George Lucas once talked about his dream of modernizing the old “Flash Gordon” serials of the 1930’s and 40’s. Unfortunately (or not) the rights to that particular franchise had already been obtained by Dino De Laurentiis, so Lucas made Star Wars. The rest, as no-talent internet hacks like me might say, is history.
After the 1977 release of Star Wars and its subsequent mind-boggling box office, studios fell over each other like Bob Dole on a campaign stop to slap together something “science-fictiony” that would get those gullible kids into the theater or in front of their televisions. Creative bankruptcy is as prevalent in Hollywood as Botox parties, after all, but I know I’m not the only sad person who sat through “The Black Hole” and “Battlestar Galactica” while waiting for my next Han Solo fix. De Laurentiis, typically desperate to jump on the SF bandwagon, gave the go-ahead to a new “Flash Gordon” movie.
To put together this opus, he recruited Lorenzo Semple Jr. – writer of “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View – as well as director Mike Hodges (“The Terminal Man” and the original “Get Carter”). A fairly varied cast was also assembled, including Max von Sydow, Topol, and theater denizens Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton. Unknowns, Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson, were picked to play Flash and Dale Arden.
(Hot) Hail on Earth
The movie begins with Earth literally in the crosshairs as Ming the Merciless (von Sydow) and his lieutenant Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) discuss the various ways in which to wreak havoc upon it. Stock natural disaster footage rolls while we see a choice selection of catastrophes, including earthquakes, typhoons, and something called “hot hail,” which looks like Kingsford briquettes. Cue main theme, and a montage of the old Alex Raymond comic strip.
At this point, we get our first look at Flash, sitting in his station wagon at a small airport. Right away we know this isn’t your grandfather’s Flash Gordon. Sam Jones looks more like Shaun Cassidy’s older brother than John Glenn from “The Right Stuff.” We soon discover that Flash is quarterback for the New York Jets. This isn’t immediately important, because soon enough the charter jet he’s sharing with Dale is in dire straits and it’s up to fledgling pilot Flash to crash land. He accomplishes this, conveniently enough, at the laboratory of disgraced NASA scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov.
If you’re like me, you’re probably asking yourself, “since when does an NFL quarterback drive himself *anywhere*, much less in a station wagon?’ You think Joe Namath ever drove a Mercury Montego to JFK? You’re damn right he didn’t. He took a limo wearing a big-ass fur coat and accompanied by gorgeous pantyhosed models.
Zarkov was forced to resign because of his assertion that the Earth was in imminent danger of attack from extraterrestrial forces. In an attempt to stave the invasion off, he’s built a spaceship to approach the unknown entity in the spirit of friendship. In a trice, the lovely Dale and the big mook Flash have been tricked into accompanying Zarkov on his suicide mission, the rocket blasts off, and they are soon in the clutches of the evil Ming, Emperor of Mongo.
This Ming is a Psycho
The whole “spirit of friendship” angle perfectly illustrates the inherent flaw in U.S. space policy. The Voyager probe and the SETI Project blindly ignore the very real possibility that visitors from distant galaxies may not be the cute meatloaf headed aliens of E.T. or the pansexual midgets of “Close Encounters,” but rather Palpatine’s Empire, or the Vogons, or – as our brash trio soon discovers – Ming the Merciless himself. Ming confirms our fears when he ridicules the “pathetic Earthlings” for hurling themselves into the void.
Max von Sydow is flawless as Ming, playing him with the perfect blend of malevolence and evil glee. I’ll bet if you asked him he’d tell you Ming the Merciless and Brewmeister Smith from Strange Brew were his two favorite roles. It’s a sure bet Ming was more fun to play than Jesus, anyway.
After an abortive (though amusing) attempt by Flash to zone blitz the palace guards, Ming sentences him to death and takes Dale as his concubine. Flash is executed, sort of, but is rescued through the machinations of Ming’s daughter, the Princess Aura (former Playmate Ornella Muti). Aura has, as Judge Smails might put it, a certain “zest for living.” One of her lovers brings Flash back from the dead and he and Aura are soon speeding off to Arborea, home to Prince Barin (Dalton). Dale, meanwhile, has escaped Ming’s clutches while Dr. Zarkov has resisted the attempts of Klytus and General Kala (an exceedingly nasty Mariangela Melato) to erase his memory. Dale and Zarkov escape Mongo City only to be captured by Hawkmen under the leadership of Prince Vultan (Blessed).
Everybody got that so far?
More Flash in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “FLASH GORDON”>>>