis extrapolated from on old Saturday-matinee serial in order to capitalize on the success of Star Wars (1977). Even though Di Laurentiis spent lavishly on costumes, sets, and special effects, Flash Gordon originally seemed destined for oblivion after its lukewarm box-office reception. Many critics and fans embraced the picture as a kitschy delight, but others merely rolled their eyes at the silliness of the enterprise.
          After all, it’s hard to take a movie seriously when it includes corny dialogue, one-dimensional characterizations, and a terrible leading performance by former Playgirl model Sam J. Jones. But then again, that’s the weird fun of Flash Gordon—the movie embraces its own goofiness, in essence presenting an outer-space adventure while simultaneously satirizing outer-space adventures.
          Flash Gordon’s plot recycles narrative elements from the original serials, so the story begins when outer-space tyrant Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) rains catastrophic ruin onto Earth for sport. Through convoluted circumstances, eccentric scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) kidnaps New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (Jones) and stewardess Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) for a trip to space, because Hans plans to confront Earth’s tormentor. Upon reaching the planet Mongo, which comprises several distinct realms (each with its own climate), Flash pisses off Ming but wins the favor of Ming’s slutty daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti). She frees Flash from Ming’s prison even as Ming prepares to marry Dale, with whom he’s become smitten. After several death-defying adventures, Flash rallies several “princes of Mongo,” including the Robin Hood-like Barin (Timothy Dalton), for a revolution against Ming’s oppressive rule.
          The filmmakers’ tongue-in-cheek approach doesn’t always work, but Flash Gordon has a vibe uniquely its own. The juxtaposition of ’30s-style production design with ’70s-style arena rock is bizarre, the clash between bombastic supporting performance by classical actors and inept work by Anderson and Jones is jarring, and the presence of the great Von Sydow lends something like credibility to certain scenes. Plus, to give credit where it’s due, some of the movie’s ridiculous action scenes are genuinely exciting, such as a mano-a-mano duel that takes place on a giant revolving disk filled with spikes and an epic air battle involving flying “bird men,” souped-up “rocket cycles,” and phallic-looking spaceships. Best of all, perhaps, is the movie’s opulent color scheme, since Di Laurentiis went to the same pop-art well from which he drew the look of Barbarella (1968).
          Ace screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., who earned nerd-culture immortality by writing the pilot for the 1966 Batman TV series and thus creating she show’s campy style, brings a playful sensibility to his script for Flash Gordon. The plotting is deliberately adolescent, with heavy play given to the boy-friendly themes of heroism and lust. Semple also jams the script full of jokes, some cringe-worthy and some sly. Meanwhile, director Mike Hodges—a hell of a long way from the gritty noir of Get Carter (1971)—mostly tries to mimic the way George Lucas mimicked serials while shooting Star Wars.

Flash Gordon: FUNKY


Peter L. Winkler said...

This movie is a desecration of the great and beautiful comic strip created by Alex Raymond, on which the original Universal serials starring Buster Crabbe were based. Except for its production values, this film is inferior in nearly every way to the serials, especially the lead performances.

bistis6 said...

Hmmm...I must be in the minority regarding Melody Anderson. I find her grasp of the satirical tone to be spot-on; never too campy, but with a sly wink. Plus, she looks and sounds as if she stepped right out of a 30's-era film set. I saw FLASH GORDON numerous times in the theater, and in fact, I remember her earning the most (warranted) laughs from the various audiences. I've always wondered how much different INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM would have been had Spielberg cast Ms. Anderson in the role of Willie Scott.

Guy Callaway said...

"No, not the bore worms!" I don't have the deep love some do, but's impossible not be entranced by the madness of it - and it looks stunning.

Necco said...

I bought the album. In high school, I snagged the Playgirl. ("Carpet doesn't match the drapes.")

This was a cult film for the gay guys my age. (60 now.) We just wanted to see Sam Jones and Dalton get it on. Plus, a few "Wizard of Oz" references, sealed the deal.