Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1980)
There is no question mark in the history of movies more unnecessary than the one that pops up before the end credits to Dino De Laurentiis’ 1980 flop, “Flash Gordon.” You know the bit. The story is done, the villain vanquished, and “The End” appears on the screen. But wait, who’s that picking up the villain’s ring? And laughing like the villain? And that’s when the question mark is added:
No, honey, this is really the end. There won’t be any sequels to this fucking thing.
There is also probably no DVD bonus feature in the history of DVD bonus features more mislabeled than the interview here with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. Someone in PR called it “Writing a Classic” and for a moment that got me excited. Wait, is Semple really going to argue that “Flash Gordon” is a classic? I gotta hear this!
Yeah, no. Semple is defensive throughout:
I don’t remember having a single meeting with anybody except Dino. In my opinion, it could’ve used some criticism. There’s no question the script would’ve been better. ... Even though it may sound a dream, “Go write it and we’ll shoot it” is not a terribly good idea.
Semple spoke no Italian and De Laurentiis spoke little English, so a woman who worked for DDL translated the script for him. Except, says Semple, her English wasn’t great. She once showed up at his house, saw his cat, said “Nice dog.”
It gets better. During filming, De Laurentiis told Semple to visit Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione for ideas. He did. He saw him in his London mansion with a couple of Penthouse pets. “It was idiotic and insane,” says Semple, “the idea of going to Bob Guccione for ideas.”
The coup de grace: “Obviously,” Semple says, “people at Universal read the script, and nobody said it was awful.”
Nobody said it was awful. PR-speak for: “Writing a classic.”
‘We couldn’t figure it out’
Going in, I assumed watching this on the heels of watching the original 1936 version with Buster Crabbe would make it better—the way that, say, watching the 1966 “Batman” on the heels of suffering through the 1949 “Batman & Robin” serial made it way, way funnier. Nope. Doesn’t help at all. The ’36 version actually comes off good in comparison.
I assumed this, by the way, without even knowing that Semple, who wrote “Batman ’66,” also wrote this. So what happened? Was his sense of humor gone? Did it get lost in translation?
“Star Wars” happened.
Originally, George Lucas wanted to remake “Flash Gordon” but he couldn’t secure the rights; so he made “Star Wars” instead. Once everyone saw how much money he made, they all scrambled to put together his original idea. Semple again:
I remember Dino said one day, “We run ‘Star Wars.’” He got a copy of it. “We see why everybody go see this movie.” But we couldn’t figure it out. “Star Wars” has a certain amount of ... I won’t say realism, but, I mean, it was treated as if it was really happening. And “Flash Gordon,” in my opinion, never appears as if it actually was really taking place anywhere. I mean, Mongo was more than mythical. I mean, Mongo is straight out of an Italian comic book.
My favorite line in the above? We couldn’t figure it out. Semple, Jr., 57, and De Laurentiis, 61, couldn’t figure out why a bunch of teenage boys like me were going to see “Star Wars” again and again. “Flash Gordon,” born of greed and jealousy, was created by old men attempting to emulate something none of them understood.
“Star Wars” had a blonde lead? Here's one that‘s more handsome.
“Star Wars” included a respected/Shakespearean actor? Here’s a bunch of them:
- Max Von Sydow as Ming
- Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin
- Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan
- Topol as Dr. Hans Zarkov
This actually leads to a problem. In the ’36 original, the supporting players were bit actors who mumbled or hammed it up through their roles, while Crabbe’s Flash was earnest, athletic, dynamic. You could see why he was the star. Here, Sam Jones is fine as Flash, but he’s overwhelmed by the better actors. Ming is more powerful and more merciless; Barin is stronger, angrier, tougher. In the title song, Flash is repeatedly called “savoir of the universe,” but for most of the movie Dalton wipes the screen with him.
Sadly, the plot is pretty much the same. Yes, in the original, Mongo was going to crash into Earth, while here Ming simply toys with us from afar. He creates storms and typhoons and earthquakes, then sets Earth’s moon on a collision course with Earth. Dr. Zarkov recognizes this as an attack, and he’s planning to counterattack via rocketship, but, as in the original, his assistant flees. Which is when Flash and Dale (Melody Anderson) land near him by happenstance. Rather than agreeing to help, as in ’36, Zarkov simply kidnaps them. More exactly, he and Flash fight, but Flash’s crushing blow sends Zarkov into the big red button that starts up the rocket ship and takes them to their destiny.
Of all the changes that happened in human history between 1936 and 1980, the most visible in the movie—more than atomic energy, computer technology and space flight—is the sexual revolution. In the original, Flash was stalwart; he wasn't interested in Princess Aura no matter how often she threw herself at him—or saved him. Here, from the get go, he's checking her out. So much so that Dale nudges him. “Hey, remember me?” she says. His initial “execution” is occultish, performed by men in metal masks and hooded cloaks that seem like extras from “Eyes Wide Shut." But he's saved by Aura ... who then seduces him.
We keep waiting for the hero to emerge. Early on, there’s an absurd scene where Flash (a professional football player rather a polo player) is tossed a football-like object and is able—for the first time—to run rings around Ming’s men. It's weird—as if he needed the football to act. Without it, he’s not much. On a tree planet, where Barin acts like a tyrannical Robin Hood, Flash is lowered into a swamp and falls into quicksand, and in Vultan’s “Sky City,” he’s forced to duel Barin. This one he finally wins, then displays his true value by showing mercy. Everyone is stunned. Everyone except us, since it was telegraphed earlier:
Aura: Every moon of Mongo is a kingdom. My father keeps them fighting each other constantly. It’s really brilliant strategy.
Flash: Why don’t they team up and overthrow him?
Aura: Team up? What does that mean?
Flash: Why don’t I show you some time.
After the duel, he gets the air jetski thing, and helps lead the final assault on Ming’s castle. The good guys win, the bad guys are killed, and Barin is declared the new ruler of Mongo. Because what could be better than a tyrannical tree lord?
I should add the special effects throughout are awful—recalling less 1977’s “Star Wars” than 1967’s “Barbarella,” which De Laurentiis also produced. But even with good effects, I’m not sure how you reboot “Flash Gordon” for the modern age. It’s really just a 1920s boys adventure story to the Orient (see: Ming), set in outer space. At least they left out the Shark King.
Van Sydow is the best thing in the movie. Early on, Zarkov is trying to reason with Ming and says, “We are only interested in friendship. Why do you attack us?” and Ming responds in that cold-blooded, matter-of-fact way of Sydow: “Why not?”
But such moments are few. Director Mike Hodges made “Get Carter” in 1971 and “Croupier” in 1998, and not much of value in between. Semple, Jr. went on to write the Broccoli-less Bond flick, “Never Say Never Again,” and the jungle disaster “Sheena” with Tanya Roberts. De Laurentiis, with or without his translator, went on to produce some good movies (“Dead Zone”), one great one (“Blue Velvet”) and many disasters (“Dune,” “Maximum Overdrive,” “King Kong Lives,” “Body of Evidence.”). Via IMDb’s user ratings, “Flash” is considered his 101st worst feature film out of exactly 202. Its current rating is 6.5. Unbelievably, it has its fans.