What’s not to like about Flash Gordon? Never mind high falutin’ theories of film and cinema, of narrative thrust and story arc, of the essential cosmic qualities of timeless themes married to a modern medium. What matters here is big, silly, daft, adventurous fun, qualities the average filmgoer is rather more concerned with. Rockets! Hawkmen! Big jaggy collars! Velvet catsuits! Goodies who are all good! Baddies who are all bad! Sometimes cinema really can be this simple and still be as good as anything as portentous as the avant garde can churn out.
Who do we thank for this piece of knowing yet pleasingly non-ironic retro-kitsch? First of all, producer Dino de Laurentiis. The legendary Italian producer of such varied work as Hurricane (1979), Mafioso (1962), Crazy Joe (1974) on one hand, and Conan the Barbarian (1982), Manhunter (1985) and U-571 (2000) on the other, de Laurentiis is a man for whom the word ‘small’ is not familiar. When Dino makes a film he makes it big. So when he chose to create a big screen feature version of the old comic book and Universal serial character he went straight for quality and landed Mike Hodges. Well, actually he didn’t. Hodges, the director of seminal British gangster picture Get Carter (1971), is said to have been Dino’s eighth choice as director, with one of his predecessors in the chair having been for a period Laughing Nicolas Roeg. The thought of Roeg at the helm of a comic book adaptation is certainly a sobering thought. The preponderance of midgets in Flash Gordon may have something to do with a hang over from Roeg’s initial input. Thankfully, none of them appear to have made it through space and time with red duffel coats on.
Dino pulled together an art department that managed to make buckets full of coloured water look eerily like an alien stratosphere, and costumes that perfectly captured the essence of the old black and white serial. This may have backfired on him however, as his next big sci-si venture was the stupendously inept Dune (1984) a film so shoddily produced, yet at the same time so clearly expensive, it beggars belief.
Hodges also turned up trumps. He described Flash Gordon as ‘the only improvised $27 million movie ever made’, but it was probably this laissez-faire attitude that contributed to the success of the venture. Certainly none of the leading actors are over-directed. Brian Blessed remains resolutely Brian Blessed all the way through, and reinforces his own legend as a man who could down out the sound of a nuclear test should he ever stub his toe on a door. Topol as boffin Dr Zarkov is similarly over the top, though in his particular case calling him a ham is probably a little inappropriate, and Melody Anderson and Sam J Jones (who had his dialogue dubbed for him by someone who could inflect something akin to actual feeling in his voice) do what they are required to do, which is to drive the plot forward, then get out of the way so the people we really want to see get on with it. And the people we really want to see are Max von Sydow and Peter Wyngarde.
Emperor Ming the Merciless and his odious masked sidekick Klytus are, regardless of whatever else may be going down plot-wise, what everyone wants to see. When they’re not on screen, the audience waits patiently for the next moment they are. And they’re rewarded for their patience by two great performances. Wyngarde has the harder job as he’s behind a mask, but still manages to convey with his eyes and, especially, his extraordinary voice all of the evil, malice and perversion that is required of his excellent character. He purrs and burrs like a man who has spent five years at a How to Be George Sanders night class and passed at the top of his year, so malevolently silky is his delivery. When he comes out with threats in a straightforward way, like condemning Prince Barin to death when he lands in the Hawkman Kingdom to set things right, he almost shrugs the lines off as they offer no chance to inflect some choice oily sarcasm into the lines. But when mask to face with Gordon in his cell, Wyngarde plays Klytus like a cosmic Abanazar: sarcastic, evil and funny in equal measure. It’s only a shame he wasn’t able to capitalise on it, since most people didn’t realise it was him behind the tin.
If Wyngarde’s the prince of darkness, the king of all he surveys is von Sydow as Ming the Merciless. Clearly modelled on Charles Middleton, the Ming of the original serials, von Sydow gives one of the greatest performances of any film. He inhabits the role of Ming so completely he probably did himself no favours for many years to come, since it became almost impossible to separate Ming from Max for long enough, if ever at all. Smirking, snarling, ironic, vindictive, sadistic, self-obsessed and supremely arrogant – even with a space ship stuck in his back – von Sydow’s portrayal of the ultimate intergalactic baddie is a triumph. His is the first voice heard in the film, in voiceover for the famous, ‘Klytus, I’m bored…’ introduction, setting hairs on the back of the head on end. When the list of great film villains is compiled, Max von Sydow’s Ming the Merciless will be up there with the best of them. Don Corleone may have more credibility, but it didn’t take a spaceship to bring him down.
The other best-loved element is the extraordinary score by Queen. It’s a frightening thought that Hodges at one stage considered Pink Floyd for the gig. As it is, Brian May’s titanic guitar lines and Freddie Mercury’s properly hysterical vocals (the other two probably did something as well) provide a spine for the film as a whole; not just a tremendous theme but a superlative score altogether, with the incidental themes just as suited to the material as the more famous opening number.
Perhaps, as Hodges suggests, the film’s success is something of a happy coincidence. He says a film shouldn’t be over-directed, with the senior staff coming to a project with a fixed idea of how everything should turn out. If that’s the case then who knows how Flash Gordon may have turned out under some other hand. Perhaps if Roeg had stayed the distance it would have been photographed a little better and acted a lot worse. Who can say? But as it is, the multifarious strands that either come together to make a great film, or unravel in a stringy mess to leave a disastrous shuddering lump of cinematic phlegm, happily converge to leave to posterity one of the bawdiest, most garish, silly and overwrought films ever made. Bless them all!