Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Retro-review: Revisiting Flash - a-ah - Saviour of the universe!

Klytus, I'm bored. What play thing can you offer me today?

For pure, ridiculous fun, nothing beats Flash Gordon. It's sugar saturated sci-fi cheese. You couldn't, survive on a diet of such fare, but it makes for a great treat after a season of, say, The Wire (which is so grim it's like beating your hopes with a two by four for an hour), or a grueling day in the corporate trenches fighting rival fiefdoms. I mean departments. But enough of reality.

Every now and then you want leave all your concerns behind, slip the surly bonds of earth and flit about in the stratosphere of juvenile silliness.

If such is your desire, I humbly recommend the critically savaged 1980 Flash Gordon.

It's right up there with delights like Army of Darkness and Galaxy Quest.

Based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond (which was King Features Syndicate's answer to Buck Rogers), this movie doesn't just indulge in tropes, it revels in them. It's like someone sent the writer's internal sophistication censor packing and let his inner ten year old run riot: there are Hawkmen, an entire people of Robin Hood look-a-likes in tights (honestly, is there only one clothes manufacturer in Arborea?), floating cities, ray guns, sword fights, rocket cycles, hideous monsters, beautiful maidens and seductive femme fatales.

What's not to like?

According to the director, Mike Hodges (who also directed Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man), it's "the only improvised $27 million dollar movie ever made."

In one early scene, our eponymous hero actually identifies himself to the alien Emperor Ming as 'Quarterback, New York Jets' as this would have meaning to an alien overlord. Then he plays 'irresistible force' linebacker to Ming's flat footed Imperial Goon Squad lineup, and starts tossing about a metal egg like it's a football, all while Dale Arden cheers him on from the sidelines.

Flash shows aliens how it's done football style.
All astronauts in future should be NFL quarterbacks.

It's gob smacking, high octane kitsch and it's totally awesome.

That's the miracle of Flash Gordon.

You know immediately it wasn't made in the USA: European DNA suffuses the flick and there are few Americans in the cast. In particular, the over-the-top art direction (What isn't over-the-top about Flash Gordon?) is more reminiscent of Barbarella rather than Star Wars.

And then there's the sociopolitical subtext. It's most obvious in the hero and the villains, who embody stereotypes from the mid-Twentieth Century.

Ming's control panel of Dooooooom:
complete with hail, earthquake, and volcano options!
Does Walmart carry these?

Flash Gordon (Sam Jones), the all American football quarterback hero, simply put, is America: bright eyed, naive, idealistic, and brimming with hope and positivity. He's eager to stand up for what's right while being utterly oblivious to larger political ramifications. His exhortations to team up and fight Ming ("Ming is the enemy of every creature of Mongo! Let's all team up and fight him.") are so simple minded as to seem childish to the jaded barons of Mongo. These lords cannot even conceive of playing a positive sum game, so broken is their sense of altruism and justice.

Nor do they even know how to cry or feel empathy. So sad.

Outer Space Eurotrash Sophisticates. 'Pitiful earthlings, who can save you now?'

Flash's idealism stands in sharp contrast to these inhabitants of Mongo, who are all played by Europeans: Max von Sydow (Ming), Timothy Dalton (Barin), Brian Blessed (Vultan), Peter Wyngarde (General Klytus), Mariangela Melato (Kala), and Ornella Muti (Aura). They're sophisticated, cynical, duplicitous, Machiavellian, and engaged in endless, internecine struggle. They'd stab their own mother in the back. Dominated by their tyrannical Emperor Ming, they believe one can only win if others lose. Their hearts have been hardened by despotism and oppression, and they exist without hope or belief that things can be different.

It's a planet of narcissistic manipulators who lack all empathy. But they have sex appeal to make up for it.

Idealize, devalue, discard, baby.
The Mongons (?) lecture with sophisticated British or Italian accents, while Flash sounds like he just left a farm in Kansas. Ming is verbally dexterous, spinning webs with seductive words, while Flash uses them with the finesse of a Big Bud 747 tractor. Naive, honest, direct vs. seductive, beguiling, deceitful. Which would you prefer? Think of it as a self-revelation test.

Casting the urbane Max Von Sydow as Ming was a stroke of genius. The veteran actor contrasts beautifully with Sam Jones' Flash. Sydow's Ming is a brilliant, charistmatic megalomaniacal, narcissistic psychopath.

Flash identifies Ming's true nature within the first few minutes of encountering the dictator. It isn't hard: Ming is busy demanding a subject fall on his own sword to demonstrate his loyalty when our heroic trio of daring earthlings arrive. Flash rather unwisely identifies Ming, out loud, as a psycho (Speak truth to power!), which is overheard by a security robot. This inevitably leads to Flash being sentenced to death.

Rulers of the Universe don't like hearing the truth from alien country bumpkins.

Physcially, the pair are opposites: Flash has youthful good looks and great hair, while Ming is old and chrome dome bald. You know who the good guy is with a glance. Cinema short hand in action.

Flash himself goes through the film actually labelled, "Flash". In the font of the movie's logo. So Meta.

It's no surprise that the 25 year old Sam Jones, who did most of his own stunts, is outclassed by his European counterparts, most of whom were experienced stage actors. But it works: he's meant to be simple, all the better for sophisticates to look down upon. Flash is the American interloper, the earnest G.I., the bourgeois American, blundering about with a surfeit of good will and helpfulness while the shocked Mongo elites stand agog at his lack of manners and insight. Doesn't he know it's a dog eats dog world? That you cannot trust anyone? Cooperation and compromise is for rubes.

Wake up! Remember Munich!

Which brings us to Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). Zarkov represents The Jewish Other, for, despite his European accent, he's not from Mongo. It's no coincidence Flash is accompanied by a Jewish scientist: hundreds fled Europe to escape persecution by the Nazis. Ming's minion Klytus, head of Mongo's secret police, even praises Hitler.

Yet Zarkov doesn't fit in on earth, either, where his theories got him expelled from NASA, America's science Mecca. He's a one man diaspora, who doesn't fit in anywhere, not quite. But he does work well with Flash, the living embodiment of the American Superego. Jim Crow and the uglier aspects of America couldn't fit on Zarkov's rocket, and didn't make it over to (European) Mongo. Resourceful, intelligent, and moral, Zarkov's a slice of Einstein mixed with secret agent. He's the brains of the trio.

Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) is the perfect female compliment to Flash, all earnest and well meaning American pie. She's also proves resourceful and spunky, as a New York gal should.

The film could be said to work on another level still, with Flash representing American entertainment, Hollywood, penetrating into Europe's higher brow but fractured cultural milieu. Hollywood was overwhelming European studios and establishing huge sci-fi blockbuster beachheads with hits like Star Wars in 1977.

Now it was time for The Europeans Strike Back. Many attempts have been made to mimic Hollywood's sci-fi success, such as the batsh*t insane LifeForce, but Flash Gordon is the one that successfully fused European and American DNA.

The capital looks like a great big red wedding cake.

Thoroughly tongue in cheek, and all the better for it, Flash Gordon knows it is silly and preposterous, like the fevered dream of a ten year old boy, a spiritual ancestor of Axe Cop, yet also manages to also be relentlessly fun and enjoyable.

The screenwriter,  Lorenzo Semple, Jr., also wrote for the Sixties Batman TV show, and it shows. Batman and Flash share a similar, campy sensibility, although Flash is buoyed by a far bigger budget and has better action sequences with real tension. That so much money was thrown at such an eccentric script can be disconcerting for some audience members who are more fiscally responsible.

In fact, Semple himself didn't want to make it a comedy:

"Dino wanted to make Flash Gordon humorous. At the time, I thought that was a possible way to go, but, in hindsight, I realize it was a terrible mistake. We kept fiddling around with the script, trying to decide whether to be funny or realistic. That was a catastrophic thing to do, with so much money involved... I never thought the character of Flash in the script was particularly good. But there was no pressure to make it any better. Dino had a vision of a comic-strip character treated in a comic style. That was silly, because Flash Gordon was never intended to be funny. The entire film got way out of control." 

And Dino only read Semple's scripts after they were translated into Italian:

"He reads English better than many people realize, but translates all of his scripts into Italian. We were living in Nantucket at the time, and his translator was a woman whose name I forget. She could barely translate the scripts; if it said, 'The tall, beautiful woman walked into the room,' she'd say, 'Oh, what a beautiful cat.'"

It just gets more absurd: on set, not only could many people not communicate on essential matters due to language barriers, not everyone was even on the same page regarding the tone of the film, at least according to Melody Anderson (Dale Arden):

"The director said, 'I want you and Sam to try to go for a relationship, make this as human as possible. Don't camp it up or go for laughs.' That's why the movie's so funny, because we didn't try to make it campy. In fact, I'm surprised that (people) are laughing, because we weren't out to make a funny film. In fact, De Laurentiis was very upset when he showed the film and people started to laugh, because he thought they were laughing at it and not with it. In fact, he re-did the cheerleading scene. He wanted it to be serious...with macho man out there. Play it very straight, the more you play it straight, the funnier it is. I think that's why Flash and Dale work, because of the way we played it."  

"I'm supposed to serious here, right, guys?… I'll just play it straight."
Sometimes when you skirt the edge of The Abyss of Total and Utter Catastrophe you wind up escaping with something unexpectedly, accidentally wonderful.

Personally, I love the film's humour and unrestrained, campy joie de vivre style, and wouldn't have it any other way.

The sets and costumes look like they were designed by a madman, something Dali might dream up, and the film has aged better for it. The art director, Danilo Donati, outdid himself with his grandiose, operatic sets and sexy-silly costumes of gold trim and spandex and guaze. There's just nothing out there to really compare it to, other than, perhaps, Barbarella or Fellini's pictures. Sadly, those are virtually unwatchable today. Frighteningly, executive producer Dino De Laurentiis actually wanted Fellini to direct originally.


Bullet dodged, there.

Lava lamp skies of pink, white, and purple swirl over the jagged gold and red capital of Mongo City, while ginormous trees stretch up to infinite heights in Arborea. Everything is warped and exaggerated, like in a fun house mirror. Mongo City is machined oppression, the fantasy of a control freak, while Arborea is nature run amok. It's a spiritually empty but scientifically advanced urban state vs. rural tree hugging druids who dress like Robin Hood. There is even a court jester of sorts in Arborea, a wise counsel for the stiff, Prince Barin. Barin doesn't like what his spirit guide says, but knows he needs to hear it. Techno-Emperor Ming would have such an insolent figure executed before breakfast. The Hawkman's floating sky city is airy and dream like, detached from the concerns of the rest of the world, their isolationist 'I stick my neck out for no man' position delivering them inevitably into subservience to Ming.

For divided the kingdoms of Mongo are easily dominated by the Machiavellian despot. As Princess Aura observes, "Every moon of Mongo is a kingdom. My father keeps them fighting each other constantly. It's a really brilliant strategy."

Sound familiar?

It should.

Flash and Barin face off on a spinning disk with extendable steel spikes.
Because… everything is better on a wobbly, spinning disk
covered in sharp spikes over a bottomless abyss.
Try it with your next company meeting!

There are great action sequences, and yet the goofiness is never allowed to undermine them or rob the film of (admittedly lighthearted) dramatic tension. It's a cartoon struggle for an alien world, but still a struggle, and not quite so wink-wink that you're thrown out of the adventure aspect entirely.

Most of the characters get at least a few instantly classic lines:

Princess Aura: But my father has never kept a vow in his life!
Dale Arden: I can't help that, Aura. Keeping our word is one of the things that make us better than you.

Ming: It's what they call tears. It's a sign of their weakness.

And then there's the kick-ass theme song. It was the first time a rock band scored a major picture (they'd follow it up with Highlander's score), and Queen threw themselves into the task with gusto. Dino had never heard of them before, but he was nothing if not willing to experiment. They came back with a soundtrack that makes you want to stand up and cheer, it's that feel good.

The lyrics bear repeating:

Flash - a-ah - saviour of the universe
Flash - a-ah - he'll save everyone of us
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Flash - a-ah - he's a miracle
Flash - a-ah - king of the impossible

He's for everyone of us
Stand for everyone of us
He'll save with a mighty hand
Every man every woman
Every child - with a mighty flash

Flash - a-ah
Flash - a-ah - he'll save everyone of us

Just a man
With a man's courage
He knows nothing but a man
But he can never fail
No one but the pure in heart
May find the golden grail
Oh oh - oh oh

Yeah. Go, Flash, go!

Flash is sentenced to death for defying Ming, while Dale is sentenced to… marry the lecherous despot. Hard to say which would be worse. Zarkov is shuttled off to be brainwashed and turned into an agent of the secret police.

Saved by a lustful and slinkily seductive Princess Aura, Flash must then endure the machinations of a jealous rival, the Prince Barin. Oh, those silly blue bloods. She's a little bit wanton, he's a little wooden woodie.

"You mean you two… and he… and I'm… Oooh, that's not good. Can you say, 'Triangulation'?"

Flash even has a nice, quiet one-on-one chat with Ming the Merciless along the way. Ming weaves verbal rings around him, and tempts Luke – I mean Flash – to The Dark Side by offering the young man a kingdom of his very own: the earth. After, that is, Ming's finally finished 'toying' with it. Which is a polite way of saying 'kicking the planet about and killing billions'. Ever noble, our man Flash turns the offer down and flies a battlecruiser into Ming's wedding.

It's a move right out of G.R.R. Martin's playbook.

Ming's minions are so decadent, so used to being on top and facing little to no real resistance, that when the revolution arrives they are poorly prepared for it and start to fold like cheap chairs.

Of course, Flash saves the universe in the end, as your inner 10 year old would expect. The naive young do-gooder and all American boy unites cynical, decadent alien aristocrats in opposition to real evil and triumphs in spectacular fashion. A new, better day dawns.

Boo-yah, baby!

The film's tone is supercharged feel good, and this is reinforced by the rocking sound track and zany dialogue.

The climax reunites the characters from earth (who, oddly, are rarely in each others' physical presence after the first third of the film) and Flash delivers all Mongo from Ming's oppressive grasp. Mortally wounded, the weakening emperor vanishes into his power ring, which clatters to the floor. Flash is informed the earth has been saved and jumps for joy into a freeze frame.

As the credits roll, Ming's ring is picked up by a mysterious, black gloved hand. We hear Ming's laughter, and the words, 'The End' appear on the screen, followed by… a question mark.

Is it really the end, after all?

Yeah, pretty much.

At least for this iteration of the franchise. Which may be just as well. Given the haphazard way it came together, recapturing the original's unintentionally madcap magicwould have been a very difficult task indeed. This was a freakish, one-of-a-kind happy accident.

But what we have is pretty awesome.

"Give me the sugar, baby!"

Flash delivers.

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