Flash Gordon: Silver Anniversary Edition Review
One has to wonder: what would modern filmmaking be like, if George Lucas had directed Flash Gordon instead of Star Wars? Lucas had pursued the project for years, but after realising the rights to the comic book character were not available, he soon turned his attentions to a galaxy far, far away. Still, the old-fashioned stories by Alex Raymond share a lot in common with Lucas’ universe, so it’s no surprise that the widespread success of A New Hope would renew interest in good ‘ol Flash. However, the eventual film - directed by renowned Brit Mike Hodges - was a colossal flop. Its broad and silly tone didn’t seem to wash with audiences, who had grown used to a new kind of science fiction. The genre was no longer bright and garish, but serious and sleek. Hodges’ picture is an infantile piece of work, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Flash Gordon is largely misunderstood.
The story doesn’t seem to help its reputation, though. It’s possibly the silliest in big-budget cinema; rubbishing just about every sci-fi cliché imaginable. Football star Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), are in a plane together when a violent storm erupts. The plane crashes into the laboratory of one Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), who kidnaps our heroes, and blasts them into space; bound for the planet Mongo. It is here, that the sinister Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) is trying to destroy the Earth. Naturally, it falls to Flash to save the day! This involves a lot of running around, fighting, explosions, Timothy Dalton in tights, and an army of winged-men led by Brian Blessed. The key ingredient here, is camp. Lots of it.
The most memorable thing about Flash Gordon - apart from its relentless campiness – is the soundtrack, which out-performed the picture, and made a mint for Queen. In fact, mention the movie to a modern cinema-goer, and they’d probably belt out a few lines from the band’s OTT theme track. From the opening titles onward (which is preceded by some dastardly goings-on somewhere in space), there’s no mistaking what kind of territory the viewer has wandered into – an ultra-silly slice of moronic SF, which isn’t meant to be taken seriously. In fact, it’s not wise to go into Flash Gordon with your brain engaged. It won’t be needed.
This wasn’t the first cinematic outing for Flash, however. He appeared in several serials, such as Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). These are regarded as some of the best serials ever made, and they were very popular; turning Flash into an icon for 40’s and 50’s youth. He was later revived in a live-action television series (which was poorly-received by fans), and wasn’t seen again until famed producer Dino de Laurentiis made an animated show in 1979. He then set his sights on bringing the hero to the big screen. However, aficionados were horrified by his choice of talent. The filmmaker hired screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., who famously collaborated with de Laurentiis on the awful remake of King Kong (1976). Flash Gordon seemed like a doomed project from the start.
It is evident throughout, however, that Hodges intended the film to be as low-brow and wacky as it is. The film is a playful brew; making fun of the material, while embracing it at the same time. It switches between set pieces and comedic scenarios at the drop of a hat, although Semple’s dialogue is pretty atrocious (made all the worse by a pretty inconsistent cast). Jones has gone down in history, thanks to his wooden portrayal of Flash - he was certainly miscast, and doesn’t give the role the same level of charm that Buster Crabbe did in the serials. He was awarded the role for his looks, and his looks alone. In fact, he wasn’t even an “actor” - de Laurentiis’ grandmother had seen him on The Dating Game, and recommended him. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising to see Jones go through the motions, with little conviction or passion for the material. Unlike Crabbe’s quick-witted, defiant performances, Jones’ Flash is depicted as a dumb, muscle-headed jock. Perhaps this was intentional. It would certainly fit Hodges’ spoofy tone, but as an all-round action man, Jones barely fits the bill.
Dale is equally flat, thanks to Melody Anderson’s insipid performance. Anderson is clearly trying her best, but she is given the all-too familiar romantic role; bogged down with the scripts worst lines. In fact, it’s left to the supporting cast to steal the film. Blessed - the best over-actor in the world - ignites the screen with raw energy; making up for Hodges’ slow pacing in some scenes. His boisterous presence as the leader of the “Hawkmen”, is one of Flash Gordon’s few genuine highlights. Dalton, meanwhile, is his typical self as Prince Barin, while Ornella Muti is quite simply luscious as Princess Aura.
Yet the film belongs to von Sydow. His pantomimic turn as Ming provides many laughs, and while he never becomes intimidating, he manages to entertain with his cartoonish villainy. And “cartoonish” also describes the action. Flash Gordon zips along from scene to scene, in a rather incoherent fashion, yet a few gems can be found. Flash’s impromptu game of football to escape Ming’s guards is one such sequence, with a delightfully silly pay-off. Also good, is Gordon’s escape from an imperial cruiser; disappearing through a red cloud. Then, the camera pulls back to reveal hundreds of Hawkmen - all prepared for battle. For one shot, Hodges manages to give the film an epic quality, only to spoil the momentum with more off-putting humour and sexual innuendos…
But the camp approach actually works well - most of the time. It reminded me greatly of Barbarella (also produced by de Laurentiis), which put a humorous spin on the comic strip. Like that picture, Gordon embraces a 30’s style, with Danilo Donati’s sets leaving a lasting impression. In fact, there’s always something to snare the attention - the film has plenty of ludicrous imagery, that nails the look and feel of the source material. Thanks to the budget, the technical aspects of Hodges’ picture are always pleasing, yet some of the effects are starting to show their age. But it doesn’t matter. The look of the film is its greatest asset, and children will no doubt adore the films eye-popping photography.
Despite these positive aspects, the film fails to work as a whole. Flash Gordon is trash. Everyone knows this. But it’s very entertaining trash, and a film that didn’t deserve the critical bile it received back in 1980. It is, after all, a well-made motion picture, with some great elements. It was the director’s choice of tone that ultimately made it so inaccessible, but it has stood the test of time better than one might expect. If those rumours of a new version are true, perhaps the time is right for Flash to take to the stars again…
Flash Gordon might seem like an unlikely title for a "Special Edition", but Momentum have recognised the films cult appeal, and provided it with a pretty fitting Anniversary release. Thankfully, it improves on past copies, thanks to a vibrant transfer, and some highly enjoyable extras. In most respects, it's an edition fans of the film should have in their collection.
The Look and Sound
As I've already stated, Flash Gordon works best as a feast for the eyes, so I'm happy to report that Momentum's anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer does the trick. The opulent photography really stands out here - the colours pop with a bright exuberance, and the picture has real strength and detail. Grain is kept to a bare minimum - surprising for such an old film - occuring mostly during the scenes with heavy special effects. Other DVD artefacts are also absent, with no mucky edge enhancement or intrusive haloing to spoil the presentation. The print Momentum have used is free from any serious damage, and it's easily the best I've seen this film look in a long, long time. Spiffing!
Audio is also well-above average, appearing in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS flavours. Naturally, a 25-year-old film is hardly going to make impressive use of the surrounds, but Flash Gordon provides a fun audio experience. The soundtrack is loud and warm, and the incidental effects have some resonance (especially when the rocket ship takes off), yet it won't test the limits of your home theatre. For its age, the film sounds very good, however, with audible dialogue and sweeping music. I would have rated it higher if Momentum had included the original mono track, but their work here should please the most picky of followers.
Colourful, cheesy and all-together retro, the menus on this disc fit the movie like an Armani suit. Complete with some animation (lightning bolts = fun!), and sound effects, these menus are exactly what you'd expect. Gee-whiz!
Living up to the "Anniversary" tag, this new release of Flash is given the best platter of bonus features yet. I had fun viewing these materials, and while they fall short of being comprehensive, the entertainment value is high.
The first yack-track gives director Mike Hodges the chance to throw his two cents into the ring; fighting Flash Gordon's troublesome history (and naysayers), with an affectionate look at the film. Most of the key areas are raised - casting the film, shooting, achieving the special effects etc. He seems to enjoy talking about his work, although there's quite a few dead spots, as one might expect from a sole commentator. Still, for aficinados eager to hear his comments, this track has some worth.
This is followed by Brian Blessed's audio commentary. Yes, that's right - Brian Blessed! A reader on this site joked that the sub-woofer would get a serious work-out for this commentary, and he was absolutely right! Blessed's booming voice makes this a slightly surreal audio experience, but the actor has always shown appreciation for Flash Gordon, and his comments are usually fun. Yet, it does fall into the trap of most cast commentaries, with Blessed making opinions on the film, rather than offering a valid behind-the-scenes discussion. Still, as a companion piece to the Hodges track, it isn't entirely without merit.
"Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe"
Considering the film, I guess it was only appropriate that an original 40's serial would make its way onto the disc. Thankfully, it's a very fun (if hopelessly dated) film, that made me appreciate the character more than I did previously. Buster Crabbe is good in the role, and seeing old-fashioned design work and special effects was actually refreshing - I enjoyed this more than some modern alternatives, which are largely devoid of charm by comparison. Tally-ho!
The rest of the disc is mostly filler, completed by an interesting (if redundant) interview with Hodges, a photo slideshow, and the original theatrical trailer. Fans should also be impressed by Momentum's brushed-steel box, which houses the set. Very nice, indeed.
The Bottom Line
Those reading this page, will belong to two separate camps (pardon the pun): those who love the film, and those that downright loathe it. There's no down-the-middle with Flash Gordon. It's an acquired taste indeed, yet one which I find highly entertaining. It's a guilty pleasure, and fans will appreciate Momentum's "Silver Anniversary Edition". Now, if only I could get that sodding theme music out of my head...