Flash Gordon, 1980. Directed by Mike Hodges, written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Michael Allin. Starring the perfectly coiffed Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, and one of the great bellowers of all time, Brian Blessed.
I remember a moment back in 1980, standing in my Grandma’s kitchen, when Dad and Pam came back from the movies (Grandma was watching us.) They were ecstatic, or at least he was. “Flash Gordon!” he said. “Well, that was fun!”
He went on to gush about it, in a strange way, not because it was the greatest film of all time or anything–and, in fact, he made it a point to say this was far from great, far from perfect, but it was fun, fun, fun. For me, this moment was one of the earliest forms of film criticism in a way. Dad, my favorite critic then and now, was trying to convey his excitement, explaining little bits of the movie, some of the great jokes and dialogue, the sets and bizarre art deco spaceships, and how campy it was (and, somehow, what campy meant, though he didn’t use that word) and why it was great despite not being great. His point was that it was fun and often times that was enough, more than enough, perfect in fact.
“It’s just fun, what can I say. Sometimes that’s all you want. Just to have fun!” I thought “Wow. I want to see that movie.”
But I didn’t see that movie. Not until last week. Last week, my brother John sent me a terse email (which I lost, God damn it) that said something to the effect of “Just saw Flash Gordon. Dad loved this movie. Said it was fun and campy. He was right.”
Armed with that recommendation, I put this goofy little picture at the top of the Netflix queue and, lo and behold, it came in. Even Janice was excited. “I remember really enjoying this movie,” she said. And so, just under thirty years later (I think Flash was one of Dino De Laurentiis’ many summer flops), I finally watched the movie the other night. As John said: Dad was right.
Flash Gordon is a hugely ridiculous movie, which is exactly what it should be. The special effects are cheap and silly; the costumes as ludicrous as anything Liberace donned; the acting loose and wild and all over the place, but never stiff. The screenplay is full of double entendres, groaners, and yet it’s also rich with character–I was actually surprised at how clearly we come to know each and every person in this little film and Lorenzo Semple’s script is actually, at times, quite touching.
Semple seemed to know his comic books. Would that Christopher Nolan come down off his marble edifice to gaze upon the multicolored wonder that is Flash Gordon. The story is the stuff of serialized newspaper comics of the 30s and 40s, cliffhanger stuff, no supposed reflection on the nature of evil or friendship or loyalty or crime, even though it is a perfect reflection of all those.
The facts: Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe (Max von Sydow–now that’s casting), has swooped down to wreak havoc on the planet Earth. “I’m bored,” he says. For something to do, he decides to create floods and earthquakes and “fiery hail” (you figure that one out) on the cheap globe spinning in front of him that is supposed to approximate the planet.
Cut to: Earth, where New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (blond and ripped Sam J. Jones, no great talent but a totally winsome personality) is ready to leave… Alaska? I didn’t quite get why he was there, though I’m sure there’s an explanation (or not.) Nor did I realize he was a football player, nor do I understand why anyone would make him a member of the eternally woeful Jets.
Joining him on the small plane is Dale Arden (Melody Anderson–what I said about Jones goes for her as well.) She’s a reporter. They both like each other. They fly away. Ming makes the pilots bodies fly through the windshield as “fiery hail” smacks the fuselage. Someone’s got to crash land the plane, and up steps Flash.
Cut to: the laboratory of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol, the guy who found fame as the “Fiddler on the Roof”, and not some periodontal disease), disgraced NASA scientist, who has figured out that earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and “fiery hail” are not acts of God or Nature, but attacks on our planet from some outer space madman. He has built a rocket to investigate, or attack, who knows what. He needs two people to go up in his rocket, one to push buttons and the other to step on the red pedal. His cowardly assistant refuses. The plane with Flash and Dale crashes into his laboratory. He forces them at gunpoint to join him. Off they go to Ming’s world in the technicolor clouds circling in our solar system.
Cut to: Ming’s Art Deco world. Cool spaceships with long spikes out front, crazy costumes, half naked-women, Hawk Men, and what look like Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men, (not to mention African kings), all assemble to pay tribute to Ming. He keeps order through discord among the kingdoms–the Hawk Men hate Prince Barin’s tree-hugging dudes, and vise-versa. Ming is going to destroy Earth soon by making the moon crash into the planet (a clock ticks to let us know this is happening.)
Along the way, Flash is seemingly killed quite a few times (in a gas chamber, by a tree-creature, swallowed by a spider-thing, blown up on a ship), sexy Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) falls for him, he becomes engaged to Dale, and saves the Earth. What did you think was going to happen? All this to Queen singing “Flash! Aah Aah!”
Quite honestly, Flash Gordon is the definition of an entertaining movie. The special effects are cheesy, but they work. The costumes are cool, and there are certain sundry pleasures–like the Princess in her skin-tight red outfit strapped face down on a big, black slab. At age twelve, I would have been pondering that scene for some time.
Two scenes stuck out for me as they did Dad, because I remember him talking about them even as I watched them the other night for the first time. The great scientist, Dr. Zarkov, is strapped to a machine that is going to erase his memory. In a really stunning moment, we see the whole of Zarkov’s life being stripped from his mind–it’s a sped-up montage, and much of it is very sad: his disgrace at NASA, his wife’s death (or suicide) by drowning, nice shots of his family, and earlier, of his family’s destruction by the Nazis during World War II in the concentration camps. Later, we think he’s nothing but an empty shell, a machine for Ming’s use. But he was faking it all along, and with Dale in tow on one of those nifty little space-scooters, he tells Dale how he kept them from taking his memory:
Do you know why it failed? l started to recite Shakespeare, the Talmud, Einstein, anything l could remember. Even The Beatles. lt armored me. They couldn’t wipe those things away. You can’t beat the human spirit.
I remember Dad being so impressed with that line. As with the scene, later, when we cut to Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and Zarkov chained to the wall of a prison. The first words out of Barin’s mouth are, “Tell me more about this man, Houdini.”
There’s a ton of good scenes like this, a lot of jokes that work, exciting fight scenes, a lot of camp, and mostly just a hell of a good time. Brian Blessed is on hand as Prince Vultan, king of the Hawk Men, and he shouts and carries on. Max von Sydow is over-the-top as Ming the Merciless, which is great, and there’s lines like “Bring us… the bore worms.” “No! Not the bore worms!” Yes, the bore worms…
A few days ago, a good friend, Mike, whose father passed away last year, sent me a great email with a list of all the movies he’d wished he’d seen with his dad. It made me think of a few titles, made me go back and ponder all the greats we’d missed, very serious movies, or classic comedies, stuff of the pantheon.
Now I know that Flash Gordon would have been at the top of the list. I don’t quite know how we missed this movie. Dad and Pam had enjoyed a night out without the two sullen kids, and chose, strangely enough, Flash Gordon which you would have thought they’d have saved for us kids, not necessarily for our sake but because we probably wouldn’t have been interested in whatever Woody Allen had made that year. (Well, I would, but you get my point.) It never came to Mt. Pleasant and left Saginaw quickly. When it hit cable, I don’t know, maybe I got older and thought Flash’s outfits were stupid or the music sucked, I don’t know. And then, as the years ground on, VCR and DVD, etc., there were just other movies to see.
Dad had a lot of cheesy movies in his collection that I inherited but Flash Gordon wasn’t among them. I get the feeling he just forgot about it. But that’s the movie I wished I could see again with him. Preferably someplace like the Trylon, but even with homemade popcorn and some beer in the comfort of a living room.
Flash Gordon isn’t a classic, a Criterion release, or even, God forbid, a CGI remake. But I would have set aside Bergman and Bahrani and Hawks and Pixar and Antonioni and settled instead on Flash Gordon if only to hear him laugh again at that Houdini line. And most of all, because it’s fun.
I’d like to have some fun with the old man again.