Friday, March 30, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1980)

Each time I write about Mike Hodge’s 1980 movie Flash Gordon, I fight the temptation to describe it as merely “a guilty pleasure.” This Dino De Laurentiis movie is occasionally flawed, I readily concede, and yet it is also a feast for the eyes, the mind, and for the funny bone too. The truth is that Flash Gordon is one of those genre movies that I absolutely adore, but for which it is difficult to enunciate a defense on purely intellectual grounds.  

So bear with me.

The core of the problem, I submit, is Flash Gordon’s pervasive tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, or rather, our society’s perception of how humor ought to be used as a dramatic tool. It’s a strange thing to write and acknowledge, but because a work of art is funny, it is often disqualified by general audiences from discussions regarding quality or thematic consistency.  It's much easier  to dismiss the work of art in question as a "lark" or as being "silly."  This truth, however, flies in the face of the fact that to craft a genuinely funny film is exceedingly challenging, and requires, among other qualities, a certain pace and meticulous attention to detail. 

A funny movie that goes too far risks seeing its entire reality fall apart.  And if that happens, you don’t end up with a movie. You end up with a mess. 

Although many will certainly quibble with my assessment, I find that Flash Gordon hits exactly the right notes in terms of its application of tongue-in-cheek humor. A largely European supporting cast underplays the humorous aspects of the adventure splendidly, with the exception of Brian Blessed...who goes big (BIG!) to rather dramatic effect. 

Yet for me, the movie works effectively because when it does wax serious, the sense of danger to our heroes is palpable.  If the camp humor were utilized in destructive, mood-shattering fashion, Flash Gordon's fate would not matter to us one whit.  And yet there's that classic scene here with the "Woodbeast" of Arboria.   You may recall it. As a rite-of-passage on Arboria, young Treemen must insert their naked arms into a hollow tree stump where a poisonous, horribly slimy creature dwells.  If it the creature bites "death is certain, but only after tortured madness."

This sequence is brilliantly-shot and edited so that we see Flash and his opponent, Barin, repeatedly reaching down inside a dark stump -- towards the camera -- as the unseen monster threatens to strike.  For a movie in which so much is so big, operatic, and campy, this scene remains remarkably intimate, and down-to-business.  The fear of sudden, horrible death is tangible even though -- as audience members -- we fully expect Flash will survive the day.

More trenchantly, the film's understanding of situational humor seems absolutely legitimate. Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) does not believe she is being funny when she dutifully reminds Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) that only fourteen hours remain to rescue the imperiled Earth.  But were she able to step back a little, Dale might notice she is standing inside a floating silver city in the clouds, surrounded by winged Hawkmen, and wearing an overly-ornate headdress and skimpy gown.  Or that her boyfriend must fight an opponent (with a whip!) on a gyrating platform managed by an over-sized "remote control."

As audience members, we see and register what Dale simply cannot from her perspective: the notion that her dilemma is gravely serious and yet, at the same time, utterly ludicrous. She’s an American travel agent trying to save the Earth with the help of a football quarterback, for goodness sake! 

Though widely derided (especially in terms of the TV series Batman), a campy-styled sense of humor actually permits a tremendous amount of self-reflexivity. The utility of this approach is that a campy narrative may operate simultaneously on two tracks of "reality."  Flash Gordon indulges in this approach, revealing characters locked in a life-and-death struggle while we, as experienced movie goers and consumers of stories, sense how silly it all is. 

 Because it indulges so fully in camp humor, however, we should not make the mistake of believing that Flash Gordon means nothing, or that it is an inconsequential lark. Dave Kehr at the Chicago Reader seemed to have some inkling of this fact. He notes that although “the film lapses too often into easy facetiousness, much of it feels surprisingly substantial.” 

That sense of the substantial arises, I would estimate, from the film’s stellar production design and wardrobe, which both allude to a real world context: the rise of fascism in Europe leading up to World War II. 

Also – and this is virtually impossible to deny – the film is veritably energized by the pounding Queen score, which revs up excitement and engagement on a wholly unexpected and delightful level. 

Between the score, the costumes, the sets, the action, and the humor, Flash Gordon is a gory, sexy, spectacularly good time at the movies.  

“I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth…" 

On distant Mongo, the warlord Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), visits death and destruction upon the Earth in order to test the planet's level of intelligence. 

Meanwhile, on Terra Firma, scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) sees through the so-called “natural” attacks and realizes that his world is under attack. With a real estate agent, Dale Arden and professional quarterback, Flash Gordon in tow, Zarkov launches his makeshift rocket through the “Imperial Vortex” to confront his planet's unseen assailant. 

Once they arrive, the Earth trio discovers that Ming rules the disparate kingdoms of Mongo with terror, plus the high-tech mechanisms of a totalitarian police state. With the help of Ming’s daughter, the sensual Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Flash hopes to unify the planet and take the fight to Ming himself. 

Although King Vultan (Brian Blessed) of the Hawkmen and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) of the Tree People of Arboria resist Flash at first, they soon see the wisdom of his campaign for unity. 

“What is this? Humanity!” 

Flash Gordon, the comic-strip by Alex Raymond (1909 – 1956), premiered in 1934 as a competitor for the popular Buck Rogers. The world at the time was marching inexorably towards World War II and many artists in various disciplines were responding to the demands of austerity that dominated Europe following World War I. Out of this context arrived a new vision for the evolution of man and his world: Futurism, or more specifically, Italian Futurism. Art Deco -- with its ornamental and ornate architecture and interior design -- grew out of this movement, at least in part. 

Although aesthetically Futurism was supposed to involve the “modernization of the State” with technology, youth, and speed, it eventually became connected, alas, to the rise of fascism. Many of the futurists in relatively short order became fascists, or their work was adopted by fascist states and leaders. 

In terms of Flash Gordon, the comic strip involved an American polo player and Yale graduate, Flash Gordon, who, through the mad toiling of scientist Hans Zarkov, came to interface with a world of, essentially, Italian Futurism. That world was Mongo, a "foreign" realm ruled by the ultimate despot, Ming the Merciless. The overarching story, in some way could be described as “An American Abroad” set in a sci-fi setting and yet commenting upon the frightening, dark political tide threatening to consume Europe, and the world itself. 

A true American patriot, Alex Raymond enlisted to fight in World War II, even dropping the Flash Gordon comic to do so. But retrospectively, the comic certainly appeared to be prepping the world for American involvement in the battle against Hitler and fascism. For at its core, Flash Gordon is the tale of an American who goes overseas and allies himself with foreigners (like Prince Barin or King Vultan) to stop the aggression of a tyrant. It’s about people who are “unlike”or diverse learning to work together for a common good. 

Given this background, the true star of Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980) may very well be production designer Danilo Donati, who crafts the film’s costumes and sets with great fidelity not only to Raymond’s comic-strip details, but to the tenets of Italian Futurism. 

In this context, Ming’s court makes a kind of sense, and even seems to possess a kind of implied history. It’s not just a realm of ornate but weird costumes and strange creatures.  Rather, it’s a world that has been lulled into submission by the visual “beauty” of this form of fascism.  

In short order, we see that Ming boasts a standing army, a secret police force (commanded by Klytus), and oversees a gigantic surveillance state. The roving camera that spies on each citizen’s every word and action, however, is not some utilitarian device with a zoom lens. Rather, it’s a floating golden orb with wings. The gorgeous, "Futurism"-fueled form of this insidious “tool” has overtaken the dark meaning behind it. The same is true of the execution chamber where Flash nearly loses his life. It’s a transparent dome atop a beautiful ledge…overlooking a sky of mauve and blue clouds.  What's apparent from both details is that form has overtaken function so much so that the function hardly matters.   

Life on Mongo -- in Ming's State -- is beautiful.

Only far below, out of sight, does the form of Ming's police state become more utilitarian. Kala’s men, for instance, wear utilitarian glasses – glued right to their eyes – to spy on the citizens of Mongo above. They sit at a bulky computer station, in a long, nondescript row. This is the “hidden” portion of Ming’s empire: the gears that keep his monstrous machine in motion. 

Ming himself seems relatively unconcerned with how things work in his world, leaving the day-to-day atrocities to Klytus and Kara.  Ming is a tyrant who is “bored” and who cannot formulate a reason for his terrible activities. When Flash asks him “why do you attack us?” Ming responds, “Why not?” He has become so accustomed to the beautiful trappings of power on Mongo that he doesn’t even possess an agenda, except to keep his citizens fighting one another so he can continue to live the good life. For Klytus, Hitler may have shown “great promise,” but for Ming, it’s simply good to be king. He is destructive almost arbitrarily, simply because he can be so.

Flash Gordon -- the quarterback/leader of a team -- offers a pointed contrast to Ming. His constant refrain is: “I want to rescue my friends and save the Earth…Why don’t we team up?” In actions and deeds, Flash shows the Hawkmen and Tree Men that he is “for real,” so that they can ultimately conclude that “there is something finer in the universe than Ming’s law.”   

In short, Flash brings American Exceptionalism to Mongo.  As a child of our nation's egalitarianism, Flash reveals to Barin, Vultan and the others that liberty is worth dying for.

Zarkov is an important and necessary part of this equation too. Where Flash talks generically about “teaming up” to fight Ming, Zarkov understands the idea of self-sacrifice as a “rational transaction,” a fair trade for eliminating the likes of a Ming…or a Hitler. What is worth fighting for, Zarkov, suggests is the diversity and glory of man’s intellectual history: the works of Shakespeare, The Beatles, Einstein’s philosophy, the Talmud. All of these texts or ideas arise from diverse sources and ethnic groups but simultaneously join under the umbrella of “humanity.” 

Just as the disparate kingdoms of Mongo can join under together under a common umbrella of purpose to stop the tyrant.   

Flash Gordon’s sense of humor may obscure the message of the film for some, but the production design and wardrobe suggest the nature of the threat ("beautiful" fascism unloosed).  Furthermore, the oft-criticized script by Semple is actually abundantly literate, showcasing visions of Zarkov’s “youth” in Nazi Germany as a reminder that Ming’s evil is not just a fantasy threat, but something that man must, from time to time, deal with right here on Earth. The film’s dialogue, which explicitly mentions “police states” and the like does not shy away from comparing Flash’s efforts on Mongo to America’s efforts in World War II to bring unity to nations separated by language or ethnicity.

Putting aside such thematic leitmotifs, Flash Gordon never ceases to make me laugh. In the opening scene on a plane, Flash hopes to impress Dale, who is afraid of flying. But even the supportive Flash can’t find encouraging words when the sky suddenly fills with bright red light and a strange “cloud” obscures the sun. It’s humorous to see even the gung-ho Flash rendered speechless by the utterly unexpected. The film’s first action sequence in Ming’s court is choreographed like a football game, and also generates chuckles...and excitement. 

The best scene, in terms of humor, may be Ming and Dale’s wedding. The high priest recites a vow that Ming shall take Dale as his Empress “of the hour,” and that he must promise “not to blast her into space.” 

Not surprisingly, Ming has trouble committing himself even to that level of civility. 

Between these guffaws, the film unceasingly awes with spectacular set designs and vistas. We see the woods of Arboria, the court of Vultan, and the interior/exterior of the war rocket Ajax. We travel through the Imperial Vortex, even. Although today some of the matte-lines may prove bothersome, the film was actually awe-inspiring in terms of visual effects back in its day.  The final battle is an incredible spectacle.

If Flash Gordon boasts any dramatic flaw it is that, at times, Flash himself often seems like a tourist in his own adventure, led around by the likes of Zarkov and Aura from one amazing destination to another. He never seems truly in charge of his own destiny, or persuasive enough to unify this “cosmic” Europe, as it were. 

Another film, which I will be reviewing here next Tuesday, Big Trouble in Little China (1986) offers a similar metaphor for America’s place in the world, but that exquisite Carpenter film makes full social critique about our nature as a people through the blow-hard but essentially positive personality of Jack Burton (Kurt Russell). 

Flash Gordon isn’t quite so adroit. 

Still, Flash Gordon remains such a fun and impressive space adventure, even thirty-two years after it failed at the box office. Every time I watch it, Flash Gordon provides a “galaxy of pleasure.” 

All creatures watching this sexy, funny, epic space film will – without exception – want to “make merry."

12 comments:

  1. Fantastic, astute (as usual!) review of a movie that isn't as knuckledrag dumb as its cartoon over-the-top-ness suggests.

    I've got problems with the very idea of 'guilty pleasure' - art would brutally heavy if everything had the gravitas of Dostoevsky, for example - but if it does exist, then this is on its Mount Rushmore. Loved this flick since the first time I saw it on Cinemax nearly three decades ago, and even my kids love it (though they *really* love the subject of next week's review).

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  2. Hi Randal,

    I love your formulation "knuckledrag dumb as its cartoon over-the-topness suggests." What a great way of saying it. And yep, there's more to Flash Gordon than that.

    I've also grown away from the guilty pleasure description. It's an easy shorthand, but the fact of the matter in this case is that an awful lot of intelligence and artistry went into the "camp" humor of Flash Gordon. We say "guilty pleasure" as a defense, because we expect to be attacked for our "taste," I suppose.

    I can't wait to get to Big Trouble in Little China. I love, love, love that film!

    Great comment,

    best,
    John

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  3. Fine review, John. This is one of those movies where I'm absolutely pulling for the villains in the piece. They're soooo good. I'm always disappointed though when nobody kills Sam J. Jones ;-).

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  4. Anonymous2:02 PM

    John excellent review. 1980 was a great year with BUCK ROGERS(1979-81) on NBC and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in theaters. I saw this FLASH GORDON movie at the theater in 1980 and enjoyed it. I always thought it was the best live-action version of everything that made Flash Gordon work. However, at the same time there was the FLASH GORDON animated television series(1979-81) on Saturday mornings. The animated series had two production design elements that I wished were in the 1980 live-action film. The first animated series design was Ming's evil-looking army of MetalMen robots and the second animated series design was Ming's Aerial Navy Imperial Flyers that were awesome looking spaceships(Unlike the retro classic '30s looking Ming's spaceships seen in the 1980 movie). If those two animated series designs were used in the 1980 movie, then it would have been a perfect Flash Gordon film for me.

    SGB

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  5. Anonymous2:05 PM

    I just posted an 1979 animated vs 1980 movie production design. I might have forgot my initials.
    SGB

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  6. Anonymous2:59 PM

    John, as always another excellent review. keep up the good work.

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  7. Anonymous3:45 PM

    Usually when something sci-fi is described as 'camp', the god-awful second season of 'Lost in Space' comes to mind. 'Flash Gordon' is a rather more rewarding experience. First of all, it is such a lavish visual treat. The swirling cloudy skies are nothing short of spectacular. The sets and costumes are grand, but the performances are a different matter. Sam Jones gives a strange performance. This becomes more understandable when one realizes that he was dubbed by another performer throughtout the movie. Melody Anderson is cute, but the actress in the original '36 serial was much cuter. Max Von Sydow looks ridiculous with his heavy eye-liner. Often, that which is supposed to be 'sexy' in the film comes across more as 'seedy'.

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  8. Hi Le0pard13:

    I get it. Between Ming, Aura, Kala and Klytus, the villains in this film are pretty cool. Can't deny it. I get the feeling you're not an FG fan, which I do get. The camp can be very off-putting to people.


    SGB: I also really love that Flash Gordon animated series, particularly the robots and the ship designs you mentioned. I also liked the character of Thun on the series. I saw the movie for my 11th birthday in December of 1980, and was over the moon with it. But I agree with you that the animated series was incredible as well.

    Anonymous: I agree that Flash Gordon is a more rewarding experience, definitely, than some camp productions. The visuals are just as lavish as you say, and that makes a huge difference. You're right about the performances, but I think I've gotten used to them so much over the years that the bad ones tend not to detract from my experience of the film. I think Von Sydow is really great in the film, eyeliner or no. He's very funny as Ming, but also suitably menacing.

    Great comments!

    best,
    John

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  9. Yeah, I'm not a big fan of camp. That said, there are things I do enjoy in the film nonetheless. Visually, this film, with its color and art direction, is one lush treat to view. And the usually quiet and stoic Max Von Sydow is such a blast in villainous character. I just wish the heroic leads matched up better with the story's counterparts. Still, your review and enthusiasm for FLASH GORDON was enjoyable to read, John. Thanks.

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  10. I have fond memories of seeing this in theaters as a kid when it first came out and being completely dazzled by the look of the film. I recently revisited the film and was struck by the wonderfully old school special effects. You can tell that several scenes use rear projection but it's like the classic Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation, there seems to be something real or tangible about it that is missing from a lot of CGI-heavy films of today. Maybe it's a generational thing but I would take FLASH GORDON any ol' day over the likes of JOHN CARTER.

    It doesn't hurt that Semple's screenplay throws so much oddball dialogue at us and the way it is delivered by the cast really invites all the camp comparisons, which are perfectly valid and part of the film's charm, I think. You'd be hard-pressed to find a big-budget spectacle film today that commits so totally to such an offbeat tone as FLASH GORDON does. There's a refreshing earnestness and desire to just flat out entertain that I love about this film and, for me, as aged the film remarkably well.

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  11. If I ever develop the ability to keep a brain on my mantelpiece - in a jar, may I add - I'm afraid to say it might be yours John. You talk my brain speak.

    I loved Flash as a kid - and yes, the animated version. I have both sitting on my shelf and some of the B&W Crabbefests. As a child I just loved the rocket cycle, the colour, the music (my old Flash Gordon LP used to get morning airplay everyday at the age of 6). It was great escapism.

    As an adult, I see the film in a different light, being now more Gordon educated. For years I suffered the sneers and snides about the film which gestates the need to defend it as "guilt pleasure", but when you actually look at Flash Gordon in context to its source, it's actually pretty damn close. Not just in the visuals, but in the narrative, borrowing a lot from the news-strips.

    To me, it's only real weaknesses are twofold. First, Melody Anderson doesn't quite manage to give a performance that delivers the drama as it does the silliness. Dalton, Blessed and even Sam J Jones manage to find that line - I never feel she truly believes the situation. But that being said, look at Dale of old, and there isn't that much difference really in terms of dialogue and motivation (with a little Lois Lane for good effect), so maybe a disservice to some extent, but she doesn't quite nail it for me.

    The final weakness has been mooted in several journals and I think it's a fair criticism - Flash doesn't really drive the story, he'd pulled along by it - which again, to some degree is part and parcel of the original material - but aside from his defining moment in Vultan's cloud city between Baron and Ming, and his final valiant attack on Ming's wedding, he doesn't really feel like he's in a driving seat. He's not really a proactive character, rather reactive, responding to situations he doesn't really ever seem to be in control of. But there again, check the Crabbe serials, can't say Crabbe really carried much control as Flash, falling into one pit of tusked, rabid slavemen and into another. But for a 90min film, you do feel Flash doesn't feel quite the "leader" of forces you want him to be by the midway point.

    But they are my only quibbles, in an otherwise fantastic rendition of the concept. I think Sam J Jones is fine, just as I said, a little trapped in the stream of fast plot movement. Brian is wonderful, Topol perfectly cast as the mad scientist, Dalton the right mix of strength and humanity for Baron. Ming is perfect.

    Very underated and for me, far more than a Guilt Pleasure. It's a misunderstood classic - but to appreciate that you need to see the source it was honouring.

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  12. Hi there,

    First of all, excuse if my english is not quite good. I´m fronm Spain and I really enjoyed this movie when I was a childa.

    THat esthetic, those clothes, those poor actors... music fronm Queen... everything is very special in the 1980 movie of Falsh Gordon

    Probably, ther will be a remake full of FX and developed as a blockbuster, but it won´t have half of the charm of this epic movie form the 80s

    Laura

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