FOOTAGE FETISHES: “FLASH GORDON”

Go, Flash, Go!
The ease at which, well, everyone escapes the palace throws some serious doubt on Ming’s abilities as a tyrant. These are confirmed when our heroes return, after fits and starts, to lead a revolt that succeeds with ridiculous ease. Flash is able to convince the feuding Barin and Vultan to put aside their differences to unite against Ming and also to rescue Dale who, as is the tendency of women in these movies, has foolishly gotten captured again.
Rumor has it that De Laurentiis’ mother had Dino cast Sam Jones after seeing him on a game show. It explains a lot, because Jones’ Flash is the only one on screen who isn’t ferociously tearing the scenery a new asshole. Look at Brian Blessed; his Vultan is fantastically over-the-top (and rather coarse for a guy with wings, if you ask me). Topol reads every line with a half smile, like he can’t believe what’s coming out of his mouth. And Peter Wyngarde’s Klytus is Darth Vader if Vader was “Casablanca’s” Captain Renault with a bondage fetish.
Speaking of fetish, this movie could be one big advertisement for Forbidden Fruit. Every costume on Mongo consists of some combination of leather, latex, or silk. Flash actually goes to the gas chamber in black leather undies (at least Caryl Chessman got to wear pants). Other choice scenes include Kala flogging Aura, Barin and Flash whip-fighting, and the guilty pleasure of the Dale vs. Aura catfight in the second act. Ooo la la.
I mentioned that writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. worked on “The Parallax View” and “Condor,” what I forgot to divulge was he was also responsible for the 1966 “Batman” movie (Penguin’s Exploding Octopus, anyone?) and the ill-advised 1976 remake of “King Kong.” Given this, it’s hard to believe that he, as well as most of the cast, wasn’t in on the joke. The only one I’m not sure of is Timothy Dalton, who appears to waver between trying to emote convincingly and surging ahead with grim determination. He does have his moments; most notably when, chained in Ming’s dungeon, he turns to fellow prisoner Zarkov and says, “Tell me more about this man Houdini.”
Unlike Star Wars, where Harrison Ford seems to be the only one trying to have a good time, almost everyone in “Flash Gordon” is hamming it up. The effect might be lessened if Semple and Hodges were trying to fool us into believing that “Flash” is anything but pure camp. They never apologize for this, but instead embrace the puns, weird mannerisms, and ridiculous dialogue scattered throughout. The sole exception is Jones, but it works, because he’s supposed to be the only earnestly sincere person there.
The set and production designs are also worth noting. “Flash” is obviously pre-“Blade Runner:” all garish colors and fantastic locales, with vehicle and costume designs that show a surprising amount of devotion to Alex Raymond’s original vision (and somebody should check with Lucas about who had the idea for red-costumed Imperial guards first). Purists argue about the differences between sci-fi and fantasy, and truly there is no science in this fiction. “Flash Gordon” asks you, quite plaintively, to suspend your disbelief. Unlike more recent dreck (*cough* “Lost in Space” *cough*) however, we’re actually rewarded for doing so. Planet Mongo looks like it was made out of those rocks you used to grow in your fish tank, while the warp surrounding the planet is reminiscent of the psychedelic backgrounds in “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.” Movies about the future would become gray-scale downers soon enough (as De Laurentiis would find out when he released “Dune” a few years later). “Flash,” at the end of the day, is a fun movie to watch.
And it almost rivals “Highlander” for best Queen soundtrack of all time.
And The Ending Leaves It Open for a Sequel.
It won’t be spoiling things much to say that the good guys do indeed win the day. Vultan leads the Hawkmen on a desperate attack on the palace that, of course, succeeds. Barin single-handedly wipes out the Imperial Guard, the Secret Police, and the power supply for the entire planet. He then assumes the throne as rightful heir and appoints Vultan his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or something. Flash, heady with victory after flying war rocket Ajax up Ming’s wazoo, seems stuck with Dale and Zarkov on Mongo. It’s curious that an empire with the ability to steer the moon into the earth seems to lack the ability to send three human beings back there as well, but that’s what you get when you wipe out the atomic generators. And of course, we get the classic open-ended “The End?” Somebody needs to jump on Chapter 2 of this baby.
One of the more amusing aspects of the film is the idea of Flash Gordon as Che Guevara. Revolutionary firebrand is a strange spiritual calling for a pampered athlete, but apparently all Americans are capable of instilling that patriotic fervor in other civilizations, provided we’re given the chance. Guess it’s a good thing one of the Soyuz capsules didn’t get to Mongo first.
And while we’re at it, forget Barin’s Treemen (from “Arborea,” get it?) and the Hawkmen, what about the Lizard Men? You remember them? They look like walking snakes, except for the odd fact that they have eyes *inside* their fanged mouths. The lizard men are, without a doubt, the most subaltern of the Mongo races. They’re executed capriciously (a lizard man was the first death we saw on Mongo), imprisoned by everyone (Flash briefly shares a swamp cage with one on Arborea), and forced to serve as grave-digging slaves. Why the hell weren’t these guys invited to the party? Someone call Noam Chomsky.
Politics aside, if you haven’t watched “Flash Gordon” in a number of years, you owe it to yourself and your hopefully impressionable spouse/friends/children to do so. Adults who have never seen it will need a few beers but should enjoy it, while those who have seen it will bask in the warm, lapping waves of nostalgia. Your kids will immediately label it cheesy-looking crap and go back to their boy bands, GameCubes, and $100 million CGI blockbusters. Screw them. We know better, and they’re the ones who are going to be stuck living in that “Blade Runner” future anyway.
Remake My Day
Or “Make My Sequel,” whatever. It’s certainly hard to think of anyone who’d do a better job as Ming than von Sydow, but I’d be willing to give Gary Oldman a chance. And Oliver Reed would’ve made a great, more sinister Vultan. Too bad he’s dead. Maybe Ving Rhames, though I bet Blessed is up for it still. The guy climbs the Himalayas every year. The role of Dale would go to Sandra Bullock, because you want that “spunky” thing. Princess Aura? Tera Patrick. And why not get Bill Shatner for Dr. Zarkov and Antonio Banderas as Prince Barin? Flash would be tough, depending on if you wanted to go dumb jock or not. If so, Paul Walker. If not, Jude Law.

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Writer Pete Vonder Haar takes us down memory lane for an in depth look at films we may have forgotten about. Some of these films will bring back fond memories, while others may force you to cancel your cable service in fear of coming across a late night screening of them.




Posted on September 26, 2002 in Features by

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