Flash Gordon has had a long and storied life. Starting as a comic strip, it’s been a movie serial, a live-action adaptation (twice), a cartoon series (three times), and most famously, the 1980 film starring Sam Jones, Melody Anderson, Ornella Muti, Max von Sydow, Timothy Dalton, BRIAN BLESSED, Topol, and a blink and you miss it appearance by Richard O’Brien (better known as Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
The plot is standard pulp fare. Ming the Merciless, having Earth brought his to attention by his counselor Klytus, decides to subject it to natural disasters (whether to actually test Earth or simply because he’s bored is left open). This has the unforeseen consequence of crashing the plane, in which are riding our hero Flash and his intrepid reporter/love interest Dale Arden, into the abode of mad scientist Karl Zokov. Zokov, of course, is the one that realizes the natural disasters aren’t natural in origin at all, and has a spaceship ready to go to take him to the source of the attacks.
Flash’s arrival on Mongo provides the catalyst to Ming’s overthrow, Flash’s ability to make former rivals allies and making the factions at play realize they are better united against Ming than fighting each other. Of course, Flash had to first defeat his rival Barin and prove his mercy by not finishing him off for that to happen at all.
One of the big draws, and one that I think modern writers and filmmakers can take to heart, is that it wasn’t afraid to embrace camp, high drama, and (let’s face it) some pretty ridiculous outfits. It rejects the then modern aesthetics for science-fiction, such as that presented in 2001 and or the design choices in Star Wars, instead adopting the Ray Gun Gothic aesthetics of the 1930s. War Rocket Ajax is a great example of that aesthetic, as is Zarkov’s original rocket. There are strong elements of planetary romance, despite the action taking place among several different moons around the main planet Mongo as opposed to a single world. It doesn’t let pesky things like physics get in the way of design, instead being more interested in telling the story against stunning and alien backdrops. While this might place it firmly on the side of “soft” science, it was a conscious decision to not let science get in the way of the aesthetics.
The action oriented Flash would be a closer fit to John Carter than the more intellectual heroes that became standard in the 1950s and 60s. Likewise, the only intellectual character in the movie that helps the heroes is Zarkov, while both Barin and the Hawkman Vultan are definitely on the hit things first, ask questions later side of the coin.
One of the aspects of the film I think gets downplayed is that Dale Arden, despite being the designated love interest (seriously, how little time do Flash and Arden spend together before they declare their mutual love?) rescues herself instead of waiting to be rescued. She escapes from Ming’s harem, beats up the palace guards, and nearly escapes on her own power. Yes, she ultimately needs help from the other heroes, but she takes a decidedly active role in her own rescue.
There are some off-moments of course as well. The obvious yellowface Max von Sydow dons, while true to the source material, where Ming was essentially Fu Manchu in space, comes across as insensitive at best and insulting at worst to a modern viewer. Same with the decision to sacrifice Prince Thun (the sole named black character), who played a much larger role in the original source material.
And of course, I’d be remiss in not remarking on the killer soundtrack by Queen, as it was the first rock soundtrack for a science-fiction film. “Flash! A-ah. Saviour of the universe!” The only other soundtrack that Queen would contribute so heavily too was the sword-and-sorcery set in modern New York, HIGHLANDER.
As an interesting bit of trivia, George Lucas originally wanted the rights to FLASH GORDON, but was unable to acquire them from Dino De Laurentiis, so he went ahead and created a different space opera instead. You might have heard of it.
Interested in more Flash Gordon? Check out our friends at Hollow9ine who podcasted about this on “WHAT AM I WATCHING?!”