Flash Gordon - Timothy Dalton's Finest Hour?

Flash Gordon, the fantastic 1980 science fiction adventure film was directed by Mike Hodges and based on Alex Raymond's vintage comic strips. The story begins with Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) and his chief crony General Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) amusing themselves by provoking natural disasters on Earth ("An obscure body in the S-K system, your Majesty...") at the push of a console button. Meanwhile, New York Jets American Football star Flash Gordon (Sam J Jones) boards a private plane as the weather takes a disconcertingly strange and ominous turn, meeting travel journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) onboard.
With storms raging all around them due to Ming's distant shenanigans, Flash and Dale end up crashlanding in a greenhouse/lab belonging to Dr Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol), a mad scientist who believes that this bad weather is coming from somewhere out in space. Zarkov has been building a rocket to locate the source of this unknown trouble and he manages to get Flash and Dale onboard before he launches them all into orbit. Although they don't know it yet, their destination will be the planet Mongo where Emperor Ming and one of the most colourful adventures in cinematic history await.
Flash Gordon is enjoyably, ridiculously overblown and colourful, a film that knows it is ludicrous but doesn't really seem to care. It's Star Wars in a gigantic glitter dusted seventies disco with spangly fetishistic costumes, fantastically garish opulent sets and an outrageous colour scheme (an awful lot of red and gold) that could grate cheese at a hundred paces. One thing I really love about Flash Gordon is that it places the budget up on the screen for us to see - Dino de Laurentiis clearly from the Cubby Broccoli school of filmmaking. It begins in winning fashion too with stills of the vintage Flash Gordon comic strips and the famous theme song by Queen after an early taste of Ming and General Klytus. Any film that teams up Ingmar Bergman's favourite actor and Jason King as the villains surely deserves some sort of award!
Once thrown into Ming's dastardly clutches (where the Fu Manchu-esque villain rules the galaxy from Mongo in grand and theatrical fashion) our hero Flash (who helpfully wears a t-shirt with "Flash" written on it in case we should forget who he is) soon begins a rebellion which will need the help of the reluctant Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed). "Prince Barin! I'm not your enemy, Ming is! Let's all team up and fight him!" The only trouble is that Prince Barin takes an immediate dislike to Flash when his slinky girlfriend - and daughter of Ming - Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) takes a shine to the plucky Earthman.
Sam J Jones, who apparently had his voice dubbed here, is not Albert Finney, just as Melody Anderson (essentially Lois Lane without Margot Kidder's comic timing) is not Meryl Streep, but the variable acting almost becomes part of the charm. There is great fun to be had in counting the familiar faces in this picture. A pre-Bond Timothy Dalton (looking like Errol Flynn and Tony Stark from the Iron Man comics) making a dashing and earnest Prince Barin and Brian Blessed with his booming voice and trademark beard having the time of his life as Prince Vultan. Vultan is the leader of a group of flying Hawkmen, nicely deployed for the big battle sequence at the end. "Onward my brave Hawkmen! Let this be known forever as Flash Gordon's Day!"
Dalton seems to be having fun too, especially towards the end when Barin gets to run around shooting people with laser guns shouting things like "You bloody bastards!" or some such. I suspect that Edgar Wright's love of Dalton comes as much from Flash Gordon as it does James Bond. Dalton is so matinee idol handsome he even manages to survive wearing a silly Robin Hood type costume although who doesn't have a silly costume in this?

The cast in general is hugely enjoyable beyond the serviceable leads. Max von Sydow is given some fantastic costumes and some marvelous comic book villain dialogue to dispense. "Pathetic earthlings! Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would've hidden from it in terror." Peter Wyngarde is also fun as General Klytus - who he makes one of the campest and most sarcastic baddies ever to grace the screen. Klytus has a metallic mask that makes him look like Dr Doom and he has some amusing lines too. "Now, he showed promise!" he comments while viewing a Hitler speech via Zarkov's memories (which he is attempting to erase so they can use him as an agent).
Topol is good vale as the eccentric scientist with plenty of scenery to chew and Ornella Muti - who I can't believe never did a Bond film - is memorably feline as Princess Aura with some of the skimpiest costumes ever to adorn a family film. Even Rocky Horror Show/Crystal Maze legend Richard O'Brien pops up playing a flute as Fico, one as Barin's men. Will you start the fans please!
Flash Gordon is full of scenes that everyone remembers - like the fight between Prince Barin and Flash on the booby trapped disc in Vultan's Sky City kingdom and the test that Flash must undergo on Barin's gloomy woodland abode (the forest moon Arboria) by placing his hand Russian roulette style in tree stumps where a very nasty poisonous creature may or may not await. We see none other than former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan illustrate what can happen if you pick the wrong stump.
Clearly some (camp) liberties have been taken here with the character of Flash Gordon but there are some nods to the strips and famous serial featuring Buster Crabbe with the planet backgrounds and some of the rocket ships. Cliffhanger situations abound and there are one or two close escapes for our hero (although you perhaps never quite get enough of a sense of danger with the knowing tone of the film). Logic is a not a major concern here but the lavish production design and sense of fun more than makes up for this.
There are some wonderful matte designs and a big old-fashioned battle sequence at the end with flying Hawkmen, laser fields and the enjoyably anachronistic rockets. This is a film I've loved since I was a child and it fully deserves its cult status. Flash Gordon remains great fun for all ages.
- Jake

c 2015 Alternative 007

james bond alpine