So, I compared Masters of the Universe to Flash Gordon and someone loved the reference and said “Do Flash Gordon!” – you don’t have to tell me twice!
Filmed in 1980, there’s been a 40th anniversary Blu-Ray release of this recently, but I’m looking at the silver anniversary DVD from 2005, including an awesome Mike Hodges (director) interview, which I’ll make reference to after the review of the film.
The film: I first saw this film in 1995, at Christmas. I’m not sure why I hadn’t seen it before, but among a selection of other FANTASTIC movies I taped that Christmas and kept for a number of years (Top Gun, Last of the Mohicans, Jason and the Argonauts, plus more) this was the one that stayed with me. So many reasons why, from the very beginning there’s an absolute explosion of colour and sound, with a score and soundtrack by Queen. Ming the Merciless, Emperor of the planet Mongo, has decided to make Earth his plaything. The mad scientist, Dr. Hans Zarkov, is aware of this and plans to travel into space to investigate the source of the extraterrestrial interference. His unwilling co-pilots are American football star Flash Gordon and travel agent Dale Arden, who Flash is immediately creeping on. They land on Mongo and enter the politics and adventures going on with the different battles between the races of that world.
First off, I’m tying my flag to the mast of this particular point – Zarkov is the REAL hero of the film. Now, ignore the fact that early on he’s pointing a gun at his assistant Munson, played by the brilliant William Hootkins, and telling him “Get your toothbrush and whatever!” in a hilarious threat to get him to come aboard his rocket with him. Forget that when he’s got Flash and Dale in the rocket under false pretences (“The phone is in there!”) that he follows it up by pointing the gun at them and Flash asks legitimately inquisitively “Are you crazy?”. Zarkov is the one that once on Mongo is assisting Flash in his impromptu football match with Klytus’ men (“Are you men on the right pills?!”, asks Ming. “Maybe you should execute their trainer!”). He also gets the more torturous treatment when Klytus and Kala try to wipe his mind and turn him into their agent, negating it by overloading his own mind with as much culture as possible. Starts off mad, ends the film as noble and decent, but you realise his descent into madness was out of a genuine desire to do good and save his planet when others would ignore him. Topol is brilliant as him.
The rest of the cast are either truly good, sometimes good and sometimes not so good, or truly evil. Flash and Dale are truly good. I can’t imagine what Jones’ reaction was when they told him he needed to wear leather underwear for his immediately reversed execution scene. He was a Playgirl model, so had been seen with less on before, and is muscular enough without looking like he’s on steroids. Melody Anderson is stunningly beautiful, but ends up the second most attractive actor in the film given the presence of Ornella Muti as the deceptive Princess Aura, who is one of the most sexual characters in a film FULL of sexed up characters. The after-party for this film must have been a blast!
The Italian actress Mariangela Melato, who starred in the original version of Slept Away, would normally be considered the hottest actress in any film she was in, but here has to do with the ice queen role of General Kala. She really plays the role well. My favourite bit with her in is when she and Klytus have revealed Aura as a traitor and are torturing her. “We don’t like doing this at all!”, she exclaims, then just as quickly draws back with her whip ready to send another lash down across Aura’s back. Should be noted that this torture is going on with the approval of Ming, played excellently by Max von Sydow. If there’s one actor in the production that you think might be a bit tentative then it’s him, given his prior credentials, but he probably throws himself the most into his role, wearing any outfit he’s given with pride and playing up to the silliness of it, while also appearing very dangerous at the same time. He’s positively orgasmic when he stabs Prince Thun to test his loyalty.
Another actor that’s famously not shy about playing his role is Brian “Gordon’s ALIVE?!” Blessed. Blessed is a national treasure and more a force of nature than a man. As famous as he is for being in this movie he’s not actually in it as much as the next man I’ll get to, but he makes the most of his time on screen. He is every bit Vultan brought to life as von Sydow is Ming brought to life. Starts off as a flying barbarian, ends slightly more nobly. You get the impression that John Hallam was stuck next to him as Luro to make sure he didn’t run off and pick up a horse or something.
His nemesis of sorts is Prince Barin, the lover of Princess Aura, played by Timothy Dalton looking like Errol Flynn. He gets some interestingly tense scenes on his home planet of Arboria, but it’s almost like someone asked him if he could take care of the naughty swears and he agreed because unlike Blessed he wouldn’t devolve into going “Come on you fucking cunts! I’m going to twat every sodding one of you, you wankers!”. So, he gets to call Aura a “lying bitch”, drops a few “bastards”, including his “You bloody bastards!” when they raid Kala’s control room and kill her (leaving a black puddle on the floor) and all her operatives (from simply pulling the goggles off one and revealing they’re wired in to their eyes, causing a malfunction that downs all of them). You get the feeling he’s smiling on the inside when he’s plucking a massive blaster from its mount and shooting as many people and things as possible.
Someone I’ve mentioned several times but not focused on is of course the evil Klytus, head of Ming’s secret police. He’s played by Peter Wyngarde, who was kind of a cult figure from having played Jason King in Department S and Jason King. Ostensibly the biggest ladies man on Earth, but actually as gay as a goose. By this time I believe he’d gone through a few lavender marriages and been in trouble for cottaging offences, so his acting is put to full use and he’s not asked to hold back, but it’s under a black hood and robes with a golden mask and it would appear his right arm is immobile as it’s cased in gold too, but not explained at any point. He is just what he is and is a bizarre but stunning figure who manages to get the attention on himself in spite of all the uniform. He totally meets the challenge and manages to gesticulate with one arm and emote with a two-piece mask (top half and movable jaw). Even his eyes, obscured, tell so much.
The plot is almost just coincidental, but Ming wants to take Dale as his bride whether she wants to be or not. Flash races to stop it. Ming ends up with the nosecone of one of his ships going right through his chest, dies and disappears… or does he? They apparently had plans to do sequels but the relative lack of success and the loss of Jones as the star after a fallout scuppered that. I don’t want to deny anyone success, but I’m kinda glad they didn’t do a sequel or sequels, because there’s no way it would’ve been as good as this. At one point considered a cult classic, but now known well enough to be an acknowledged classic and so much fun. Did I mention Queen do the score for it? Ah-aah! He saved every one of us!
Mike Hodges interview: Although the DVD was released in 2005, this interview was recorded in 2002 when he was having a bit of a career resurgence as a senior citizen with Croupier and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. A lot of ground is covered, including Get Carter, Omen II and TV work leading up to Flash Gordon, which he was reluctant to make but very much enjoyed. Experiences with producer Dino De Laurentiis are covered, which make him sound very similar to Vince McMahon from Bret Hart’s stories, and production designer Danilo Donati, who was building forest planets while cutting deals with construction companies to put a motorway on it (?) as well as consulting Fiat on how to build a space car, plus “the Baron”, who was hired to “paint the skies” for the film, which was unusable after a few pans and zooms. I’m pretty good at getting a story across, but I really can’t do justice to the farcical quality of the stories.
One thing that Hodges really credits Dino for is pushing the melodrama aspect of the film. The movie itself wasn’t a success in the US, but was popular in the UK and countries with a sense of carnival and camp. Hodges talks about the conundrum of Sam J. Jones having fallen out with Dino, meaning you couldn’t use him on the promotional circuit, and moving the focus to Max von Sydow didn’t really work (if you look at the posters, he takes up a bigger part). He doesn’t really see the similarities with Star Wars, although he confesses that he only really likes this film as a part of the genre because he made it.
Not in the interview, but on the commentary, is a reminiscence by Hodges of a piece of advice Dino gave him, which pretty much sums up what the film IS about and should be about: “Remember – Flash Gordon, he save every one of us.” Hard to argue with that.