Flash Gordon Review
A strange one this. In its thirtieth anniversary year (my God - I saw this in the cinema) a blu-ray of this turned up in the USA earlier this year. Yet, it was not entitled the thirtieth anniversary edition, seemingly missing a marketing trick. Just a week later, it was scheduled to be released over here - but at the very last minute it was pulled. Now, a few months later it does turn up here in Blighty and this time they have noticed the milestone anniversary. The official title of this disc is "Flash Gordon - 30th anniversary edition". The film really is quite a strange one. Hardly a huge success on cinema release, the film has obviously endured on home video and it really is a testament to the work that a 30th anniversary edition has arrived. The question is, though - this far on does this film still have anything to offer? Or is it horribly dated and unwatchable now?
First, a little history. In the middle seventies a young filmmaker was looking for a sci-fi property to make into a film. As a big fan of the episodic serial "Flash Gordon" this young Turk decided that the property would suit his agenda perfectly. Sadly, being new to the genre no-one would give him enough money to be able to afford the rights to the franchise. Instead, he decided to go his own way and make his own film - you may have heard of it. He called it "Star Wars". Of course, the success of that movie led most noticeably to the resurrection of "Star Trek" onto the big screen - and we thus had two deadly serious sci-fi franchises battling it out on cinema screens. But you know Hollywood - once a genre hits pay dirt, it has to be emulated and Dino Di Laurentis realised that those Flash Gordon rights were still up for grabs. He purchased them, and got Brit director Mike Hodges on board to direct.
This was never planned to be a deadly serious rival to the two huge cinematic juggernaughts however. Instead, the makers planned to emulate the original faithfully. This meant a more humorous tone would be adapted and tongues would be planted firmly in cheek.
This is evident right from the very first frame. A disembodied voice makes clear that it is going to be destroying an "unknown body in the SK system" for fun. The name of this planet? "It's inhabitants refer to it as the planet earth". The titles then kick in, and if you are in any doubt about the intentions of the filmmakers they are blown away by the bombastic, over the top Queen title track, and the using of original comic book frames over the titles. The original Flash Gordon was tongue in cheek and this remake is certainly faithful in that regard.
Flash Gordon (Sam J Jones) is a famous Football quarterback. Having been on a remote holiday, he boards a small plane to return alongside a beautiful female Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). He does this despite the fact that he is in the middle of a rather strange hot hail storm, with rocks the size of a fist falling from the sky. This doesn't seem to frighten him, or the pilots - so it comes as rather a surprise when the plane is brought down and they crash into a home made observatory belonging to Dr. Hans Zarkov formerly of Nasa (Topol). Topol is convinced that the Earth is under attack, but he has been discredited by the establishment. Of course, as we already know, he is correct - and before we know it Flash and Dale have a gun pointed at their head and they are recruited to help fly Zarkov's rocket. Wait a minute. Rocket? Yep, Zarkov's observatory has a full blown rocket hidden inside. He planned to use it for a peaceful mission, but now it is up to him to take Flash and Dale and fly to the source of the attack and hopefully stop it.
Thus, our intrepid heroes turn up in the kingdom of Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) of the planet Mongo. Here they discover a tyrant who rules over a kingdom of disparate worlds. His modus operandi is to keep the various kingdoms fighting against each other. Thus we have the hawk men fighting against the tree men, who are fighting against the kingdom of frigidia. Whilst they are all busy in-fighting none of them pay any attention to what Ming is up to and his rule is safe. Dale is kept to be Ming's bride and Flash is sent off to be executed, however, he is saved by Ming's sexual predator of a daughter - and she escapes with him to Arboria where Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) is then commissioned to help them. He is, however, not too keen on the idea, and instead decides to kill our hero himself. Will Flash survive and unite the warring races to defeat Ming, and thus save the Earth? Or is everything doomed to failure? Well, I am sure you can guess - but getting to the ultimate destination is certainly riotous fun.
If anyone is totally unfamiliar with the film (do such people exist?), the cast list mentioned above may come as quite a surprise. The OSCAR winning, and much loved, Topol, Max Von Sydow, Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton all have prominent roles. Their presence certainly adds much weight to this rather frivolous flight of fancy, and a lot of the pleasure can be derived from quality thespians sending themselves up wholeheartedly. Blessed, in particular, relishes his role as Prince Vultan, leader of the hawk men. He may be verging on the porky these days, but it is quite a shock back then to see how fit he is. Dressed in leather pants and sporting his trade mark huge beard - the man sets about Ming's minions with alacrity. Getting to speak one of the immortal lines from the film (Gordon's alive) and whistling to himself whilst bonking enemies over the head with a gigantic mace - Blessed is clearly having lots of fun, and this is certainly infectious.
I make no apology for being a huge admirer of Topol, even having travelled the length of the country to see him on stage as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof . Here, he plays the slightly loony Hans Zarkof slightly more seriously than some of the other actor's but always with a trademark glint in his eye that shows he is completely aware of the tone being set around him. This means that in one of the more serious scenes in the whole film, when Zarkoff is having his mind reprogrammed and he sees his history, including Nazi persecution - he has not taken the character so far into parody that the scene becomes unmoving. In fact, this scene shows the strength of the actor. He is able to join in the general fun whilst still pricking the audiences' emotions in this scene. It's an excellent performance.
Not all the actors take this approach however. Max Von Sydow as Ming plays his role perfectly straight. Whatever the mayhem or corny lines going on around him, he always manages to keep a straight face. The fact is that as a villain, he just doesn't seem as threatening as a Khan, or a Darth Vader - but his performance within the context of the film is perfectly pitched.
Amongst all this acting talent, the producers decided to go with unknown talent for the lead roles. Sam J Jones certainly looks the part as Flash himself. Blonde haired, chisel jawed, and more muscle that the entire AVForums editorial team put together - his acting is even more hewed out of rock than his physique. Yep, wooden would be too weak a term to describe the acting on show here. He seems to have only one tone of voice, one body position (stiff) and the range of emotions of a tree trunk. But this matters not. This is the way that Flash was always portrayed. I am not pretending that Jones is a fine actor (he clearly isn't) but for this role, in this film - he is perfect.
Melody Anderson as Dale is slightly better. Not conventionally beautiful (although most certainly interesting) she is a dead ringer for the way the character was drawn in the original strips. Reduced to lines such as "Flash! Flash! I love you! But we only have 14 hours to save the earth!", like Jones she is perfect for the part without ever needing to bother herself with any actual acting.
But as you may have guessed, Flash Gordon is not really the kind of film where you can talk endlessly about the acting. This is very much second nature to the plot and effects. Yet here, again, both are in tune with the spirit of the original. The story, for example, is nothing short of hokey. Relying on ridiculous coincidences (Zarkov having a space ship in his observatory, Flash having a pilot's license and thus being able to fly a spaceship) there is certainly not much here to exercise the old brain cells. Stop and think about the plot for a second and the whole enterprise falls apart. But the original serial was like this too. Famous for ending each episode on a cliffhanger, before getting Flash out of danger with a deus ex machina - ridiculous contrivance was the order of the day, and this is the case here too. This, like the acting, will either annoy or delight depending on your approach. If you like your sci-fi serious - offering you metaphor for the awful state of the world today, then you will get nothing out of this plot. But if you just want harmless escapist, rollercoaster fun with tongue in cheek then the plot will delight you.
The same with the effects. They are truly and honestly appalling. Birdmen superimposed on colourful backgrounds. People fighting, and falling, amongst rubber spikes. Spaceships visibly shaking as they progress jerkily through skyscapes. Again, there is nothing here to impress the connoisseur of sci-fi. But like the rest of the package, this is not the point of the movie. The effects fit in perfectly with the ethos of the whole piece, amusing us with the cheap and cheerful nature of their appearance.
If you are new to the film, and not sure whether to pick it up - then hopefully the review above will give you a good idea of exactly what to expect from the film. The reason it has endured, the reason why folk have enjoyed it so much over the years is that quite simply it reverts back to a previous era. An era where films were fun. Where there didn't have to be a deeper meaning to everything, and when Knights were not dark. Hodges directs with a sense of abandon, moving his camera vigorously and moving scenes on quickly, putting any necessary exposition into the middle of action scenes where they fail to interrupt the momentum. He uses a palette which is bright and vibrant, he has no interest in the dark and grime of the Star Wars universe for example. Costumes are similarly bright, and (ok I have to say it) there is as much homo-eroticism and campness here as there is in Top Gun, for example. Leather pants on massive-thighed men with big beards. Tree men prancing around in green tights and Robin Hood-type caps. Yes, it is certainly not afraid to send itself up in every possible aspect.
Whether the film is your cup of tea depends on how in-tune you are with the ethos presented. Of course if you have fond memories of the film, you have probably already headed down to your local Blu-ray emporium. If you have never seen it, however, then honestly if you like a bit of light, frothy sci-fi, with a killer Queen score, full of fun, double-entendres, and a cast who are having the time of their life - then this film is highly recommended. Only if you have lost touch with your inner child or your sense of fun will you want to pass this by. And that, I'm afraid, would be your loss.