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Flash Gordon (1980): Rock Opera Extraordinaire, or Tale of Karmic Woe for Ming The Merciless?
© Lloyd A. Woodall
March 25, 2008

There were some near misses that almost left the world with a very different Flash Gordon than the one we are blessed to watch again and again on DVD. Did you know Kurt Russell was in the running to play Flash? Had Sam J. Jones not won the role (allegedly because Dino’s mom saw Sam on a game show and said, "He's your Flash,"), the world might have been bereft of both Russell’s Elvis and potentially his Snake Plissken, too.

And we’d never have been introduced to the actor many think of today when they hear the name Flash Gordon.

And Dennis Hopper was in contention for the role of Ming! True, his getting it would have saved the world from, well, I don’t know. What was Dennis Hopper doing in 1980? A TV movie called Wild Times and a film called Out of the Blue, according to IMDB.

So we wouldn’t have missed much after all, and might have had an atrociously overacted Ming. I think he'd have played him similarly to the "style" he invoked as Bob Roberts in My Science Project.

We have two parties to thank for the realization of 1980’s Flash Gordon.

First, the occasionally brilliant and sometimes infuriating Dino De Laurentiis, who helped provide the world with film classics Serpico, Conan the Barbarian, and Army of Darkness, and also offered up stinkers 1976’s King Kong, Maximum Overdrive, and Breakdown.

As producer, Dino guided the creative hands that made Gordon a memorable and exciting experience. If Dino had not owned the rights to film it in 1976, it might have been made by George Lucas, who was hoping to make Flash Gordon in the mid-70s instead of that little movie he ended up doing.

The world would be a very different place today. Maybe a Lucas-imagined Gordon would be cool and Indiana Jones-ish, but would it have been as fun as the campy movie now ingrained in the recesses of societal consciousness?

Second: Queen, whose music fleshed out the surrealist world of Mongo and Flash’s adventures therein. Without their signature song and pulsating soundtrack (often, unfortunately overshadowed by Howard Blake’s mundane score), Flash might have been a flash in the pan, found in Wal-Mart’s $5.99 and less DVD bargain bin instead of the classy and colorful Savior of the Universe edition

The soundtrack and the perfectly placed cries of “FLASH!" from the band as the action builds lend the movie a depth few films attain.

We’re inspired by the music to cheer for the hero as ardently as Dale does, and with Queen’s help it’s that much easier.

While the hit song the band included on their first stateside Greatest Hits LP in 1981 was my introduction to the movie, and causes me to misremember dialogue as it happens in the actual film, it is a constant reminder, too, of the amazing fun the film offers.

The 1936 serial

Casting is spot-on when compared to the 1936 Buster Crabbe serial. With the Savior of the Universe DVD, you can compare them! The first episode of "The Planet of Peril" is included. It’s worth watching for the stock footage of Earth’s countries "panicking" as the end comes nigh, and for the horribly bad, unnaturally horned iguana fights.

While Crabbe throws his weight (and some guys in knight armor) around in almost every scene, Sam J. Jones is prudishly conservative in comparison, and easier to watch for that. Crabbe’s enthusiasm is fascinating, but jarring when viewed today. Didn’t this guy take any acting lessons? He always moves at a faster speed than the people around him. In 1980, all Sam did was stand around and fill out that red and white t-shirt, or those green leather briefs, or that skimpy tank top, all while looking slightly dazed, happy, self-confident, and ready to throw a football. He’s a very zen Flash Gordon. I want to be that guy.

Flash's cheerleader

While in the serial Dale is platinum blonde, Canada-born brunette Melody Anderson (who would go on to nigh-immortality as Detective McKenzie in Manimal fits her role as Flash’s cheerleader exquisitely.

Some of the best parts come when she’s clapping and cheering him on as he fights the spandex outfitted Mongo warriors (who appear to be gas-masked storm troopers in crimson dresses, red and gold armored Samurai, or red and gold lame'ed fourth string draft picks from the Washington Redskins).

My favorite Dale scene is as she’s running in impossibly high heels from the altar as Flash plunges War Rocket Ajax into the Imperial Palace and then Ming. She yells “GO FLASH!"

The casting becomes scarily accurate when you see Charles Middleton’s serial Ming and realize Max Von Sydow looks almost identical in most shots. Sydow provides much more acting to fulfill his menacing character, making you believe he’s a bored despot on the lookout for new toys.

Filling out the secondary characters, all brilliant in what could have been an act by the numbers paycheck for them: Topol as crazy scientist Zarkov; Brian Blessed as Vultan Timothy Dalton acting his leotard off (not literally, ladies) before he bored The Living Daylights out of me as Bond); Peter Wyngarde as Klytus who, with Mariangela Melato (Kala) and Ornella Muti (Princess Aura -- why wasn‘t she ever a Bond girl?!?) make up my favorite trio of baddies in film.

What gives with Klytus?

I wasn’t able to locate anything showing him in the original comics. So was he inspired by Darth Vader’s outfit (or Doctor Doom’s), or was Vader’s inspired by Klytus?

Either way, I’m sad he and Kala died. They were my first favorite movie villains, portraying evil with more than a hint of sadomasochistic sensuality and Europe flavored lust. I still ponder what, exactly, are the bore-worms?

Klytus says he thought the princess quite enjoyed the torture. In the 1980s, as the movie was shown repeatedly on cable to fill the gaping holes the movie studios wouldn't provide A-grade content for, Flash was food for growing hormones!

It's high popcorn fun. It never asks you to take it seriously. Really, could you, after seeing Ming flying out of red clouds over Earth to snatch away the pilots of the plane Dale and Flash ride in?

Ming plays with Earth for his own amusement, to the point of messing with a single plane that’s trundling along minding its own business, and he grabs the pilots from it, apparently not knowing this action will set events in motion that will end up with him as a human kebob on his own war rocket’s snout. The film’s a stylish example of karma at work.

The poor theatrical reception it garnered in the States may be the reason that the Region 1 dvd doesn’t have some of the cool extras (found in the links on this fan site the Region 2-coded dvd release contains.

If you’re not a die-hard Flash fan, not to worry. The Region 1 dvd has more than enough goodies to go along with the pristine transfer of the film. The feature by screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and the ecstatic praises of Alex Ross are almost worth the price of the disc.

A look at Ross's site will tell you he's a Flash Gordon fan. He should have been hired to evangelize the DVD release. I like this movie a lot, but he loves it.

The movie trailer harkens to a time when movie trailers showed you almost everything that was happening in the movie but still did not give the plot and ending away. Moviemakers today could take a lesson.

The least impressive of the extras: the trailer for the Sci-Fi Channel series. It’s eleven seconds long. I won’t embarrass Sci Fi by saying anything more.

OK, I lied. If you ever need to kill eleven seconds, don’t bother to watch the trailer. The film is all the fun you need.

Lloyd Woodall writes Dispatches from War Rocket Ajax.

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