Flash Gordon (1980)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #30

Pathetic earthlings…
Who can save you now?

Country: UK & USA
Language: English
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: A (1980) | PG (1987)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 5th December 1980 (USA)
UK Release: 11th December 1980
First Seen: c.1995

Stars
Sam J. Jones (10, Ted)
Melody Anderson (Dead & Buried, Firewalker)
Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, The Exorcist)
Topol (Fiddler on the Roof, For Your Eyes Only)
Ornella Muti (The Last Woman, Tales of Ordinary Madness)

Director
Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier)

Screenwriter
Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Batman: The Movie, Three Days of the Condor)

Adaptation by
Michael Allin (Enter the Dragon, I’ll Be Home for Christmas)

Based on
Flash Gordon, a newspaper comic strip created by Alex Raymond.

The Story
American football player Flash Gordon and journalist Dale Arden accidentally end up on the spaceship of scientist Dr Zarkov, which transports them to the planet Mongo. There, they learn the planet’s evil Emperor, Ming the Merciless, is subjecting Earth to natural disasters in a bid to destroy it. Flash must unite the warring factions on Mongo to defeat Ming and save the Earth.

Our Hero
He’s a miracle, king of the impossible. Just a man, with a man’s courage, but he can never fail. He’ll save every one of us. Flash! Ah-ah!

Our Villains
Max von Sydow is deliciously villainous as evil emperor Ming the Merciless. There’s a handful of similarly entertaining underlings, too, like scheming right-hand-man Klytus, who gets a great death, and right-hand-woman Kala, who gets some of the very best lines.

Best Supporting Character
Prince Vultan may be culturally iconic for one two-word exclamation, but it kind of encapsulates the presence he brings throughout the film.

Memorable Quote
Zogi: “Do you, Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe, take this Earthling Dale Arden, to be your Empress of the Hour?”
Ming: “Of the hour, yes.”
Zogi: “Do you promise to use her as you will?”
Ming: “Certainly!”
Zogi: “Not to blast her into space? …uh, until such time as you grow weary of her.”
Ming: “I do.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Gordon’s alive?!” — Prince Vultan
(Not that it’s likely to be appropriate in everyday conversation, but you’re still going to hear it said — especially if you’re ever around Brian Blessed.)

Memorable Scene
In Ming’s harem, Flash’s love interest Dale and Ming’s rebellious daughter Aura end up wrestling on a giant bed. Kinky! But it’s knowingly directed, with cutaways to sniggering servants indicating a deliberate commentary on such gratuitous girl-on-girl spectacles in other films.

Write the Theme Tune…
“Dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum FLASH! Ah-ah! Saviour of the universe!” Rock group Queen composed the entire score for Flash Gordon, and their unmistakeable sound is a significant part of the film. Best of all is that main theme, surely one of the most memorable and hummable pop themes for a movie ever recorded. If you’re interested in the making of the soundtrack, there’s a detailed article on Queen’s official site.

Technical Wizardry
The design work is great. The sets, costumes, and spaceships are all huge, vibrant, retro, often ridiculous, and wonderful.

Truly Special Effect
Skies full of swirling rainbow colours, rainbow clouds for the spaceships to float through, platforms that tilt over a rainbow vortex… OK, there’s a lot of rainbows, but it’s unique and looks great.

Letting the Side Down
There is so little that’s bad about Flash Gordon that I’ve left this section in just to point out that there is nothing bad about Flash Gordon.

Previously on…
The most famous earlier version of Flash Gordon must be the three cinema serials starring Buster Crabbe that were produced between 1936 and 1940. They’re great fun (I nearly made space for one of them on this list, but… not quite). There was also a live-action TV series in the ’50s and an animated one in 1979.

Next time…
An animated TV movie followed that last TV series in 1982. Flash was part of the Defenders of the Earth animated series in the mid ’80s, alongside other heroes such as the Phantom. Another animated series came along in 1996, while a live-action reboot was attempted in 2007. It looked terrible, and I’ve heard it’s one of the worst TV shows ever made. Reports of a new film being in development come along now and then, with Kingsman’s Matthew Vaughn being the most recently attached director. Until that rolls around, Flash’s main claim to current pop culture relevance comes courtesy of Ted and its sequel.

Awards
3 BAFTA nominations (Music (because Queen), Costume Design, Production Design/Art Direction)
3 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow), Costumes)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Actor (Sam J. Jones))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
Flash Gordon is played for laughs, and wisely so. It is no more sophisticated than the comic strip it’s based on, and that takes the curse off of material that was old before it was born. This is space opera, a genre invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Hugo Gernsback and other men of unlimited imagination harnessed to definitely limited skills. It’s fun to see it done with energy and love and without the pseudo-meaningful apparatus of the Force and Trekkie Power.” — Roger Ebert

Score: 82%

What the Public Say
Star Wars was squarely heterosexual, but Flash Gordon could only have emerged from the same pop-culture closet that birthed David Bowie, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Freddie Mercury […] As for the empty-headed dialogue and the puerile plot, isn’t it obvious those are both part of the point? Everyone involved (well, except maybe Sam J. Jones) knows precisely what this is and performs accordingly, with a straight face but with a small gleam in the eye. […] I don’t know if I’d want to know anyone who couldn’t love this movie, or at least enjoy it on some level.” — Rob Gonsalves, eFilmCritic.com

Elsewhere on 100 Films
In 2009 I said that Flash Gordon was better than Star Wars. Well, I mean, I don’t know if I exactly stand by that, but I’m also not going to contradict it — Flash Gordon is awesome.

Verdict

Once reviled for being a laughably silly Star Wars cash in, the world has gradually begun to realise the truth: that Flash Gordon was always in on the joke. And it’s so obviously in on the joke, it makes a lot of the old reviews criticising it look embarrassingly tin-eared. It’s not meant to be a serious sci-fi adventure, like its big-screen Trek and Wars contemporaries. It’s designed to be camp, colourful, over-the-top, driven by cliffhangers and wackiness. It’s funny, it’s fun — it’s Flash! Ah-ah!

#31 will be… slightly more expensive.

Tarzan (1999)

2015 #43
Chris Buck & Kevin Lima | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / G

TarzanDisney’s ’80s/’90s renaissance more-or-less came to an end with this adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s jungle hero.

There are largely insipid Phil Collins songs (including Oscar-winner You’ll Be in My Heart) and a twee childhood-set first act, but when the eponymous hero grows up, things get interesting. The animated medium is put to excellent use in thrillingly fluid jungle-swinging action scenes (normally the purview of CGI, but here peerless in 2D), Minnie Driver brings her ’90s quirk to Jane, and Brian Blessed is a first-rate villain.

Not the pinnacle of Disney’s late 20th Century output, but an entertaining animated adventure.

3 out of 5

Hamlet (1996)

2008 #50
Kenneth Branagh | 232 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Hamlet (1996)Following his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh tackled arguably Shakespeare’s most revered play, Hamlet. And he didn’t do it by half. It’s the first ever full-text screen adaptation, which means it clocks in just shy of four hours; he unusually shot it on 70mm film, which means it looks gorgeous; and, while he grabbed the title role himself, he assembled around him a ludicrously star-packed cast from both sides of the pond — in alphabetical order, there’s Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, John Mills, Jimi Mistry, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet — not to mention several other recognisable faces. Even Ken Dodd’s in there!

But, with impressive statistics and name-dropping put to one side, what of the film itself? Well, it’s a bit of a slog, especially for someone unfamiliar with the text. While there is much to keep the viewer engaged, the high level of attention required can make it a little wearing; certainly, I took the intermission as a chance to split the film over two nights. Amusingly, the second half uses the original text to provide a sort of “Previously on Hamlet“, which was very useful 24 hours later. None of this is the fault of Branagh or his cast, who do their utmost to make the text legible for newbies — for example, there are cutaways to events that are described but not shown by Shakespeare, which, among other things, help establish who Fortinbras is (Rufus Sewell, as it turns out) before he finally turns up later on.

That said, some of the performances are a bit mixed. Branagh is a good director and not a bad actor, but his Shakespearean performances are variations on a theme rather than fully delineated characters. While there a new facets on display here thanks to the complexity of the character, there are also many elements that are eerily reminiscent of his Henry V and Benedick. The Americans among the cast seem to be on best behaviour and generally cope surprisingly well, while Julie Christie achieves an above average amount of fully legible dialogue. Perhaps the biggest casting surprise is Judi Dench, appearing in what is barely a cameo — one wonders if the film-career-boosting effects of a certain spy franchise would have changed that.

The best thing about this version, however, is how it looks. Much credit to cinematographer Alex Thomson for using the larger 70mm format to its full, loading every frame with vibrant colours and packing detail into even the quietest moments. Not every frame is a work of art — there is, after all, a story to be told — but there’s more than enough eye candy to go round. Also, a nod to the editing (the work of Neil Farrell), which makes good use of long takes — many of them full of camera moves — but also sharply edited sequences, such as the all-important play. The fast cuts make for a joyously tense scene in a way only cinema can provide, which I suppose is rather ironic during a ‘play within a play’.

For fans of Shakespeare, I suspect Branagh’s Hamlet is a wonderful experience, finally bringing the complete text to the screen and executing it all so well. For us mere mortals, it’s a beautifully shot and engagingly performed film, that I’m sure would benefit from a greater understanding of the text.

4 out of 5