Title: Flash Gordon
Director: Mike Hodges
Writers: Michael Allin and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (created by Alex Raymond)
Distributed By: Universal Studios
Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Chaim Topol, and Max von Sydow
Release Date: December 5th, 1980
The 1934 comic strip is back on the big screen with 1980’s Flash Gordon. Evil Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) uses his powers to bring natural havoc onto planet Earth. With the moon now out of orbit and heading toward Earth, destruction is soon to follow. But not if quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) can stop him, along with girlfriend Dale Arden (Melony Anderson), scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol), and plenty of allies from far out worlds.
Well, it’s time to get back to our pulp fiction special on Movie Mondays. Last time we took a look at the modern adaptation of The Shadow. This time, we’re going to take a look at a pulp comic strip that had a profound impact on comic books, science-fiction, and fantasy. You know what I’m talking about. Flash Gordon. The eponymous hero of Mongo had his comic strip since 1934, with film serials, novels, radio shows, and TV shows, but it wasn’t until 1980 that he got his silver screen movie debut.
Salvador Dali in space
For starters, you have to realize that this is very much a late seventies/early eighties sci-fi film, much like Logan’s Run or Star Wars (which was heavily influenced by Flash Gordon). It’s pretty campy, especially since it was written by Batman (the 60s show) writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. The costumes are oh-so-eighties, with plenty of lasers, spark explosions, and psychedelic smoke. You can even spot a wire or two on the Hawkmen. With that being said, though, it’s a fun kind of camp.
You're pretty much screwed.
This is mostly because the writers and director have a clear vision on Flash Gordon. It’s meant to be pulp and Hodges knows it. It’s not science-fiction, it’s science-fantasy. Rather than try to force it into a Star Wars clone, they instead make it into one grand adventure that pushes the imagination to the limits.
Unfortunately, the acting doesn’t always keep up with the story and characters. Take Sam J. Jones as Flash Gordon for instance. He certainly fits the part as Flash Gordon, the heroic quarterback with a heart of gold, and for the most part he’s believable. But while he gets the exterior part down, the interior part (seeing what he thinks and feels) seems to be lacking.
Movie Rule #2003: Flying lessons always come in handy.
Same for the rest of the cast, such as the leading ladies, Melody Anderson (as Dale Arden) or Ornella Muti (as Princess Aura). Don’t get me wrong, they’re not bad at all. It’s just that sometimes it feels the cast is lacking that extra pizazz with depth. There are a few exceptions, such as legendary Max von Sydow (as Emperor Ming the Merciless), or underrated Timothy Dalton (as Prince Barin).
Of course, a lot of it has to do with the script’s dialog and character development. After all, even the best actors can only carve so much out of wooden lines. But let’s be honest, Flash Gordon isn’t supposed to be a character study, it’s mostly for a fun adventure. However, if there’s one thing the actors make up for in lack of depth, it’s tongue in cheek comedic timing.
This is what happens when you give women pillows.
Now, while the special effects are limited to 1980, they definitely make the most out of their production. The sets are humongous, with each one standing out in their own unique way (even if the scale sets are laughable in today’s time). Same goes for the costumes; all colorful and looking like they were ripped right out of the comics.
As for the music? One word. Queen. Not only did they do the score (with orchestrations done by Howard Blake), but they also made one of the best theme songs in comic book film history, “Flash.” It plays throughout the whole film and it gets stuck in your head, but it’s the kind that makes you want to buy the soundtrack after the movie is over. Plus, it plays the theme song along with a montage of some of the comic strip panels during the beginning. This gets you really pumped up for the film. And unlike the opening montage of The Return of the Swamp Thing, this one actually delivers what’s promised.
Mandarin wants his ring back.
Flash Gordon is essentially a cult classic, one of those films that’s so bad it’s good, or so bad it’s bad. You’ll either like it or hate it with both sides having equally valid points. I know I might have come off sounding enthusiastic about the film, but I’ll be the first to admit that it has more than its fair share of flaws. However, for what it’s worth, it does have plenty of adventure and kicks, just like the comic itself.