Flash Gordon at 40
When I think of the 1980 film, Flash Gordon, I think of Queen. There’s no way around it. The film’s soundtrack and score, created by the band’s members: Brian May, Freddie Mercury, John Deacon, Roger Taylor, along with producer Reinhold Mack, and composer Howard Blake (The Snowman) - is still ingrained in my memory, intertwined with the movie’s epic costumes and sets, and actor Brian Blessed’s deep baritone voice asking, “Gordon’s alive?” I’ve watched this film literally since I was a very young child. As Flash Gordon turns 40, I am not far behind. And with this anniversary, I wanted to take a look back at how that unique experience came to be, and how a rock band, coupled with a space comic, created one truly memorable movie experience.
Flash Gordon, the character, originated in the 1930s as a comic strip by Alex Raymond. Along with his love interest, Dale Arden, and scientist Hans Zarkov, Flash pilots a rocket ship into outer space where they land on the planet Mongo, ruled by the emperor, Ming the Merciless. Flash Gordon was always portrayed as the “All American” hero: wholesome, athletic...and not that bright. The comic was made into a series of films in the thirties starring Buster Crabbe - an Olympic swimmer turned actor - who also portrayed Tarzan on film.
One of the things that I find the most interesting about the origins of the 1980 film adaptation is that George Lucas wanted to create a Flash Gordon film. Lucas has said he grew up watching the original Flash Gordon serials once they were rerun on television. Lucas no doubt was influenced by the original films and comics of Flash Gordon. Some of their aspects - the crawling intro titles, the epic fight scenes, and even the character’s hairstyles - are found in his Star Wars films. Lucas was said to have approached King Features for the film rights to the Flash Gordon comics during the early 1970s, but was told that there was already a film in the works by none other than famous Italian director, Federico Fellini. Fellini had also grown up a lover of the comics (which were banned by Mussolini in Italy). Fellini eventually decided against making the film, but Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis who owned the film rights also turned Lucas down when approached later, instead opting to make the movie himself.
Lucas went on to create Star Wars: A New Hope. De Laurentiis hoped to capitalize on the success of Lucas’ film with his own space adventure. He approached Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) to direct his Flash Gordon interpretation. After escalating costs and creative differences became an issue, Roeg left the project. His replacement - Mike Hodges - was originally hired to direct the theoretical sequel to the first Flash Gordon movie. Hodges was more known as a television director; he had also directed Michael Caine in the gritty films, Get Carter and Pulp. The writer for TV’s Batman, Lorenzo Semple Jr., was brought in for rewrites on the script. Both Semple and Hodges were in agreement that their film would be more comedic, while De Laurentiis stuck to his original idea of a more sincere adventure story. Legendary designer Danilo Donati is responsible for the film’s epic set design. The combination of an Italian and British crew often led to disagreements about the film’s tone, further confusing the film’s cast. In an article for Empire, Mike Hodges describes his experiences working on the film:
So I had a producer who spoke mangled English and a production designer who spoke none at all. Both, like Ming, seemed to have arrived from another galaxy. Once I realised the film was in many ways out of my control, I relaxed and made it up as I went along. I loved it.
Hodges found it a struggle to cast Flash, who he described as “an all-American hunk, decent, honourable, but, most importantly, naive.” Kurt Russell was originally slated for the role, but declined because it was too earnest. After De Laurentiis’ mother-in-law saw football player turned actor, Sam J. Jones on television, he was flown in and his hair was dyed blonde for the role. While many have criticized Jones’ performance over the years, his portrayal of Flash Gordon as an American football quarterback-turned-hero is pretty spot on. His naivety is also part of his character’s charm. He doesn’t get bogged down in all of the details of what could go wrong during the film, he only focuses on what he can do to help fix them. Sam J. Jones has said that despite the film being “very campy,” that: "We played it straight; we couldn't have played it any other way… I've heard from the screenings that some people couldn't hear the words because of all the applause and laughter... but we did play it seriously."
Max von Sydow, a friend of De Laurentiis, was more on board for a campy performance of Emperor Ming the Merciless. Future James Bond, Timothy Dalton, played the dashing Prince Barin. The Broadway theater actor, Topol, played Zarkov, the “mad scientist” who kidnaps Flash and Dale Arden at gunpoint in an attempt to save Earth from Ming.
Dale was played by Melody Anderson, a Canadian journalist-turned-actor who had previously worked in television on: Welcome Back, Kotter, Logan’s Run, and Battlestar Galactica. One of the film’s memorable scenes is the gathering of several groups bringing gifts to the Emperor Ming. Some of these gifts are really elaborate looking eggs (think Fabergé) that Flash treats like a football in an attempt to escape. According to Anderson, this scene was almost entirely improvised on the spot by Jones and herself, after seeing the props. In an article for Gizmodo, Anderson is quoted as saying: “It was very funny... that's how the whole film went, because there was no time to prepare. We would just create and throw things in as we went along.”
Anderson played Dale Arden as earnestly as Jones played Flash. Their “meet cute” happens on a small airplane that falls prey to Emperor Ming’s boredom. When the film begins, Ming asks his evil stooge, Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), for something to entertain him, and he is introduced to the planet Earth. Ming then proceeds to cause several natural disasters to occur all at once: volcanoes erupt, massive storms occur, and supernatural turbulence affects the flight of our heroes’ plane. When Ming somehow “zaps” the two pilots out of existence, a still-in-flight-training Flash and motion-sick Dale take control, and crashland the plane into the facility of the scientist, Hans Zarkov. There’s plenty of suspension of disbelief in the next sequence of events: Hans has a working rocket ship, he somehow overpowers the quarterback and knocks him out, then their ship enters some kind of wormhole before they finally land on the planet Mongo.
The most memorable performance from the 1980 film to me (to this day) is still Brian Blessed’s as Prince Vultan, the leader of the Hawkmen. His golden wings, bushy beard and booming jovial voice and laugh are straight out of a Greek myth. Blessed no doubt had a great time filming; he has said in interviews that he has been called upon, again and again, over the years to repeat the line: “Gordon’s alive?” after learning that Flash has escaped death. He even claims the Queen of England told him that she watches the film every Christmas with her grandchildren. In an interview for The Guardian with director, Mike Hodges, Blessed says:
I was invited to Elstree to meet the producer Dino De Laurentiis and the director Mike Hodges. There were all these paintings of me on the walls. I thought: “The sods are having me on – they’ve already cast me.” So I said: “That’s me.” They said: “No.” I just happened to be the spitting image of the character from the comic. Dino said: “We can’t think of anyone else for the part.” I said: “If you offer it to anyone else, I’ll strangle the bastard.”
During the final weeks of shooting, Sam J. Jones had a falling out with producer De Laurentiis. He went on a personal strike, requiring Mike Hodges to redub some of Jones’ dialogue to finish the film. This led to some bad blood between Jones and Hollywood upon the release of the film, and a decline of publicity around its release. In a 2012 interview with Mike Hodges, the director revealed that a sequel was originally planned, until the aforementioned dispute between Jones and the producer. Hodges said in that interview that initial filming ended closely before Christmas, and a second stretch of filming began for stunts or “what passed as special effects back then,” where he chose to use a double for Jones. This upset Jones who then took it up with De Laurentiis. On the contrary, De Laurentiis has said (in his memoir: Dino: The Life and Film of Dino De Laurentiis) that Jones was often getting into fights (on and off set) and at one point ended up in the hospital during filming with a cut on his face. After the film’s release, Jones sued De Laurentiis for breach of contract for not making any sequels. Sadly, Sam J. Jones lost the suit and the sequels were never made. Released in 2019, Life After Flash, is a documentary by Lisa Downs that examines the film, its massive following, and the life of Sam J. Jones - his successes and the storied backlash of his clash with the producer of Flash Gordon.
Even though it attempted to capitalize on the success of Star Wars: A New Hope, Flash Gordon did not do anywhere as well at the box office. Released in 1980, shortly after The Empire Strikes Back, some audiences expected a straightforward adventure story, and disliked the campiness and humor of the film. The film grossed $27 million worldwide compared to Empire’s $400+ million worldwide gross earlier that same year. Flash did, however, do better in the U.K., where audiences were less familiar with the original comics and enjoyed the film as an unpretentious tongue-in-cheek parody.
So, despite my intense enjoyment of the 1980 film, there are still a few things that haven’t aged well. Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (along with pretty much every other female character) is super sexualized, to the point where it becomes obscenely erotic. When we first meet her, Aura enters with actor Malcolm Dixon (Labyrinth, Return of the Jedi, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) on a leash, as essentially her elaborate pet/slave named “Fellini” (ahem). Despite the eroticism, Italian actress Ornella Muti (as Aura) is pretty delightful in the role. Aura’s overt sexuality coupled with Flash’s “himbo” naivety creates a lot of opportunity for comedy. Throw in a dash of swashbuckling Timothy Dalton as her jealous fiancé, Prince Barin, and Blessed as the mischievous Prince Vultan, and you really have a party.
And then there’s Queen. Rumors have been heard that De Laurentiis originally hoped to get Pink Floyd to do the score for his film; he apparently had never even heard of Queen. According to Lisa Downs, "Dino's first reaction was, 'OK, I'll meet the Queens.' He had no idea who they were." After watching a lengthy clip of the film, they began working on the soundtrack and score while simultaneously working on their album, “The Game.” With Brian May at the helm, Queen used plenty of synthesizers to combine rock with electronica, creating an extremely catchy theme and plenty more songs for the rest of the film.
In interviews, Brian May has said:
We wanted to do something that was a real soundtrack. It’s a first in many ways because a rock group has not done this type of thing before, or else it’s been toned down and they’ve been asked to write mushy background music. Whereas we were given the licence to do what we liked, as long as it complimented the picture.
Queen decided to incorporate clips of audio dialogue into their songs for the soundtrack. Freddie Mercury is credited with designing the Flash Gordon logo for their album. The soundtrack managed to break the Top 40 in the U.S., with ‘Flash's Theme’ making it onto the top 10 on the U.K. singles charts. Both composer Howard Blake and Queen were nominated for a BAFTA Award for their work on the film. ‘Flash’s Theme,’ was released as a single, and is one of two songs on the entire album to feature any vocals; the other, ‘The Hero,’ was not released as a single, but is still an awesomely epic song that strikes at the climax of the film. It’s a song that could easily fit into Queen’s repertoire at a concert or on another of their albums. While several critics panned the 1980 film, the soundtrack by Queen was widely praised.
After 40 years I have to say, Flash Gordon still holds up. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of laughs. If you are able to take it for what it is - without comparing it to the likes of Star Wars - and just go along for the ride, you will really enjoy it. Make sure you can crank up the volume while you watch it because that opening theme is where it’s at. And if all else fails, just enjoy Brian Blessed and his team of Hawkmen:
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro