Everything seemed possible back then. If a movie about fishing could make $260 million and a movie about film-serial space battles could make $307 million — and now they were making a big-budget special-effects movie based on Superman, of all the crazy things — then maybe what people wanted was lighthearted, high-concept blockbusters. All they needed was a big idea, preferably somebody else’s.
“Comics Strip for Next Film Cycle,” Variety reported in 1978, proclaiming that “the next cycle of big budget films will be centered on comic book characters.” Then they rattled off a list of comics with a film in development — Flash Gordon, Popeye, Tarzan, Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, The Phantom. They even mentioned a live-action movie based on Marmaduke the Great Dane, which seemed deeply unwise. It was like last call at Kevin Feige’s place.
The first of these productions to reach the screen was Flash Gordon, which after Star Wars seemed like the most obvious next step. It was a well-known sci-fi adventure strip from the 1930s, which had already been a huge success as a film serial. It had space rockets and pretty girls and exotic creatures that looked like people dressed up in animal suits, plus everybody already knew what it was. It was clearly poised to be the next Star Wars if they could do it right, which they didn’t.
Flash Gordon, released in 1980, is the story of a blond, brave and not very bright football player who falls up a rabbit hole into a dangerous alien world of violent people in glittery gowns who spend a lot of their time criticizing, challenging and trying to hypnotize each other. It’s very noisy. The plot involves Flash making contact with the major powers on the planet — i.e. the bird people and the tree people — and persuading them to join his battle against the planet’s sadistic emperor, who is not officially Chinese.
The only two questions that you ask about a blockbuster movie are how much money did it make and how hot are the people, and for Flash Gordon, the answer is not enough and not enough. It made $27 million in domestic release, in the same year that The Empire Strikes Back made $209 million. Flash Gordon was #23 on the year’s box office chart, below The Blue Lagoon and Popeye and Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie.
Sitting at #24 that year was a re-release of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, which made a bit over $26 million. That’s how well Flash Gordon didn’t go; it just squeaked past a 25-year-old Disney cartoon.
It’s fashionable these days for people who like science-fiction movies to say that actually Flash Gordon is an underappreciated cult classic. It isn’t. It’s garish and stupid, with terrible dialogue, some shockingly bad acting, inconsistent character motivation and practically no plot construction to speak of.
There are individual scenes that are very enjoyable — you can take your pick, but I like the throne room football game, Flash’s fight with Prince Barin on the spiky floor, and absolutely anything that involves Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan. But trying to enjoy the movie as a whole requires a conscious effort that the American moviegoing public did not choose to make.
One problem is that the lead actor brings precious little to the table, charisma-wise. In the title role, Sam J. Jones is — and I use this term in the clinical sense — a doofus. The best thing that you can say about him is that he’s on screen a lot. He is theoretically handsome and well-muscled without actually being attractive, which is tough to pull off.
The picture above is what Sam Jones’ face looks like while his character is currently in the process of being executed. That’s what he does for the whole scene, just look mildly interested in the procedure. I’ve never acted in my life, and even I know that you’re supposed to pick at least one emotion per scene.
Making a bad situation worse, Jones actually got himself fired from the film during a Christmas break in the production, for reasons that history has not been able to adequately explain. Something about being rowdy and fighting with people, something about asking for more money. Also, he wasn’t very good. But there’s got to be more to it than that; firing the guy playing Flash Gordon from a film called Flash Gordon after principal photography has already wrapped is a level of self-sabotage that even movie producers are usually smart enough to avoid.
So Jones wasn’t around to do post-production on the dialogue, and they hired another actor named Peter Marinker to re-record all of Jones’ lines. This was not effective. I don’t know what Jones sounded like, but Marinker’s overdub is so bad that I can’t imagine what could have been worse. He makes Flash sound like his entire family suffered brain damage, all at the same time.
Melody Anderson has some good moments as female lead Dale Arden, especially in the scenes where they pretend that she’s Princess Leia. On the other hand, there’s also a climactic pillow fight between her and the Emperor’s space vixen daughter, observed by scantily-clad tittering handmaidens, at which point you lose the authority to be in the same sentence with Leia.
The thing that everybody talks about is the set and costume design, just because there’s so much of it. The way I understand it, production designer Danilo Donati ruled the production like a mad king. He didn’t speak English, he refused to read the script, and he didn’t communicate with director Mike Hodges. Stuff would just show up at the studio, and it was up to Hodges to figure out how to fit it together and make a scene out of it.
Donati’s vision was grand and whimsical, and mostly untethered from whatever point the scene is supposed to make. There are random hallways that are incredibly ornate, but any scene that has science equipment or computers in it looks like it was filmed in an empty parking garage. It’s an odd choice for a science-fiction movie, to display basically no interest in machines and just focus on an endless procession of gowns.
The gowns really are quite spectacular if you like looking at surprising things, and I like that more than almost anything. But it gets old pretty quickly, because they don’t connect to anything in particular. For example, the individual above, from the Fifty Shades of Grey production of The Wizard of Oz. What culture would dress themselves this way? How am I supposed to interpret that shot, besides an illustration of what happens when you let an Italian costume designer off the leash and off his meds?
One of the great visual achievements in Star Wars was that they made everything look old and worn out. All of the costumes and props and machines told the same story — that this is a real place, where people have lived for a long time before we happened to come along. But absolutely everything in Flash Gordon looks spotless and brand new, which tells the audience that each element was individually constructed for this specific moment out of pure imagination.
The entire storyline rests on the idea that Mongo has lots of little kingdoms and lands, and Flash needs to unite the different tribes to fight against the emperor. But visually, they don’t create enough separation so that we can tell the difference between them. The most distinctive costumes are on the Hawkmen, who are bodybuilder leather daddy gladiators with big heavy wings, and then there’s Prince Barin’s little green-clad tribe of Merrie Men. Besides that, everyone else could be from anywhere, especially the women, who all wear slinky harem lingerie no matter where they come from.
So the Hawkmen’s domain, Sky City, doesn’t look like a place, where people live. It looks like a set. The silver cinderblock curtains don’t look like they’re something that the Hawkmen would build; it’s a completely different aesthetic.
So I can appreciate the energy and the enthusiasm that went into creating these wacky sets, but they don’t help to tell the story, because apparently Donati didn’t even know what the story was. They’re just a series of elaborately overdressed platforms, with places for actors to stand.
Here’s what I think is the most baffling scene in this baffling film. General Klytus and General Kala are using a big mean laser machine to drain all of Dr. Zarkov’s memories out of his head.
Kala: Reprogram now?
Klytus: Yes. But don’t fill it with anything above level three. I doubt if the human mind could take it.
Kala: I understand. Level three only.
Klytus: There’s something I have to attend to. Will you be able to manage without me?
Kala: I’ll try.
Klytus: Good girl.
Klytus leaves. Before he’s even out of the room, Kala speaks:
Kala: Begin to reprogram. Continue to level six.
Technician: Level six?
Kala: I gave you an order. Program the subject to level six!
As far as I know, there is no further discussion about the difference between level three and level six. Fifteen minutes later, Zarkov tells Dale that he wasn’t even memory-wiped in the first place, because he was thinking about the Beatles. That is what this movie is like.
I think everyone who knows the movie probably has their own little list of things that they like about it, because there’s so much stuff in it that if you like goofy science-fiction at all, it’s bound to stumble into something that appeals to you every once in a while, just by the law of averages. The Queen soundtrack is memorable, especially during the action sequences. There’s beautiful women dressed up like harem slaves, if you’re in the demographic that appreciates that. It never stays in one place for very long, so if you’re watching a bad scene then you just have to wait a minute, and there’ll be something else around the corner. It might be worse, but at least it’ll be different, and sometimes that’s enough to sustain you.
But it turns out there are fundamentals that you can’t ignore, like likeable lead actors and comprehensible story points, and you can’t skate by on interesting visuals and a memorable soundtrack. If I squint a bit, I can almost see what the cult is talking about, but camp is not all-powerful, and sometimes a bad movie with a bunch of good parts can’t add up to a good movie.
So Flash Gordon is part of the answer to the question of why they didn’t make a lot more superhero movies in the 1980s, and the rest of the answer is Popeye, which came out a week later. These were the first movies to come after Star Wars and Superman to test the theory that all you have to do is pick up some promising IP and spend a lot of money on it, and you end up with a chart-topper. After Flash Gordon and Popeye, studios were a little more reluctant to rush into movies about Batman, Dick Tracy and The Phantom. The really big blockbusters of the early 80s — Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Ghostbusters and Back to the Future — were all informed by previous works of trash culture, but they weren’t direct adaptations of old IP.
The people making Flash Gordon said that they wanted to make the comic strip come to life, and they succeeded. Unfortunately, that meant projecting two-dimensional characters and newspaper-grade plot points onto the big screen, and sometimes you need to work harder than that.
— Danny Horn