|You know the story by now. George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie, but the rights were too expensive for him and he was forced to invent his own characters and narrative based on the Alex Raymond comic strip of the nineteen-thirties, but different enough to get away with not being judged a rip-off. Once Star Wars was the biggest movie of all time in 1977 (not adjusted for inflation), the old Depression-era serials became popular again on television, and the comic strip had continued for all those decades in newspapers, which led Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, or Dino De Horrendous as he was often nicknamed, to snap up those rights Lucas had failed to secure for his own version of Flash Gordon.
And of course, that 1980 film became an even bigger movie than Star Wars and spawned a series of blockbuster sequels that continue to this day - wait, what? Well, that's what Dino was hoping for, but in reality it didn't turn out that way as his Flash Gordon made the fatal mistake of being camp: all those jokes for the mums and dads, all that knowing humour, indeed all that kink, left it regarded with disdain by "serious" science fiction fans and Star Wars fans saw it as a rip-off on the level of Starcrash, despite De Laurentiis throwing money at the production to ensure as much spectacle as they could possibly muster. Like Lucas, he had relied on British talent to support it, which was possibly why the reaction in the United Kingdom was more benevolent.
Therefore Flash Gordon, which had never been off the television in its serial form there, was more embraced, either by the kids who responded to the film's bright colours and brash music courtesy of rock band Queen, or by the adults who were more attuned to its deliberate laughs. But it could have been completely different, it could have been a deadly serious version of the Raymond strip under the direction of Nicolas Roeg, who after The Man Who Fell to Earth, his David Bowie-starring science fiction version of Walter Tevis's novel, was looking to approach more science fiction, but this time a proper space opera where he could tackle cosmic themes rather than bringing the cosmic down to the state of humanity with all its stark disappointments and crushed dreams.
If you think that was a curious choice for Flash Gordon, you're not the only one. After hearing of Roeg's plan to make this reimagining his version of Adam and Eve being chased from the Garden of Eden by a vengeful, furious God (or Flash and Dale Arden tackling Ming the Merciless, as it would more traditionally have been), Dino said thanks a lot but no thanks, let Roeg and most of his team go, then drafted in Lorenzo Semple Jr in to rewrite the screenplay to render it more lighthearted. Semple, while he had proved he could pen perfectly serious scripts such as Pretty Poison, Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View, and do them very well, had initially made his name in the business for a television series that evidently coloured a lot of perception of comics.
That had been, of course, the nineteen-sixties Batman, the defining idea of camp in popular culture before the more gay version reasserted itself over the ensuing years, and De Laurentiis, aware that had been a big hit, wanted that kind of thing. Semple later expressed regrets that he had crafted a script that was far too jokey and goofy, claiming he wished he had been more serious in keeping with Roeg's ideas, but the film's fans would have none of that, and as the years went by they made their cult appreciation ever more vocal, to the extent that the cult of Flash Gordon made its way into a subplot of Seth MacFarlane's comedy Ted some time after as an example of how what had been almost cliquey outside of Britain had gone mainstream.
Had Flash Gordon's time finally come? When Max von Sydow died in 2020, many were wont to recall how fondly they thought of him, not for The Seventh Seal or even The Exorcist, but for giving such a splendid reading of Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon. It was true, guided by underrated (and underestimated) director Mike Hodges, that everyone in the cast "got the joke", from Peter Wyngarde's masked right hand man Klytus to Brian Blessed having the time of his life as Hawkman Vultan, though perhaps the Brits more than those from other countries. Topol made a wonderful Professor Zarkov, however, and Ornella Muti was a Princess Aura to stir something in viewers they were not anticipating from a comic strip movie, though our Flash, Sam J. Jones, was seen as the weak link in an excellent cast: even Melody Anderson was a perfect Dale.
It was no secret Jones was having trouble carrying the movie, battling with De Laurentiis and eventually walking away before the film was completed, leading his entire role to be dubbed by another actor, but somehow this conscious artificiality was in the overall favour. Some have described the 1980 Flash Gordon as the most obvious descendant of Barbarella from the sixties, and it was assuredly bright and kinky enough to belong to that lineage, yet there was also something of Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik and even Yellow Submarine about it too, only live action and with a different British band providing the soundtrack. What struck you, and this could be why its fans respond to it, is that all three human characters are underestimated throughout, and use that against the bad guys to their advantage: isn't it always great to see the underdog win, especially if they're the most heroic folks around? While this was unafraid to be funny, sexual, eye-straining and utterly kitschy, it had a sincerity its detractors overlooked, and that's why it lasts.
[Studiocanal release this on 4K UHD and Blu-ray in a deluxe Collector's Edition set for the 40th Anniversary. Those extras in full:
New! Lost in Space: Nic Roeg's Flash Gordon
Audio commentary with Mike Hodges
Audio commentary with Brian Blessed
Behind the scenes of Flash Gordon
Original theatrical trailer
Interview with Mike Hodges
Episode 24 of Flash Gordon (1979-1982): The Survival Game / Gremlin's Finest Hour
Sam Jones's acting start
Entertainment Earth on Flash Gordon merchandise
Bob Lindenmayer discussed deleted scenes and original endings
35th Anniversary Greenroom
35th Anniversary reunion featurette
Renato Casaro extended interview
Brian Blessed anecdotes
Melody's musings on the soundtrack
The UHD and 2 Blu-ray discs
Bonus Blu-Ray Disc of LIFE AFTER FLASH
32 page booklet
16 page Titan mini book (The Story of Flash Gordon)
Reproduced booklet of the first strip of original comic books
Poster of original artwork.]