“World coming to end! Strange new planet rushing toward Earth! Only miracle can save us…” (Flash Gordon)
There are movies that, like wine, get only better with time. Or, perhaps they stay the same all along, and it is only our perception of them that changes? One such movie is undeniably Flash Gordon. Released exactly thirty three years ago on the 5th of December 1980 it has since acquired the status of a cult movie among science fiction and fantasy fans. The movie, directed by Mike Hodges, was based on a popular comic strip by Alex Raymond, and starred, among others, Sam J. Jones as Flash Gordon, Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless, Chaim Topol as Dr Hans Zarkov, Melody Anderson as Dale Arden and Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan (remembered especially for his “Gordon’s alive?!” line).
The story is quite typical for this kind of movie: there is a baddie – Ming the Merciless, the emperor of the planet Mongo, whose plan is to destroy the Earth; and a goodie – Flash Gordon, a New York Jets football star, who turns out to be the only man capable of saving the future of our planet. There is also a bit of a romance going on between Flash and Dale Arden – another ‘must’ typical for comic-hero tales. Arden’s cry “Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!” is probably the best summary of the whole story. With all kinds of adventurous plots involved, the movie’s atmosphere is unquestionably that of a comic itself. All characters are ‘over-drawn’ and colourful, acting in a campy kind of manner; the effect was probably intended, same as the kitschy but yet eye-catching costumes and scenery, designed by Danilo Donati, famous for his work with such directors as Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini. On top of this, a combination of rather simple and at times clumsy special effects, and music by the rock group Queen brings justice to the era the movie was created in – the 1980s.
Of course the Dino De Laurentiis’ 1980 production of the famous comic was not the first one to depict the story of the brave and handsome hero. “The original 1936 Flash Gordon was produced by Universal Pictures …, and released, beginning in April of that year, in 13 weekly chapters… In 1935, Universal purchased the film rights to a group of newspaper comic strips for serial adaptation, among them Raymond’s Flash Gordon, for which they paid King Features $10,000. The serial was filmed in six weeks during December 1935 and January 1936, at a reported cost of $350,000. If this amount seems miniscule in comparison with modern film budgets, it should be remembered that this was during the Great Depression. Also, …most serials cost around $100,000 – the first Flash Gordon was something special by comparison, and if any degree of fidelity at all to Raymond’s comic strip was to be maintained, the budget had to be higher than usual… On its release, Flash Gordon was wildly popular with the general public, garnering favourable reviews (most serials were scarcely reviewed at all!), and unlike the usual serials, was screened for adult filmgoers at evening performances in first-run theatres. ” (Ed., Cynthia J. Miller, 1950s “Rocketman” TV Series and Their Fans: Cadets, Rangers, and Junior Space Men).
In comparison to the first adaptation of Flash Gordon, the 1980s movie was not a critical success at the time of its release; although, Pauline Kael from The New Yorker, did appreciate the movie for all the good reasons. “It’s like a fairy tale set in a discotheque in the clouds,” she said, “…This picture has some of the knowing, pleasurable giddiness of the fast-moving Bonds. The images are flooded with the primary colors of comic strips-blue and, especially, red at its most blazing; the designer, Danilo Donati, and the cinematographer, Gil Taylor, make the colors so ripely intense that they’re near-psychedelic. Ming’s daughter, the tiny, voluptuous Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), wiggles and slinks through the palace wearing a shimmering scarlet jump suit; she’s a flaming nympho and a perfect little emblem of camp. There’s a wonderful, fairy-tale form of Russian roulette, when Flash and Timothy Dalton (as the dashing Prince Barin) take turns putting a hand into the crevices of a gnarled tree trunk, risking the fatal bite of the resident monster. The director, Mike Hodges, gets right into comic-strip sensibility and pacing.” (Pauline Kael, Flash Gordon Review, The New Yorker, 1980).
One of the reasons for the movie’s growing cult status is probably its very characteristic 1980s stylistics. We look at it with the same dose of sentimentalism as we do at 80’s fashion. It is in fact a bit like those hideous shoulder pads or the Members Only Jacket. Yet, Flash Gordon is definitely one of those guilty pleasures that everybody can enjoy. Therefore, quoting one of Ming’s Floating Servants we should say then: “Long live Flash! You’ve saved your Earth. Have a nice day.”