Flash Gordon Review
Discounted by some as an under-achiever, Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon is in fact possibly the best superhero/comic adaptation from the mid seventies and early eighties. It is not quite as impressive a production as the Salkind's work on the Superman films, but it captures the ironic and playful feel of the first two films in that series whilst being a little bit more sleazy and much more of a romp. Any film about the fight between a muscular hero and his intellectual evil nemesis that ends with man on man penetration is either loving the nonsense of the pissing contest, or delighting in homo-erotic subversion. I like to think that Flash Gordon tries for both of these angles and its pleasing kitsch approach to the rather childish story is very welcome.
Beginning with Emperor Ming visiting destruction on Earth as a sort of game of the gods, introducing his masked right hand man Klytus as he enjoys his torturing and murder, and then moving on intimations of threesomes, depravity and possibly the most wonderfully disturbed wedding vows on celluloid, this is all rather kinky and a tad touched. Of all the characters only Flash and Dale resemble sane people, and Professor Zarkov is, simply put, a desperate nutjob who unfortunately happens to be right about the end of the world. Zarkov is played by Topol as a power crazed cossack loon who is as out there in terms of volume and madness as you will ever see in a movie. Most films would find that craziness enough, but Flash Gordon adds Max Von Sydow as the merciless and mendacious Ming, Ornella Muti as his nympho daughter, and it sends the whole thing over the bounds of good taste and subtlety by having the voluble Brian Blessed as the leader of the birdmen.
The broadness of the acting and the arch portrayals would qualify the film as a camp classic, but what really seals the deal is the sumptuous costume and set design, and special effects that are far from cutting edge. Sets are gloriously OTT, with vivid reds and golds and definitely influenced by Lang's Metropolis in their design. Costumes are a mixture of harem fashion and catsuits for the women with Muti never knowingly overdressed, and for the men we get capes, cloaks and loincloths for the birdmen - yes Brian Blessed in a loincloth! The special effects are created through matte and models mainly, and if Superman promised that we would believe a man could fly, here I am less sure that a somewhat portly English birdman could. There are some splendid green and blue blood moments, and a particular eye-popping and oozing demise to savour for one of the villains.
This is one great big pantomime where even the baddies are entertaining. Klytus, played by Peter Wyngarde, gets the best gag of the film when watching the contents of Zarkov's mind being emptied onto a video screen where he says of the images of Hitler, "He showed promise"! Similarly, Von Sydow peels a grape whilst his daughter is tortured and revels in breaking his word and taunting his "loyal subjects". Blessed's Voltan is the kind of operatic whirlwind that you have come to expect from an actor who always plays his rather imposing self, and Mariangela Melato is Klytus's slinky sadistic underling. In fact, the very normal Flash and Dale end up seeming rather dull with all the personality they find around them.
This lightness of touch may explain why the film is not recalled as favourably by some, as by not taking itself very seriously how can anyone else be expected to do so. Irony, camp, call it what you will, the cheesy dialogue and unbelievable plot twists and escapes make this a real kids movie, but the under-curent of cheerful sadism and deviant sex keep us adults enthralled as well. This balance of appeal to young and old is something that modern blockbusters aim for and more often than not fail, but Hodges' film is the ideal cinematic comic for all ages.
It isn't perfect though. Jones and Dalton are solid humourless oak, Muti can't say anything with an R in it, and the ending is rather wanky(technical film term there). Charm though makes up for a lot and the fact that this is a part British movie that's not about historical tourism or drama students' ideas of what a gangster looks like is to be celebrated. This is populist, glossy and silly cinema that doesn't care a fig about posterity or critical acclaim, and it's damn good because of it.
Optimum obviously now hold the rights for this film which has received a number of treatments on DVD before, some of which have been rather shoddy. The most recent previous R2 release of the film was the Momentum silver anniversary edition from three years ago which we reviewed very positively in terms of presentation, and last year's R1 edition possesses a re-mastered transfer as well. Both releases are still easily available.
This though is a much more modest presentation and a budget, bare bones release. I don't know if this is the same transfer as the R1 and Momentum discs but I was a little disappointed by it as detail is ordinary and colours don't impose themselves as you may like. For what is a marvel of set design and aesthetics, I felt this presentation was disappointing despite it being in an aspect ratio sensitive to the OAR and the contrast being well handled. It is also an interlaced transfer. Audio comes in original stereo or a 5.1 mix, with no sign of the DTS track included on the Momentum disc. The surround mix is very serviceable but lacks real punch to add to the bass heavy score and the action effects. The surround speakers are mainly used for music and effects, but the spatial impact is approximate rather than perfect and the main difference I noticed between a pro-logic version of the stereo mix and the 5.1 is slightly improved response from the sub-woofer.
The disc comes with a static menu bearing poster art and the basic options of setup, play movie, scene select and the sole extra of the theatrical trailer. The trailer is presented in 1.85:1 and is more worn than the main film.
Given other better discs are out there, this seems a weak release of a cult film whose reputation is growing. Camp classic, cheesy blockbuster or whatever, there's no denying that Flash Gordon is great fun and terrific entertainment.