Director: Mike Hodges
Screenplay: Lorenzo Semple Jr, Michael Allin (adaptation)
Based on Characters Created by: Alex Raymond
Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Mariangela Melato
Running Time: 111 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Coming shortly after the end of the Great Depression, the colourful, fantastical excitement of the Flash Gordon comic strip was just what Americans needed and proved to be a huge success on its release in 1934. It ran as a daily strip all the way up to 1992 and continued as a weekly one until 2003, as well as spawning film and radio serials initially and later TV series, spin-offs and various ‘re-imaginings’. It was an influential piece of popular culture too. It was, in itself, a bit of a cash-in on Buck Rogers originally, but still helped inspire the style of the superhero comic books that exploded into popular culture later in the 30s.
In the 70s, attempts were made to bring the ever-popular character to the big screen in a standalone film. Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights to produce it, with Federico Fellini reportedly first optioning them from him. Fellini’s version never came to fruition and later George Lucas tried to buy the rights but couldn’t afford them, so ended up creating his own space-set fantasy series instead, which you may have heard of.
Likely due to the success of Star Wars, De Laurentiis tried to push ahead with his Flash Gordon film, this time with Nicolas Roeg at the helm. This version moved quite far into pre-production, with several drafts of a script being written and the production design process well underway. However, De Laurentiis, a lifelong Flash Gordon fan, wasn’t happy with the dark, serious and sexy direction art-house favourite Roeg was taking the character, so he was taken off the project and the producer sought out a replacement.
De Laurentiis found a new director in another Brit, Mike Hodges. He was an odd choice, in that he’d largely only previously worked in the crime genre, making the gritty thriller Get Carter and the satirical Pulp. Hodges had no experience with special effects or fantasy filmmaking at all. Reportedly, when asked by the director, De Laurentiis said he hired him “because I liked your face”.
Unusual choice or not, the resulting film, Flash Gordon, released in 1980, was a great success in its native UK. It didn’t set foreign markets alight but has gone on to become a cult classic over the decades, finding new audiences recently when heavily referenced in Seth MacFarlane’s Ted franchise.
Flash Gordon is 40 years old this year and, to celebrate, Studiocanal are releasing a stunningly remastered print in cinemas and on all modern home entertainment formats, including a whopping 5-disc UHD Collector’s Edition with more bells and whistles than any of the film’s lavish costumes.
This is a nostalgic favourite among many people my age (or more often a tad older), but I must admit, though it’s a film I did see as a child, it’s not one I rewatched enough to make a lasting impact on me. So, unlike my recent revisit of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, this will be an 80s throwback review that won’t be written with rose-tinted spectacles.
That’s not to say I didn’t like it though, so fans will be safe to read on…
Flash Gordon sees ex-Playgirl centerfold Sam J. Jones play the titular character, here an American football player who is accidentally sent into space alongside travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and wacky scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). The latter planned the trip to approach the alien invaders that are causing havoc with Earth’s weather system, and bring a message of peace to prevent the planet’s total destruction.
However, Zarkov didn’t realise the leader behind this attack was Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow), an evil despot who takes great pleasure in causing destruction and enslaving races across the galaxy. He takes the humans prisoner, brainwashing Zarkov, taking Dale for his harem and ordering Flash to be executed after the sports star stands up against the leader and beats up a legion of his guards.
Flash is secretly saved though by Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), who takes a shine to him. She flies him to her beloved Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), who isn’t very friendly towards Flash, subjecting him to various trials in a bid to get him out of the way. Meanwhile, Zarkov and Dale escape, before being captured by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) and his Hawkmen.
Though the trio of humans is still in trouble, they try to convince the two races/factions that they should team up to beat their common enemy, the tyrannical Ming, who is still ploughing on in his mission to destroy the Earth.
Flash Gordon is a film that’s almost beyond criticism, as many of its flaws can be taken as qualities. It’s relentlessly kitsch, daft and hammy, but is all the better for it. It’s a film that, on the surface, seems easy to dismiss as a ‘bad movie’ but at the same time, it’s clearly achieving exactly what it set out to do. Star Wars may be the classier of the pair of Flash Gordon re-imaginings of the late 70s/early 80s, but you could argue Hodges’ Flash Gordon is the more faithful adaptation of the original comic strip and film serials. Of course, George Lucas didn’t have the rights to the franchise, so couldn’t accurately recreate the characters and such, but in terms of capturing the bold visual style and simple innocence of the originals, Hodges could be seen to hit the nail more closely on the head.
Most notable is the visual style of the film. Yes, it could easily be called tacky, but the colours are so eye-poppingly vibrant (particularly in this new 4K remastered print) and the costume and production design so lavishly over-the-top, it remains an impressive sight to behold. I particularly loved the multi-coloured cloud effects often used in the background. Like most of the effects, they have a tangible quality that set them apart from their modern digital counterparts.
That’s not to say all of the special effects look good of course. Much has dated and the compositing is pretty ropey by today’s standards. The epic Hawkmen swarm at the end looks particularly naff. However, as mentioned before, problems like this only add to the cult charm of the film.
The performances are a lot of fun too. Von Sydow makes the most of his villainous turn and Blessed is clearly having a lot of fun in his iconic role as Prince Vultan. Topol and Dalton also revel in their theatrical performances. In fact, there are a number of great thespians in the cast list, such as Peter Wyngarde, Richard O’Brien and Philip Stone (best known as playing Grady in The Shining). Anderson makes a great heroine too, getting a chance to hold her own against the bad guys in a couple of scenes.
Jones is hardly a first-rate actor, but he is perfectly cast as Flash. He has the right mix of innocence and masculinity the role requires and carries it well, even if his line readings aren’t particularly effective.
Mention must also go to the film’s soundtrack, which is provided by none other than Queen, as well as orchestral cues from Howard Blake. The title song by the former has become iconic in itself and springs to mind whenever anyone mentions the film. A variation of the track is particularly effective in the thrilling finale.
Speaking of which, I found Hodges’ direction curiously effective. I say curious because I didn’t find the individual set-pieces all that impressive. In fact, some of the action scenes, particularly when hand-to-hand fighting is involved, are rather poor. However, the film has tremendous energy. Again, this is channelling the short-form source material, where each strip or episode would have its own burst of action and mini-cliffhanger to keep you reading or watching next week. Hodges’ film has no down-time. It’s always on the move, and, as such, you don’t have a chance to get bored or worry about the quality of individual sequences.
So, Flash Gordon is ridiculous campy nonsense, for sure, but is aware of this and goes whole-hog to deliver a blindingly colourful, non-stop, rip-roaring adventure that’s mad as a bag of spanners but all the better for it.
Flash Gordon is playing in selected cinemas from 31st July and will be released on 10th August on Blu-ray, DVD, steelbook, UHD Collector’s Edition & digital, courtesy of Studiocanal. I watched the Blu-ray version and it looked incredible. Colours are strikingly bold and the image is pin-sharp, clean and rich in detail. It’s one of the best-looking transfers I’ve seen. The audio comes through perfectly too.
Each version is loaded with special features:
The UHD, DVD and Blu-Ray Disc 1 includes:
– The main feature
– New Lost in Space: Nic Roeg’s Flash Gordon (also iTunes extra)
– Audio commentary with Mike Hodges
– Audio commentary with Brian Blessed
– Behind the scenes of Flash Gordon
– Stills gallery (also iTunes extra)
– Storyboards gallery (also iTunes extra)
– Original theatrical trailer
Blu-Ray Disc 2 includes:
– Interview with Mike Hodges
– Episode 24 of Flash Gordon (1979-1982): The Survival Game / Gremlin’s Finest Hour
– Sam Jones’s acting start
– Entertainment Earth on Flash Gordon merchandise
– Bob Lindenmayer discusses deleted scenes and original endings
– 35th Anniversary Greenroom
– 35th Anniversary reunion featurette
– Renato Casaro extended interview
– Brian Blessed anecdotes
– Melody’s musings
– On the soundtrack (Brian May & Howard Blake)
– Easter Eggs
The 5 disc Collector’s Edition includes:
– The UHD and 2 Blu-ray discs
– Bonus Blu-Ray Disc of LIFE AFTER FLASH, the 2017 feature documentary celebrating the film and its star, directed by Lisa Downs
– Original soundtrack by Queen & Howard Blake
– 32 page booklet
– 16 page Titan mini book (The Story of Flash Gordon)
– Reproduced booklet of the first strip of original comic books
– Poster of original artwork
– 4 artcards of various incarnations of Flash film posters across the years
– 1 sew on ‘Flash patch’
I didn’t get the full set, only the 2 standard Blu-ray discs, so I can’t comment on the third disc, soundtrack or other extra bits and pieces, but there’s a lot of great material on the 2 discs I was sent.
Hodges’ commentary is fantastic, for starters. It’s stuffed with interesting and often hilarious stories about how the film was made. He’s very honest and enjoyable to listen to. He makes a lot of comments about George Bush which date the track a little, but this isn’t a big issue. Hodges’ interview is very good too and thankfully doesn’t tread on the toes of his commentary.
Blessed’s commentary is very disappointing though. I was hoping for an hour and a half of amusing anecdotes, delivered with his typical bravado, but he does nothing other than gush over what he’s watching through the whole track. I say whole but it was so repetitive and vapid I gave up half-way through. It’s a shame, as he has such an infectiously bubbly personality, but he has very little of interest to say here.
The ‘New Lost in Space’ featurette is great though, telling the story of Nicolas Roeg’s planned version of the film. It includes much of the concept art, which lets you see what it could have been like.
The archive behind-the-scenes featurette is decent too, allowing you to see how the film was put together. I also enjoyed the vintage cartoon episode. It wasn’t bad for the era, reminding me of the mid-80s action-heavy cartoons I watched as a youngster, like He-Man and Thundercats.
Most of the rest of the special features on the discs I received are short anecdotal clips. They’re very good but it’s an odd way of setting them out individually. I imagine they are offcuts from the longer doc on the 3rd Blu-ray I didn’t receive though. It made me eager to watch it, and I imagine it’s worth paying extra for the Collector’s Edition box set to see it.
So, an impressive set in any form and highly recommended for fans of the film.