"Flash Gordon, Quarterback, New York Jets," is how our hero introduces himself, a bleach blonde beefcake who shows up wearing a shirt with the name "Flash" emblazoned across his chest. Such is the subtlety of the 1980 "Flash Gordon" movie, based on the 1930s comic strip hero and the film serials and television shows he starred in. The movie makes no attempt to hide these origins, featuring snippets of the original comics right in the bombastic opening credits, complete with a song by Queen that chants Flash's name over and over, and declares him the savior of the universe. He's a miracle! King of the impossible! It's the audience's signal to expect something larger than life, grandiose in scale, and of course as campy as hell.
All-American good guy Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and a pretty travel agent named Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) meet on a flight, just as the planet Earth is attacked by the forces of evil Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), of the planet Mongo. Flash and Dale crash land conveniently adjacent to the mad scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol), who brings them along in his rocket ship to investigate who is attacking Earth. They make it to Mongo, and are quickly captured by Ming's forces. In order to save the day, Flash must win over the loyalties of Ming's daughter Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), and the leaders of the of the oppressed inhabitants of Mongo, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), and winged Hawkman, Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed). This involves a duel with whips on a tilting platform riddled with spikes, flying all manner of retro spaceships and rockets, tangling with poisonous creatures who live in tree stumps, and a very brief death.
"Flash Gordon" captures the spontaneity and silliness of those old kiddie serials, except with all the bells and whistles that those productions could never afford. There is not the slightest bit of logic to the plot, except that Flash Gordon is supposed to fight monsters and aliens and get into terrific big battles with the hordes of Ming the Merciless, so that's what he's going to do. Sam J. Jones is not much of an actor, but his look is perfect. The hair, the muscles, the slightly blank expression - all straight out of the comic strips. Nearly everyone else in the cast is hamming it up like mad, and how could they not? All of them are swanning around in opulently garish costumes, talking about places with names like Mingo and Mongo and Sky City. Flash has a fight scene where he uses football plays to dispatch the guards in Ming's throne room. By the time Dale and Princess Aura are having a goofy catfight in slinky pastel robes, it seems par for the course.
The style of the production design reminded me immediately of the psychedelic retro-futurism of "Barbarella." Both "Barbarella" and "Flash Gordon" were produced by the great Dino De Laurentis, and have the same kind of playfully bizarre European visual sensibility. Little shared details like the Hawkmen flights and the cloud effects make me suspect that even if there wasn't much talent in common, they were working on the same wavelength. Also, though "Flash" was ostensibly aimed at children, there's some surprisingly frank sexuality, particularly Flash's interactions with the predatory femme fatale, Princess Aura. At one point she has him down to a pair of short shorts, and coyly promises not to look while he changes into something more dignified. This being "Flash Gordon," dignified is a relative term, of course.
I kid, but production designer and costume designer Danilo Donati is the film's MVP. His contributions help immeasurably in bringing some vitality to the paper-thin characters, and giving them a properly fantastic world to explore. He goes over-the-top, but so purposefully and so artfully that it works. The women are all in elaborate headdresses and shimmery fabrics. A tribe of dwarves show up clothed in what appear to be foil chocolate wrappers. Ming the Merciless is a visual masterpiece of Orientalist menace, without ever looking specifically Asian enough to cause offense. The film never seems to run out of spectacular and/or ridiculous things to look at, from floating cities to murky swamps to torture chambers.
In an odd way, "Flash Gordon" may be one of the most successful comic book adaptations of all time, not because it's particularly good, but because it successfully translates so many comic book elements that have caused others to stumble - the bright colors, the outlandish stories, and the constant hyperbole of fights to the death and unspeakable evil. Others have tried this approach and failed miserably, notably "Masters of the Universe," but in "Flash" it all comes together in one campy, goofy, crazy ball of B-movie fun. I highly recommend it for all your 80s cult movie needs.