100 Films’ 100 Favourites #30
Who can save you now?
Country: UK & USA
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: A (1980) | PG (1987)
Original Release: 5th December 1980 (USA)
UK Release: 11th December 1980
First Seen: c.1995
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)
Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Croupier)
Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Batman: The Movie, Three Days of the Condor)
Michael Allin (Enter the Dragon, I’ll Be Home for Christmas)
Flash Gordon, a newspaper comic strip created by Alex Raymond.
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.
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!
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.
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?”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.