Flash Gordon (1980) – Directed by Mike Hodges – Starring Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Chaim Topol, Brian Blessed, Timothy Dalton, Ornella Muti, and Max Von Sydow.
After a long, absurd day there are few options better to toss into your Blu-ray player than Mike Hodges’ FLASH GORDON.
I say this because after having not watched this movie since I was a kid, I watched it the other night after a completely absurd first day on the new job and loved every moment of it. GORDON is exactly what people mean when they say things like, “live action cartoon.” It’s a bright, exaggerated, campy romp, full of outrageous characters and fantastic sets. Yes, many of the characters and the actors who play them are not close to being “good,” but it somehow all works together well enough to create a completely satisfying movie.
There are few positives that can be said for Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), two flat, ridiculous characters who are nonetheless so open and honest with one another, and have been placed in such an absurd situation, that they manage to not only not sink the picture, but in a strange way enhance it by being so obvious.
They meet on a small plane somewhere in the Green Mountains as they’re both headed back to New York to get back to their crazy lives. Flash is the quarterback for the New York Jets, which tells us that a. he’s not awesome, and b. he never wins anything important. (I imagine that what we’re really watching here is evidence that someone in production still has a man-crush on Joe Namath – who only had 3 winning seasons his entire career – or that they really wanted to call this movie, RICHARD TODD: DEFENDER OF THE UNIVERSE but then realized that sending Movie Richard Todd to another universe wouldn’t prevent Real Richard Todd from ever playing for the Jets again.) Flash is the kind of guy that seems very humble and “aw, shucks, you sure are a pretty lady, miss,” but yet wears a t-shirt that says FLASH on it just to make sure everyone knows who he is.
I mean, he goes to the Green Mountains to get away from the hustle-and-bustle of his life in NYC, yet still wears a t-shirt with his name on it. The pilots of the plane know who he is, because they act like two schoolgirls at a Justin Beiber concert when he’s around, so he’s clearly famous (I’m guessing the Joe Namath conception of the character is more likely than the Richard Todd conception) and yet he still wants to make sure everyone knows who he is. On the plane, he chats up Dale by telling her that he asked at the hotel who she was, but that he didn’t come talk to her, which tells us that he wants everyone to know who he is, but he’s not going to use it to pick up a lady.
In what seems a very anachronistic conception of the love interest, Dale is all googly eyes at Flash, too, even though she’s really nervous about being on a plane in the middle of a storm. What she clearly isn’t is Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, but she does prove capable of taking care of herself over the course of the film despite a silly start.
I can’t say I honestly ever like Flash or Dale, though. Well-meaning as they may be, and as perfect for each other as they clearly are, they’re also the least interesting characters in the movie.
While Flash and Dale are in the plane, Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) is causing havoc on Earth, forcing the plane to crash into Doctor Hans Zarkov’s (Chaim Topol) lab. Zarkov is the only scientist in the world who’s been preparing for an attack like this, and even though the rest of the world thinks he’s nuts, Zarkov is more than willing to prove them wrong by forcing Dale at gunpoint into helping him fly his experimental rocket to go to space and stop the invasion. It seems like a rather poor design for a rocket to need a second person to, literally, keep their foot on the pedal, and it seems even sillier that Zarkov wants Dale instead of Flash because she weighs less (the 100 pounds apparently making a huge difference, despite the fact that Zarkov’s intended co-pilot, his chubby assistant, is clearly closer to Flash’s weight than Dale’s).
Anyways, they go to space and get captured by Mongo’s forces and are brought before Ming the Merciless. Von Sydow hits the perfect notes for a villain here – he’s a ruthless, megalomaniacal bad-ass who’s willing to have his daughter Aura (Ornella Muti) tortured to get to the truth. Flash isn’t having any of this evil overlord destroying the Earth business, so he fights everyone with a new fighting technique called, “Football.” The fight scene at the palace is a good example of what GORDON is attempting to do: it gives you a serious plot (the fate of Earth hangs in the balance), well-meaning humans (Flash, Dale, Zarkov), flashy natives (Barin, Vultan, Klytus, the whole host of palace attendees), and a campy fight to solve the problem. What makes the scene work isn’t Flash’s fighting skills as much as it is the sheer energy and ridiculousness of it all, with a big helping hand from Vultan (Brian Blessed), who continually helps Flash when he thinks he can get away with it.
Flash ultimately gets captured and put to death (and I love how his tombstone has the Flash Gordon logo on it – Ming knows marketing), although he survives thanks to efforts of Aura, who wants Flash for her new sexual plaything. Flash is kinda lukewarm on the idea, more concerned about Dale’s whereabouts than running off for some hot sex with an alien princess (okay, maybe he’s not Joe Namath), but he’s still willing to make out a little with Aura while he’s putting on a strange helmet to telepathically communicate with Dale, who’s now a member of Ming’s harem.
Aura takes Flash to meet her main lover, Prince Barin of Arboria (Timothy Dalton). In honor of being from Arboria, everyone agrees to dress like Robin Hood. Barin is jealous and has Flash locked up, where Flash encourages a Hawkman to not drown, but is then tricked into escaping by Barin’s associate Fico (Richard O’Brien). Barin and Flash then play “stick your hand in this massive tree stump and try not to get stung by a poisonous scorpion thing.” Flash pretends to get bitten and then attacks Barin, proving Earth people are awesome at lying and being sneaky. Flash runs off, Barin chases him, and then they get captured by the Hawkmen and brought back to Sky City, where the Hawkmen make great sport out of Barin and Flash fighting each other to the death.
It’s a really big dick move, of course, but we get to see Brian Blessed teach the world how to overact and still be perfectly in character. Ming’s forces arrive and the Hawkmen flee after Flash and Barin kill General Klytus. Barin, Dale, and Zarkov are taken prisoner but Flash is left to die/conveniently escape on Sky City. Flash makes contact with Vultan through his sky cycle and Vultan is ashamed at his actions and agrees to team up with Flash to take down Ming.
Lots of fighting ensues but none of it is as memorable as hearing Vultan yell things like, “Squadron 40, DIIIIIIIIIIIVVVVVEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!” I think he shouts, “Dive!” 18 times and each of them are completely awesome. Again, there’s a real talent to using one’s desire to overact to infuse the character with a real personality and no one does that better than Brian “Diiiiiivvvvvvveeeeeee!” Blessed.
We get a happy ending – Ming is defeated, Barin and Aura are lovey dovey, Barin is named the new ruler of Mongo, Vultan is named General of the army, Flash and Dale are lovey dovey, and Zarkov is content in the knowledge that he was the only person on Earth who was right. Everything is left in place for a sequel, but we never get to see it.
Beyond Flash and Dale, the film is as perfectly cast as you could hope for, and the total commitment of the film to this vision, and of Topol, Dalton, Blessed, and von Sydow to their roles, makes you believe in this world, even if it’s a completely absurdist one.
I think what makes GORDON work more than anything else is the ability of the filmmakers to perfectly balance their film: Vultan is completely over the top, but is balanced by the seriousness of Barin. Flash’s do-gooder-ness is balanced by Ming’s mercilessness. Dale’s motivated by the long-term commitment of love and Aura by the short-term thrill of lust. Even the seriousness of the plot (the destruction of Earth) is balanced by the bright campiness of Mongo. Underscoring all of this is the music of Queen, the perfect band for this film given its powerful combination of bluster and cheekiness.
Mark Bousquet is the author of several novels, including Gunfighter Gothic, Stuffed Animals for Hire, Dreamer’s Syndrome, Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches, and Adventures of the Five. He has also published a review collection entitle Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.