Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
If you’re talking about a colorful, science-fiction adventure that has lots of different scenery, space battles, and melodrama, and you aren’t talking about Star Wars, odds are you’re thinking of 1980’s Flash Gordon. Brought to the silver screen by producer extraordinaire Dino De Laurentiis, Flash Gordon tells the pulpy tale of a scrappy football quarterback who fights against interstellar villain Ming the Merciless.
Directed by Mike Hodges (check out his 1971 Get Carter and more recent films Croupier and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead), Flash (Sam Jones) is aided in his battles by Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), and Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). All three actors fit their characters to a tee and bring life to their original syndicated comic-strip alter egos. Admittedly, the whole cast overacts to different levels, and besides the costumes, the rest of the budget must have gone to replacing all the scenery that is chewed by Brian Blessed as Vultan the Hawkman and Max von Sydow as Ming. But it’s so enjoyable to watch.
I’m not going to go into the plot too much because plot is incidental to this film. Boy and girl save the world from bad guy. The film goes from one set piece to another: from a spaceship launching inside of a greenhouse to the imperial throne room. We get to see dungeons, a world of giant trees and swamps, a floating city, and sky battles. There are creatures aplenty and hundreds of things to fill up the screen.
Taking a cue from the 1960’s Batman TV show, De Laurentiis went for campiness over seriousness, and it paid off. Making back its budget, and then some, a sequel could have materialized if Sam Jones hadn’t had such a horrible time making the film for De Laurentiis. In fact, most of his lines are dubbed by another actor. Still, Jones had the matinee idol looks for the part, and he’s still remembered fondly as Flash by hordes of 80’s kids.
While filling out the roles with wonderful character actors, what truly sells the film and makes it a visual treat are the costumes by Danilo Donati. Others can speak to the quality of the costumes better than me, but I can tell you that they pop off the screen. From Princess Aura’s form-fitting outfits to Barin’s Arborian greens. Even the Hawkmen’s wings are amazing to see so detailed (especially in high definition). There’s a level of playful S&M in the costuming that belies a hint of real danger just below the campy atmosphere.
Also of important note, and what helps keep the film moving, is the music. One of the first films to use a rock band for the score, Flash Gordon lucked out with getting Queen. Known for their bombastic sound and quirky songwriting, their music feels right at home in this universe. In fact, if Queen didn’t do the soundtrack, something wouldn’t feel right with this universe. If you’re in a room full of geeks and yell “FLASH,” at least half of them will respond with “AH-AHHH” without even looking up. Try it at your next con. It’s more fun than you’d think. (We bond over the silliest things, don’t we?)
While considered a cult classic now, if it were released today, it wouldn’t seem so strange next to Deadpool or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Modern-day camp films tend to fail because they do it with a wink-wink to the audience. Camp truly works when it takes itself seriously and strives to be more than it can be. Flash Gordon strives to be a sci-fi epic and almost manages it, which makes it camp. What makes it great is that, like its titular hero, it has heart and wears it on its sleeve; when they are allowed to wear a shirt, of course.
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.