❉ Nick Myles revisits the kinky, kitsch, camp classic; newly restored in HD!
“The script is tight, the action effusive and excellently choreographed, and director Mike Hodges builds a seamless unity of purpose from the multiple elements of his production. It’s also a kinkster’s dream, from the Hawk Men’s chest harnesses to the leather shorts Flash is put in for his execution.”
My first encounter with Flash Gordon was courtesy of Saturday morning repeats of the black and white 1950s TV series based on the long-running comic strip that had first appeared in the ’30s. I found these cheap and cheerful space adventures riveting, even if Flash’s spaceship distinctly resembled a toilet roll tube with a sparkler sputtering out of one end.
Although as a child I treated science fiction with deadly seriousness, as a grown-up (sort of) I recognise that kitsch and camp were always part of Flash Gordon’s DNA – on reflection it’s probably all there in the very name. The principal joy of the movie version (happy 40th birthday!) is that it acknowledges and celebrates this inherent exuberance while playing it absolutely straight.
Thus are icons born, and there can be few films so instantly iconic as Flash Gordon. It begins with Queen’s gloriously bombastic theme song (brilliantly intercut with choice snippets of dialogue, including Brian Blessed’s career-defining “Gordon’s alive?!”). And from that running start the classic moments come thick and fast. This is not a film that dawdles: we power through from the Earth’s bombardment with “Hot Hail” to our heroes’ arrival on the planet Mongo, to the Wood Beast initiation, the quicksand, the duel on the spiked platform, to the sky full of Hawk Men swooping into climactic battle. It you’re of a certain disposition, all these scenes will split your face with an irrepressible grin.
Of course the film is of its time – but also it inherits some of the cultural baggage of the period of its genesis. A matter of mere seconds separate’s Flash’s first meeting with lovely Dale Arden and her clinging to him for protection, and the only other significant woman is a villainess who also has the hots for our hero. But there’s something guileless about these characters that makes it hard to critique them by modern standards. In fact the whole project – like its source material – is so resolutely two-dimensional that it would seem churlish to hold its stereotypes to account.
That’s not to dismiss Flash Gordon as dated bubblegum. It takes immense skill to create something so finely pitched between homage and pastiche. And the talent is visible in every frame: the design is gorgeous throughout and does a great job of honouring the original artwork while bringing the aesthetic bang up to date (or 1980, at least). The effects mostly stand up to scrutiny if you sprinkle a pinch of generosity over the DVD before you slide it into your machine.
But the look of the thing would mean little without a cast of matching excellence, and here again Flash Gordon comes up trumps. Sam J Jones plays Flash as an out-and-out lunk, setting his square jaw squarely against the forces of evil and winning the day by sheer force of good ole American determination. Yee ha. Melody Anderson as Dale proves herself (a bit) more than arm candy, and “mad scientist” Zarkov (Topol) comes good after a deranged start to complete a cheer-worthy trio of Earthling heroes. The lead aliens are all having enormous fun, from smooth sadist Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) to merciless Ming (Max von Sydow) and his Machiavellian metallic side-kick Klytus (Peter Wyngarde). Ornella Muti is convincingly voracious as Princess Aura, and of course Brian Blessed as king of the Hawk Men wastes no opportunity to practise his subtle performance skills.
The script is tight, the action effusive and excellently choreographed, and director Mike Hodges builds a seamless unity of purpose from the multiple elements of his production. It’s also a kinkster’s dream, from the Hawk Men’s chest harnesses to the leather shorts Flash is put in for his execution. Just don’t ask me about the Lizard People – they’re too freaky for words.
One of the extras on this re-mastered version of the film – did the skies of Mongo look so gorgeously multicoloured before? – is a documentary about the film Nicolas Roeg was planning to make when originally attached as director before producer Dino De Laurentiis decided to go another way. I was unaware of this change of helmsman, and a Roeg Flash Gordon is a fascinating prospect, but Hodges’ film feels marvellously complete on its own terms.
It’s just a shame that the question mark in the final caption “The End…?” would prove to be a false promise of more Flash fun to come. All the more reason to treasure what we do have.
The UHD, DVD and Blu-Ray Disc 1:
❉ The main feature (1 hr 47)
❉ New Lost in Space: Nic Roeg’s Flash Gordon (also iTunes extra)
❉ Audio commentary with Mike Hodges
❉ Audio commentary with Brian Blessed
❉ Behind the scenes of Flash Gordon
❉ Stills gallery (also iTunes extra)
❉ Storyboards gallery (also iTunes extra)
❉ Original theatrical trailer
Blu-Ray Disc 2:
❉ Interview with Mike Hodges
❉ Interview with comic book artist Alex Ross TBC
❉ Interview with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. TBC
❉ 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 discusses 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 (Brian May & Howard Blake)
❉ Easter Eggs
The 5-disc Collector’s Edition:
❉ The UHD and 2 Blu-ray discs
❉ Bonus Blu-Ray Disc of LIFE AFTER FLASH, the 2017 feature documentary celebrating the film and it’s star, directed by Lisa Downs
❉ Original soundtrack by Queen & Howard Blake
❉ 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
❉ 4 artcards of various incarnations of Flash film posters across the years
❉ 1 sew on ‘Flash patch’
❉ ‘Flash Gordon’ 4K is available on 4K UHD Collector’s edition, Blu-ray, Steelbook, DVD and digital from August 10th. RRPs – DVD £17.99 / Blu-Ray £22.99 / Steelbook £39.99 / Collector’s Edition £69.99.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Nick Myles is a London-based writer and director. His stage plays have been produced at numerous London theatres, and at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. He has also contributed to Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio plays. Twitter: Nick Myles