Tuesday, 25 September 2012

REVIEW REVISITED: Flash Gordon (1980)

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This is a reprint of my review which was first published on Three Men on a Blog last year, with a number of minor revisions. My original review can be found here. Also be sure to check out the Movie Hour podcast on the film from November 2010 here. 

Flash Gordon (UK, 1980)
Directed by Mike Hodges
Starring Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Brian Blessed

It's often the case that films we loved in our childhood don't hold up half as well when viewed again as an adult. Likewise it's very common to rediscover a film we hated in our teenage years, only to find that we were completely wrong and that said pariah is actually a masterpiece.
Flash Gordon is a more complicated example of this prolonged change of heart. As a boy under the age of 10, you can't believe your luck - bright colours, big action sequences, scary villains and a chisel-jawed hero. As a teenager who desperately wants to be cool, it's deeply embarrassing - dodgy special effects, hammy acting, a nonsensical plot and Max von Sydow dressing up as Fu Manchu. It's only after this difficult period has passed that the film reveals itself for what it really is - one of the most deliberately and thrillingly silly films ever to grace the silver screen.
If one were to sum up Flash Gordon in a sentence, one could describe it as a remake of the 1936 film, with the added benefits of colour, a better soundtrack and (in Britain at least) more famous actors. For those of us with some knowledge of British character actors and eccentrics, the film contains a number of irresistible one-offs. Where else could you see future Bond Timothy Dalton with a moustache in green spandex, ex-I, Claudius emperor Brian Blessed in wings and a leather tunic, or Rocky Horror's Richard O'Brien as a double-crossing pipe-player?
There is also some enjoyment to be derived from the fact that the film is helmed by the same man who made Get Carter, a film as far removed from comics as you can possibly get. Flash Gordon was Mike Hodges' first completed film in six years, after he was fired from Damien: Omen II three weeks into filming. And for all the film's technical shortcomings (more on those later), Hodges does direct very well: his compositions are good, the stunts and fights are well-choreographed, the characterisation is memorable and - most importantly - he captures the spirit of the original comics.
The reason that Flash Gordon works so well, both as a comic adaptation and a film in general, is that it is aware of the limitations of both its source material and the level of spectacle its budget allows. The original Flash Gordon comics were classic boys'-own adventure tales: stories of adventure on faraway worlds where ordinary heroes battle evil villains, save the world and get the girl. The film updates the characters a little, so that Flash becomes an American footballer and Dale Arden is a travel agent, but otherwise the story plays out in exactly the same romping, rapid-fire style of the original stories.
If we attempt to take Flash Gordon seriously, watching it as a 'proper' science fiction film and looking for deeper meanings in its talkier scenes, we'd last about five minutes before either bursting out laughing or giving up. The plot is totally ludicrous, requiring us to accept a load of unbelievable coincidences. For instance, how lucky is it that Flash and Dale's plane happened to crash land right in front of Dr. Hans Zarkov's laboratory, just as he was about to launch the rocket?
Ming the Merciless' evil plan for destroying the Earth is staple science faction; we're used to films with ray guns and magnetic shields, and so we don't question that he has the ability to move the Moon using a ray. But we still have to contend with a number of cavalier inconsistencies in the plot. The process of brainwashing Zarkov is built up and up into something quite unnerving - but five minutes later, he's back to his old self, having survived it by remembering fragments of the Talmud. In another scene, Princess Aura and Dale catfight for the best part of a minute, and then suddenly become friends as if nothing happened. And why, oh why, did Ming choose to stay standing exactly where he was when the spaceship was clearly heading straight for him?
 
It's true that evolutions in technology take time to filter down through the various echelons of filmmaking; just because Industrial Light and Magic existed in 1980 doesn't mean that everyone could afford them. The art direction in Flash Gordon (which was BAFTA-nominated) makes the clouds resemble a marbling kit, and the special effects themselves make Thunderbirds look slick. Take the early shots of the rocket entering Ming's universe, in which one can clearly see the image on a piece of acetate being moved across the background. And then we have Gilbert Taylor's cinematography, which bathes everything in so much red that it's like watching the whole film through a vat of claret.
And you know what? None of this matters, and here's why. If this storyline had been played even faintly seriously, the film would have been a naff, self-important turkey like Xanadu (or maybe Dune, considering the presence of Dino De Laurentiis). You simply couldn't treat Flash Gordon like Batman or Superman because it's not designed to be taken seriously or to have allegorical connotations. The closest it ever comes to having any kind of message is in the big final showdown, with all the various peoples uniting against the evil emperor. Considering the comic's origins in the 1930s, one could argue it was making a political message about fascism, but even that's stretching a point.
By playing everything for the fans and getting knowing laughs, Flash Gordon is a triumph - or at least as close to one as we could expect. The fact that we laugh at it so lovingly is no accident: the screenplay comes from Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who wrote the Batman TV series and manages to tap into the inherent silliness of the plot. The soundtrack by Queen and Howard Blake sounds mediocre on its own, but when you've got big battle scenes with camp choreography, it makes sense to have stunts being backed by kick-ass guitar solos and pounding drums. In any case, Brian May's take on the wedding march is genuinely cool and really brings out the best in that scene.
From an historical point of view, the film also illuminates much about the original Star Wars trilogy. It's well-documented that Star Wars had its origins in the matinee idols and Saturday morning westerns of George Lucas' youth. But the influence of Flash Gordon goes beyond that, with this version containing many scenes which eerily foreshadow Return of the Jedi. Both films feature a forest planet with tribal communities living in the trees, imperial guards dressed in red with gas mask-shaped helmets, and a giant monster with a beak and tentacles that swallows people up. One could certainly argue that Krylus was the Darth Vader of his day, albeit with a voice which is far more Jeremy Irons than James Earl Jones.
On top of everything, Flash Gordon is simply great fun. Despite the various fallings-out in post-production, you get the sense watching it that the cast and crew had great fun making it. Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton are clearly having a ball, judging their lines perfectly and relishing the stunts; one can see in Dalton's performance the same ferocious intensity that would serve him well during his tenure as Bond. Max von Sydow is clearly enjoying himself, playing pantomime villain complete with curled lips and clipped pronunciation. Cinema fans should also keep an eye out for Robbie Coltrane (at the airfield) and Deep Roy, who would later play all the Oompa-Loompas in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
It would be very easy to view Flash Gordon with disdain or contempt. Just as Airplane! eventually led to Epic Movie and Disaster Movie, so one could hold Flash Gordon to task for giving us Batman and Robin. But this would be deeply unfair considering how well the finished product holds up after thirty-two years. The film is directed with wit and intelligence, the script does justice to the comics while retaining a sense of humour, and above all it's virtually faultless as a slice of pure entertainment. For all its faults (and there are many), Flash Gordon is a triumph of both the sublime and the ridiculous. It's incredibly silly from start to finish - and you just won't care. 

Rating: 4/5
Verdict: A cult camp classic

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