My memories of Flash Gordon are memorable as I can recall first seeing it at the old ABC (Regal as was) Woolwich in 1981 and during the screening of the film, the projectionist remembered that he or she had put on the reels in the wrong order –this was before digital projection which avoids such errors. So, we had to wait quite a while whilst reels were re-run. During this pause, someone had shouted out to someone else in the stalls area “Sad about John Lennon wasn’t it?” and someone shouted back “Yeah, he was alright!”- Lennon had been killed a few months early at the end of 1980. Such are cinema audiences………….
Actually, the fact that the reels were in the wrong order did not ruin the experience of watching Flash Gordon for the first time- and I must have seen it close to 20 times in the cinema over the years. The film was made possible due to the enormous success of Star Wars which proved that science fiction could be popular amongst audiences. The production had an interesting history, like a lot of very good movies incidentally, as Nicholas Roeg was going to direct it initially and Debbie Harry had been pencilled in as Dale Arden, Flash Gordon’s right hand woman and general good egg, but that did not happen.
Instead reliable old hand Mike Hodges (Get Carter) took on the directorial reins but the biggest creative influence on the film is its writer Lorenzo Semple Jr who wrote the original Adam West Batman series in the 1960s, and the film’s style is very tongue in cheek and played for laughs, with some of the richest (and corniest) dialogue in film history.
You can tell what kind of ride Flash Gordon is going to give you right at the opening as Emperor Ming (a brilliant slap headed Maximillian Von Sydow ) talks to his left hand man Klytus (an almost unrecognisable Peter Wyngarde (Department S & Jason King):
Ming: “Klytus, I’m bored. What plaything can you offer me today?”
Klytus : “An obscure body in the S-K system, Your Majesty. The inhabitants refer to it as the planet……Earth”
Ming: “How peaceful it looks” (he activates a console and watches as he creates a series of devastating earthquakes and floods)
Klytus: Most effective, Your Majesty. Will you destroy this, uh, Earth?”
Ming: “Later. I like to play with things a while….before annihilation.”
So, the story based on the strip cartoon that ran in the 1930s, is that only Hans Zarkoff (a brilliantly hammy and over the top Topol) a scientist has been predicting this particular kind of climate change and, just by chance (funny thing that!), New York Jets star Flash Gordon (a robotic Sam J Jones) and Travel Agent Dale Arden (the luminous Melody Anderson) are kidnapped by him as they rocket up into space to find out what is going on in the Universe.
They land on Mongo, where Ming the Merciless rules his and other kingdoms but Flash shows Earth’s mettle by taking on Ming’s soldiers in a set piece fight in his great hall. Enter a certain Brian Blessed who rules the Hawkmen, sworn enemies of Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and Flash, Dale and Hans spend most of the rest of the film encouraging Blessed and Dalton to team up and fight Ming.
The delights and joy of the movie are many. There are some great juicy characters created- Ming’s (very naughty) daughter Aura (Ornella Muti) who has a series of lovers including Prince Barin, does her best to seduce Flash (but he is destined to be with Dale of course). General Kala (Mariangela Melato) is not short of words when she has to protect Ming- in one marvellously over the top scene she is told that Flash is about to attack Mungo: “ What do you mean, “Flash Gordon approaching?”, her aide tells her “On a Hawkman rocket-cycle. Shall I inform His Majesty?”. She screams back at him “Imbecile! The Emperor would shoot you for interrupting his wedding with this news! Fire when Gordon’s in range!”
The movie is hugely driven along by Queen’s fantastic score which showed the benefit of film makers commissioning bands rather than just classic film composers to provide the music – and makes for a great ride.
Brian Blessed of course has made his career from saying just one thing in Flash Gordon –“Gordon’s alive?!” but he is a real treat as a king warrior who learns to give up his differences with Prince Barin and take on Ming with Flash and his companions.
The ending of the film though was all set up for a sequel as Flash’s rocket ship harpoons Ming and his powerful ring drops off and the end credit is ‘The End?’-but the sequel was never to happen. But Flash Gordon is a film that is very much in our consciousness and regularly comes up at Easter, Christmas and most Bank Holidays- and is a great fantasy