Sunday, December 6, 2020

Flash Gordon 1980 Movie Review with Spoilers - Retro Nerd Girl

From the far reaches of the Milky Way Galaxy, It's Retro Nerd Girl with a film review for you.

Today I'll be reviewing the movie Flash Gordon released in 1980.

Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow

Directed by:
Mike Hodges

Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Rating:

$20,000,000 (estimated)

Current IMDb Rating When Reviewed:

The Synopsis is:
A football player and a travel agent are kidnapped by a deranged scientist who is trying to save the Earth from an attack from another world.  They travel to the planet Mongo on his rocket ship and battle to save their planet.

The story of Flash Gordon actually begins with Buck Rogers, who was a fictional character from an adventurous sci-fi space opera created by Philip Francis Nowlan in the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. first published in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. 

The character gained massive popularity and became a comic strip in 1929, syndicated to 47 newspapers.  This led to a radio series in 1932, a bevy of merchandise and a film and television serial.  It was the first of it’s kind but many competitors took notice of the attention and money that Buck Rogers was generating.  

Newspaper giants of the time, King Features Syndicate, Inc. owned by Hearst Communications wanted something of the same success.  They unsuccessfully tried to get the rights to the John Carter of Mars stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs published in 1912, but they did not give up there. 

Comic strip writer Alexander Gillespie Raymond Jr. was approached to create a Sunday page that could compete with Buck Rogers.  The president of King Features, Joe Connolly wanted it to be similar to the fantastic adventures of Jules Verne.  Oooh, just thinking of that makes my imagination run wild.  What a great idea.

Alexander Raymond was inspired by the Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer novel When Worlds Collide (1933) adopting the theme of “an approaching planet threatening the Earth, an athletic hero, his girlfriend, and a scientist traveling to the new planet by rocket”.  By the way, When Worlds Collide was so good it was adapted into a film in1951.

The first versions of written stories did not have enough action in it to make the cut, but with the help of ghostwriter Don Moore, Flash Gordon first appeared in January 1934. The Flash Gordon strip was an instant hit of the 1930s which included lucrative sales in licensed merchandise, similar to Buck Rogers’ success and even eclipsed it.

Many similar adventure comics emerged like Brick Bradford, Don Dixon and the Hidden Empire, Speed Spaulding, and the eventual revival of John Carter of Mars.

It wasn’t long that Flash Gordon had to be seen in live action.  In 1934 Universal purchased the film rights and Flash Gordon made his debut in movie serials starring the magnificent Larry “Buster” Crabbe in 1936.  By the way, Buster Crabbe went on to play Buck Rogers a year later.

So for those who don’t know what movie serials are, it is a chapter or episode of a story that was screened at movie theaters every week in sequential order, that typically ended with a dramatic cliffhanger compelling the audience to return the following week to see how Flash Gordon escaped his doom.  Movie serials were so epic at the time that it inspired a whole generation of children to go to the movies to see them.  In particular, they would attend the Saturday matinee which included animated cartoons, newsreels, and two feature films at a discounted price.
This was a common practice from 1914 until about the 1950’s when episodic stories were guaranteed to get a larger audience from television.

Originally the serials were a trilogy, Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938), and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). These serials were later arranged into feature films, all of which I have seen and fell in love with when I was a child watching old movies on some late night weekend marathon viewing!

To give you an idea of how impactful these films were, Flash Gordon 1936 was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" in 1996.

There was a live action TV show starring Steve Holland from 1954–55 with 39 episodes which exposed a new generation of children to the property.

In 1973, a mature six-book series of Flash Gordon novels were published by Avon books catering to the audience from the 1950’s that grew up. The Lion Men of Mongo, The Plague of Sound, The Space Circus, The Time Trap of Ming XIII, The Witch Queen of Mongo and The War of the Cybernauts.

An even more mature, x rated film emerged in 1974 distributed by Mammoth Films, parodying Flash Gordon called Flesh Gordon, which I have seen and strangely enough there are some visual similarities and dare I say inspiration that made its way into the film in 1980.

Italian-American film producer Dino De Laurentis, who produced and co-produced more than 500 films during his lifetime decided to buy the rights to the property and pursued the idea of making a film in the 1970s.  Federico Fellini and George Lucas optioned the rights to make the film, but negotiations fell through for them both.

George Lucas in particular was most likely to have been exposed to the 1954 television show, being about the age of 10 at the time.  However, he was indeed influenced by the 1930’s movie serials, which he has talked about in several interviews.  King Features Syndicate released the three Flash Gordon serials to major TV networks in the 1950’s and changed the titles to Space Soldiers as to not confuse viewers.  

Lucas’ failed attempt at getting Flash Gordon led to the decision to create his own space opera, Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977.  It’s very easy to see all of the ways the movie and the franchise was inspired by Flash Gordon, having a crawling text prologue to begin the film, a blond lead, the coming together of three heroes, a princess with two giant pony buns, a city in the clouds, and became a trilogy.

Strangely enough, the success of Star Wars inspired the making of the 1980’s Flash Gordon.  Dino revved into high gear to get a director for the film.  He came close to hiring Nicolas Roeg off the success of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) who wanted Debbie Harry to play Princess Aura and Keith Carradine to be Ming the Merciless.  He also wanted to get rid of the action and drama and make Flash into a god among men or "a metaphysical messiah".  That idea didn’t go over too well with Dino DeLaurentiis.

Dino considered Italian film director, producer and screenwriter of many films of the Spaghetti Western genre, Sergio Leone to direct.  Leone refused the offer because he wanted the script to be more aligned with the original comic strips.

English screenwriter, film director, playwright and novelist Mike Hodges was the eighth director that Dino considered.  Mike must have had some magic because according to Mike, he was hired to direct the project because Dino said he liked his face.

American screenwriter, best known for his work on Batman the TV series in the 1960s, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. was brought in to write the screenplay.  He wrote Flash Gordon with a similar camp for the ridiculous premise, using a lot of old fashioned dialogue and over dramatic moments.

The story is a complete adventure taking earthlings Flash Gordon, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkoff to planet Mongo to save Earth from Ming the Merciless’ attack.  It’s the classic premise from the movie serials and the comic strips.  Many of the changes had to do with the supporting characters and the tone of the film.

All of the official properties prior had more of a serious tone to them since they were dealing with life and death situations.  Even though the situations seemed ridiculous, the characters were sincere.

Although this film has moments where it truly shines and there are moments of real tension, there are so many silly, comedic moments that are awkward as to make the film very lighthearted and dare I say a lot of fun.  The dialogue is so quotable!  It’s one of the most quotable films of 1980 besides maybe Empire Strikes Back.  

It was if the characters themselves were in on the joke of knowing what the film is and reveling in it.

Flash Gordon is for all ages but this movie had a lot of mature moments slyly included.  When I saw this for the first time as a  kid I never noticed.   It also helped that some of the funniest moments were the mature moments.

At one hour and 51 minutes, it’s long I heard somewhere, but the time goes by so fast for me, through every dazzling adventure.

The challenge in this film is the iconic villain Ming the Merciless!  Ming is probably one of the best villains since 1934, being the prototype influencing many iconic movie villains such as the emperor in Star Wars, the Grandmaster in Thor Ragnarok 2017 and pretty much any mega baddie types you can think of.  

For me, Ming is one of the main highlights of the film.  He is the emperor of Mongo and every thousand years he “tests each life system in the universe with earthquakes, unpredictable eclipses, and strange craters in the wilderness. If these are taken as natural happenstance”, he “judges that system ignorant and harmless”, thus sparing it.  However, “if the hand of Ming is recognized in these events” he “judges that system dangerous”. 

Ming uses his magical ring, which calls upon the god Dyzan to carry out his deeds.  It’s close to the Japanese word “diazan” for “great cruelty”.  Both, Ming and Dyzan delight in the destruction of the chosen planet by bombarding the moon with force beams, therefore knocking it out of orbit and sending chunks of fiery moon debris crashing to the planet.  This causes very unique weather anomalies that will tear the planet apart until it is utterly obliterated. 

Contrary to the dead serious personality of the Ming of the serials, in the beginning of this film, Ming is a whimsical evil man with a twisted sense of humor devoid of morality, constantly amused at the power he wields, and boy does the man know how to enter a   room.  His entrance into the film is iconic.

He demands total control and complete obedience of all those in his company no matter the cost.  An excellent example of that is when he kills Prince Thun of Ardentia because he could not provide a tribute to Ming.  He displays to his court of royalty what happens when you fail him and if you dare to challenge him.  

By the way, Prince Thun was originally of the Lion Men and a main ally to Flash Gordon in the comic series.

Ming’s right hand man is Klytus who was created for the film. He is the one that chooses earth for Ming’s entertainment and conspires with the tyrant on their nefarious schemes.  The character seems a little redundant at first, but a character like Ming needs to have a henchman to actually oversee his plots so he can enjoy his position of power.  He can hardly be bothered with these pesky little details and I enjoyed the fact that the film showed that he never really gets his hands dirty so to speak.

I really enjoyed the rapport between the two.  Ming trusts him more than anyone, even his own daughter, Princess Aura.

Klytus has even been given the privilege of speaking for Ming at times and is even offered the hand of the emperor’s daughter’s hand in marriage making him next in line for the throne ensuring his power. I liked the fact that we get to know that he is motivated by power to do the things he’s doing.  And by the way, he has some of the best lines in the film.

When he is eventually killed in the film, Ming has to be more present and the tone of Ming's disposition is more serious.  At one point he tries to recruit Flash Gordon in hopes of replacing his loss in some form or another.

It is implied the Klytus has a romantic involvement with Kala, who is a high ranking officer in Ming’s empire.  In the original comic strips, the character was the King of the Shark Men  from the undersea kingdom in Mongo.

The empathy in this film is just a little lacking in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong.  I love all of the characters for being so iconic.  However, so much happens in such a short amount of time, it seems as if our main three heroes from earth are just quickly smashed together and their personalities are boiled down to the basics in a hurry.  I am not sure if the filmmakers were banking that everyone knew these characters already, but it was at a detriment to the characters because they came off very lackluster and even a bit old fashioned from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Again, I still had fun watching them and the empathy really improves by the end.

In the comic strip Flash Gordon is a polo player and Yale University graduate, making him an intellectual jock.  In this film, he’s the star quarterback for the New York Jets, which makes him more average but also a hero on the onset.

The story starts with Flash meeting travel agent, Dale Arden on a private plane coming from vacation.  Ironically she is afraid of flying and Flash tries to comfort her while some awkward flirting occurs.  Suddenly, one of Ming’s magical anomalies hits the plane and takes out the pilots while the earth is facing what looks like climate Armageddon.

They crash land the plane in a remote laboratory of a seemingly insane former N.A.S.A. scientist, Dr. Hans Zarkov, who kidnaps them in a rocket ship to Mongo in order to make friends with the aliens and save earth. 

This is pretty much the only thing we learn about our characters.  You could say that maybe we get the most backstory for Dr. Zarkov being a survivor of Nazi Germany and his wife drowning in a backyard pool, when he was being programmed to be an agent of Ming.  

You get the sense that Flash Gordon is as American as apple pie and an upright citizen.  Unlike his former versions, there is something a little more innocent and naive about this version of the character.  He’s definitely likeable and the empathy for him grows as the film continues.

Flash and Dale begin the film as strangers and end the film as an engaged couple. I had seen the film for years and not realized that they got engaged in the film after having three conversations together.  Their relationship is so awkward and unnatural without any development.  Previously Dale was already Flash’s girlfriend when they made the journey so the relationship made sense.  As well Dale’s character was changed from a news reporter to a travel agent.  I thought that was going to play a factor in the film, but it never does.  And this proves one big point about the film is that from a writing perspective, these characters are not the focus of the story, the twists and turns of their adventures are.

The people of Mongo are way more interesting and given more depth of character.  We have Princess Aura, Ming's daughter who has many lovers among the kingdoms and upon seeing Flash Gordon in all of his glory fighting off the imperial guards, she decides to risk everything to have him as a lover.  She goes against her father because she’s so privileged, spoiled, always thinks she can manipulate her way into having whatever she wants.

She’s a bit ridiculous as a character, but she’s progressive, fun and also very naive.  However, Aura gets a character arc in the film. Yes she does!  

Even though she has been by her father’s side to watch his cruel exploits, she learns that her father’s cruelty can extend to her as well.  She learns what suffering becomes an asset to the earthlings.  She also learns to appreciate the love of Prince Barin, who is crazy about her.

Prince Barin is the ruler of a forest region of Mongo called Arboria which gained inspiration from Robin Hood. These guys are into tree houses, archery, deadly manhood rituals, and torturing trespassers in their swamplands.  You could spend a whole movie learning about their strange culture.  The prince is extremely hostile to Flash Gordon initially because he’s madly in love with Princess Aura.  But after Flash saves his life, he too has a character arch to fight against Ming and swears allegiance to Flash.  

Just telling you the plot I can recognize that this is a bit Soap Operish.  There’s alot going on here and that is what I like about this.  It’s a whirlwind of oddities.

Ming keeps the kingdoms of Mongo fighting against each other so that they are too busy to overthrow him.  A prime example of that is how he encourages the rivalry between Prince Barin and Prince Vultan, ruler of the Winged Bird-Men from Sky City that floats above Arboria.  This is yet another fascinating culture we only get a teeny tiny little taste of, but by God, is it delicious!  Their wings; are they mechanical or are their real wings with armor?  It’s a strange detail that I’m focusing on, but that is a small example of how much story there is to tell.

In the throne room scene you can see a colorful display of so many Kingdoms represented, some altered from the original comic serial for the film's budget.  If all of these kingdoms work together instead of fighting against each other they could break free of Ming’s cruelty and misuse of power.  So that is one rather nice subplot that I enjoyed in the film.  Again, it really shows the characters in a favorable light such as Prince Vultan who is a bold character with a booming voice with a great smile and love of life. I loved that character.  Eventually Barin and Vultan learn that if they work with each other they can succeed.

The technical aspects of the film is a mixed bag.  This was due to the fact that there was a great deal of confusion during the production.  Firstly, Dino De Laurentiis, the producer of King Kong 1976 and Dune 1984 wanted to go all out for this production being a fan of Flash Gordon himself.  However, he and Mike Hodges had different ideas of how the film would be.

As well there was a mix of English and Italian crew members at London Pinewood Studios so there was a bit of a language barrier on set and lack of communication which proved extremely challenging.

De Laurentiis also hired Italian costume designer and production designer, Danilo Donati who previously won two Academy Awards for Best Costume Design for his work in Romeo and Juliet (1968), and in Fellini's Casanova (1976).  He was given the green light to work autonomously which was frustrating for Mike Hodges, but he tried to make it work as best as he could.

Donati had incredible ideas that were unleashed on the production and this is where the film gets it’s very bold style. He’s responsible for all of the wonderful costumes for the Mongonians in the film, helping us to see the majesty of the Emperor’s court.  They were all so very extravagant and detailed, many of them weighing up to 70 lbs.  Many of the looks had direct inspiration from the comics and it also had some modern inspiration from the 1960s and 1970s couture.  Wow!  I just loved his work on this film, every costume more elaborate and ornate than the next.  I am such a big fan of this kind of surreal costume and when I was a kid, I hoped that in the future, which would be the present day, this would be normal dress wear.  I was wrong.  But there is still hope for the future.  I’ll cross my fingers.

Speaking of the 1960’s the film derives a lot of inspiration from Dino De Laurentiis’ other sci-fi adventure flick, Barbarella 1968.  If you play these two films back to back, it almost feels as if they are part of the same universe.  You can really see the similarities and how Flash Gordon bears the same imaginative vision of alien worlds, techniques used for the flying characters, the ideas of space travel as a psychedelic trip and even the comedic tone is a bit similar.

The sets were massively impressive with inspiration from the original film serials and 1930s Art Deco style, keeping the rich colors and fantasy in mind for a comic book world brought to life.  I loved it so much.

According to Melody Anderson, the actor who played Dale Arden said in many interviews that she recognized that many of the production assets were recycled in the movie Dune 1984.

The visuals of the world of Mongo was astounding with a cacophony of color and shapes. The trippy skies in constant movement was achieved by swirling dyes of different colors through tanks of water with bright lights behind them.
I enjoyed this so much because I just love it when artists really go all out to show us what they think other worlds would look like.  Many of the fantastic visuals were incredible from time to time until we got a little uncanny valley with all of the blue screen chroma keying that was quite obvious.  They lacked the budget and the technology to completely pull off what they were going for.   The technique was not perfected at this time, but the effort was something that I most appreciated. 

If memory serves me correctly none of the films of the era had this mastered completely.  Even Empire Strikes Back and Bladerunner had minor problems with this, which have been digitally fixed over the years.  However, I heard that the Blu-ray edition of Flash Gordon did clean up a lot of the visuals.

Sadly Flash Gordon lives in the shadow of Star Wars
when people say that this movie is a rip off of Star Wars I think it is such an unfair comparison because it is nothing like Star Wars at all.  Star Wars mainly concentrated on making science fiction look real, whereas this movie really wanted to play up the fantasy of a nostalgic comic book and that sense of wonder you get when you turn through the pages.  You see a blast of color everywhere!  That is what this movie was going for and it’s one of the reasons I absolutely love it!

The nostalgic element could also be seen in the design of the retro vintage spaceships in the film, not veering away too far from the ones seen in the serial films in 1936.  I am so tickled by those simple designs and it’s yet another unique feature.

The battle with Prince Barin and Flash Gordon in the sky city was one of the  best scenes in the movie for me.  That fight scene felt very raw and wild and insane!  The stakes are very high with high tension and you didn't know what was going to happen. It definitely had a sense of excitement about that scene and kept you on your toes guessing if they would survive the whips, rising spikes in the floor and rotating platform above a swirly abyss.  What a wonderful action scene that was achieved by having four crew members operating the hydraulics on a rotating platform 30 feet above ground.  It was a fantastic practical effect to accompany one of my favorite battles.

Here’s a fun fact: the actor playing Flash Gordon, Sam J. Jones said that the disc was spray painted silver, so every time they hit the ground, they would have to stop filming to remove the paint residue that would rub off on them.

The amazing and memorable soundtrack and score was done by the renowned rock band, Queen along with incredible orchestral arrangements conducted by Howard Blake. Originally, Mike Hodges considered hiring the band Pink Floyd to do it which would have given the film a completely different tone.  Mike went with Queen, but at the time Dino De Laurentiis had no idea who the band was and wasn’t too keen on the final soundtrack initially.  Luckily Mike was insistent on using their work.

The band was immediately interested when they were introduced to the project and it became their first movie soundtrack.  Queen’s music created a certain energy strumming up and wonderful expectation of epic proportions. The band was in on the joke, that Flash Gordon is a hero for dreamers as a sort of rock opera for the ages. 

Their very unique heavy metal sound mixed with synthesizers, wicked riffs and random falsettos was very rare to be used in film like at this time.  It is one of the reasons that it has become one of the cornerstones in cinematic history and it may have one of the best theme songs of the century.  In particular, the battle theme and the wedding march have always been my favorites.  I always wanted to walk down the aisle as a bride with that version of the wedding march playing.  The whole soundtrack is incredible.

Flash's Theme
Written by Brian May
Produced by Brian May and Mack (Reinhold Mack)
Performed by Queen
In The Space Capsule (The Love Theme)
Written by Roger Taylor
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Ming's Theme (In The Court Of Ming The Merciless)
Written by Freddie Mercury
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
The Ring (Hypnotic Seduction Of Dale)
Written by Freddie Mercury
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Football Fight
Written by Freddie Mercury
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
In The Death Cell (Love Theme Reprise)
Written by Roger Taylor
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Execution Of Flash
Written by John Deacon
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
The Kiss (Aura Resurrects Flash)
Written by Freddie Mercury
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Arboria (Planet Of The Tree Men)
Written by John Deacon
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Escape From The Swamp
Written by Roger Taylor
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Flash To The Rescue
Written by Brian May
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Vultan's Theme (Attack Of The Hawk Men)
Written by Freddie Mercury
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Battle Theme
Written by Brian May
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
The Wedding March
Written by Brian May
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Marriage Of Dale And Ming (And Flash Approaching)
Written by Brian May and Roger Taylor
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Crash Dive On Mingo City
Written by Brian May
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
Flash's Theme Reprise (Victory Celebrations)
Written by Brian May
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake
The Hero
Written by Brian May
Performed by Queen
Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Blake

Queen went on to do yet another thunderously epic soundtrack for Highlander 1986.

Although filming was difficult on set there was a good rapport with everyone and everyone speaks quite highly of their experience.  Dino De Laurentiis expected to make 3 films just like the serials and the main cast members were signed for them if the film did well.

Arnold Schwarzenegger was considered for the role of Flash Gordon, but his thick accent at the time was too great of a problem for production to work around.  Dino De Laurentiis's mother-in-law saw dashing 25 year old actor Sam J. Jones on an episode of The Dating Game Television show (1965) and declared he was Flash Gordon.  What sealed the deal is that Dino agreed since Sam and Buster Crabbe indeed looked very similar at about the same age.

He hired Sam to take on his first starring role.  Sam had the physical acumen to perform a lot of his own stunts being 6’3” and a former semi professional football player. 

He became an actor after football and made his first film appearance in the movie 10 in 1979.  There is a lot of criticism about Sam’s acting in the film and there is a little backstory about that.  

In the documentary Life After Flash in 2019, he explained that after the film wrapped principal photography, there was a conflict with Dino De Laurentis and the young actor in which he took the guidance of his manager to leave the production cold before they could get pick up shots and voice overs.  It was a precarious position because most of his voice was dubbed in secret by actor Peter Marinker.

That affected the overall performance and after hearing Sam’s real voice, you can see what a difference there is.  But taking that in consideration, you can see that he had a real excitement for the role and there was an innocence about the actor and the character that he was able to connect to. To me, part of the charm of the movie lies in the portrayal of Flash Gordon by Sam J. Jones and partly Peter Marinker’s vocal performance.

Ming the Merciless was wonderfully played by 50 year old Swedish actor and director, Max von Sydow who shaved his head for the role and donned costumes weighing over 70 pounds.  He looks like he is having so much fun being Ming and what more can I say. He’s amazing in everything he’s in and it completely and totally matched the tone of the rest of the film being more whimsical and precocious in a fun way.  He played the character less menacing than previous versions of the character, yet giving us flashes of anger when needed to put an emphasis on something.

Canadian actor Melody Anderson was growing fame for her many guest appearances since 1977 on Television movies and shows like Logan's Run, Welcome Back Kotter, and Battlestar Galactica.  Melody really channeled the versions of Dale Arden that came before her with a very retro performance.  Much of it came from her dialogue, but there is something very spicy and fun she added to the character in a very genuine way.

As a big fan of the serials when he was a young boy, Brian Blessed was very aggressive about playing the part of his favorite character in the franchise, Prince Vultan.  He has admitted to playfully threatening Dino De Laurentiis to get it, he wanted it so badly.  Seeing Brian in the role, he’s perfect for it, embellishing the character with a very larger than life showmanship and likeability.  As well, more than any character he has the most quotable lines in the film mainly due to his magnanimous charismatic delivery. Brian has said that the Queen of England told him that Flash Gordon was her favorite film and even asked him to say “Gordon's alive” for her.  

He had a knack for stealing every scene he was in because he not only seemed to be enjoying himself, he has said that he was excited to get to work every day.

A few notable actors in the film were 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show director Richard O'Brien, Deep Roy from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 2005, and John Hollis had a role in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as Lobot.

Wish List:
Don’t get me wrong, I love, love, love this film, but it has some serious problems.  I hope you will bear with me as I nerd out into the details.

I really enjoyed the light hearted fun of the film, however it was vastly underwritten.

I wished the film found a way to develop the earthling characters more, especially Flash and Dale.  I think it was a mistake to have them just meet and suddenly have a relationship with no development, but just physical attraction. If they were already a couple that just spent their vacation together, then most of the things that happen between them in the film would feel more organic and we would root for them all the more.

I also wish that Flash had a deeper backstory.  Brian Blessed said that he was in contact with Buster Crabbe, who would have been happy to play Flash’s father, but the idea got turned down.  To be honest, I would have loved to have seen that.  Not just because of Buster Crabbe, but an opportunity for Flash to have some emotional connection to his life on earth and why it’s so personally important to him to save it.

Doctor Zarkov was played by Topol who is a brilliant actor famous for his role in Fiddler on the Roof 1971, who was chosen by a coin toss.  With such an incredible actor at their disposal, his character was not given enough to do and often just seen hanging around in the background. In the serials, Doctor Zarkov is a big deal, actively assisting Flash Gordon utilizing Mongo technology.  In fact, Ming sees the doctor as an asset for his skills as a scientist and not as a useless spy.   I hate to keep comparing the film to its predecessors but I wished they were able to capture and develop the importance of having a brilliant scientist along for the adventure even if it was to work on how to save earth. 

That leads me to the lost plot point of saving the earth.  It’s barely remembered by the end and I wished that it had more scientific and practical believability.  It just feels like an incomplete idea.

I also wish there was some sense of wonder for the earthlings arriving on an alien world, meeting aliens or winged men.  It seems as if nothing phases our characters.  At the end of the film, Dale says “it's a little too quiet around here for me”.  I mean New York is crazy fun and there's a lot happening but it doesn't rival interplanetary travel and meeting aliens that can fly.

The film wraps up a little too quickly for me and I must confess that I really wanted a sword fight with Gordon and Ming.  There Ming is with a sword at his side and I really thought we were going to get an epic battle for the ages.  I would have even settled with a sword fight with Klytus.

One piece of this story I find intolerable is the earthling’s sense of superiority not just morally but physically.   Ming can’t wait to populate earth with the children he plans to have with Dale Arden and Princess Aura wants to risk everything to get her hands on Flash Gordon.  I like that the aliens learn from the earthlings, but on our own planet there’s continuous conflict and war.  I appreciate the idealism, but it’s annoying.

Now the most important gripe that I have with this film is a subject matter that is often ignored.  Although I love the personality of  Ming the Merciless as a villain, I do not enjoy the racial implications of the character.   

Unfortunately, Ming the Merciless’ origins came from something that is called “yellow peril” which is a form of xenophobia, vilifying Asians.  Flash Gordon wasn’t the only story doing it at the time of conception.  There are many literary works of such, from about the late 1800’s to about 1940, including Flash Gordon’s inspiration, Buck Rogers who fought against the Mongol Reds in the comic books.

It breaks my heart.  Ming is a Chinese surname, famous for the legendary Ming Dynasty.  If we weren’t sure, well the world Ming rules over is Mongo which is a letter shy from the word Mongol, the inhabitants from Mongolia.

This leads us to Genghis Khan, the famous warlord and Emperor of the Mongol Empire during the 13th and 14th centuries.  His empire was the largest contiguous land empire in history starting in East Asia and stretched from Eastern Europe, Central Europe, Japan, and into the Arctic.   He was perhaps the inspiration for Ming and all of the villains of this era as many western cultures believed that it could happen again.

In early versions, Ming had yellow skin.  In the 1979 TV series they tried to make him look less of a Asian caricature giving him green skin and fangs to make him look more alien.  That backfired implying that Asians were not human.  This has become a challenge for Flash Gordon’s mainstream success in this day in age.

I think the intent of this film was not to encourage cultural fear, but to tell an action adventure film and feature a great challenge to Flash Gordon.  I can see that the filmmakers did make an effort not to be distinct about Ming’s race.  However, the character of Ming is offensive by his name and by the stereotype of his dress.  He still represents the “yellow peril” of the 1934 comic. 

The best thing about living in the age we are in is that we can see the truth for what it is and try to figure out how to make things right.  I wish there was a creative way to preserve the wild trippy adventure of Flash Gordon without Ming moving forward.  

The new villain could be just called M for Merciless.  He could look like the goblin king, Jareth, from Labyrinth 1986.  Hey then he could keep the wicked eyebrows.  But the villain could be a brain in a jar, a shiny robot, a giant fire breathing dragon, a cosmic energy that can take on different forms, or a plain old guy who kept changing his image to intimidate everyone just like the wizard from the Wizard of OZ.

I don’t know the answer.  Maybe it’s time for someone to rewrite Flash’s story and give him a new villain for the next generation.  That’s if someone thinks that it’s worth the trouble and fans are willing to understand that Ming needs to change. And if they miss the good old days of Ming, well there is all of the old franchise material to enjoy.

Also the planet Mongo itself needs to be renamed because it is derogatory.  Maybe it could sound the same but have a different spelling like Tmongeaux or just start off fresh with a totally new name.  I would be totally ok with seeing something like that.

Before filming, Dino De Laurentiis was approached about using the rights for producer Lou Scheimer’s production for an animated NBC movie of the week.  It was discussed that the film would be transformed into a TV series in 1979 to work in tandem with the movie as not to upstage it.  NBC shelved the animated movie  Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All until 1982.

I would say that the animated TV series was my gateway to Flash Gordon and I just loved all of the fantastic adventures and characters in this alien world.  The art style of the animation was also what drew me in because the art was very mature and not like many of the kiddie animated shows at the time.  Soon after, He-man would be my next cartoon obsession and not only is it from the same animated company, Filmation, it had a lot of the same tone, and theatrics.

What I am describing here is that after several years of dormancy, the Flash Gordon franchise was making its way through to children of 1979 and swelling up expectations for the 1980 film.

Universal promoted the film internationally and it did well, however in the US there was a problem since losing the main actor for the film before the end of production. Sam J. Jones did not promote the film, so the marketing department relied on Max von Sydow to sell the movie.  It is the reason most of the movie posters prominently feature the villain instead of the hero.  

Ultimately, in the U.S. it was met with mixed reviews.  The film was so divisive that even Siskel and Ebert were split on this.  Even still it was decently successful at the box office.

A sequel could have been in the works, but there was still radio silence between Sam and Dino, thus ending the trilogy that was planned.

Defenders of the Earth (1986) was an interesting cartoon series that had Flash teamed up with fellow King Features heroes like The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician. Flash and Dale Arden had a son, Rick Gordon, who becomes a hero.  

In 1989, Lee Ahlin and Gary Gordon wrote a musical based on the comic in Oak Hall Performing Arts Theater in Gainesville, Florida.  It starred Brian LeDuc as Flash, Kim Ehrich as Dale Arden, John Pelkey as Ming, and Julie Hamric as Princess Aura.

In 1996, Hearst Entertainment created an animated Flash Gordon television series where Flash is a nickname for a hoverboarding teenager.

The Flash Gordon daily comic strip from 1934 ran until 1992 and the Sunday strip continued until 2003. 

There was a American-Canadian TV series 2007 - 2008.  I was so excited for it, and the promotional material was inspiring, but the show was a little boring visually and tonally.  They had some good ideas though. It just missed the mark

There were a few more talks of animated TV shows, but the old fans really wanted a reboot.  Unfortunately, Flash Gordon had failed attempts at a reboot in 2010,  2014, 2015, 2016, and lastly a Disney/Fox collaboration with Taika Waititi was in the works in 2019. 

It might be too great of a challenge to bring Flash Gordon to the modern age.  But I think that there's a strong message in the story of Flash Gordon that is very powerful for the average person to hear.  

Flash isn’t a superhero.  He’s just some average guy with courage to stand up and fight against wrong doing, tyranny and an insurmountable power.   He represents every man's ability to be great and be an upright citizen.

He sends the message that you don't have to have super powers to change the world to be effective in society.  We can do better and be better if we don't ignore problems and stand up to face them like Flash Gordon would.

The children that saw this film back in 1980, myself included, never forgot the beautiful kaleidoscope of imagination intermingling with the ridiculous concepts of a non scientific science fiction.   It's a pure fantasy in it's the most basic form.  It’s an acquired taste for those who have never seen it.  It needs a warning  of what they're getting into because it’s so easy to dismiss.

Yes, the film is completely batty and it's a fever dream and based on the production pretty much lightning in a bottle.  

My Rating:

That sums up my review.  I hope you liked it.  This is Retro Nerd Girl signing off!

Take care movie lovers!  I'm off to the next review!

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