Here’s a thing you should know about me: I don’t like “campy” movies. Well, maybe that’s not true, since I enjoy The Room, Gymkata, Miami Connection, and other so-bad-they’re-good forms of entertainment, and there’s an element of camp to that. But my tastes are much different that those of the average camp enthusiast. That’s why I didn’t enjoy Flash Gordon this week at Movie Klub.
Flash Gordon was one of the multitude of movies that came into being because Star Wars was a hit. Universal assumed (correctly) that George Lucas’ epic was inspired by the old sci-fi movie serials of the 1940s and ’50s, so they decided to do him one better by buying the rights to one of those old serials and making a movie out of it. They cast former Playgirl model Sam J. Jones in the title role, surrounded him with British ringers, spared no expense on the special effects, and waited for the money to roll in.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the jackpot: director Mike Hodges (of the intense British noir Get Carter) and writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. (One of the principal writers behind the Batman TV show with Adam West) couldn’t seem to agree on what sort of movie they were making. Many parts of this film are, in a word, campy: light-hearted, goofy, with hammy acting and drenched in garish colors. Our hero is a quarterback for the New York Jets who finds himself transported into space to battle galactic conqueror Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow); at one point he beats an entire platoon of soldiers by pretending they are a football defense, with love interest Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) playing cheerleader.
That’s all fine. There’s a place for that sort of thing and it can be fun whether it’s competently done or not. However, Hodges decides to take it to some weirdly dark places. The lengthy brainwashing scene with sidekick Dr. Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol), which includes the tragic death of the character’s wife and a Holocaust flashback, is the first clear sign that something is amiss. Why does this film, was inspired by children’s entertainment, get dark and creepy so often? I understand that maybe Universal did not want to rip off Star Wars so blatantly that they would get sued, but that doesn’t mean this film’s answer to Han Solo, rakish Prince Barin (future James Bond Timothy Dalton), should call a female character a “lying bitch” and later insult her with a joke about necrophilia.
Plus, Flash Gordon is surprisingly violent for a PG-rated film. Unlike the heroes of the Saturday-morning cartoons of the 1980s, Flash doesn’t have any issues with killing the bad guys, and he doesn’t do it with candy-colored laser blasts only. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but Ming the Merciless meets an ending as bloody as anything the Lethal Weapon series came up with. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that by itself, but it just seems completely out of place in the sort of film that this is expected to be.
Jones is not a great actor, but he wasn’t hired to be. If he had a minute or two of Chuck Norris-esque line delivery in between long bouts of fighting alien troopers, that would be okay, because there’s some so-bad-it’s-good value in that. But again, the filmmakers don’t seem to understand that’s the sort of film they’re making. Instead the first half of this movie is bogged down with attempts to make Flash dramatic. A cliffhanger-type situation where Flash seems to be facing certain death is bogged down by an endless, wooden-acted scene where he says goodbye to Dale. Jones even gets a scene where Von Sydow offers him all the temptations of Earth; all I can say is, I hope the German legend was well paid for such indignity.
The only time this movie becomes the tiniest bit fun is during the big battle scene, where the violence finally works, the wailing Queen soundtrack finally sounds appropriate, the special effects look their best, and the veteran English actor Brian Blessed is turned loose. Let me tell you, if Brian Blessed bellowed “Dive!” at me while walking down the sidewalk, I would face-plant onto the pavement without a moment’s hesitation. Even then, it’s impossible not to notice that the film has been very stingy with displays like this. Far too much of Flash Gordon is devoted to Flash trying to persuade people to help him, and not enough of it has scenes of Flash fighting aliens while award-winning Britons shout at him.
The best way to sum up my reaction to Flash Gordon is to look at the Dale Arden character. Early on in the film she has a quick, neat action sequence, blasting and martial-arting Ming’s soldiers in such a way as to suggest the universe would be just fine without Flash Gordon. But near the end of the film, presented with this choice…
- Live as a slave wife to Ming the Merciless, suffering each day a torture that would be called rape, except that her ability to consent to intercourse will be disintegrated by the soul-crushing terror of inevitable and horrific execution; or
- Poison the intergalactic psycho to death
…Dale refuses the poison, saying she “made a promise to be a good wife” to the crazed despot. I’ll ironically enjoy a bad film from time to time, but I don’t enjoy them if they insult their characters, or my intelligence, in the way that Flash Gordon did just then. That’s not “so bad it’s good.” It’s just bad.
Reviewed by Mark Young
- Jones, who is so bad in this picture that his dialogue had to be re-recorded in post-production, beat out Kurt Russell and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the role. Such is the genius of Hollywood. ↩
- In the 1940s comic strips, Flash Gordon was a polo player for Yale University. To be fair, I don’t see Arnold Schwarzenegger playing that role either. ↩
- There was a debate after the film as to which Queen movie soundtrack is better: Flash Gordon or Highlander. Put me in Highlander’s corner, no question. ↩