Flash Gordon Reviews
The movies plot is basically the same kind of space opera hokeyness that we saw with 'Star Wars'. The ruler of planet Mongo (not mango), Emperor Ming, has decided to play with Earth by causing natural disasters and then destroy it...for reasons. On Earth a scientist believes these natural disasters are being caused by powers coming from deep space which are pushing the Moon towards the Earth. So he lures Flash Gordon and his bird into a rocket and blasts off into space, oddly enough the rocket ends up going through a space vortex and crashing on planet Mongo, convenient. From this point onwards its up to Flash to battle Ming and save Earth from his evil clutches...oh and he gets some help from other alien races too...and saves them also, what a guy!
Now the important thing to remember here is the obvious in your face camp factor. The movie was intentionally made this way to capture the pure colourful and fun essence of the old comic strips and film serials in the 30's (yes I know the film serials were black and white). These days most people will recognise this style being that of the old classic 60's Batman TV series with Adam West, and yes again this movie was made with those specific visuals in mind. The only difference of course being this movie was to be taken relatively seriously or as serious as possible. There are no silly word gags or puns or visual tomfoolery, this was not a spoof or parody, it was a straight up fantasy action flick that just happened to look very vibrant and...errmm camp.
I still find it amusing that Flash was originally a polo player and Yale University graduate because that doesn't seem to fit his character. The guy is suppose to be a superhero-esque figure and...a bit flash, but he plays polo? and he's a snobby top uni grad?? is his alien fighting attire a top hat n tails? Its obvious why they altered this to him being an American football player thusly giving him a much more manly vibe and suiting his rather silly name. Gotta ask...did his parents actually name him Flash? and in this movie why would he wear a shirt with his own name emblazoned across the front? (ego much!!).
That's not to say the film doesn't take liberties with the plot, there are still lots of stupid story holes and ultra convenient circumstances that play along with the frilly gay visuals. The entire beginning of the movie is so ludicrous and convenient its laughable. For a start we're not really told why Ming wants to destroy the Earth, he just kinda wants to for fun, plus how can he control the weather? Then the whole idea of Flash and his bird crashing into Zarkov's lab (their plane is brought down by a hot hail) at the exact time when Zarkov is about to blast into space wreaks of plot convenience. The following idea that Zarkov then tricks and kidnaps the pair to go into space with him is odd to say the least. He actually needs one person to assist him with the launch by stepping on a pedal or something, beats me. He didn't actually require both of them but they all end up going after a bit of fisticuffs, its a very stupid scene frankly. Why not just explain the perilous situation the Earth is in and maybe they would have just agreed to go.
Its also kinda funny how this Zarkov bloke can build a huge space rocket in the comfort of his own greenhouse. He apparently has the funds, the equipment and strangely enough the space! it all fits nicely within his greenhouse. I'm not entirely sure if his space rocket actually finds its way to planet Mongo by accident or intentionally. They go through this space vortex, again very convenient how they fly straight into it, and end up slap bang at planet Mongo...how very convenient! Oh and they happen to crash land right outside Mingo City too! pretty lucky considering they could landed anywhere on the entire planet...I'm being picky aren't I. The movie is filled with these kinds of highly fantastical conveniences and plot holes, its best to try and not think about them really, just enjoy the ride.
As many know this is all part of the fun with this movie, its a semi-serious fantasy but at the same time you're not suppose to look in depth at the tiny details. Much of this universe makes little sense and nothing much is explained, like how come Flash and co are able to breathe the air on planet Mongo? is it identical to Earth? and surely the space trip they undertook would have killed them due to all manner of real time scientific issues...stop!! This film has flying birdmen for flips sake!
Its all about the visuals, bringing the comic strip to life, an early attempt at what 'Sin City' achieved basically. To that end they do a great job and it looks terrific considering how old this is. Production values were solid and you can tell with a vast arrange of lovely sets, costumes and props. Everything is clearly custom made to perfection and with great care and attention to detail, its so nice to see old fashioned model spaceships set against old fashioned model planet surfaces and matte paintings, glorious sight. In fact the special effects do look very much like the model effects seen in British comedy 'Red Dwarf', that gives you an idea of the visual quality and style, obviously fake but really beautiful to see. At the end of the day handmade real time effects may look hokey at times...but oh so charming, and what's more they are real thus providing atmosphere.
The cast is another famous part of this films overall appeal. Its clear to anyone that Max Von Sydow steals the show with his scenery chewing and evil use of eyebrows and goatee. Despite everything going on around him being really quite farcical Sydow sticks to his guns and delivers an epic hard-nosed lavishly dressed ruler or dictator (he looks and dresses very Russian in some scenes if you ask me). He doesn't actually do anything in the movie, no laser battles, no lightsaber fights etc...he just swans around looking ornate and splendid, grimacing at everyone and making them obey. At the same time Sam Jones shows he can't act very well but looks every bit the part of Flash with his golden locks and all American attitude (doesn't actually have much of a muscly physique).
Other stars include Timothy Dalton doing what he does best, playing a dashing dueling cad with an Errol Flynn-like pencil tash. Mariangela Melato as the quite sexy yet evil General Kala complete with black catsuit, Ornella Muti as the stereotypical Princess Aura, Robbie Coltrane is in there, Kenny Baker, Deep Roy and the marvelously creepy Richard O'Brien (look out for 'Blue Peter' presenter Peter Duncan in a small role). But wait! who could forget the gaping bearded maw of the great Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan...wearing a Roman-seque metal skirt. Next to Sydow Blessed performance is probably the most remembered here with some corking dialog and being the only character to actually add some silly comical relief.
The final part of this cult jigsaw that everybody knows and loves is of course the soundtrack. I think most folk will recognise the famous Queen track with cries of 'FLASH! A-AAAH!!'. I love how the opening credits show sections/snippets of the original classic comic strips with the Queen track roaring at the same time. Very much a precursor to what Marvel do now, showing various original comicbook art flickering over credits, and their logo even (Marvel probably pinched the idea). This move was highly original at the time and still is really, you don't often get bands writing exclusive songs for a movie and then use it virtually through the whole movie with little else. The only other music was a small orchestral score by Howard Blake which actually sounds too good for this movie. It does remind me very much of 'Blade Runner' with its deep ethereal tones, it should of been used in a better more serious sic-fi movie methinks.
Sure most things you see here are very cliched, they use every fantasy/space adventure cliche there is although much is taken from the original source material. Anyone young seeing this now would probably groan at the use of jungle worlds, fighting to the death in arenas, ancient Greek looking winged warriors, Princesses, a blonde all American hero, a racist Fu Manchu-esque villain and hordes of faceless Stormtrooper-like soldiers that may or may not be robots or monsters. Naturally the movie rides on the coattails of 'Star Wars' but at the time that was a fresh approach so it all felt new and original. Looking back its clear to see this cult has influenced many films that came along after it, classic British fantasy 'Krull' for one.
By today's gleaming special effects extravaganza laden standards this now looks very hokey at times admittedly. Some model/matte painting shots work beautifully, others which include bluescreen look a bit crap truth be told, even more so in Bluray. Still you can't really complain firstly because the movie is very old and secondly because the cheesy camp style along with dated visuals do combine to homage the original comic strips and early film serials nicely. Its a lively, flamboyant, dazzling ride full of imagination, quirky casting, familiar sci-fi fantasy traits and with colour very much at the forefront of the visual assault. This movie is very much a British institution.
Flash Gordon is a more complicated example of this prolonged change of heart. As a boy under the age of 10, you can't believe your luck - bright colours, big action sequences, scary villains and a chisel-jawed hero. As a teenager who desperately wants to be cool, it's deeply embarrassing - dodgy special effects, hammy acting, a nonsensical plot and Max von Sydow dressing up as Fu Manchu. It's only after this difficult period has passed that the film reveals itself for what it really is - one of the most deliberately and thrillingly silly films ever to grace the silver screen.
If one were to sum up Flash Gordon in a sentence, one could describe it as a remake of the 1936 film, with the added benefits of colour, a better soundtrack and (in Britain at least) more famous actors. For those of us with some knowledge of British character actors and eccentrics, the film contains a number of irresistible one-offs. Where else could you see future Bond Timothy Dalton with a moustache in green spandex, ex-I, Claudius emperor Brian Blessed in wings and a leather tunic, or Rocky Horror's Richard O'Brien as a double-crossing pipe-player?
There is also some enjoyment to be derived from the fact that the film is helmed by the same man who made Get Carter, a film as far removed from comics as you can possibly get. Flash Gordon was Mike Hodges' first completed film in six years, after he was fired from Damien: Omen II three weeks into filming. And for all the film's technical shortcomings (more on those later), Hodges does direct very well: his compositions are good, the stunts and fights are well-choreographed, the characterisation is memorable and - most importantly - he captures the spirit of the original comics.
The reason that Flash Gordon works so well, both as a comic adaptation and a film in general, is that it is aware of the limitations of both its source material and the level of spectacle its budget allows. The original Flash Gordon comics were classic boys'-own adventure tales: stories of adventure on faraway worlds where ordinary heroes battle evil villains, save the world and get the girl. The film updates the characters a little, so that Flash becomes an American footballer and Dale Arden is a travel agent, but otherwise the story plays out in exactly the same romping, rapid-fire style of the original stories.
If we attempt to take Flash Gordon seriously, watching it as a 'proper' science fiction film and looking for deeper meanings in its talkier scenes, we'd last about five minutes before either bursting out laughing or giving up. The plot is totally ludicrous, requiring us to accept a load of unbelievable coincidences. For instance, how lucky is it that Flash and Dale's plane happened to crash land right in front of Dr. Hans Zarkov's laboratory, just as he was about to launch the rocket?
Ming the Merciless' evil plan for destroying the Earth is staple science faction; we're used to films with ray guns and magnetic shields, and so we don't question that he has the ability to move the Moon using a ray. But we still have to contend with a number of cavalier inconsistencies in the plot. The process of brainwashing Zarkov is built up and up into something quite unnerving - but five minutes later, he's back to his old self, having survived it by remembering fragments of the Talmud. In another scene, Princess Aura and Dale catfight for the best part of a minute, and then suddenly become friends as if nothing happened. And why, oh why, did Ming choose to stay standing exactly where he was when the spaceship was clearly heading straight for him?
It's true that evolutions in technology take time to filter down through the various echelons of filmmaking; just because Industrial Light and Magic existed in 1980 doesn't mean that everyone could afford them. The art direction in Flash Gordon (which was BAFTA-nominated) makes the clouds resemble a marbling kit, and the special effects themselves make Thunderbirds look slick. Take the early shots of the rocket entering Ming's universe, in which one can clearly see the image on a piece of acetate being moved across the background. And then we have Gilbert Taylor's cinematography, which bathes everything in so much red that it's like watching the whole film through a vat of claret.
And you know what? None of this matters, and here's why. If this storyline had been played even faintly seriously, the film would have been a naff, self-important turkey like Xanadu (or maybe Dune, considering the presence of Dino De Laurentiis). You simply couldn't treat Flash Gordon like Batman or Superman because it's not designed to be taken seriously or to have allegorical connotations. The closest it ever comes to having any kind of message is in the big final showdown, with all the various peoples uniting against the evil emperor. Considering the comic's origins in the 1930s, one could argue it was making a political message about fascism, but even that's stretching a point.
By playing everything for the fans and getting knowing laughs, Flash Gordon is a triumph - or at least as close to one as we could expect. The fact that we laugh at it so lovingly is no accident: the screenplay comes from Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who wrote the Batman TV series and manages to tap into the inherent silliness of the plot. The soundtrack by Queen and Howard Blake sounds mediocre on its own, but when you've got big battle scenes with camp choreography, it makes sense to have stunts being backed by kick-ass guitar solos and pounding drums. In any case, Brian May's take on the wedding march is genuinely cool and really brings out the best in that scene.
From an historical point of view, the film also illuminates much about the original Star Wars trilogy. It's well-documented that Star Wars had its origins in the matinee idols and Saturday morning westerns of George Lucas' youth. But the influence of Flash Gordon goes beyond that, with this version containing many scenes which eerily foreshadow Return of the Jedi. Both films feature a forest planet with tribal communities living in the trees, imperial guards dressed in red with gas mask-shaped helmets, and a giant monster with a beak and tentacles that swallows people up. One could certainly argue that Krylus was the Darth Vader of his day, albeit with a voice which is far more Jeremy Irons than James Earl Jones.
On top of everything, Flash Gordon is simply great fun. Despite the various fallings-out in post-production, you get the sense watching it that the cast and crew had great fun making it. Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton are clearly having a ball, judging their lines perfectly and relishing the stunts; one can see in Dalton's performance the same ferocious intensity that would serve him well during his tenure as Bond. Max von Sydow is clearly enjoying himself, playing pantomime villain complete with curled lips and clipped pronunciation. Cinema fans should also keep an eye out for Robbie Coltrane (at the airfield) and Deep Roy, who would later play all the Oompa-Loompas in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
It would be very easy to view Flash Gordon with disdain or contempt. Just as Airplane! eventually led to Epic Movie and Disaster Movie, so one could hold Flash Gordon to task for giving us Batman and Robin. But this would be deeply unfair considering how well the finished product holds up after thirty-two years. The film is directed with wit and intelligence, the script does justice to the comics while retaining a sense of humour, and above all it's virtually faultless as a slice of pure entertainment. For all its faults (and there are many), Flash Gordon is a triumph of both the sublime and the ridiculous. It's incredibly silly from start to finish - and you just won't care.
Ming the Merciless, Emperor of Mongo decides to unleash a variety of supposedly natural disasters upon the Earth. Having just survived a plane crash Flash Gordon and Dale Arden are kidnapped by Doctor Zarkov and flown in the rocket he has built to Mongo where they are promptly captured a and taken to Ming.
When Flash fights against Ming's goons he is sentenced to be executed, Zarkov is to brainwashed before being enlisted in Ming's secret police and Dale is told she must marry Ming. Luckily for Flash Ming's kinky daughter helps revives him after the execution and takes him to a moon ruled by Prince Barin for safety but as soon as she leaves he plots to kill Flash. The rest of the film involves Flash rejoining his friends and trying to unite the various tribes of Mongo against Ming before he destroys the earth.
Some sci-fi goes for the dark and gloomy look, others go for a sterile white look... this goes for over the top bright colors, plenty of red and gold. There is little subtlety in the excellent soundtrack either as it is provided by Queen.
Special mention has to go to Ornella Mut, she is completely alluring and charged with sex appeal. I'm sure she helped me jumpstart right into puberty.
In the end this a true cult classic, not for everyone but alot of fun if you enjoy campy sci-fi
who would have thought that Mr. Mike "Get Carter" Hodges would go for campy fun? and Queen in the soundtrack just adds more laughs and nostalgia to this quirky and deliriously kitsch production by megalomaniac producer Dino De Laurentiis.
Favorite Scenes: the football fight and attack of the Hawkmen (music and action)