Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980) – the Friday Classic review
The movie equivalent of those Guilty Pleasures music compilations: a wild party that no-one admits to liking but which, secretly, everybody loves more than Star Wars
(Mike Hodges, 1980)
Star Wars, of course, gets blamed for everything. In the eyes of snottier critics, it’s a cinematic Terminator, a single-minded assassion intent on culling the landscape of everything bold, thoughtful and ambiguous in order to repopulate the world with George Lucas’ robotic offspring. Undeniably, there was a sea change in the late 1970s but, amidst all the dreck that the post-Star Wars world threw up, the mainstream also learnt to have fun again. There’s no better ambassador than Flash Gordon, an utterly demented blockbuster that is kitsch, colourful, kinky and very funny. It’s a glorious antidote to the mumbling Method men of the 70s, but also to Lucas’ prissy solemnity; its Technicolour imagination makes Star Wars look a dull beige in comparison.
Its showman producer Dino De Laurentis stole the rights to the old Flash serials from under Lucas’ nose but he was pre-empted to the screen, and to audience’s hearts. Flash Gordon thrives on that bittersweet truth, showing both a palpable arrogance that this is the real deal in terms of reimaging old school sci-fi, but also hints of a seething envy at Lucas’ success. It should be noted that De Laurentiis is one of the great overreaching film producers, a man with the knack of choosing the right project but scuppering its potential through mishandling. On paper, Flash Gordon is a gaudy Euro-pudding, with its cast of Continental stars, stalwart British character actors and wooden American leads threatening unprecedented awfulness. But somehow the blend here is perfect: Max Von Sydow is a wonderfully malevolent nemesis (his habit of flexing his fingers before doing something vile and villainous is wonderful); Peter Wyngarde’s creepy, sonorous voice has never been better used; Brian Blessed’s huge, self-parodic performance is infectious; and even if the dubbed Sam J Jones can’t act for toffee, he’s a dead ringer for the Flash of the comic strips.
You can only attribute it to pure good luck, especially in the unlikely presence of Mike Hodges as director. It appears from looking at the producer’s career that De Laurentis selected directors by letting a blindfolded monkey with a seizure throw darts at a spinning board. How else, do you assume, did he chance on David Lynch to direct Dune? But none of his choices are odder than getting Hodges, the helmer of none-more-gritty, ultra-violent Get Carter, to make a family sci-fi movie. Hodges clearly can’t believe his luck, and decides to have as much fun as he can before he gets caught. Subverting things from the start, he turns Flash Gordon into a festival of camp the like of which has never been seen in a blockbuster, inspired not by Lucas or Spielberg but the unchecked visual opulence of Fellini (knowingly name-checked, if you listen carefully).
Hodges makes Mongo a pervert’s paradise: everybody here is thinking about sex, even if they’re not taking Viagra-esque power potions, holding dirty weekends in palaces designed for two, or resuscitating corpses for pleasure. The amount of lust and flesh is astonishing for a family film, doubly so for one nominally attributed to staid British cinema. And with it comes humour, not coarse and blunt like Carry On but darker and more lustful, revelling in what it can away with by disguising it amongst the mad creatures and primary-coloured art direction.
The film has the perfect foundation in a script, by Lorenzo Semple, Jr, that strikes a perfect balance between half “you can type this shit” corniness, and half knowing irony. It’s pure B-movie pulp, but at least makes some effort to make its fantasies plausible. Mongo is a surprisingly realistic dictatorship, with Ming’s clever divide-and-conquer policy keeping the various fiefdoms at each other’s throats, and the omnipresent decadence serving to keep rebellion muted. Compared to the dull dichotomy of good and evil in Star Wars, this is close to psychological realism. The rollercoaster plotting, too, mimics the breathless, cliffhanger nature of the serials better than Star Wars’ linear, Ford-meets-Kurosawa, narrative. It’s arguably a bigger influence on the Indiana Jones films than George Lucas would ever care to admit.
To modern eyes, the effects look as creaky as the original 1930s serials must have looked to 1980s audience, but no amount of glossy CGI can match the visual bravado: the huge sets, pastel skyscapes and imaginatively skewed camera angles. This is sensory overload, but the masterstroke is to match it at an aural level. Queen’s bombastic score is one of the rare cases of a rock score actually working; the duet between Freddie Mercury’s histrionic vocals and Bryan May’s shrieking guitars gets the blood pumping in a way in a way that would make a conventional orchestral arrangement here seem timid and twee in comparison. Ben Elton shouldn’t have bothered writing a sci-fi plot for the Queen musical ‘We Will Rock You’; they should have just transferred this film to stage.
Flash Gordon screened at Derby QUAD’s ID Fest last weekend, the first time I’ve seen it on the big screen since I was five years old, and I’ve not stopped smiling since.