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Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon
Year: 1980
Genre: Adventure, Science Fiction
Director: Mike Hodges
Stars: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max Von Sydow, Timothy Dalton

Dystopia month continues with the fun science fiction adventure film Flash Gordon, which is a terrific update of the 1930s comic strip.  Seeing as The Avengers just came out this past weekend to boatloads of praise which acclaims that it is “the most perfect comic movie,” I figure I might as well highlight what I’ve thought to be the most perfect comic movie.  After all, Flash Gordon has one amazing thing that The Avengers is sadly lacking: The amazing, AWESOME soundtrack by Queen.  I listened to the soundtrack for Flash Gordon  a million times before I ever saw the movie – that’s how much I’ve always loved the music.  Seeing the music I liked so much set to visuals like this only enhanced the viewing experience for me a WHOLE lot more.  To emphasize just how good this soundtrack is, here’s a music video for the film’s title song performed by Queen:

flash gordon 1So now that my praise for the music is out of the way, let’s get onto the film itself.  Earth falls under attack by Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) – the despot ruler of the planet Mongo.  He begins by causing unnatural disasters to befall the planet and then, deeming it a threat to his rule, decides to have Earth destroyed.   Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), quarterback for the NY Jets, is on a plane trip with journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson).  Their plan crashes into the lab of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) who immediately kidnaps them and takes off in his rocket to try and figure out what is disrupting the Earth.  Through some plot convenience their rocket is transported to the planet Mongo.

Ming the Merciless is an absolute despot who runs his kingdom with an iron hand.  Falling under his control is the kingdom of Arboria, governed by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and Sky City, home of the Hawkmen, governed by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed).   In order to maintain his rule, Ming ensures that these two kingdoms are constantly at war with each other – that way they won’t be able to combine forces to rise up against him.  Flash, however, realizes that this is the only way to stop Ming – to get Barin and Vultan to settle their differences and work together to topple their cruel leader.  Since the only way for Flash and the gang can save Earth is to destroy Ming, they set about trying to make peace between the two Princes.

flash gordon 2Performance-wise it is a mixed film.  Sam J. Jones certainly looks the part of Flash Gordon and he looks to be having a great time but he never really comes off as convincing.  Producer Dino DeLaurentis discovered Sam J. Jones by watching an episode of “The Dating Game,” and cast this role based on that alone.  Sam J. Jones was not an actor and brought so little life to the character that all of his lines were dubbed in post production by someone who could add just a bit more enthusiasm. The rest of the cast, however, is fantastic – especially Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless.  Of course the most memorable of all, in my opinion at least is Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan.  The over-the-top machissmo with which he plays that character fits so well with the campy and fun feel of the whole film.  The Hawkman’s attack on the war rocket Ajax would not be as great as it is if it were any other actor in that role.

According to the trivia page for this movie Kurt Russell had auditioned for the title role – now that would have been a rather interesting movie to watch.  According to a 1981 interview in Starlog Magazine with Kurt Russell, Dino DeLaurentis did want Kurt Russell for the part but Russell eventually turned it down because he felt that the character of Flash Gordon didn’t have any personality.  He was correct.  Everything in this movie, from the other actors to the music and the set design, all outshine Flash Gordon.  He spends most of the movie just being shuffled around by other characters, all of whom have more charisma than Flash.  The things everyone remembers about this movie are the music, the campy screenplay, the fake design and comic feel, and the performances from the supporting cast.  Nobody ever remembers FlashGordon for whom the movie is named.

flash gordon 3The whole movie is FUN camp.  The screenplay was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. who wrote many episodes of the 1960s Batman television series; this is a man who knows how to have a campy good time.  Nothing in this movie ever looks authentic, it all has a cartoonish look to it.  Prince Vultan and his Hawkmen look and act ridiculous, but it’s this ridiculousness that makes the film so much fun.  Bright colors, fun music, over-the-top characters – these are the things that make Flash Gordon so memorable.  Just how campy is some of the screenplay?  Well, here are some examples:

“Flash!  Flash, I love you but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!”

Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror.”

“No one – but NO ONE – dies in the palace without a command from the Emperor.”

flash gordon 4The fact that this film is so comical is probably a reason why it didn’t fare so well in the United States either.  1980 was the same year that The Empire Strikes Back topped the box office.  Also fresh in people’s minds were all the countless Star Wars knock-offs, as well as Star Trek: The Motion Picture being one of the top 5 grossing films from 1979.  American audiences had a mind set of what science fiction was supposed to be like – and campy fun like Flash Gordon did NOT conform to those “standards.”  It’s a science fiction film that, with it’s over-the-top feel and colorful sets looks exactly like it came from a comic book – people weren’t too supportive of this concept at that time.  The way Star Wars had forever changed the way visual effects were being done in movies – Flash Gordon  had the audacity to come along looking as cheerfully fake as it did.  The film was a success in the UK, however, where it grossed £13,864,652 and was nominated for a few BAFTA awards.  In the U.S.A the film flopped at the box office and the only award it received a nomination for was a Golden Rasberry for Sam J. Jones’ performance.  Flash Gordon did find fresh life and a great cult following upon its release on home video and later on DVD.

I am not too familiar with the original comic strip and have seen maybe one or two episodes of the Flash Gordon serial with Buster Crabbe – not enough to base any kind of faithfulness this film bears to its source material.  Looking at the cover of that comic there, it would have been pretty bad-ass to see Flash Gordon riding a shark but I think I’m just saying that because I like sharks so much.   That’s okay though because one does not need to be familiar with any previous incarnation of Flash Gordon in order to enjoy this movie.  One only needs to be willing to approach this movie ready to have a good time, to laugh and cheer and not make any attempt to take this seriously.


About The Author
Matthew Coats
Matthew Coats
Formerly known under the pseudonym of Alex Jowski. Site owner, movie aficionado, and film school grad. Matthew Coats presents reviews, some written, some as vlogs, and some as weekly shows, for a variety of different movies and television shows. After years of struggling to get his own projects off the ground amidst the normal routine of living, Matthew Coats decided to create a site in order to share and promote movie reviews, video games and much much more from talented and original people all across the internet.

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