by Mel Valentin
With one tagline promising “He'll save every one of us!” and another one suggesting the opposite, “Pathetic earthlings… Who can save you now?”, "Flash Gordon," the big-screen adaptation of Alex Raymond's long-running comic strip (first popularized in the late 1930s through low-budget serials starring Buster Crabbe as the titular hero), premiered on December 15, 1980 in movie theaters across the United States. Expectations were high that "Flash Gordon" would succeed commercially on a level with George Lucas’ "Star Wars IV: A New Hope" and "Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back" (released earlier that year). With the exception of Pauline Kael (and one or two others), critics panned "Flash Gordon" for its nonsensical storyline, arch dialogue, campy acting, and sub-par visual effects. The few moviegoers who saw "Flash Gordon" theatrically that December agreed. Bad word-of-mouth doomed "Flash Gordon" to box office irrelevance.On a private flight to New York City, Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), the starting quarterback for the NY Jets, meets Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), a travel reporter with a fear of flying. Their flight goes from tolerable to frightening when “hot hail” falls from the sky. When the pilot and co-pilot are sucked out in the storm, Flash takes over the controls. He lands the plane in a greenhouse owned by Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol), a slightly daft scientist who believes Earth has been targeted for destruction from outer space (he’s right, of course). To prove his theories correct, Zarkov has built a rocket ship in the greenhouse. Zarkov kidnaps Flash and Dale and heads for the source of the attacks, the (inexplicably) nearby planet of Mongo.
"Imagine if Federico Fellini had directed a sci-fi/fanasy/action film."
On Mongo, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov are quickly surrounded by forces loyal to the self-described “Ruler of the Known Universe," Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow). Enamored with Dale, Ming decides to make her his consort (and execute his chief romantic rival, Flash). As conceived by Raymond (and furthered in the serials), the despotic, cruel Ming was modeled on racist stereotypes of Asians and fears of miscegenation (i.e., racial mixing). Of course, Ming was still a stereotype in 1980, but by then moviegoers were expected to see him as a retrograde caricature, not an accurate representation of Asians, and thus a movie-long joke.
That jokiness and general unseriousness extends to Ming’s right-hand man, General Klytus (Peter Wyngarde). With his black robes, black hood, and golden mask, Klytus was modeled on Dr. Doom and, of course, Darth Vader. Klytus is so evil that he sleeps, vampire-style, in a coffin-like bed. He aspires to be as cruel and despotic as Ming. Ming's left-hand woman (and Klytus' rival), General Kala (Mariangela Melato), takes her fashion cues from Dominatrix Daily (e.g., spandex and latex), and takes perverse pleasure in torturing Ming's real and perceived enemies.
Ming decides to have Zarkov brainwashed and orders Flash’s execution. Luckily for Flash, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Ming’s libidinous daughter, has a thing for him. Aura helps Flash escape to Arboria, a semi-independent, forest kingdom ruled by her jealous lover, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton). Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed), the prodigiously bearded, eye-line wearing leader of the leather-clad Hawk Men (Hawk Women seem to be in short supply), captures Flash and Barin and flies them to his own kingdom, Sky City. Flash suggests an alliance, but Vultan seems more interested in pitting Flash and Barin in a gladiatorial contest where, naturally enough, they’ll fight to the death.
The man primarily responsible for Flash Gordon is none other than über-producer Dino De Laurentiis. De Laurentiis producing career has spanned the good (Serpico, Three Days of the Condor, Ragtime, Manhunter), the bad (the 1976 remake of King Kong, Dune), and the ugly (Conan the Destroyer, Maximum Overdrive, King Kong Lives). Less an innovator and more an imitator, De Laurentiis, like other producers and studios at the time, hoped to capitalize on the success of Star Wars several years earlier. Given the perceived hunger for science fiction/adventure films, De Laurentiis obtained the financing ($35 million) for Flash Gordon with relative ease.
With financing secured, De Laurentiis turned to filling out his production team, beginning with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (Never Say Never Again, King Kong, Three Days of the Condor, The Drowning Pool, The Parallax View, The Super Cops, Papillon, Fathom). Hiring Semple, a writer, a decade and a half earlier, on the Batman television series, to write the script set Flash Gordon irrevocably on the road to camp. Semple delivered the same arch, ironic tone to Flash Gordon that he brought to Batman, apparently what Dino De Laurentiis wanted.
But every script needs a director to translate the screenwriter’s words and images to the screen, and there De Laurentiis ran into a roadblock (namely, no established director wanted to cede complete creative control to De Laurentiis). De Laurentiis even offered Flash Gordon to longtime friend Federico Fellini, who smartly turned him down. Since he couldn’t get Fellini’s services as a director, De Laurentiis hired one of Fellini’s collaborators, Danilo Donati (Satyricon, Roma, Amarcord, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Casanova), to handle both the set design and the costumes. Donati was given free reign to take Raymond’s Art Deco-inspired designs into the garishly colorful direction that ultimately showed up on screen.
With the start date fast approaching, De Laurentiis settled on Mike Hodges, a director best known for Get Carter, a modestly budgeted crime thriller starring Michael Caine almost a decade earlier (Hodges went on to direct Croupier in 1998 and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead in 2003). Outside of the actual day-to-day shooting, Hodges’ creative input into Flash Gordon stood at zero. Hodges was left to integrate Donati’s contributions, Semple’s screenplay, the international cast (e.g., American, British, Italian, and, in the case of Von Sydow, Swedish), and the visual effects into a coherent film, all under a tight production schedule and a predetermined release date.Whatever "Flash Gordon’s" shortcomings, though, the end result is never short of watchable for its campy awfulness (or, if you prefer, campy goodness). Thanks to cable, network television, and video, "Flash Gordon" received a second chance, eventually acquiring “cult classic” status for essentially the same reasons that made "Flash Gordon" a failure with critics and a box office disappointment 27 years ago.
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originally posted: 12/03/06 23:08:18