Flash Gordon (1980)Written By: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Directed By: Mike Hodges
Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Ornella Muti, Max Von Sydow, Topol, Timothy Dalton, Mariangela Melato, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde
Country of Origin: United States of America (though based upon the cast, you could guess any country in Europe and be spot on)
When the voting procedures completed and all votes were tallied, I was surprised to see that you requested a review (in larger than expected numbers) of Flash Gordon. I’ve reviewed campy films before, some of which became camp fodder years after their original release. Night of the Demons, Sleepaway Camp, and Batman & Robin fall into the category of better known reviews, while certain pictures, like The Toxic Avenger and Leprechaun 4: In Space, fall by the wayside when we observe their camp value on this site. Now that I’ve provided you with links to many classic examples of “so bad its good” films, you should be well versed in what you’re looking at with my dilemma on Flash Gordon.
When it was proposed, produced, filmed and released, Flash Gordon pulled no punches about its cinematic purpose: it was intentionally campy and was made as such to hark back to the days of the comic strip it was printed on as well as more classical examples of science fiction. Though we’ll examine old school pictures like that in our December lecture series, we could easily have seen Flash Gordon as one of those movies despite its release date occurring several years after those movies. The tribute and parody we’ll see in this movie create quite the impossible task: reviewing a movie that could easily be summed up as “intentionally bad.” If you’re content with that estimation, stop reading right now. If not, I humbly implore you to continue reading as we delve into the cinematic synopsis of Flash Gordon.
From start to finish, Flash Gordon is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most over-the-top exhibition of science fiction/fantasy flicks in the history of motion pictures. Despite any other films that claim (or even appear) otherwise, this is the patron saint of bad, campy movies. Within the first five minutes of the picture, we, the objective viewer having never heard or seen anything related to this Flash character or his escapades, are bombarded by comic strip flashbacks and ripping chords from Queen. Hey, we even get to see bright switchboards that flicker faster than you can say epilepsy with phrases such as “Hot Hail” on them. I question, and in fact, defy you to explain what purpose an evil genius could have with HOT FUCKING HAIL. If it’s hot, it isn’t hail. It would melt and thus this precipitation would be rain. HOT RAIN. Hot hail seems to more imply that a volcano is just dispersing with a new form of heated snow, but I digress.
Moving to our actual plot and series of events that we call a movie, title character and avid self-promoter Flash Gordon (whose shirt also says Flash in case you somehow didn’t remember his god damn name) is, through a series of strange and bizarre events, transported to the base of Ming the Merciless in outer space with his associates. Not surprisingly, Ming intends to build from his home planet of Mongo (what a name for a planet, by the way) where he is emperor onto the universe. Earth, the next planet in his path of world domination, has been somewhat of a spot of bother and its up to Flash Gordon to save the world. Thankfully, Flash is in great shape to tackle the job, as he was doubling as quarterback for the New York Jets. No fucking joke. Flash Gordon, apparently predating a real superhero in Brett Favre, was the quarterback for the New York Jets, and his first name is Flash. This review could be nine pages long with statements about the sheer stupidity of everything going on in the movie (including Flash himself taking a steel ball off the forehead and break-neck speed), but that would get pretty redundant, don’t you think?
Flash (along with the others, but who cares about them) eventually falls into disarray in Ming’s quarters and is presumed dead until he is saved by one of Ming’s accomplices, Princess Aura. Her fascination with Flash leads him to a massive conflict where he will have to choose between the feminine desire she presents and his dedication to his comrade Dale (a woman, by the way). Meanwhile, Ming the Merciless is determined to marry Dale as part of an insidious plot to continue his conquest, yet his own world has fallen to shambles as an intergalactic crisis is on the horizon and the fate of the universe depends of this very conflict. Obviously, Ming has never played Risk or Axis and Allies and is therefore completely hapless in his mission.
Much of this movie takes place in the far off locales previously described, some of which look like a cross between Endor and any treetop level in Donkey Kong Country. Despite the lack of, well, coherence this film gives the media literate, it delivers some very nice makeup, costuming, and special effects as well as impressive scenery. That’s right, I’m giving the movie some much needed praise through all of its audacious butchering of common sense. In fact, the entirety of the movie is solidly invested behind these visual idiosyncrasies and makes for quite an entertaining romp for the senses. Combine it all with that awesome soundtrack from Queen and we are astounded as an audience.
Nothing more I could say could help you fully understand this incredible movie unless I told you to simply watch it. I recommend watching each and every film I review, and this one is at the pinnacle of that mountain of information. After all, even as the movie concludes, we are left with one more campy element of suspense that trumps all others. What could possibly conclude a movie like this so perfectly that it is the most clichéd bit of cinema in history. Well, that’s simple. One screen graphic that shows the following statement verbatim: “The End?” Nothing tops that.
Member of the crew who should’ve been fired: Anyone involved with the stunts and the stunt coordinator/choreographer should not just be fired, but imprisoned for their acts against humanity. As cheeky and fun as some of the fight sequences can be in this movie, one particular duel takes the cake. In his greatest moment as a football player, Flash attempts to fight off Ming’s troops through various incarnations of sporting plays. In case you’re wondering how this could possibly give anyone a pink slip, I have included this link to better illustrate the lunacy.
Best Name in the Cast: Sam J. Jones went on from this breakout role as Flash Gordon to star in more forgettable television shows and scripted films than David Naughton. His horrible acting, often rumored to have been dubbed over after a disagreement with the director, is just the start of his inclusion on this dubious list. He has opened the door for several others following him to do the exact same thing: make one big time movie (regardless of quality) despite never having believably acted before. A short list of model followers includes Hayden Christensen and directorially, Roland Emmerich.
Quote of the Film:
“As I was going under, I started to recite Shakespeare, the Talmud, the formulas of Einstein, anything I could remember, even a song from The Beatles. It armored me, girl! They couldn’t wipe those things away. You can’t beat the human spirit!” -Doctor Hans Zarkov, and seriously, WTF?
Final Thoughts: Commercially, Flash Gordon was a total failure that suffered backlash and criticism for intentionally wasting an audience’s time with an almost spoofy and clichéd version of science fiction cinema. Many considered it neither fun nor enjoyable, and rather, disregarded it as a simple exercise in ridiculous ends to a once purposeful means. Still, Flash Gordon is heralded almost 30 years later as one of the only classic examples of an intentional camp film that fulfilled its own legacy and became a cult cinema must for film aficionados. 30 years from now, when this film is a senior citizen, I expect that movies like Snakes on a Plane will follow in key because of their absolute absurdity. I myself, am an absurd mind, and I plan to watch this movie again, more than likely this week. Most people don’t get the absurdist enjoyment of movies like Flash Gordon or others in the genre, but then again, seeing as how it is absurd, isn’t that the point in the first place?