How Flash Gordon Caught Lightning in a Bottle

For its 40th anniversary, we explore the making of Flash Gordon and the sequels that never happened with director Mike Hodges.

The Cast Of Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon still stands alone in the pantheon of comic book movies 40 years on. Colorful, vibrant, kinky, and often absurd, Mike Hodges’ gaudy tale of an all-American boy defeating a powerful villain from space and saving the Earth in the process had until recently felt far removed from the predominantly safe and CG-heavy comic book fare of the last few decades, despite its familiar themes and due in large part to its distinct refusal to take itself seriously. But the film we know and love is a world away from how it began.

Back in the 1970s, wealthy businessman and film producer Dino De Laurentiis held on to the Flash Gordon rights after George Lucas’ attempts to extricate them. A much-less-minted Lucas was forced to make his own space adventure movie instead, a little project called Star Wars. Its success indisputable, De Laurentiis was more determined than ever to make his Flash Gordon movie come to fruition, and he figured he knew just the guy to take the reins – Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth director Nicolas Roeg.

Roeg was a fan of Alex Raymond’s original Flash Gordon comic strips, and he and Enter the Dragon scribe Michael Allin set about creating their vision for De Laurentiis’ proposed adaptation: a biblical epic where Adam and Eve – New York Jets football star Flash and savvy travel agent Dale Arden – would be chased across the galaxy by the god-like Ming the Merciless, a destroyer of worlds who intended to repopulate the Earth after its annihilation by procreating with Dale, the last human woman left alive.

The pair worked on the film for a year, pushing budgetary constraints and straying increasingly further from the playful franchise-starter that De Laurentiis had imagined. Despite the ongoing creative differences between producer and director, De Laurentiis was sure that Flash Gordon was going to be a massive hit. So much so, he started bringing in directors to look at making a sequel, including Mike Hodges, the man behind 1971 crime classic Get Carter.

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Savior of the universe

“I’m not sure how that happened with Dino,” Hodges says, speaking to us from his Blandford home on the eve of Flash Gordon’s long-awaited 4K home release. “Why he was letting it go in [Roeg]’s direction, which was a much more serious way than the strip cartoon and the rights that he’d already purchased.”

Hodges was mystified by Roeg’s epic plans for the first installment and largely baffled by De Laurentiis’ persistence in hiring him for the follow up film, turning the project down and telling the larger-than-life producer “Look, I’m completely the wrong director.” But soon, Roeg and De Laurentiis would have a final face off over what exactly Flash Gordon should manifest as, and Roeg would ultimately walk away from the film altogether.

De Laurentiis stopped trying to convince Hodges to make a Flash Gordon sequel and started positioning him as his new quarterback on the first flick. Eventually, Hodges relented.

“After [De Laurentiis] and Nic [Roeg] fell out, he pursued me and I could never really work out why,” Hodges recalls. “I think he felt, well, if I resisted so much what Nic and Michael were doing – because I didn’t understand it actually – then maybe I was the right director. So, he convinced me to do it.”

Ex-Marine, football player and Playgirl centerfold Sam J. Jones was brought in to lead the film – buff, overconfident, and bottle blonde, Jones simply was Flash. Melody Anderson, who had started her career on TV shows like Logan’s Run, was given room to play Dale as much more than a two-dimensional action movie love interest. The booty shorts-clad Jones and Italian actress Ornella Muti as Princess Aura were both about to become the source of some new ‘funny feelings’ for unsuspecting kids everywhere, while Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, and Max von Sydow all chewed through scenery as though it were their last meal.

De Laurentiis had decided to bring in his King Kong collaborator and writer Lorenzo Semple, who had developed the kitsch 1960s Batman TV series, to bring Flash back to his comic strip roots. It was everything Roeg and Allin had resisted, and it was escalating quickly.

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King of the impossible

“By the time that I came on board for the film, Dino had completely restructured the whole thing,” Hodges tells us. De Laurentiis had also snagged the assistance of Danilo Donati, a production designer who’d worked with Federico Fellini. “I think [Donati] wanted to make it an Italian surrealistic sort of film. I was, in a sense, outside of the circle in many ways. Danilo had taken off on his own and – wonderful designer as he was – I was never quite sure whether he’d ever read the script.”

Like Flash and Dale, Hodges found himself aboard a rocket that was taking off, and he was just along for the ride, which took some getting used to.

“I basically had to survive by seeing what they gave me to work with,” he says. “Normally, through all my previous films, like Get Carter and Pulp and The Terminal Man, and my television films, you have a tight control over every aspect of the film. With this one, I realized quite early, and thank heavens I did, that it was not going to be quite like that. So, I basically just relaxed and let them present me with whatever they came to offer me, and I just improvised. Once I got the hang of it, I just had a lovely time. It was really terrific.”

Donati’s elaborate set and costume designs built a creative funhouse to play in, with the director and his cast trying to make the experience as irreverent as possible. Hodges confirms that even the memorable football fight sequence was never in the original script. Jones had noted that the elaborate eggs being carried by one of the alien races resembled footballs. He wondered, since his character was supposed to be this great football star, whether he should find a way to play with them. The actor and the crew then spent some time planning it out, and we ended up with that incredibly bonkers tussle between Flash and Ming’s guards.

“It was a fight that was in a sense, meant to be taken seriously, but I found it totally impossible because of the story itself,” Hodges says. “I decided that it had to be comedic and fun, and so that’s what we ended up with.”

At a time when big budget comic book movies are often micromanaged by corporate bosses, it’s a little hard to imagine Hodges and co. having such free reign today.

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“Dino never stopped me doing whatever I was doing,” Hodges explains, although he admits that De Laurentiis was surprised that the film was turning into more of a comedy than he’d ever anticipated. “When the crew would laugh at rushes, [De Laurentiis] would say ‘Why they laugh?’ I had to ask them not to laugh, because he was particularly upset about it. But Dino, because he was so child-like in many ways, kept me on the straight and narrow. I had to run with the ‘children’s action film, Saturday morning cinema’ element to it, and put my own satirical touch on top of it.”

Another vital piece of the Flash Gordon puzzle was the exceptional Queen soundtrack. The director was experienced with matching rock music to storytelling thanks to a kids TV series he’d worked on in the ’60s called The Tyrant King. But Hodges was initially leaning towards a very different vibe.

“I was contemplating what music to do with Flash, and I was playing a lot of Pink Floyd,” he says. “It was The Dark Side of the Moon, which was an amazing record. When the idea of Queen came up, I immediately went with Queen because I think Queen are better suited for Flash Gordon than [Pink Floyd]. They’re much lighter.”

Though Hodges had been an unlikely man for the job, he managed to catch lightning in a bottle and turned Flash Gordon into a truly mad and enduring slice of entertainment. Unfortunately, the movie had been hooked to the tail end of a shooting star in Sam J. Jones; one that was about to come crashing down to Earth.

No one but the pure at heart

Jones’ naturally energetic and cocksure performance as Flash was key to the film’s spirit, but it came at a price during production. He was a troubled novice who had won the coveted part over the likes of Harvey Keitel and Jeff Bridges. After touching down in London to shoot the film, Jones’ behavior became an immediate problem, detailed at length in the 2017 documentary Life After Flash.

Jones got into fights, arrived late to set, and regularly demanded money from De Laurentiis before performing, effectively holding the film to ransom if he didn’t get his way. After Flash Gordon wrapped, Jones was not invited to take part in reshoots and additional dialogue recording sessions, and was replaced by a stand-in and voice actor. De Laurentiis had put his foot down: Jones would be cut off from any further involvement, even if it was going to affect the film’s box office receipts.

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“If Sam hadn’t left the film, I think the film would be more successful in America than it was,” Hodges says. “It was very successful around the world, but didn’t really realize the box office that they’d expected in America. And that was largely because Sam had left the film and wasn’t available to do all the talk shows, which is essential for a film like that.”

Hodges was never really comfortable with what went down between De Laurentiis and Jones, but didn’t have much choice in the matter, even as the American marketing swung behind von Sydow’s Ming as its promotional focus in the absence of a leading man.

“Once it didn’t do the box office expectations, that must’ve put the kibosh on any sequel,” Hodges concludes.

There were certainly contracts in place for two further Flash Gordon films – at one point, Jones even tried to sue when they didn’t materialize – and rumors of Flash Gordon 2‘s story details have circulated for years.

In a featurette included with the new 4K release of the movie, Flash Gordon uberfan Bob Lindenmayer claims that the sequel would have had shades of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s twist, revealing that Ming’s evil advisor Klytus was one of only many Ming clones, thus allowing both Max von Sydow and Peter Wyngarde to return to their villainous roles. This would have probably delighted Wyngarde, who was said to have objected loudly and strenuously to his spiky death scene even in the midst of filming it.

Hodges describes the sequel rumors as wonderful and imaginative, but admits he was never really thinking about what any further films would be about, despite ending the first one on a tease. “I put the question mark in the hand picking the ring up at the end as a joke. I mean, it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.”

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He went on to make a handful of notable feature films after Flash Gordon, including the phenomenal crime drama Croupier, but says his involvement in Flash didn’t lead to a huge amount of additional opportunities in Hollywood.

“I never learned how to capitalize on my success stories, which I should have done,” he says. “But it’s a power game, which I never really understood.”

As filmmakers who grew up watching Flash Gordon find their own path in the industry, we’ve started to see more big screen comic book projects embrace its influence, and never more so than in Taika Waititi’s Marvel blockbuster, Thor: Ragnarok.

Hodges hasn’t seen it, he tells us, as he tends to prefer smaller arthouse films, and comic book movies leave him cold. “I wonder whether I would have gone to see Flash Gordon, if I’m honest.”

After spending about a decade trying to set up two further projects that he was interested in helming, and finding he couldn’t get them financed, Hodges eventually accepted that the industry had changed. He now stays busy writing novels, novellas and short stories.

“I don’t have to bother with anybody. I don’t have to raise any money to pay for my printer and ink,” he says cheerfully. “I’ve got enough money to pay for the paper.”

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The Flash Gordon special 40th anniversary 4K restoration is available on Blu-ray, DVD, UHD collectors edition, steelbook and digital from today.