EMPIRE ESSAY: Flash Gordon Review

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In this update of the 1930's comic strip, Flash is a football hero who is skyjacked aboard Dr. Zarkov's rocketship along with beautiful Dale Arden. The threesome are drawn into the influence of the planet Mongo, controlled by Ming the Merciless. Ming has been testing the Earth with unnatural disasters, and deeming it a threat to his rule, he plans to destroy it. He also intends to take Dale as his concubine. Flash must avoid the amorous attentions of Ming's daughter and unite the warring kingdom


It's pretty much impossible to imagine a movie more innocently entertaining than Flash Gordon. While the rest of the slew of Star Wars rip-offs that flooded onto screens post 1977 aped their template with a tedious lack of imagination (Battlestar Galactica to such an extent that George Lucas felt moved to take legal action) Flash Gordon, the brainchild of Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis (whose other dubious forays into the genre include the remake of King Kong and Dune) and director Mike Hodges (The Terminal Man, Get Carter) went right back to the 30s, raiding both the original comic books for its design (distinctly phallic spaceships) and the Saturday Morning serials starring Buster Crabbe (reputedly the most expensive ever made) for its plot.

What emerges is a perfect piece of interstellar campery populated with deliciously over the top characters and suffused with a surprising amount of sex for a movie allegedly aimed at the whole family. After all, you don't get Luke Skywalker delivering lines like "This girl's turning me on!" Or bizarre quasi-necrophile sequences in which dead football heroes wearing only leather hotpants are sensually fondled by nympho alien princesses.

Sam J. Jones, a real life ex-footballer whose only other acting moment of note was playing the himbo rescued from drowning by Dudley Moore in 10, is the blonde bombshell Flash Gordon (or at least his body, his rumbling voice was dubbed, much to Jones' continuing irritation, with a feyer sound at the last minute) who along with travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) is blasted into space by mad professor Dr. Hans Zarkoff (Topol) in order to defeat the Emperor Ming's (Von Sydow) pretty motiveless attack on the Earth. After evading capture, and in Flash's case execution, they hook up with some enslaved birdmen, led by Brian Blessed, and a troupe of Arborian tree people headed up by Timothy Dalton, and conspire to end Ming's reign of terror.

Flash Gordon is a feast of cheerfully lunatic delights. After all in what other movie would you find a more loopily cameo-loaded scene as the Arborial initiation ceremony, which has Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan (who would later recount his experience on the programme) "initiated" by British playwright John Osborne (Look Back In Anger) while The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Richard O'Brien looks on. "Spare me the madness!" Duncan shrieks. Indeed. Or there's the majestically unlikely football sequence in which Gordon takes on the Imperial Guard (whose impractical uniform consists of spandex pants) during which Dale transforms into a gyrating cheerleader ("Go, Flash, go!"). Add the fact that director Hodges was way ahead of his time by including the film's logo in the movie itself — it's on Flash's t-shirt and, inexplicably, his gravestone, a ploy not repeated until Ghostbusters in 1984 — and Robbie Coltrane's first film appearance (he's "man at airport") and you have a compelling footnote to movie history being written.

Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. goes out of his way to avoid comparisons with the inferior Star Wars. The only obvious one is Klytus, a kind of effete Darth Vader with a golden face who would more than likely criticise your curtains before blasting you to atoms ("The cook will be upset," he simpers when Gordon refuses his pre-execution chow). Most of the references are not to sci-fi at all but to The Wizard Of Oz, not only the sumptuous colour-drenched production design (by Derdinando Scarafotti, who delivers a Technicolor art deco triumph complete with dwarves on leads and swirling incandescent cloudscapes) but, as critic Pauline Kael points out, the ape men look very much like Oz's flying monkeys. And then there are baddies that liquefy when killed. And the dialogue is determinedly, brilliantly melodramatic. During the execution sequence Princess Aura remarks "Look, water is leaking from her eyes." Ming replies, "It's called tears, it's a sign of their weakness!" When Zarkov implores "Why are you attacking Earth?" Ming replies with a succinct, "Why not?"

Hodges directs with admirable pace, there's not a slack moment in the film and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor shoots the movie with all the crazy angles of the original comic strips. And, of course, there's the Queen score. The one element that Flash shares with Star Wars is that it owes much of its success to its music, though Queen's rock bombast is a galaxy away from John Williams' orchestral sweep.

While sci-fi often degenerates into pompous intellectualising or faux epic pretentiousness, Flash just aims to give everyone a good time. The promised sequel may never have materialised (apart that is from soft-porn piss-takes Flesh Gordon I and II — tagl