Flash Gordon

FlashGordon1How can someone heap praise on Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon while scorning George Lucas’ last three Star Wars entries? Very easily. Watch me.

Excoriated by critics and largely ignored by audiences during the Christmas season of 1980, Flash Gordon has no illusions about itself whatsoever. It is thoroughgoing, unapologetic camp of the sort that nobody would attempt today (the Austin Powers films came closest). Seen at a remove of decades, this Flash has more to do with disco and homoeroticism and cocaine dust than with the old Buster Crabbe serial or the Alex Raymond comic strip. It’s the ultimate Studio 54 movie, awash in fabulous costumes and ornate set design (originating on the drawing board of master Danilo Donati, the film’s real star).

Sam J. Jones may have had to be dubbed because his acting was so wooden, but physically he’s the ideal fit for Flash Gordon — “quarterback, New York Jets,” he announces proudly — a blonde and uncomplicated hero, Luke Skywalker’s true father. Flash, Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), and brilliant scientist Zarkov (Chaim Topol) find themselves on Mongo, home planet of the diabolical Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow, getting into the spirit of the thing and having a good time). Flash also encounters the duplicitous Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), befriends the effusive Vultan, prince of the hawkmen (Brian Blessed in the film’s runaway performance — who doesn’t love it when he shouts “Who wants to live forever? DIVE!!!”), and is almost seduced by the ultra-erotic Princess Aura (Ornella Muti).

Rocky Horror braintrust Richard O’Brien is a featured performer in Flash Gordon, and the movie has some of Rocky Horror‘s goofball abandon. Unfortunately, the movie’s thunder had been decisively stolen by the previous summer’s The Empire Strikes Back — a terrific piece of filmmaking in its own right, but dark and haunted and Wagnerian. Flash Gordon, initiated to cash in on the gee-whiz spirit of the original Star Wars (itself heavily informed by the original Flash Gordon), hasn’t a bit of gravitas anywhere in it. Its jokey tone bewildered audiences, who didn’t realize that Hodges and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (who’d previously written Batman: The Movie and the 1976 King Kong remake, two other bastions of camp) were serving up pure, old-school escapism. Indirectly a comment on what audiences had adored three years prior, Flash Gordon bathes happily in its own excess. By the time the movie gets to the football scene (over too quickly, I always felt, even when I was ten) you are, as Dubya would say, either with it or against it.

There’s also a good deal of male shirtlessness, whip play, latex, and women coiffed and dressed like Barbie dolls on acid. There’s a creepy scene in which Flash and Prince Barin take turns sliding their hands into a slimy hole where a poisonous beast awaits — holy shit, how vagina dentata can you get without actually showing a vagina with fangs? (I’ll, uh, leave the fisting analysis to the braver of heart.) Star Wars was squarely heterosexual, but Flash Gordon could only have emerged from the same pop-culture closet that birthed David Bowie, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Freddie Mercury (heard often on the soundtrack along with Queen, intoning “FLASH! Aah-ahh! Savior of the universe!”). Danilo Donati’s designs are like some crazed Oscar-night vision of sci-fi, only with a huge budget. Taken solely as a pop wedge of cheese, it’s beautifully realized. As for the empty-headed dialogue and the puerile plot, isn’t it obvious those are both part of the point? Everyone involved (well, except maybe Sam J. Jones) knows precisely what this is and performs accordingly, with a straight face but with a small gleam in the eye. Its contemporary at the time, Robert Altman’s Popeye (another big-budget flop based on a comic strip), today looks cramped and antagonistic, as if Altman were fighting that fucking movie every step of the way. Flash Gordon just shakes your hand, claps a beefy glittered mitt on your shoulder, and invites you into its party. It’s Boogie Nights for real.

I don’t know if I’d want to know anyone who couldn’t love this movie, or at least enjoy it on some level. It’s the last hurrah from a decade of excess (I read it as a ’70s flick that happened to come out in 1980), a mirrorball love letter to color and lights and Queen’s spiralling guitar riffs (Jesus, what would the movie be like without Queen)? Flamboyantly idiotic, and quite happy to be so, Flash Gordon has passed the test of time much more gracefully than many “serious” fantasy films have. And, really, who ever took any of these movies seriously, or wanted to?

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