Jan 20, 2020
Pulp Masterpieces, Part 7: Flash Gordon (1980)
Aaaaand we’re back! Welcome once more to Pulp Masterpieces, where I take a look at movies that captured the feel of the pulp genre. If you’re new to this series, please check out the other entries where I looked at The Shadow, The Phantom, The Rocketeer, The Mummy (the Brendan Frasier/Rachel Weisz version), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and The Maltese Falcon. I took a break from the series in order to celebrate Megaforce’s 35th anniversary, but now I’m ready to tackle the final three films on my list. It was hard to decide which would make the cut and which would have to fall to the wayside. Three that didn’t quite make it were…
1) The Thin Man: Dashiell Hammett’s novel was masterfully adapted to the big screen and starred screen legends William Powell and Myrna Loy, to my mind one of the most devastatingly attractive women in Hollywood history. The story is about couple Nick and Nora Charles, the former a retired police detective and the latter a wealthy heiress. The pair get involved in a case when one of their friends go missing and is then accused of murder. Trust me, I really, really wanted to delve into this film, but you guys seem to be allergic to black and white movies. And no, I’m not bitter about the views on my Maltese Falcon article. Really. Honest. I mean it.
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2) The Adventures of Tintin: Steven Spielberg’s take on the legendary comic strip character was very well done, with Jamie Bell doing a credible job as the titular character. But the incomparable Andy Serkis once again steals the show as Tintin’s drunken but stalwart sidekick Captain Haddock. Daniel Craig also does a good job as the villainous Sakharine. What made me hold off on adding it to my Pulp Masterpieces list is that the movie, while good, didn’t leave quite the impression on me as most of the others did. That, and how the animation skirted Uncanny Valley territory.
3) Doc Savage: Oh, don’t you worry, I haven’t forgotten you, Doc Savage. I see you, sitting on my shelf, between my copy of Cats and Dredd. Your day will come, and you’ll get what’s coming to you.
And on that ominous note, we come to the first of the final three: Flash (aaa-ah!) Gordon!
The plot: Galactic despot Ming the Merciless…
…travels through the galaxy, ruling his various kingdoms with a silken gloved fist. He visits various worlds and when he deems them a threat he crushes them! Doctor Hans Zarkhov…
…is the only person on Earth who has determined the increasingly violent and unpredictable weather as well as the “unprecedented solar eclipse” is in reality an attack upon the planet, and he’s crafted a rocketship to fly into space to confront the invaders to find some way to get them to cease their assault. To this end, he forces travel agent Dale Arden…
…and New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon…
…both vacationers waylaid by a storm and forced to practically land in Zarkhov’s home, to accompany him. On Mongo, they face off against Ming’s forces, led by the villainous Klytus…
…and General Kala…
…but also come across potential allies as well, such as Ming’s sensuous and willful daughter Aura…
…the hot headed Prince Baron…
…and the bombastic Prince Vultan.
Can Flash get these various groups to team up and beat Ming?
Flash Gordon originally got its start in 1934, as a comic strip conceived of, written, and drawn by cartoonist Alex Raymond to compete with Buck Rogers. Later, it was adapted into a serial starring Buster Crabbe.
Flash has had mixed success over the decades on TV and in comic books, but other than the original strip and serial, it’s this movie where the franchise is at its most memorable and most enduring in the modern consciousness.
This gloriously loud, garishly bright, and outrageously stupid film is about as awesome a motion picture as I’ve ever seen. Flash Gordon is about as much fun as a human being can handle. It moves at a reckless pace, throwing Flash from one death-defying situation to another. The episodic serials of the ’30s had each installment end in a cliffhanger, making moviegoers eager to come back next week. We get something similar in different parts of the film, like in one scene were Flash is apparently executed…
..only to be seemingly brought back to life due to Princess Aura’s machinations.
Or when he’s about to be slain on Arbor…
…only to be rescued by Prince Vultan’s men. In all honesty, this story deserves to be told as a mini-series to give the viewer more of a chance to discover the various moon kingdoms of Mongo, or at least given another ten minutes or so to help flesh things out. But I can appreciate why director Mike Hodges chose to keep the pace moving so quickly. There’s no time to think about the batshit insanity going on; we’ve got an action sequence with Queen rocking in the background.
So yeah, let’s talk about the music first. Soundtracks done by rock bands don’t always work out. I’m reminded of Toto’s efforts on the
Alan Smithee David Lynch film Dune and how it’s a noble effort but pretty much a failure. Here, the rock band Queen was absolutely without a doubt the perfect group to tackle this movie’s score (and to be fair, some of the orchestral arrangements were handled quite competently by composer Howard Blake). Freddy Mercury’s vocals heading up one of the most iconic rock bands in history is every bit as loud and over the top as the movie needs, and had a more serious composer like John Williams handled it, the film would have suffered as a result.
While it takes place in what was then modern day, really a lot of Mongo feels like what Alex Raymond might have envisioned when he was drawing his comic strip in the ’30s. The movie is actually respectful to Raymond’s vision and the tone he and the serial producers conveyed, and the opening credits even use art from the strip in a beautiful manner.
Every Kingdom has its own color: Mongo is red, Arbor green, the hawk men have brown and burnished brass, and Ardentia is yellow. You know Ardentia, don’t you? Prince Thun’s kingdom? The poor bastard who thought he could kill Ming at the beginning of the film?
The costumes are outstanding; they’re garish and bold, and I like how each of the different kingdoms have their own look based not only on the temperament of the characters but also the environment they live in. The hawk people look different from their rivals, the forest men of Arbor:
The fact that this movie was not even nominated for costume design at the Academy Awards is a crime. You know what was nominated? Disaster film When Time Ran Out… and some period piece called My Brilliant Career. Oh, wait, you’ve never heard of those movies? It’s because they’re forgettable, that’s why.
The movie’s sets are utterly fantastic, from Ming’s throne room…
…to Vultan’s palace…
…to gloomy Arboria.
Now, as to the performances… Look, I’m not going to lie, the film is flawed. I can love a thing and still admit that in some ways it can be better, and where the film fails most is in the casting. The worst of the lot is Ornella Muti as Princess Aura. Muti’s performance is pretty much to play Aura as a space slut, and in a movie where some actors seem to be competing for least nuanced performance, she gets first prize. She’s basically just a pretty face and that’s about it. Her 180 degree turnaround isn’t exactly convincing, either. Aura is here mainly for fan service.
My favorite Aura scene is when she and Dale have their confrontation:
I realize that this might upset hardcore fans of this movie, but I’m going to be honest: Sam J. Jones’ Flash Gordon is earnest and heroic, but he’s really bland. He’s not the world’s greatest actor, but there are instances where I do get flashes of competence, such as the scene with Aura where he’s been medically resurrected and is shocked that he’s still alive, or when he fakes out Baron in the Arborean temple, or in his final confrontation with Ming.
Maybe under better direction, he could have given us a better performance. As to my favorite scene with Flash, it’s hard to pick, to be perfectly honest. Was it the scene where Flash is kicking Ming’s men’s asses at football?
Or when he’s facing down Baron in the Arborean temple?
I think in the end, it’s when he beats Baron and then rescues him in Vultan’s arena:
Sam J. Jones isn’t a great actor, but all the same, Flash is there to perform acts of derring-do and he accomplishes this wonderfully and believably throughout the movie, appearing brave and resourceful.
Timothy Dalton as Prince Baron is alright, but he’s constrained by the dictates of the film’s pacing. Baron goes from being jealous of Flash Gordon to his best friend so fast it risks giving a viewer mental whiplash. Again, had the film been a mini-series or even maybe a few minutes longer, we could have maybe seen Baron come to realize 1) Flash has no interest in Aura, 2) Flash is an opportunity to get rid of Ming, and oh yeah, 3) he owes Flash his life. For all of that, Dalton gives a fine performance. My favorite scene with Baron?
Okay, admittedly not Baron’s finest hour, but Dalton delivers that line wonderfully.
Melody Anderson’s Dale Arden is a lot of fun. She’s tough and sassy, and while she does play the girlfriend in peril through a lot of the film, she never comes across as someone who’s weak. Yeah, okay, she cries, but I don’t hold that against a woman seeing a man she likes die and feeling herself in a hopeless situation. She is by no means passive, orchestrating her own escape and offering up her life to Ming as his bride in the hopes of saving the Earth. My favorite Dale moment? Her epic escape:
Mariangela Melato is a hell of a lot of fun as General Kala. She doesn’t get to do a whole lot, so she makes the most of every single scene she’s in. I can still remember her delivery of lines like, “Dispatch war rocket Ajax, to bring back his body!” You get people going on and on about how awesome Captain Phasma was in The Force Awakens because she’s a female stormtrooper or something and has a pretty silver outfit, but she doesn’t hold a candle to a Kala. Hell, the general is even really good at her job; when Flash hijacks Ajax to fly it at the capital city, Kala isn’t fooled for a second and activates the defenses. That kind of competence in minions is rare these days. I don’t have a particular favorite scene with her, I just love the way she delivers her lines like, “Open fire! Allll weapons! Charge the lightning field! I accept full responsibility in the Emperor’s name!”
Topol’s Professor Hans Zarkhov is arguably the most fleshed out character in the entire film. His motivation is the most well defined, and while Flash’s heroics steal the show, Hans is the true hero here. He’s the one who created the rocket that brought Flash to the dance. And yet, as Hans is strapped down to the operating table, he discovers his attempts to save Earth are responsible for Ming deciding to send the planet back to the Stone Age because he now sees humanity as a potential threat. Topol does a wonderful job playing a man on a mission, a borderline maniac obsessed with saving the planet. At the same time, Topol is able to give the role a touch of much needed humor as well. My favorite Zarkhov scene: admitting he used a song from the Beatles to help protect himself from the mind drainer. “It armored me, girl!”
It’s difficult to carry a performance by voice alone, but damn, does Peter Wyngarde do an amazing job. To some, Klytus might seem like a cheap Darth Vader ripoff, but to those who make that claim I ask… no, I demand they watch this movie and see how wonderful a performance Wyngarde delivers as Ming’s hatchet man. Listen to the man’s voice, and how he goes from a menacing snarl when he’s torturing Aura, to idle contempt for Flash and Dale’s emotional scene in the dungeons, to his cool indifference to Zarkoff’s imminent brain drain. Klytus is so goddamn cool.
My favorite Klytus scene? Well, every actor wants a dramatic death, right?
Man, what can I say about Brian Blessed? His Prince Vultan is so much fun to watch, and such a joy to behold. Blessed gives the impression that he’s having the time of his life, conveyed in his booming voice and silly facial expressions.
My favorite Vultan scene? The Hawkman attack on war rocket Ajax: “Diiiiiiiiiiive!”
Finally, we’ve got Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless. Man, what a role. I’m convinced the only direction Max got from director Mike Hodges was to act as outrageously as the outfits he’s wearing. Von Sydow is one of the greatest actors of all time. I’m not just talking about his enduring legacy when it comes to the number of films he’s appeared in; I’m talking about how he can play anything, from a German World War II officer who loves European football, to a priest taking on a demon possessing a young girl, to a barbarian king, to an evil brewmeister crafting beer laced with brainwashing drugs. When Max von Sydow dies (and may that day be a long way off), luminaries like Laurence Olivier will stand and applaud him as he takes the celestial stage.
Von Sydow, like Blessed, seems to be have an utterly wonderful time playing this larger than life character as he struts about in his myriad costumes, being both a horrific monster attempting to decimate life on Earth, then turning around for some petty dickery as he tells Prof. Zarkhov it’s all his fault, even though the man is about to have his mind wiped and forget that fact. No, Ming’s just telling him because he’s like a child who turns a magnifying glass on an ant hill; he enjoys watching things suffer.
And yet I can’t simply say Ming is entirely devoid of nuance; the scene between him and Flash, when he offers him a job, is very well done, as the Emperor tries to convince the hero to join him. In fact, I feel Jones steps up his game here, like he wants very badly to live up to von Sydow’s example. My favorite Ming scene? God, it’s so hard to choose! Max delivers on screen every single time, acting with his face, voice, and gestures, but if you held a gun to my head, I’d say the wedding scene is just a hair’s breadth above the others.
If you haven’t seen Flash Gordon, then do yourself a favor and find a copy and watch it. Better yet, find friends, lots of friends, and make it a party. I don’t think any of you will be disappointed by this amazing Pulp Masterpiece.
Afterward: Many years ago when I was a boy, I would sit up late at night and watch the old Flash Gordon serial with my dad on our local TV station, channel 62. It was my dad who got me into science fiction and fantasy; it was his old Conan paperbacks that fired up my imagination and later got me into Dungeons & Dragons. And those nights sitting up with him meant a lot, because for a kid who wasn’t into sports and didn’t understand a lot of what he liked (which was golf, and hockey, and football, and college basketball, and art, and his various other interests), it felt good to connect with him on something.
So it shocked me and my brothers when we discovered he had never seen this version of Flash Gordon. I mean, this film got serious rotation on HBO back in the day, and it surprised us he never saw a single minute of it. So one Christmas we sat him down and played it for him, and he loved it, and it felt good that we were able to make him smile.
I never talked to him about my writing here at the Agony Booth. I only mentioned it in passing at a family dinner when I said that I hadn’t completely given up on writing, and that I enjoyed submitting articles here. It wasn’t until after he died that my mom told me that he read my stuff and he liked it. I don’t know why he never told me; maybe he thought I would feel too self conscious about what I wrote. When mom told me, it made me realize how much I had left unsaid, and how I never told him how much I appreciated those late nights when it was just him and me. When I think of Flash Gordon I think of my dad, who to a child could be as tyrannical as Ming, or as wise as Hans Zarkhov, or as bombastic and funny as Vultan, or as heroic as Gordon himself.