Genre: Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Runtime: 1 hr 47 min
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Mike Hodges
Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Topol, Timothy Dalton, Max von Sydow, Ornella Muti, Brian Blessed
Gaudy, campy, and yes, even flashy.
Review by: ShaneBurridge
Added: 8 years ago
Gaudy, campy, and yes, even flashy, this one-of-a-kind SF fantasy would have turned out to be a completely different affair if George Lucas had gotten his wish to make it (unable to get the rights, he created his own space opera from scratch instead). Undoubtedly Lucas' version would have derived from the Saturday serials that he enjoyed as a boy, but director Mike Hodges turned instead to the original comic strips for inspiration. While Hodges wouldn't be anyone's first pick to direct a film like this (there's nothing else like it on his resume) he has to be a less bizarre choice than initial director Nicolas Roeg, the least likely candidate to handle a comic strip since Robert Altman took on POPEYE.
The story is straightforward SF pulp (Flash is whisked away to another planet where he defeats an evil emperor who wants to destroy the Earth), and the screenplay nothing more than a series of escapades which find Flash constantly jumping from the frying pan into the fire and back again (despite the extolments of his title tune he isn't that much of a hero, and is rescued more often than doing the rescuing). Apart from a few brawls, his most dramatic achievement is to start and end the film by killing someone with a crash dive. As simple as the story may be, it is given spark by screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr (who had previously written for the subversively camp BATMAN TV series), whose sly dialogue is handled fittingly by the cast. FLASH becomes comedic only because nobody plays broadly for laughs (several gags were improvised and not in the script). Amazingly, Hodges gets everyone to perform at the same pitch, whether they're unknowns from America (Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson), supporting players from the UK (Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed), Italian imports courtesy of producer Dino de Laurentiis (Ornella Muti, Mariangela Melato) or famous European names such as Max von Sydow and Topol.
Semple's script, as appearing on the printed page, would have belied its mock earnestness and looked straight-laced enough for Laurentiis to be unaware of how gloriously cheesy his project really was, even with the addition of retro rocketships, fetishistic costumes, and garish sets. As an example of excess, check out a fight to the death between two of the film's heroes, enacted not simply with swords, but with whips on a floating, seesawing, spiked disc suspended miles above the ground. This is mirrored afterwards when the film's two leading ladies have a catfight with pillows on a round gold-satin-sheeted bed while slave girls watch and giggle (every time Ornella Muti appears on screen the kinkiness quotient is amped up). To cap it all off, the film is scored with a soundtrack by the rock group Queen, whose flamboyant posturing would have broadcast the message CAMP to all but the most naive of film-goers.
For viewers raised on the post STAR WARS boom, in which the SF genre saw a chance for renewed popularity and credibility (and cashflow), FLASH GORDON was a puzzling step sideways. While other film-makers set out to show off their technical flair, FLASH was refitting the clunky spaceships and hokey faux-oriental palaces of 40s serials; while films like STAR WARS portrayed future tech as gleaming and streamlined, and ALIEN showed its flipside as industrial and realistic, FLASH threw caution to the winds and splashed its gadgetry, architecture, and landscapes in vivid yellow, purple and scarlet (about the only thing that isn't red in this movie is the blood). FLASH's immediate appeal was to kids who enjoyed its cartoon look, and older viewers who knew the Buster Crabbe serials or had some inkling of the film's tongue-in-cheek style - since they weren't the ticket-buying demographic, the film never did reach the same success of some of its SF competitors. But why spoil the singular nature of the film by turning out a sequel or series? Not that any subsequent director would be game enough to fill the screen with orange skies, gold-plated armor, and a title character that wears "Flash" on his t-shirt.