WFTB Score: 8/20
The plot: Planet Earth is menaced by bored, self-titled ruler of the universe Ming the Merciless. With the authorities helpless, only the crazy genius of Dr Hans Zarkov, the disarming beauty of travel agent Dale Arden and the quick footballing brain of Quarterback Flash Gordon stand between Ming and the destruction of their home. They will need to make friends and influence people quickly if they are to defeat the heartless and all-powerful Ming.
Of all the Saturday morning serials, perhaps the one that has lasted the longest in the collective consciousness is Flash Gordon, the highly-successful black and white series starring former wrestler Buster Crabbe. Therefore, when fabled producer Dino De Laurentiis was looking for a vehicle to emulate the success of George Lucas’ Star Wars, where better to turn than to the lively adventures of the New York Jets Quarterback and his meetings with the people of Ming’s kingdom?
Flash Gordon begins with the Earth assaulted by earthquakes, hot hail and all manner of unexpected activities, bringing the plane carrying Flash (Sam J. Jones) and his new friend Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) crashing down into the lab of discredited NASA scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol). Zarkov forces Flash and Dale up into space where they meet the cause of all the trouble, Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow) and his devious sidekick Klytus (Peter Wyngarde). After a football-related scuffle Flash is put to death, but the attentions of Ming’s exotic, nymphomaniac daughter Aura (Ornella Muti) ensure that the condition is only temporary; meanwhile, Zarkov has his mind erased and is put to work as an agent, but he escapes, also helping Dale to escape, temporarily, her fate as the latest in a long line of Ming’s throwaway brides. Though the threat of death keeps Flash in constant peril, he slowly manages to convince two squabbling tribes under Ming’s rule – Timothy Dalton’s Prince Barin, Aura’s jealous official lover, leading the tree people of Arboria, and Vultan’s (Brian Blessed) raucous Hawkmen – that by teaming up they can defeat Ming and become masters of their own destinies. As Dale’s wedding to Ming approaches, the new allies race to prevent it happening: but they only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!
As soon as Flash Gordon begins, the cheap, bright graphics, even cheaper paint-in-water effects, silly ‘Hot Hail’ etc. push buttons, and presentation of the heroes all signal that this is not going to be serious science fiction; and as soon as Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson open their mouths, it’s instantly apparent that they are hardly the Burton and Taylor of the comic-strip movie world. But if you can quickly come to terms with the wooden performances and the film’s garish and often silly approach to its subject, Flash Gordon offers much that is enjoyable. Max von Sydow makes a delightfully evil Ming, Wyngarde a dry and curiously kinky Klytus, and Muti adds buckets of sensuality as the irresistible Aura. In fact, very much like Barbarella (another De Laurentiis production) space is presented as a playground for erotic adventures, shown by the delight the film shows in dressing Aura, Dale and other ‘serving girls’ (including Carry on Emmannuelle’s Suzanne Danielle) as skimpily as possible. Since this is the focus of the film’s efforts, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some of the action sequences come off as afterthoughts, though some of them work fine: the football fight is a laugh, the attack on the rocket ship Ajax is exciting, and the climactic battle is okay too. Elsewhere, things are less satisfactory, the whole sequence on Arboria feeling much more protracted than it need be and some of the film’s fleeting details feeling so cheap that they should have been left out altogether: ‘You’re diving into Phrygia!’ says Aura to Flash at one point; he actually appears to be diving into a blob of shaving foam.
Though aspects of the film are undeniably poor, others – such as the jokes – come down to a matter of taste. A reference to the Nazis is both tasteless and unnecessary, while other lines such as ‘Are your men on the right pills?’ can be seen as either misfires or deliberately corny. There’s also plenty of humour to be derived where the filmmakers do not necessarily intend it, such as in Dalton’s unmistakeably Welsh delivery of the line ‘Freeze! You bloody bastards!’ which I recently heard for the first time – on TV, the film is always edited for teatime viewing. And here is the crux of it: the camp, sexy approach of Flash Gordon is too knowing for youngsters looking for simple Star Wars-type thrills, and its action is much too childish and slapdash for discerning adults. If the film is, as I suspect, deliberately camp, then it succeeds in being an outrageous over-the-top exercise that can be appreciated mostly on a so-bad-it’s-good level; but if the intention was also to pull in sci-fi/action film fans, the bright colours, cheap action scenes and stilted acting from the lead prove an instant turn off.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is the score, and as it’s by Queen I must declare my fondness for the band as I did when looking at Highlander (Vultan’s declaration ‘Who wants to live forever?’ is a cute coincidence). It’s a curious work, sometimes aping John Williams’ Star Wars themes, sometimes resembling Vangelis; but it’s at its best when the heavy drums and guitar break out, best typified in the Battle Theme and the title track, whose driving pedal always adds to the excitement of the scene. Though it’s occasionally lush, the score is surprisingly one of the less camp features of the film. I also haven’t mentioned the film’s direction, and this is for the very good reason that it’s as pedestrian as they come, Hodges (I assume) exerting himself only to get the camera pointed in the direction of the producers’ favourite ladies.
Flash Gordon can only really be thought of as a failure, because it doesn’t deliver completely on either being a full-blooded, intergalactic action film or a gay comedy, and even the defence that it tries to copy the production values of the Saturday morning serial doesn’t work in the light of almost half a century’s worth of cinematic advancement (not to harp on about it, but compare the cardboard sets here with the use of locations in Star Wars). It’s little wonder that the hinted-at sequel didn’t come to pass; but if you’re in the mood for something fun and dumb that doesn’t demand too much of your attention, Flash Gordon might just be ideal.