Is it bad?  Is it good at being bad?  Does that make it good?  It's Flash Gordon, that's what it is.

Is it bad? Is it good at being bad? Does that make it good? It’s Flash Gordon, that’s what it is.

Revisiting Childhood Movies Part X:

Flash Gordon

  • Director:  Mike Hodges
  • Writer:  Lorenzo Simple Jr.  (screenplay)  /  Michael Allin (adaptation)
  • Producer:  Dino De Laurentiis
  • Stars:  Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Topol, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Ornella Muti
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Award Nominations:  Score, Art Direction, Costume Design (BAFTA)
  • Length:  111 min
  • Genre:  Sci-Fi  (Comic Book)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  5 December 1980
  • Box Office Gross:  $27.10 mil  (#23 – 1980)
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  **
  • My Rank:  #96 (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Notables:  Best Guilty Pleasure, Highest Attractiveness / Acting Ability Ratio
  • First Watched:  when it first came to HBO, maybe 1982?
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  between 5 and 10

As a Kid:  I saw this film a number of times as a kid.  Little did I know how important some of the actors in this film would mean to me outside of the world of this movie – I simply enjoyed watching this.  And yet, I must have always come into the movie a bit into it, because while most of the movie is incredibly familiar, the first 20 minutes or so, until they meet Ming, I never seem to remember very well.

There are two reasons why I saw this film a lot as a kid.  The first is that it covers a few different genres that I tend to enjoy.  It is partially a Science-Fiction film and partially a Fantasy film.  It also, though comic from a comic strip, is a bit of a Comic Book film (the subgenre I place it in).  It has laser guns (echoes of Star Wars) and swords (echoes of Tolkien).

The second reason I watched it a lot was because of the circumstances of the early 80’s.  As I have mentioned in other RCM posts (here, for example), we didn’t own a VCR until 1985.  So I couldn’t just pull Star Wars off the shelf and watch it again and again any time I wanted to.  We did, however, have HBO and Cinemax, and this film was on.  So, any time this came on I could watch it, which is why I kept re-watching this and Clash of the Titans, Battlestar Galactica and Superman III – though not the best (and of vastly varying quality) – they were the kind of films I liked and they were what was available to watch.  I can’t imagine that I ever had any notion that this was a good film.  But it had a world of Hawkmen, it had a bit of an anti-hero who dressed like Robin Hood and it had some good fun to it.

As an Adult:  This film frustrates me.  I like my films to be good.  If not good, I like them to at least attempt to be good and fail in the attempt and have aspects that are enjoyable.  My guilty pleasures aren’t the type of films that are viewed as campy classics – to me, Starship Troopers isn’t a film designed to be enjoyable bad, it’s simply bad.  The films I have gone back to in this series that I enjoy, films like Clash of the Titans and Battlestar Galactica, may be flawed, but they are not bad films and they are not campy films.  So what to do about a film like Flash Gordon which some people clearly love for what it is?  There are parts of Flash Gordon that are well done – the amazing art direction and costumes for one – but when you come right down to it, this is simply a bad film.  And given that, in certain ways, it was never designed to be a good film, how then should I judge it?

Even being beaten in battle, on the floor with spikes, in a bad film, Timothy Dalton is still much cooler than you or me.

Even being beaten in battle, on the floor with spikes, in a bad film, Timothy Dalton is still much cooler than you or me.

Well, first I could talk about some of the things that it does well.  It embraces the Star Wars method of casting and ends up with some solid supporting performances.  Max von Sydow, who I now have seen in eleven Bergman films, among numerous others, can drop the tortured thinker that he plays in so many of those films and relish being a completely evil ruler.  He gets some very nice scenes (I especially like the scene where he simply talks to Flash in the Hawkmen city) and gets a nice “death” scene.  Timothy Dalton, years before he would play Bond, gets to be a little bit of Bond, a little bit of Robin Hood, a little bit of Han Solo and he clearly relishes it.  Brian Blessed, after I, Claudius, but years before he would become a primary player in Kenneth Branagh’s troupe, gets to throw out his wonderful booming voice.

The film is beautifully designed.  Yes, it has some deliberately hokey visual effects, designed to harken back more to the serial roots of Flash Gordon, and some of the sets are clearly ripped off from Star Wars (I somehow think the scenes of Barin shooting down the red guys in the corridors must have been filmed after the May 21 release date of Empire) and there is even some rip-offs from DC (the Hawkmen in this film look much more like the policemen of Thanagar than the Hawkmen of the original Flash Gordon strips).  But it also creates different worlds – the swamps of Arboria, the city of the Hawkmen with its battle platform, the extensive city of Mongo.  The film is elaborately designed with fascinating costumes and makeup – in one case, the red guys, I think Star Wars might have taken something from this film, as they clearly seem to presage the appearance of the Emperor’s Royal Guard in Jedi.  There is an element of adventure in the costumes and definitely an element of sexiness (more on that below).  It even has some rather amusing in-jokes (one character is named Fellini, who had worked with producer Dino De Laurentiis before and who De Laurentiis had wanted to direct).

But all of this can’t cover the problems at the heart of the film.  The first problem is problematic on multiple levels because of my dislike of camp but the second problem is just simply a problem.

The first problem is the script.  It is, quite simply, ridiculous and terrible.  There are lines that don’t make sense (at the beginning of the film they discuss the word “earth” as if it is unfamiliar, but they have a button for earthquake), lines that seem to come out of nowhere (Zarkov calls for a revolution without any discussion that these people might want one) and lines that are quite simply terrible (“Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the earth!”).  Here’s the other level of this though – the script isn’t written to be good.  It’s written to be silly and campy.  So how much am I allowed to criticize it for being so awful when it’s not supposed to be good?

But the problems with the script might actually speak to something I can’t believe I’m writing – this movie perhaps should have been larger.  There some be large jumps in this film, but those might be harkening back to its roots as a comic strip and a serial.  But Zarkov has Dale and is supposedly brainwashed, but then they are escaping together.  The Hawkmen suddenly seem to have taken over Arboria and no mention is made of what happened to Barin’s men.  I know there are deleted scenes, but I’m talking about the film as it was released.  Characters make huge leaps, circumstances change, things seem to suddenly just happen, and I can’t decide if I have to blame that on the script or blame it on the editing.  So, I’ll leave it with this – I think the script is fairly dumb, but it is clearly at points designed to be dumb (it’s one thing for Flash, a football player, to react like a football player, but it’s clearly intentionally campy for the Mongo residents to then react like a football team and Dale to act like a cheerleader).  But for other things that can’t just be explained away – like how Dale, a travel journalist, suddenly seems to be a master of either gymnastic or judo – it just makes my brain hurt.  Clearly I’m thinking too much about a film that is not designed to have me think.

The other problem with this film, though, can’t be explained away.  As I said before, this film uses the Star Wars method of casting – take a couple of unknowns and surround them with established actors in the supporting roles.  And yes, unlike in the case of Battlestar Galactica, the established actors in this film, Max Von Sydow and Brian Blessed, are close to the level of Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing.  But, while the Galactica stars weren’t great, they were serviceable for their parts.  Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson are just simply terrible.  Yes, Jones is built like a football player, but he’s a terrible, terrible actor (I know his lines are dubbed by someone else – but he’s still terrible).  Anderson has those kind of good looks that would have looked in place on the Galactica (she’s actually in an episode with her natural blonde hair), but she’s just awful in every scene.  Though I didn’t think up the award until I was doing my Year in Film for the next year, I have retroactively awarded her the Highest Attractiveness / Acting Ability Ratio because she does look good but she is quite awful.  And yet, she’s not as bad as Ornella Muti – the only reason she doesn’t win the award is because I find Anderson considerably more attractive and because this was Muti’s first role in English, so she at least has a partial excuse for being so awful.

Given the level of respect for women in this film, I thought I would include a more empowering still of Melody Anderson.

Given the level of respect for women in this film, I thought I would include a more empowering still of Melody Anderson.

Something I had never thought about before watching the film with Veronica was the level of sexuality present in the film.  The women are drugged, the women are whipped, the women are dressed alluringly, Dale basically has an orgasm while under the influence of Ming’s ring; there is even a great catfight between Dale and Princess Aura with several chambermaids watching.  More than once during the film Veronica commented “I’m surprised that this film is rated PG.”  I’m certain there’s a term paper for somebody waiting to be written (if it hasn’t already been) about the role of women in this film.  (As Veronica read that last paragraph, I suggested that after “the women are whipped” I could add, in parenthesis, “The women are afraid of bore worms.”  Veronica’s response?  Where do they bore – we never see.  Another good point about the role of women in this film.)

So, that’s what I have to say about the film – a whole lot more than I originally intended.  I have one more thing that I’m saving for the end for a reason.  But at this point I’m left with the question of what rating do I give this film?  I think at one point I may have considered this a *** film.  When I looked at my 1981 spreadsheet, I noticed that I had it as a mid-range *.5 film.  And where can it possibly belong?  In the end, I went with a 50.  A straight 50 out of 100 – halfway in the middle between Sunset Blvd and Caligula.  It’s too enjoyable to be any lower and the acting and writing is too abysmal for it to end up any higher.  That leaves it at **, but at the highest level of ** films.  It’s an oddity – of the almost 12,000 films I’ve seen, only 8 other ones rank at a 50, so it stands with such films as the 1951 version of Native Son, Home Alone, The Replacement Killers and Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy – films that stand right in the middle.

Now for my last little note.  I have made my case for why this film is not good.  But how much you actually enjoy this film can range quite a ways, depending, probably, on how old you were when you first saw it (Seth MacFarlane, for example, is almost exactly a year older than me, so his feelings on Flash Gordon, clearly complimentary as is evident to anyone who has seen Ted, probably saw it as a kid like me), your level of endearment for Sci-Fi / Fantasy films and one other factor: your feelings on the music of Queen.  This was one of the first films to ever have an entire soundtrack done by a rock musical artist (Pink Floyd had done a few by this time, but it was still relatively rare and even rarer for a big budget film).  Are you like the editor of the New Rolling Stone Album Guide, someone who thinks “Excessive, decadent, theatrical, androgynous, tasteless, mocking, ironic, self-conscious: Queen lived up to its moniker with gleeful abandon.  It could only have happened in the 70’s.”? (p 668)  They dismiss the soundtrack with one word: tuneless.  Or, like the millions who owned the two volumes of Classic Queen (including basically everyone I knew in college), do you rather enjoy them?  I myself rather enjoy Queen and I quite enjoy the song “Flash”, complete with ridiculous lines included in the course of the song (“General, Flash Gordon approaching.”  “What do you mean Flash Gordon approaching?”).  You might find yourself overcoming how bad the film is and just enjoying it if that’s the case.  But then, you might end up like I did late last night, after watching it, trying to get to sleep.  You might hear this in the back of your brain:

“He’s just a man  /  With a man’s courage”

Good luck going to sleep with that in your head.  “Flash!  Whoa!  Saviour of the universe!”