Flash Gordon (1980)
If there is another science-fiction movie with a title song to outdo the opening notes of Freddie Mercury and Queen’s electro-operatic “Flash” I have yet to hear it. As flamboyant as the film it heralded, the tune remains a drum-thumping, set-the-bass-to-maximum classic. Much the same can be said about this 1980s’ ode to the black-and-white “Flash Gordon” serials of the 1930s (and the comic strips they were based upon). The storyline is one familiar to a legion of Sci-Fi fans from the grainy episodes of the original Buster Crabbe show that were a staple of early Saturday morning television in Ireland and many other countries in the 1970s and ‘80s. An American football star, Flash Gordon (played by non-thespian sports-celebrity, Sam J. Jones), is involved in a plane crash during a mysterious storm along with the journalist Dale Arden (an overly winsome Melody Anderson). Seeking refuge in a nearby house they encounter a famed scientist called Dr. Hans Zarkov (Israeli actor Chaim Topol giving a wonderfully manic performance), who informs them that the Earth is under attack from an alien power, the Moon falling from its orbit. At gunpoint Zarkov forces the duo to join him on his home-made rocket ship as he journeys to the mysterious planet, later found to be called Mongo, to discover the source of the assault on the Earth and to end it.
What follows is an rollicking adventure as they explore the world of the Emperor Ming the Merciless (played by famed Swedish actor Max von Sydow in a role he clearly relished), and the many kingdoms and peoples he rules over, while struggling to create an alliance to overthrow his tyrannical rule. Despite the clichés and silliness of the plot, the story still manages to engage and hold the attention and it comes to a suitably satisfactory end – albeit an open one with an unfortunately never to be fulfilled hint of a sequel.
“Flash Gordon” was and remains beautiful to look at, containing some of the most colourful sets and designs to be found in anywhere in sci-fi cinema, with retro-futuristic costumes to match. The special effects are of course 1980s’ standard, but a good standard, and they hold up well all these decades later (the roiling skies of Mongo are still incredible to look at). The movie knows itself for what it is: an energetic, tongue-in-cheek, camp fantasy epic, and is all the better for it. It never really takes itself too seriously and in doing so has created one of the great SF movies of the era. The supporting cast is wonderful, with the model-turned-actress Ornella Muti playing Ming’s dangerously obsessional daughter, Princess Aura, opposite British actor and future ‘James Bond’ Timothy Dalton starring as Prince Barin (Aura’s on-off lover). A fantastically and outrageously lunatic Brian Blessed hams it up as Prince Vultan, polystyrene wings, rubber hammer an’ all.
In the United States the movie did poorly at the box office and was generally disliked by audiences and critics alike. On the other hand, in Europe and elsewhere it gained a reputation as a cult must-see classic, a status that has only grown with the passing of time and the growth of home media. “Flash Gordon” remains a silly, cheerful science-fiction romp held in deep affection by its many fans, and is deservedly available in several quality DVD and Blu-ray editions. And, seriously, who does not know that Queen song?
Saviour of the Universe…!’