He’s a miracle. King of the impossible. And yes, he’ll save every one of us
The 1930s were a glorious time for the imagination. Comic books and newspaper comic strips were filled with chisel-chested, square-jawed heroes engaging in glorious deeds. They came from the stars like Superman, or they went to the stars like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Streaking from panel to panel across pages filled with excitement and adventure, these comics wowed youngsters everywhere. The Saturday morning film serials that brought these and other characters to life on the big screen took the amazement to a whole new level. This was also the time of King Kong, Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, Dracula, and so forth. The science fiction and fantasy in print and on the screen in the 1930s would set alight the imagination of countless filmmakers who came of age in the 1960s and 70s. When moviemaking and special effects technology started catching up with the ideas spewing from these fertile minds, there seemed to be no limit to what was possible.
Until George Lucas released Star Wars in 1977, science fiction films were mostly regarded as either shallow thrill rides for kids or head trips for a small, cerebral audience. Sure, there was 2001: A Space Odyssey, Forbidden Planet, Logan’s Run, the collected works of George Pal and other great flicks. But nothing crossed over to delight audiences of all ages, creeds, and social backgrounds like Star Wars. Lucas noted on more than one occasion that his space opera—complete with epic battles of good and evil, fantastic worlds, and jaw-dropping technology—was inspired by Flash Gordon. In fact, Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon picture, but the rights to the character were owned by producer Dino De Laurentiis, who had his own plans for Flash.
Flash Gordon, conceived by artist Alex Raymond and first published in 1934, was itself inspired by another swashbuckling space adventurer of the 1930s, Buck Rogers. And when Star Wars came out and became a mega hit, the movie inspired De Laurentiis to finally get his Flash Gordon flick off the ground. So, just so we have it all straight, Buck Rogers led to Flash Gordon, which led to Star Wars, which led back to Flash Gordon. De Laurentiis originally wanted fellow Italian and legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini to direct his Flash Gordon movie. The two were old friends, and De Laurentiis had previously produced Fellini’s La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. Fellini never moved forward with the project, and De Laurentiis turned to Nicholas Roeg, whose previous brush with science fiction was 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie as an alien incognito on Earth trying to develop technology to save his dying planet. Roeg’s vision for Flash Gordon was more offbeat than what De Laurentiis had in mind, and again the project stalled.
The producer hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to write a screenplay while he searched for another director. Semple had worked for De Laurentiis before on the 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor and then on the infamous 1976 remake of King Kong. Semple, to this point, and forever after will be remembered for his contribution to the 1966 movie Batman and the television series that followed. Semple’s Batman was high camp. He deliberately wrote the material as a spoof of the superhero genre, and his take on the Caped Crusader changed the face of Batman for years to come, and not for the better. It wasn’t until Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster film version that the character was able to shake off the damage done by Semple. For some reason, De Laurentiis liked what Semple had done with Batman and wanted to pursue a humorous tone with Flash Gordon. It was a decision that would lead to chaos for all concerned.
Ming: Klytus, I’m bored. What plaything can you offer me today?
Klytus: An obscure body in the SK system, Your Majesty. The inhabitants refer to it as the planet Earth.
Ming: How peaceful it looks. (Aims his power ring. Earth is visited by epic natural disasters.)
Klytus: Most effective, Your Majesty. Will you destroy this Earth?
Ming: Later. I like to play with things a while…before annihilation.
Mike Hodges, who had directed the classic Michael Caine crime caper Get Carter (1971) was brought on to helm the production. He was assisted by a team of well-traveled costume designers, production designers, and film technicians who gave Flash Gordon a mystical look with a dazzling color palette that really seemed like a comic strip come to life. When it came to casting the film, Hodges and De Laurentiis assembled an impressive mix of European acting royalty. Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton played Prince Vultan and Prince Barin, respectively, leaders of kingdoms of Mongo at each other’s throats, but sharing a common hatred for the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless, played to perfection by the amazing Max Von Sydow.
Von Sydow jumped at the chance to play Ming, having read the Flash Gordon comic as a boy. Topol, famous for his turn as Tevye in the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof on stage and screen, played Dr. Hans Zarkov, the Earth scientist who discovers the attack on Earth by Ming. Also on board were Philip Stone, a mainstay in Stanley Kubrick classics A Clockwork Orange and The Shining as Ming’s high priest, and Richard O’Brien, the brains behind The Rocky Horror Show and the later midnight film classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as Barin’s right hand man, Fico. Kenny Baker, the original R2-D2, also has a brief role, as does Deep Roy, who plays Fellini, the pet dwarf of Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura. Television actress Melody Anderson was brought on to play Dale Arden, the object of the affections of both Flash and Ming.
For the all-important title role, De Laurentiis wanted someone who was good-looking, all-American, and athletic. And if he could act, too, that would be nice as well. Kurt Russell took one look at the script and passed, feeling it was too light. De Laurentiis took one look at Arnold Schwarzenegger and passed, worried that his accent would bury the movie. Instead, De Laurentiis settled on Sam J. Jones, whose only work in front of the camera was a bit part in Blake Edwards’ 1979 comedy 10, some scattered TV, and a fully nude centerfold in Playgirl magazine. Jones wasn’t much of an actor, but he had the look that was needed for the film’s namesake. And when he arrives on Mongo and announces himself as “Flash Gordon, quarterback, New York Jets,” you know you’ve got your hero. Who better to save the world than a blond, barrel chested professional football player who is so popular that even he wears a t-shirt with his name on it?
Semple turned to some of the earliest Flash Gordon stories from the 30s as his inspiration for the screenplay. In this film, however, Ming seems bent on destroying Earth just for kicks rather than conquering it outright and adding it to his empire as in earlier comic and film versions of the material. All well and good for a science fiction story, but you realize very early that this version of Flash Gordon is not what you might expect from a traditional space opera. First off, the soundtrack is written and performed by Queen, which lays down a kick-ass opening credit track and provides other gems scattered throughout the film. Choosing a rock band then at the height of its powers to provide the soundtrack for a science fiction movie was a bold step in 1980, and it gave this one a boost right out of the gate. Then we get to see Flash meet Dale on a small private plane, where the two engage in some really awkward getting-to-know-you dialogue that is thankfully interrupted when the plane is pummelled by hot hail in midair. I have no idea what hot hail is or if it is even real, but I’m going with it for the sake of breaking up this painful scene. The pilots are plucked out of the cockpit by Ming from afar (Again, who cares? Go with it.), and Flash, who coincidentally has been taking flying lessons, crash lands the plane in Dr. Hans Zarkov’s laboratory.
Zarkov spots some molten rocks falling out of the sky and determines that these are actually fragments of Moon rock and that our Moon is being subjected to an immensely powerful alien force. Convinced that this is an attack, Zarkov decides that the best course of action is to go up into space to wherever the alien source is coming from and counterattack in his custom-built rocket. He uses subterfuge and later a gun to get Flash and Dale to join him on his quest. They crash-land on Mongo, where they are taken prisoner. Zarkov has one .38 pistol and zero clue what he is doing, but he is prepared to save the Earth from what is evidently a far superior technological society that is armed to the teeth. (Remember, we’re going with it.) They are brought before Ming, who is presiding over a tribute ceremony attended by the various kingdoms of Mongo. Ming survives an assassination attempt, and the vibe is put out that his grip over his dictatorial regime is held together through fear, a fact Zarkov believes can be exploited to find allies willing to help save Earth.
Ming is immediately smitten by Dale, and orders her to be prepared “for our pleasure.” Flash steps in, boldly telling the emperor, “Forget it, Ming. Dale’s with me.” Using his best football moves, Flash takes on Ming’s guards, with Dale literally acting as cheerleader from the sidelines. Again, we get some Queen music, and the sequence is rife with silly comic moments. Flash is overpowered, and Ming orders him to be executed. By this point in the story, the campy moments and corny dialogue have set the film on an unexpected course that confused a lot of audiences seeing it for the first time in 1980. People were expecting something more like Star Wars or the recently released Star Trek: The Motion Picture—serious science fiction with a dash of fantasy thrown in for good measure; a film that was fun, but still took itself seriously. After the throne room scene, and after Flash is put to death wearing nothing but a pair of tight black leather shorts, it is evident that Flash Gordon is not to be taken seriously.
Or is it? It’s hard to know. Flash is secretly brought back to life by Aura, who has a thing for him, and for the doctor who she convinces to give Flash an antidote that protects him in the gas chamber. And she’s got a thing for Barin, too, who is the one person who is actually supposed to be Aura’s boyfriend. She wants to fly Flash off to her secret pleasure moon, but he convinces her to help him reach Dale. Flash reveals to Dale that he is alive via a telepathic amplifier, and she escapes from Ming’s bedchamber. Klytus, who looks like a poor man’s Darth Vader, brainwashes Zarkov and sends him to find Dale. He promptly does and they escape Mingo City. Zarkov then reveals to Dale that he beat Klytus’s imperial reconditioning by reciting the words of Shakespeare and songs from the Beatles. Okay, so it’s unclear whether this is serious sci-fi or not, but, say it with me this time, “We’re going with it.”
Aura takes Flash to Arboria, the kingdom of Prince Baron, for his protection. Barin would like to see Flash dead, and almost gets his wish until hawkmen, dispatched by Prince Vultan, captures Barin and Flash and takes them to Sky City, Vultan’s kingdom. There Flash is reunited with Dale and Zarkov. Barin challenges Flash to mortal combat on a titling platform complete with spikes that randomly pop up and down. Oh, the combatants get whips, too. It’s a pretty great scene. Barin almost tumbles off the platform into space, but Flash saves him and convinces him that now is the time to rebel against Ming. Just then, Klytus arrives, having traced Flash there after capturing and torturing Aura. Barin and Flash kill Klytus, which enrages Vultan, who knows this will bring down destruction on his kingdom. He orders his brave hawkpeople to abandon the city, leaving Flash, Barin, Dale, and Zarkov to Ming, who arrives shortly thereafter. Ming takes the other three back to his ship but leaves Flash behind and pitches him a deal. He will spare Flash’s life and call off the attack on Earth and let Flash rule it in Ming’s name. Flash refuses, realizing that the survivors of Earth would be slaves to Ming like all the other kingdoms of Mongo. He is left to die as Sky City is blasted to bits by Ming’s ship, but at the last moment escapes in a rocket cycle. He reconnects with Vultan and his men.
Vultan: Come on, Flash. It’s time to bail out.
Flash: Sorry, Vultan. I’m not coming. The fire’s too heavy. You know we’ll never make that opening with nobody at the wheel.
Vultan: But you’ll be blown to pieces, Flash. It’s suicide.
Flash: No. A rational transaction. One life for billions.
Vultan: Well, goodbye, Flash, it’s been…
Flash: I know. For me, too, Vultan. Tell Dale I know it would’ve been good.
Vultan: That must be some planet you men come from.
Flash: Not too bad.
Dale is dressed and dragged to the palace for her wedding to Ming. Aura, who is to be exiled to the ice moon of Fridgia after her father’s royal wedding, escapes and frees Barin and Zarkov. Meanwhile, Flash and Vultan hatch a desperate plan to hijack War Rocket Ajax, which, of course, totally succeeds in a battle scene filled with laser fire, men with wings, and more rocking Queen music. By this point, Earth has mere minutes left before the Moon crashes down and destroys it. Flash’s only hope is to pilot Ajax into Mingo City’s lightning field to blow it so that Vultan’s men can fly in and seize the palace. With Earth’s fate at stake, Flash doesn’t dare leave the controls as Ajax is pummeled by cannon fire from the city.
Barin blows the lightning field before Ajax reaches it, allowing Flash to crash directly into the emperor’s palace and impale Ming on the ship’s antenna before he can seal the marriage deal with Dale. Flash orders Ming to stop his attack on Earth in exchange for his life, but Ming uses his power ring to vaporize himself rather than be a prisoner of Flash Gordon. The countdown clock reaches zero, but Earth is spared, and Mongo is free of tyranny. Or at least that is until the final moments when a gloved hand reaches down to pick up Ming’s power ring from the rubble. A sinister cackle and a title card proclaiming, “The End?” closes the film.
When you decide to just sit back and go with it, Flash Gordon is really a fun movie to watch. It is ridiculous in several spots, and the acting by Jones and Anderson as the film’s leads is insufferable at times, but that is not really their fault. Years later, members of the cast and crew recalled that during production, no one was really sure what kind of film they were making. Was Flash Gordon camp or was it serious sci-fi? Semple admitted that he allowed too much humor to be injected into the script, making it uneven and off-balance at several points, with the intentionally funny parts not that funny, and the serious parts stirring laughs among the audience. Because of this, the film received mixed reviews and a lukewarm reception with audiences in the U.S., though it had a much more welcome response in Great Britain.
The mediocre reception of Flash Gordon and the campy take on the material unfortunately doomed any chance of building a franchise. Jones walked off the set near the end of the project and had no plans to continue with more films. A sequel was in the early planning stages but was shelved indefinitely after Flash Gordon’s release. This is a shame because the world of Flash Gordon is rich with characters and stories. Flash had never received the big budget treatment like in 1980, and the tainted result means that it is unlikely anyone is going to touch it again anytime soon. Until then, we’ll just settle with what we have. Go Flash!