Flash Gordon (Special 40th Anniversary Restoration), 1980.
Directed by Mike Hodges.
Starring Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Brian Blessed, Timothy Dalton, Ornella Muti, Topol, Peter Wyngarde and Richard O’Brien.
A football player and a travel agent find themselves facing the wrath of an alien warlord, with the fate of the Earth in their hands.
The campy 80s space opera Flash Gordon is celebrating its 40th birthday this year, with director Mike Hodges’s colourful classic returning to cinemas in a new 4K print to celebrate its anniversary. Anyone who sits and watches the movie today will immediately be able to see why this once-in-a-generation oddity has endured for as long as it has. It’s batty, chaotic and rough around the edges, but in a way that is so admirable and enjoyable. There’s an argument to be made that Flash Gordon rubbish, but there’s an equally strong argument that it deserves to be held up as something truly special.
Its plot defies any sort of description. Bored interstellar warlord Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) turns the Earth into his plaything, triggering natural disasters at will. This causes NFL quarterback Flash (Sam J. Jones) and travel agent Dale (Melody Anderson) to crash into the home of conspiracy-loving scientist Zarkov (Topol), who tricks them into boarding his spaceship to face down Ming. The trio are soon involved in a deadly power struggle involving Ming, winged military leader Vultan (Brian Blessed) and plant world ruler Barin (Timothy Dalton).
That knotty synopsis doesn’t even begin to convey the insanity of Flash Gordon, from the wildly technicolour set design to the surprisingly ambitious visual effects and, of course, that iconic Queen soundtrack. Hodges knows exactly the movie he’s making and relishes the zany, unhinged storytelling as much as he enjoys revelling in the bonkers aesthetic, ripped directly from the eye-popping designs of the comic strip that inspired the film – glimpsed in the super-cool opening title sequence.
Hodges is assisted by the fact every member of the cast is giving both barrels to each element of the movie. The ultra-bleached blonde leading man Jones – almost certainly cast more for his preposterous good looks than his acting chops – gives maximum corny as Flash, while Melody Anderson finds the snark and wit amid what is largely written as a damsel in distress role. That’s before you get to Brian Blessed in the ludicrous role that he’s still infamous for today and a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton bringing surprising gravitas to a super-serious tree fella.
The jewel in the crown, though, is the late Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless. There’s no doubt that the character is rooted in the racist, sadly common “Yellow Peril” tropes that also inspired 1960s Marvel villain The Mandarin, and so the look is deeply problematic. However, von Sydow brings villainous intellect and foreboding to Ming in a similar way to Frank Langella’s genuinely remarkable turn as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe, later in the decade. Despite his troubling appearance and the fact he’s an alien villain with various powers, he’s the closest thing the film has to something palpably dangerous and severe.
But that’s not nearly as important as the joyous silliness that keeps the Flash Gordon train trucking. That’s the reason we’re still talking about it 40 years later and why it has now been restored in glorious 4K for a whole new generation to enjoy the boundless stupidity of it all and the pulsating energy of that Queen track accompanying the third act action finale. Elements of it may have aged more like a discarded pint of warm beer than a fine wine, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a sheer delight from start to finish – in all of its ultra-camp glory.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.