Here at The Joy of Geek, we love everything from the latest superhero movie to the most obscure sci-fi cult classic. And while the subject of this article isn’t exactly the most obscure, it is a movie with a devoted fanbase that never made it into the mainstream market. To kickoff this new series “Cult Classics on Blu-Ray,” in which I’ll be analyzing these kinds of retro films and their Blu-Ray special features, I decided that there was no better film to start with than the 1980 Flash Gordon.
This movie has all the tenants of a cult classic: it’s based on an early 20th-century comic strip, it was one of the first big-budget feature-length movies to use a soundtrack composed and performed by an iconic rock band, and since it’s release it’s been the subject of comics, novels, video games, tv shows, movies, and is currently in some phase of getting a reboot. I also chose this one because -and it does pain me to say this- last night was the first time I’d ever seen it. Yes, I’m in the process of writing my own space opera comic and it took me this long to see Flash Gordon. The first time I heard about it was when I saw Ted, and when I saw it on Blu-Ray at FYE yesterday I knew it was calling me.
For those of you unfamiliar with the film or the franchise in general, it opens with the sinister extraterrestrial Emperor Ming (Max Von Sydow) stumbling upon Earth and maliciously talking about annihilating it. As the opening credits roll, accompanied by the theme song written and performed by Queen, director Mike Hodges instantly establishes the film’s pulpy and overtly fantastical aesthetic. The title sequence is in many ways a homage to Star Wars and Richard Donner’s Superman, but it’s also its own blend of swift camera movements and giant text jumping out in space.
From there we spend a brief time on Earth and meet our hero, renowned football player Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), as he boards a small plane and meets travel journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). As the plane breaks down in mid-flight, the pair crash land into a greenhouse owned by the defamed scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol). Zarkov, who was ridiculed by NASA for his theories about an unidentified force pushing the Moon toward Earth and who secretly built a rocket so that he could investigate, manages to convince Flash and Dale to join him and escape the planet’s recent surge of natural disasters.
The team takes off and lands on the planet Mongo, where they are captured and brought before Ming, who orders that Flash be executed and the others imprisoned. With the help of the Emperor’s daughter Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Flash is able to escape and flee to Arboria, the kingdom of Aura’s lover Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton). As the story continues, Flash must unite the surrounding kingdoms and stop Ming from destroying Earth.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because George Lucas created Star Wars after he couldn’t secure the rights to Flash Gordon (the rights were held by producer Dino De Laurentiis in the seventies, who originally hired Nicolas Roeg to direct). Similarly, Pixar Studios was formed as a result of Lucas producing the box-office nightmare and fellow cult classic Howard the Duck (he lost so much money from that one that he had to sell a small VFX division of Lucasfilm to Steve Jobs, who in turn co-founded Pixar). Maybe I’ll write about that movie later on in this series.
Anyway, Flash Gordon is rooted in the early 20th Century era of sci-fi and fantasy pulps, drawing particular influence from the European material – which may have been why it was more popular in Britain than America at the time of its release. It’s a testament to the franchise’s success that this film was made in 1980, almost 50 years after the character first appeared in a 1934 King Features strip by Alex Raymond. Keep in mind that pulp magazines back then weren’t preserved and collected in trade paperbacks like comics today; they were sold on newsstands and thrown out shortly after readers were done with them. And still, Flash Gordon was a popular enough character to garner a series of film serials in the 1930s (the first of which is included on this Blu-Ray in the special features), a seventies TV show, and, of course, this movie.
As I watched the movie, I instantly saw the character’s appeal. He’s the ultimate godlike hero who comes away victorious as the champion of Earth. Even the way Hodges pivots him as an overtly masculinized, sword-wielding, red-tank-top-wearing fighter makes him look like a protagonist stripped from the pages of Greek mythology and launched onto the screen. There are a number of American fantasies and comics which tend to make their protagonists a little more grounded, but Flash Gordon revels in the bombastic and fantastical in a manner that can only be described as British. Its heroes and settings are as vibrant as the Queen songs in the background, while its villains are delightfully sinister and adorned with elaborate costumes.
Tonally, the film is heavily inspired by the 1960s Batman series with Adam West, which is no coincidence as Flash Gordon screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. developed the iconic show. On that note, the special features also include an interview with Semple about how he became involved with the project (my favorite feature though is a spotlight on legendary comic artist Alex Ross, in which he gives a 15 minute explanation for why this is his favorite film). And while there are no “Kapow!” or “Thwack!” SFX balloons that pop up on the screen, the movie’s best cheesy moment is when Flash jumps in the air in a celebratory fashion upon learning that Earth is safe. It’s a beautifully paced shot which encompasses everything great about the movie. Particularly in an age where superheroes have to be constantly deconstructed and made darker, Flash Gordon is a great countermeasure to the excess of cynicism in today’s culture. Whether you’ve never seen it or can quote every line, the Blu-Ray edition is worth your time and money.
P.S. If you’re a Flash Gordon fan, I’d highly recommend the Image Comics miniseries Starlight by Mark Millar and Goran Parlov. In it you’ll find the same kind of pulpy escapism and space opera elements, as this comic is an unabashed love letter to the character.