Fun fact: George Lucas originally wanted to remake the old cliff-hanger serial Flash Gordon but he couldn't secure the rights. "They said they wanted Federico Fellini to direct it," he was later quoted as saying, "And they wanted eighty percent of the gross, so I said forget it. I could never make any kind of studio deal with that."
The rest, as they say, is cinema history.
After Star Wars became a full-fledged cultural phenomenon in 1977, producer Dino De Laurentiis decided to fast-track his own long-gestating Flash Gordon remake. But even as filming began the producers still couldn't nail down the tone they were going for. Instead of playing it straight, as Lucas did with his own space opera, De Laurentiis pushed for a more campy tone. The result was a film that baffled most movie-goers at the time.
The film starts promisingly enough with a theme song by everyone's favorite operatic rock band Queen. I promise if you listen to this just once you'll be walking around for days shouting "FLASH!!! AAAAA-AHHHH!!!!" to anyone within earshot, much to their chagrin.
Pretty soon we're introduced to Sam J. Jones who we immediately recognize as the titular hero mainly because he's wearing a t-shirt that actually says "Flash" on it. For this reason alone the film earns one full star from me. We also meet the gorgeous Melody Anderson as Dale Arden who is alternately winsome, distressed and, as we later discover, inordinately self-reliant. As the two embark on an ill-fated charter flight back from some undisclosed sunny, exotic vacation hot-spot in northern Scotland (?), the chemistry between the two quickly begins to percolate.
In my humble opinion the casting for Flash Gordon is nigh-impeccable. Now, I'm not going to sit here and claim that Jones was the strongest actor for the role, but the dude's got charm and charisma in spades. Earnest, lunk-headed and oddly abetted by a vaguely dweeby re-dub of his own voice, Jones is the sort of white-knight hero that doesn't seem to exist anymore but probably should.
Dale and Flash inadvertently crash land in the lab of mad(ish) scientist Hans Zarkov, played by a sweaty, bug-eyed Chaim Topol who shamelessly mugs and over-acts at every opportunity. At first I thought that this was going to be really distracting, but then everything, and I mean everything else in the movie suddenly gets dialed up to "11". As soon as this happens Topol's over-the-top performance just seems like par for the course.
At gunpoint, Zarkov insists that his new guests accompany him on a bold counter-attack against the marauding planet of Mongo which is threatening to destroy the earth. The resulting rocket launch showcases some terrific olde-skool model work and special effects. Be warned: the trippy "Imperial vortex" scene alone might induce permanent psychosis if viewed under the influence of even the lowest-grade hallucinogenics.
Just moments after our heroes crash-land on Mongo they're captured by what appears to be a platoon of gay pride stormtroopers. They're brought to the main audience chamber of Ming the Merciless, which looks like a Vegas variety show set co-designed by Liberace and Hunter S. Thompson. Not only are the environs gloriously tasteless, the joint is populated by dozens of brightly-attired denizens wearing frocks that even Cher would be hesitant to don.
Ming himself is played with reptilian relish by a flawlessly-cast Max Von Sydow. Unlike Jones and Anderson this guy's the real deal. Not only does he physically embody this iconic villain he also has the acting chops to back it up. Since the script offers absolutely no insight as to why Ming is such an unrelenting prick (save perhaps self-preservation), finding an actor with the gravitas required to flesh this out is imperative.
This scene gives us many more reasons as to why casting directors Michael McLean and Mary Selway deserve a special nod. First off we have Brian Blessed as Vultan, the leader of the Hawkmen. Resplendent in his metal wings, bikini briefs and hipster beard, Blessed could very well be the most bombastic actor to grace the screen since Oliver Reed. Indeed, his line deliveries are so loud, so hammy and so genuinely off-kilter he makes Topol look like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. There's never a dull moment when he's on-screen bellowing such deathless proclamations as "GORDON'S ALIVE?!?", "IMPETUOUS BOY!!!!" or "D-I-I-I-I-I-VE!!!" in his inimitable, ear-splitting manner.
Also on hand is future James Bond Timothy Dalton, who plays Prince Barin, the leader of the Arborians. If you're wondering what fuck an "Arborian" is, just think elves with neutered ears crossed with Rocket Robin Hood. While shooting Star Wars, George Lucas was adamant that all of his actors play it perfectly straight, no matter how ludicrous the scene might be. Apparently Timothy Dalton was the only member of the Flash Gordon cast to receive a similar memo since he delivers every single line of dialogue with Shakespearean aplomb. His presence in the film adds considerable weight to to all the bizarre proceedings.
Peter Wyngarde deserves particular praise as the Doctor Doom-like General Klytus. Even though Wyngarde's face is completely obscured by a mask for the entire duration of the film, the actor's famous voice and ominous presence make for one of the most prototypically-villainous performances ever. We're talking melodramatic olde-skool baddie here: the sort of ripe bastard that you feel compelled to hiss at as soon as he appears on screen. He's aided in his machinations by the bloodless General Kala (Mariangela Mela), who comes across as a combination of Juliet Landau's Drusilla from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Meleficent from Sleeping Beauty.
No less memorable, but for an entirely different reason, is the impossibly hot Ornella Muti as Ming's hormonal daughter Aura. Slinky, sexy and constantly scheming, every scene she's in is the equivalent of a cat in heat scooting its ass across the floor. When she isn't playing her pops or Prince Barin like cheap fiddles she's using her considerable feminine wiles to protect boy-toy Flash from harm. Muti is such a sultry, alluring presence you almost forget that Melody Anderson exists.
What follows is a series of increasingly-ludicrous yet oddly-charming series of set-pieces. Flash uses his football skills to put up a fight against Ming's intergalactic linebackers. Unfortunately thanks to a dreadful pass from Zarkov he's captured and thrown in a dungeon where he's rendered shirtless and forced to wear a helmet apparently salvaged from a GWAR yard sale. He's then marked for execution in a scene nicely complemented by the Vengelis-like musical stylings of Howard Blake.
The absurdities continue to pile up at an alarming rate. Dale Arden, who started the film with an acute case of pteromerhanophobia, suddenly turns into River Tam during an escape attempt. The action then moves on to Arboria, the set for which looks like it re-purposed three years later for the Ewok village in Return of the Jedi. Flash and Price Barin flagellate one another on a giant spinning, spike-covered hubcap while Vultan bellows "GIVE ME THE REMOTE CONTROL!!!" As a very terrestrial rendition of the wedding match strikes up, the citizens of Mongo are ordered to "make merry under punishment by death" in anticipation of Ming and Dale's impending nuptials.
Seriously I'm not making any of this shit up.
The whole thing is gloriously loopy. Now, I'm sure that a straight-laced version would have been fine but the original subject matter was pretty dated, even back in 1980. In retrospect I can understand why King Kong remake / Batman T.V. show scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr. was brought on board to deliver a jokey version of the script. Somehow it all manages to work in a "put your brain on idle" kinda way.
Even as things start to veer towards the sublimely ludicrous, director Mike Hodges and production designer Danilo Donati spare no expense when it comes to replicating the sets, color palate, rocket ships and costumes from the original comic strip. With the aid of ace cinematography Gil Taylor, the movie comes across as a refreshing riot of color and a pleasant contrast to today's boring, monochromatic sci-fi color palate.
Despite its dumb charms, the movie does have more then a few problems. As I already mentioned, some of the performances are pretty uneven. The "lizard men" look like reject background dancers from a 70's-era T.V. variety show. Many of the blue screen matte shots are laughably inept with foreground plates that are nearly washed out in order to cope with the lighter backgrounds. But most importantly, the script is much more concerned with plowing headlong into the next spectacular set-piece versus telling a coherent story or crafting any genuine character arcs.
Regardless, the film is still a lot of fun to watch. Keep in mind that there's a clear distinction between Flash Gordon's unique brand of high-end cheddar versus the spaghetti-flavored schlock of something like Starcrash which was rushed into production two years earlier. You get the distinct impression that the cast and crew actually gave a shit about the movie, as evidenced by the care and craftsmanship up there on the screen.
In many ways, Flash Gordon reminds me of Clash of the Titans which followed one year later. Both films suffered because special effects technology wasn't quite up to par with the highly-ambitious scripts. Even though Star Wars made a compelling case that anything imaginable could be rendered on screen, I think a lot of directors found out the hard way that it wasn't as easy as it looked. It's probably the same reason why the CGI in Jurassic Park (1993) still looks amazing while the digital effects in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) looks like boiled dog ass.
Even though Dino De Laurentiis had the reputation of being a bit of a tool, I think his decision to make the film tongue-in-cheek was essentially a sound one. I'd much prefer a Flash Gordon that's goofy, fun, over-the-top and memorable versus something that could just as easily have been a mediocre and disposable Star Wars rip-off.