Looking back at Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon

To celebrate the release of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie on Blu-ray, Mark Pickavance takes a timely look back at that film and the classic 30s serial…

In my own mind, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon was always the part of a slew of science fiction concepts, encompassing a Gulliver-like adventure where the ordinary man and intergalactic peculiar collide head-on. Technically, the 30s comic book appearance came after Buck Rogers, but I’d also say they both were heavily influenced by the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and specifically John Carter Of Mars.

But, as well syndicated as the Flash Gordon comic strip was, it was the three serial films starring Buster Crabbe as Flash, the first appearing in 1936, that really lit the rocket on this particular character. The amazing longevity of these serials meant that I saw them as a child in Saturday morning cinema screenings, and they regularly appeared on TV along with Buck Rogers and other classic series of this era.

By today’s standards, the sets seem obviously wooden and the performances equally stilted, but they delivered a slice of popular escapism with an oddly, for the time, unambiguous sexual undercurrent.

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The actor who played the first Flash was Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe, an Olympic swimmer, who ultimately also appeared as Buck Rogers and Tarzan in his long and varied career. His love interest was Jean Rogers in the first two series, playing Dale Arden, and he was ably supported by Frank Shannon as crazy scientist Dr. Alexis Zarkov.

But the actor whom most people vividly recall from these productions was Charles Middleton, the son of a millionaire who acted, effectively, as a hobby and made a very memorable and most Merciless Ming.

In the 50s, a new cast took Flash, Dale and Zarkov again to the dominion of Mongo for a 39 episode series over two years, finishing in 1955. But for at least two decades, the franchise remained entirely dormant, although many production companies explored the possibility of resurrecting Flash. Most noticeably George Lucas, whose fond memories of the serial inspired him to pursue the rights, and when he finally lost that race, make a minor homage entitled Star Wars (1977).

The rights were captured by Dino De Laurentiis who, after discarding seven different directors (including Nicolas Roeg, among others), in one of his typically painful gestations, Flash Gordon came to the big screen in 1980, directed by Mike Hodges.

That film I’ll talk more about later, but it was critically mauled at the time, even if it’s since gathered something of a cult following. The box office reception didn’t warrant a sequel, although a number of animated series ran in the 80s and 90s that involved the character.

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It wasn’t till 2007 that Flash reappeared in live action, and those fans of the franchise must have been gutted when they first experienced the Sci-Fi Channel (as we were allowed to call it then) reimagining. It had little to do with the classic characters that Alex Raymond created, and when cancellation came, it wasn’t a moment too soon.

Part of the issue that Flash Gordon faced as a franchise was that, when it was originally presented, many of the concepts, like space travel, were total fantasy. Where now, the notion of intergalactic travel and distant civilisations are much less revolutionary.

These are points that Mike Hodges makes in his commentary on his 1980 movie, which he uses to explain his tongue in cheek approach rather than a serious production.

That was one change, but also the relationship between Dale and Flash isn’t one that a modern audience would recognise, and Ming seems hopelessly out of touch even with the 1930s.

The irony is that many of these problems have been addressed by derivative works, most notably in Farscape, which can count both Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in its foundational concepts.

But, back to the 1980 movie, which has just come to Blu-ray at last (and please note that the pictures aren’t taken from the Blu-ray, in case you were wondering!)

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Flash Gordon (1980)

This production is the result of a unique synergy of the sublime and the absurdly ridiculous, however you view it.

At one end of the creative scale you have the incredible Danilo Donati production design, Queen’s epic soundtrack, and a mesmerising performance of Max von Sydow as Ming. And at the other end is a perfunctory story, diabolical dialogue, and painfully poor acting.

It’s like a bizarre experiment has taken place where Fellini had been convinced to direct Carry On Cleo.

When I first saw the movie, I was in a constant state of shock, I recall. It left me alternating between the brilliance of the high-brow design work and how horrendously bad some of the dialogue came out. In most movies, when an actor comes over as faux sincere, they’ll try a subsequent take, but in Flash Gordon the performance cheese is so thick that the film poster should have carried a dietary warning.

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Yet, for all these and numerous other faults, there is something wonderfully kitsch about the whole thing where it transcends its awfulness and reaches an entirely new level of consciousness. Much of what achieves this, to me, is the obvious looks of complete distain that many of the British actors have on their face when forced to deliver their dialogue.

In one scene, Vultan, played by the inimitable Brian Blessed, is delivering his words with the gusto of a panto dame, while behind him Rocky Horror Picture Show creator Richard O’Brien makes a face that can only be described as oh-my-God-no. But, in many respects, it’s the likes of Blessed and Timothy Dalton (Prince Barin) that got the underlying joke and delivered their words with more than a side order of ham. Actually, in Blessed’s case, with the entire pig production of a major European country.

My personal favourite is the awesome Peter Wyngarde, yes, he who was the mullet coffered Jason King, who gives his masked Klytus a voice that resonates like a cathedral organ with all the stops out. When I watched it again, I was thrown back into the same cyclic emotional ride, between thinking something was incredible to diabolical, often within the same scene, or even the same shot.

It never convinced me, or anyone else, it appears, that Sam J. Jones was a leading actor, though it did show me that, if you want to create a purely fantasy film, you need to commit to the concept like it was written by Shakespeare himself.

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So, how is the Blu-ray? In an oddly symmetrical fashion to the movie, it’s marvellous in places and not so great in others. I’ve seen a few comments that the colour in this transfer is far too bold, but I can’t agree with this at all. In fact, I think it’s far too bright in early scenes and needs the saturation boosting even more. But what I really regret is that they never actually took the time to fix some of the very poor optical compositions that are in here.

Blu-ray, by its very nature, builds a large neon sign and points it at any visual flaws, and there is a bucket of them in this movie.

Some of the optical compositions with spacecraft are especially bad, having visible rough matt boxes and alignment issues. I know I’m being unrealistic to ask, but I’m sure some film fan in their spare time would have fixed these, if given the source elements to work with.

However, some of the scenes, especially those in Ming’s palace, are sumptuous in their candy store colour schemes. In my distant memory, this is how Flash Gordon was, and now on Blu-ray it is that way again. It’s a chromatic poke in the eye, but a welcome one, in this context.

Beyond that, it’s much as I recall it from the cinema, with a full 111-minute running time that includes most of the scenes that are occasionally missing from TV versions, although Ming’s face doesn’t appear just before the aircrew are taken from the plane, which I’ve seen on at least one version.

Some studio scenes are curiously grainy, but overall, this is the best this movie has looked since it was delivered in 35mm. There are a few hairs and scratches, so they didn’t go to the negatives, but they found a generally clean print for the transfer. 

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The included soundtrack is a DTS HD six channel offering, sourced, I assume, from the 6-track mix created for 70mm prints.

The biggest disappointment for anyone who collects movies must be the lack of extras on this version, which actually makes some of the DVD releases look definitive in this respect.

There’s a tiny ‘interview’, which is actually more of an intro created for the DVD by Mike Hodges, that lasts all of one minute and 58 seconds.

They’ve also included his informative commentary track, but frustratingly left off probably the most hilarious commentary track ever made, featuring that national treasure, Brian Blessed, which was on the Silver Anniversary Edition DVD edition.

Given the wealth of material that must exist for this production, that’s a pretty poor showing. There is also a 30th Anniversary Steel Tin version available, but this just bundles a CD of the Queen soundtrack, from what I can assert.

Yet, for film fans, this is the best Flash Gordon yet, and I can say without fear of contradiction, “GORDON’S ALIVE?!”

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Blu-ray rating:


3 stars

Flash Gordon is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.