December 5th, 2011 marks the thirty-first anniversary of Flash Gordon. Why not celebrate it with the first “Geek Life” Specials?!?
Geek Life Special #1: Flash Gordon (1980)
“FLASH! A-AH! He’s for every one of us. Stands for every one of us. He saves with a mighty hand. Every man, every woman, every child. He’s a mighty Flash!”
If you’ve never heard the above lyrics belted out by Queen’s Freddie Mercury, then you might be at the wrong site. Flash Gordon was a movie that every comic book fan has seen. And why not? Flash Gordon is a hero whose roots go back to 1934 – four and a half years before Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. Flash was a sci-fi action/adventure hero that pre-dated comic books as we know them today. He was created by Alex Raymond and was such a popular hero that he was every bit as responsible for heroes that would come after him as much as Superman was an inspiration to the new era of comics that rolled out of the late 30s and early 40s.
Flash Gordon’s original back story was a little different than we’ve seen since. Flash was a star polo player and Yale graduate. He was traveling with Dale Arden, his one true love, when the Earth is bombarded with meteors. Their plan crashes near the half-mad scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov’s lab. Zarkov, who has built a rocket to go into space to determine the reason for the attack on Earth, kidnaps Flash and Dale. They travel to the strange world of Mongo, ruled by the evil Ming The Merciless. It was Ming who used the meteors as weapons against our planet.
On Mongo, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov try to help liberate the planet from the evil ruler. For decades, they, along with allies Prince Barin (ruler of the forest kingdom of Arboria), Prince Vultan (ruler of the Hawkmen), Queen Fria (ruler of the ice kingdom of Frigia), Queen Desira (ruler of the jungle kingdom Tropica), King Kala (of the Shark Men), and Prince Thun (ruler of the Lion Men). Flash unites several of these kingdoms against Ming. Eventually, Ming would be overthrown. The leadership of Mongo would fall to a council led by Barin who marries Ming’s sultry daughter Princess Aura.
Over the years, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov would continue their adventures on Earth and return to Mongo several times. They even fought in a distant war in other parts of the universe as well. The comic strip was in constant publication on as a daily strip, a Sunday strip, and, for a while, both, from it’s first appearance on January 7th, 1934 until March of 2003. Several comic book series from publishers like DC, Marvel, and Dynamite featured the character in stories. However, most of Flash’s comic book formatted adventures came in reprints of the old strips that appeared in the paper.
Between 1936 and 1940, Buster Crabbe brought Flash Gordon to life in three different matinee serials. Jean Rogers played Dale Arden in the first two serials with Carol Hughes taking the role in the third. Charles B. Middleton played Ming as a military dictator (which made a lot of sense at that time in world history) in each of the serials with Frank Shannon playing the role of Dr. Zarkov. The serials were just as popular as the comic strip, and would actually become a very key inspiration to George Lucas when he created Star Wars. Funny how that turned out as Star Wars would serve as an inspiration to bring Flash Gordon to the big screen in 1980.
Flash also made television appearances. In the mid 50s, a live action series starring Steve Holland premiered in the States. The series was a decent success, but had one very interesting distinction… It was entirely filmed in Europe. All but the last thirteen episodes were filmed in West Berlin, a city that still showed much of the destruction from World War II that ended a decade before. I’m not much of a television historian, but I can’t imagine many other series during that era being filmed entirely outside of the United States. Another attempt at a live action crashed and burned pretty horribly in 2007 when Sci-Fi Channel tried their hand at the character. Similarly, cartoon series between 1979 and 1996 were also short lived.
But you didn’t come this article for any of this stuff. Let’s get to the 1980 big screen version that is, well… If you’ve seen it, you know. It’s just one of those movies that somehow straddles that line between ridiculous and ridiculously awesome.
Hot off the successes of the above mentioned Star Wars, Hollywood was quick to find more properties that would capture the same special effects-driven thrills. Superman (though already in the works at the time that Star Wars was surprising everyone and burning up the box office) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture were two more massive successes that pushed Hollywood that much further into the idea of huge productions with sci-fi fantasy elements that would appeal to the masses. It’s clear that Flash Gordon fell into this plan. If Star Wars re-energized the space adventure, and Superman proved the action heroes could come from comics, then why couldn’t a character as popular as Flash Gordon work?
Universal Pictures’ Flash Gordon starred Sam Jones as the title character. I imagine the producers wanted an actor that was a perfect mix of Superman and Luke Skywalker, and that’s what they got out of Sam Jones’ look. For Dale Arden, the pretty, but classy, Melody Anderson was chosen. Academy Award nominated actors Topol and Max von Sydow (whose nomination came later) played Zarkov and Ming, respectively. To fill out the cast, famous British actor (and future James Bond) Timothy Dalton was picked to play Prince Barin while noted British character actor Brian Blessed played Vultan in one of his most famous roles. In the role of Ming’s daughter, Aura, Italian actress, and possibly one of the most beautiful women ever, Ornella Muti made her English speaking debut in a movie. Mike Hodges, of The Omen II fame, directed the film.
Without a doubt, the production value on the Dino De Laurentiis-produced movie was literally out of this world. While much of the script and the acting place this movie squarely into the realm of B-Movie fare, I cannot think of another B-Movie that is as visually gorgeous as Flash Gordon. Danilo Donati’s production design and set decoration, with art direction by John Graysmark, created a world rich in color and really made it feel like you’re watching a movie that took place in another world. Donati also designed the costumes for the production tying it all together. Let’s put it this way, Donati made it very easy for cinematographer Gilbert Taylor to shoot a particularly beautiful movie unlike so many others of its genre. While Donati did get some award nominations outside of the U.S., it’s amazing he didn’t get at least one Oscar nomination for all he did for the movie.
When the film came out, it did not do well. For all it tried to do and all it gained in cult status later, the film was pretty much a disaster in the eyes of critics. Visually, no one seemed to complain. I mean, outside of what I described above, every single character just looked freakin’ cool. Every single soldier of Ming’s varied from a classic military look to down right creepy. Those guys that Dale puts a hurt on in the scene that she escaped the harem still give me the heebie jeebies. All that aside, Max von Sydow did get the bulk of the accolades from the acting side. On the flipside, Sam Jones did get a nomination for his acting in the movie. Too bad it was a Golden Raspberry (or Razzie) for Worst Actor in a Lead Role. From the acting side, it seemed like if you were an American actor, this movie just really wasn’t one of your career’s highlights.
On the other hand, this movie was actually a huge success in England. My guess as to why this turned out to be the case is three fold. First, this is largely a British production. Nearly all the actors were British or European. These were all actors that were much better known to the U.K. and not so much to the U.S. Timothy Dalton and Max von Sydow would be the two main exceptions. Von Sydow was, of course, the titular character in the massively successful The Exorcist. Dalton, even before becoming James Bond, had been in several movies that made their way to the States like the Academy Award winning A Lion in Winter.
The second reason is perhaps the main reason why the general public still thinks about this movie today… The music of Queen. At the time, let’s not forget that Queen was one of the biggest rock and roll acts in the world. They were coming off an extremely successful start to their careers that included such hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are the Champions” among another half dozen more before they were tapped to do this soundtrack. They were well on their way to becoming one of the biggest rock groups of all time at this point (and they subsequently powered their way there by the mid 80s). Their music before, during, and after this movie has a way of charging the listener. There are few bands that I will want to listen to in order to get a rush of excitement. It’s just what Queen will always be known for. What they deliver as an undercurrent to this movie is nothing short of powerful. The producers knew it to because they get major recognition in the trailer, on the poster, and the credit for their work is the very first thing that scrolls by after the movie ends. The entire last reel of the film is scored by the band and it keeps you excited for the movie. I don’t care who you are or how you felt about the movie, you had to love the soundtrack. I’ve often noted that the explosion at the end of the song “The Hero” is not actually in the song. It’s literally the sound of your genitals exploding from being rocked so hard by the song itself. I dare you to try to convince me otherwise.
My final reason for why I think this really resonated with British audiences is a bit of a stretch, but stick with me. The Brits had a little show some of you might have heard of. It was most definitely nested in the sci-fi genre and featured strange worlds, evil egomaniacs with big plans for conquest, and often had to rely on color and base simple ways to get the viewers believing they are looking at some far off setting. The acting on this particular series can very easily be compared to what is normally seen in old style adventure serials and soap operas (what a weird mix, huh?). That show I’m talking about? Yeah, it’s Doctor Who. If you look at the themes from Flash Gordon – travelers from another world caught up in a war for freedom and doing all they can to incite the revolution or assist in the ultimate demise of the evil dictator – you will see much of the same in just about every Doctor Who story. The Brits love this level of sci-fi. They love the (for a lack of a better word) silliness of how this type of story plays out. What some of us here in the States see as a classic swashbuckling theme is very much what they have seen in much of their fantasy stories that date back far longer than we’ve known the notion. Every little bit of how this movie comes together visually, dramatically, and musically fits right into the British sensibilities of the genre. Or at least it did in 1980.
Here, in the States, we’ve relegated this movie to “B Movie Status” or “Cult Classic Status”. While the Brits get off on the way it plays out, we get off on the ridiculous turning into awesome. I think we call a lot of movies “B Movies” to give ourselves an easy excuse to like something that most commonly would be a guilty pleasure. Everything from the less-than-subtle sexuality of the movie to the overtly fetishistic nature of some of the scenes to the lunkheaded portrayal of Flash from Sam Jones to the cheerleading Melody Anderson in the throne room brawl to the crazy monsters and midgets that seem to be everywhere… This is a movie that we look at with so many questions as to what people were thinking when building this world and so much giddiness over how over the top the whole damn thing is. Most of us can’t help but to love the movie, but we’re also really careful who we admit that to as well. One guy you can talk to about your love of this movie is Alex Ross. The man eats, breathes, and loves him some Flash Gordon. He’s cited the film as being one of his biggest influences to get into art and comics. He even designed the 2006 DVD box art for the movie. On top of that, the logo he uses for his name on his website and while at conventions is the logo created for this movie. You could talk to him for hours about this movie and not find a single moment when you would feel ashamed about loving it.
I know when I watch the movie (and I’ve watched a couple times over the past few weeks leading up to writing this article) and many things pop out at me. First of all, why don’t any bodies of the bad guys stick around? When Klytus and Kala get killed, they melt into some really gross goo that Flash and Zarkov (respectively) just look at and study. These people are goo! Step away from it and go on about your business! Ming dies by vaporizing himself. No bad guy manages to stay tangible after they die. Next, how many of you thought that Jeremy Irons played Klytus? I only realized like a year ago that it wasn’t. I mean, that’s Jeremy Irons’ voice isn’t it? Sure as hell sounds like it to me. Another item that sticks out is how quotable Brian Blessed is through this whole movie. I mean, seriously, every word that comes out of the guy’s mouth is quotable. That guy chewed scenery AND got the best lines. How awesome is that for him?
Then there’s the case of the rating vs. what we actually see in the movie. Now, of course, the movie ratings system only had four different ratings during this time – G, PG, R, and X. Flash Gordon was given a PG rating. Back then, there wasn’t much in the way of cussing, and there was definitely no nudity, so it never should have been anything above PG by 1980 standards. But would I show this movie to a kid under the age of 13? Well, most of the movie is okay, but some of it definitely is not. Ming’s whole attitude toward Dale is one of a sexual predator. He wants her prepared for their “pleasure” and he shows up to his harem looking to slip her a little of the old in out in out. She’s given a drink to make the whole experience with Ming a little easier to deal with (implying that it’s basically going to be rape). In fact, the very first thing Ming does to Dale when he sees her is hypnotize her to see what kinda moves she’s got! To which, he immediately appreciates. Ming’s a horndog!
Being that Ming is a total man whore, it only makes sense that his daughter is a lady whore. Ornella Muti would single handily make this movie at least a PG-13 by today’s standards. The way she dresses in the tight and/or barely there outfits, the way she pretty much gives every guy (this guy included) a boner only to play hard to get, everything, is pure sex. When she helps Flash escape, she’s pretty much doin’ the guy while he’s trying to talk to his girlfriend. In the very same scene, she talks about her “pleasure planet”. Either that’s literally a planet she goes on vacation to or she’s just named her lady parts something completely new, I don’t know, but I do know after she’s caught and she’s being interrogated while being held down by armless hands and being whipped by General Kala (another girl, mind you), that’s straight up somebody’s dream situation. Someone, be it the director, the writer, the actors, or the production designer, they definitely did not want to take a sick day for that day of shooting. I don’t know… My point is that Ornella Muti’s entire presence nearly moves this movie right out of PG land. If you plan on letting your young kid watch this movie, be ready for some really tough questions after it’s over. Hopefully they will only ask you about the awesomeness of Queen and avoid the fetish bits.
Love it or hate it, Flash Gordon is one of those movies that is quotable, memorable, and something you almost can’t not watch when on television. It’s not exactly a movie that will trump the desire to watch other superhero movies like the original Superman, Batman, or any of the subsequent comic book movies that raised the bar for how these films are made, but ask me if I want to watch some Flash Gordon, you better believe I’d say yes.
Thanks for taking this trip with me down memory lane. Geek Life will continue these specials into 2012, so keep checking back for the next one! For now, as you huddle together in the warmth of your family and loved ones this Holiday Season, just remember, there’s a quarterback for the New York Jets saving our asses from a crazy bald guy with a ridiculously hot daughter who wants to play with our planet like it’s a Furby. But then again, I guess Ming isn’t all that bad of a guy… Upon hearing I chose this movie as the topic of a Geek Life Special, he sent me a really nice Christmas Card…