“Gordon’s Alive!!” Flash Gordon (1980)

flash1You waited long enough. Why Now?  I’ve mentioned this a few times on this blog, but up to now I’d only seen this film in pieces during tv showings, where I’d sit down for maybe twenty minutes and walk away from it a little horrified. Turns out there was a good twenty-thirty minutes I’d never seen at all. As for why now, well, there is a restored edition coming out on 4K UHD this week that has all the films fan excited, and I figured, well, maybe its finally time, so I pulled it up on Sky Cinema.

So whats it about, then?  Seriously? Oh go on then. Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), Emperor of the Universe, has turned to Earth as his new plaything, threatening total destruction as he hurls storms and disasters at the planet. Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) a discredited ex-Nasa scientist is the only one who deduces the disasters are of extra-terrestrial origin, and intends to use a rocketship in his greenhouse (sigh, stay with me, its that sort of movie) to fly into space and save the Earth. He enlists the assistance of New York Jets Quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and ace reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and they race into space to face the tyranny of the despotic Ming.

Any good? Well, no, and few even of its fans would claim it to be. Its one of those “so bad its good” movies- for my part, I’d rate a film like Lifeforce in that department too, there’s loads of bad films that fans still manage to obsess over. Famously, George Lucas made uber-hit Star Wars only after his overtures to Dino De Laurentis to purchase the rights to Flash Gordon failed, and Dino, later seeing Star Wars make millions, decided he’d get a slice of the action by making Flash Gordon himself. Dino would discover making a modern-day space fantasy rather more difficult than it originally seemed, as would those behind so many jumping on the Star Wars bandwagon post-1977 (Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Star Crash etc).

Dino’s project did everything wrong: Dino, possibly suffering from Movie Mogul Madness chose an unknown lead rather than an established actor (I think Kurt Russell was in the running for awhile), Dino obviously thinking he could make an unknown into a Superstar –  likely having an eye towards Christopher Reeve’s success in Superman: The Movie (Dino evidently forgetting that Reeves was at least an actor: Jones can’t act, and Flash comes across as bumbling imbecile, albeit his silly innocence proves endearing to many fans). That’s not the only thing he didn’t heed from Richard Donner’s movie, of course: Flash Gordon is decidedly camp, ironically one of the things that possibly saves it in the end in a “well we know we’re rubbish, buts its only meant to fun!” kind of way, but Donner’s film taught the lesson that you had to take this stuff seriously, which Lucas had also done with Star Wars and Marvel would later heed decades after. At one point Superman: The Movie was indeed as camp as Flash Gordon, something Donner changed when he took that project over from Guy Hamilton, and when Donner was pushed out, its telling that the Superman sequels all degenerated further and further into campness becoming more like Flash Gordon in every unfortunate instalment, so, er, the producers of Superman: The Movie themselves hardly heeded their own lesson, the crazy fools.

Flash Gordon also had the wrong director, and a bad co-star (Melody Anderson is pleasant enough, but hardly set the film world on fire, utterly lacking the spark of Carrie Fisher or Margot Kidder). Flash Gordon is a pretty dire, easily forgettable movie only saved by an utterly superlative Queen soundtrack. We all had that soundtrack back in 1980/1981, even those of us who didn’t like the film or didn’t go to see it.

So worth waiting for? Are you kidding? Well, it is kind of oddly fun, I suppose. I can understand the nostalgia making fans ignore the films many shortcomings (which are too many to mention here, really). Its one of those films that the fans can champion those mistakes and failures, revelling in its badness, so is utterly impregnable from criticism.

Worthless observation? I was surprised how much in the background that Queen soundtrack really is – Howard Blake’s orchestral score doing a lot more heavy lifting than I expected. I really rather thought the film would have the feel of a rock video, sequences cut to the Queen soundtrack entirely, but it doesn’t seem to have been, which makes me suspect that the film-makers didn’t know what they had until the film was released and the audiences reacted to it. The Queen music elevates the film to a Space Rock-Opera, and had it gone ‘all the way’ a little more like The Rocky Horror Show the film might have been a delirious crazy treat and a huge success. Or not. Maybe the world wasn’t quite ready for Flash Gordon: The Musical, even with the Queen music, but I suspect the world might have been a better place with it.

As an additional bonus observation, I point readers towards my review of the interesting documentary Life After Flash for more Flash Gordon, er,  stuff.

6 thoughts on ““Gordon’s Alive!!” Flash Gordon (1980)

  1. In your Life After Flash review you described Flash Gordon as “the wrong film at the wrong time”, and I think that’s a pretty concise explanation for its poor reception. With the likes of Star Wars and Superman and Alien treating sci-fi/fantasy with seriousness, it perhaps wasn’t the right time for a campy take; but, divorced from that context, I think that’s also why the film has endured. Your comparison to the Adam West Batman is bang on: they function as straightforward adventures for kids, and are embarrassing to teens who want the things they like to be Serious and Grown Up, but as an adult you can see the cast and crew are in on the joke, that the vibrancy and campiness is all very deliberate, done with a nod and a wink to the audience. It’s not to everyone’s taste, of course, but that’s why I love it.

    If someone were remaking it today (as is consistently rumoured), I’d hope they’d go for a similar tone. I mean, the world of Flash is ridiculous — it’s old-fashioned pulp SF, not some highly plausible alternate world — so why not lean into that and have fun? The only thing Flash 1980 is missing for me are the “giant lizards that are just real lizards on miniature sets” from the ‘40s serials.

    1. I think you’re absolutely right- its certainly fun, and I think Topol’s Zarkov is my favourite, he seems to really nail the sense of arch self-knowing throughout, he’s quite brilliant. I struggle to accept Sam Jones, physically he’s fine but he really just cannot act, and the dubbing certainly doesn’t help his performance at all.

      I’m not sure though about the campness, I think the original serials were serious and the comic strip definitely was. I think if a remake had the scale and approach of Disney’s John Carter (a film I really am fond of, I think it nailed both the atmosphere and mood of the old pulps) then it could be really great, but like every Superman film missing John William’s fanfare, a Flash Gordon film without Queens music probably wouldn’t be at all right. I feel almost sorry for anyone making reboots etc of such iconic originals.

      1. I think the serials were probably intended seriously at the time, but their limitations mean they don’t work that way any more, in my opinion. To reboot it, I think you’d either have to retool it all to fit modern sensibilities, or take what’s there and lean into its daftness. There’s no point just trying to be another Star Wars (as recent Star Trek movies have found out!)

  2. Pingback: The 2020 List: August – the ghost of 82

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