Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published March 7th 2019
When heroes were not made of CGI
After the positive feedback from my column on Eddie And The Cruisers, I thought I'd do the same thing with one of my favourite movies from the 1980s Flash Gordon.
Ah, the 1980s. Times were so much simpler back then. CGI didn't exist the closest was stop motion animation or actual animation and green or blue screen technology was the height of movie trickery. And our Superheros were much simpler. This is the era of Christopher Reeve as Superman (1978), while Adam West's Batman still played on TV re-runs before Michael Keaton's frankly awesome Batman hit the screens in 1989. We had The Toxic Avenger, a disappointing The Punisher, a really odd Masters Of The Universe, a bizarre parody in Condorman (starring Michael Crawford and one of my mother's favourite films) and more of that ilk. But before nearly all of them, in 1980, we had Flash Gordon.
This film has gone down as a bit of kitsch, a bit of a nothing film from a time that didn't know any better. The only thing it has given the world is Brian Blessed saying, "Gordon's alive?!" as only Brian Blessed could, still alive in 1000 memes today.
(23 seconds in)
Look, I'm not saying that this film is a masterpiece. It was rightfully overlooked at the Oscars and every other award ceremony. But it is fun. It was done as a gentle parody, something which the cast was clearly all-too-aware of. But it took the source material and didn't completely destroy it with OTT comedy (as many modern remakes of older properties are guilty of, playing for laughs so poorly that they make the originals the butt of the jokes). I saw it at the cinema. This is one of the first 'adult' films I introduced my son to, and I don't know how many times we watched it together.
But, more than the film, the soundtrack is incredible. By Queen, it just sets the mood perfectly for the whole film. In my opinion, it is the best written for film rock soundtrack, as every single piece of music is just great. Not necessarily the best soundtrack some of those compilation soundtracks (like The Big Chill) are awesome, and Mark Knopfler has produced some wonders, and we can never forget John Williams. But a rock music soundtrack written just for the movie it's hard to top this one.
I have not seen a combo DVD-CD set of this one, but I reckon it would be an awesome buy.
Anyway, let's start with the CD.
Flash Gordon Original Soundtrack by Queen
To start with, this is not just the music., it is interspersed with snatches of dialogue from the film, the first time I think that was done on a soundtrack album (subsequently done to death). It adds to the appeal, to be honest.
We start with 'Flash's Theme', and that begins with the awesome dialogue snatch: "Klytus, I'm bored. What plaything can you offer me today?" An obscure body in the SK system, your majesty. The inhabitants refer to it as the planet Eaaaarth." This is the track people of the time could not avoid. "Flash! Ah-Aaaah!" Great opener.
The next few tracks ('In The Space Capsule', 'Ming's Theme', 'The Ring') are incidental music. They just set the mood of the film quite well, at turns dark and eerie, but the addition of the dialogue really helps.
Then we have 'Football Fight', a decent rocking number that plays nicely on its own, even without the dialogue.
'In The Death Cell', 'Execution Of Flash' (very nice, with some great guitar playing) and 'The Kiss' follow that incidental music pattern. So does 'Arboria', but that track is another one that stands out for me. Arboria is a jungle-moon, and the music brings the feel of being in a green woodland out quite nicely. 'Escape From The Swamp' continues the incidental music pattern
'Flash To The Rescue' starts to up the ante on the music, as the film builds towards its climax.
Then we have 'Vultan's Theme' and 'Battle Theme', which I have written about before. Yes, my favourite Queen song/s. Just superb. I love these two (played as one track) and (of course) the album's highlight.
Up next, 'The Wedding March'. I managed to convince my wife to use this as our wedding march music for our 1999 wedding. She came down the aisle while Brian May played guitar.
'Marriage Of Dale And Ming' and 'Crash Dive On Mingo City' are tension-building incidental music, leading into 'Flash's Theme (Reprise)'. And we finish with 'The Hero', the song that played over the closing credits. If you bought the anniversary edition, you also got the 1991 Mista Lawnge remix of 'Flash's Theme', which is okay as well.
So, yes, the music is primarily incidental, and the album, using the dialogue, basically tells the story of the film in less than 40 minutes. But it is a great CD with some awesome tracks and music and a theme song that sits in your head like the nasty ear-worm that it is.
Flash Gordon (1980)
Directed by Mike Hodges
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Sam J. Jones as Flash Gordon
Melody Anderson as Dale Arden
Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless
Topol as Hans Zarkov
Ornella Muti as Princess Aura
Timothy Dalton as Barin
Brian Blessed as Vultan
Also featuring some other famous people in cameos, such as Richard O'Brien (of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame), Robbie Coltrane and Kenny Baker.
I am going to ignore the at times terrible green/blue screen processes in some shots (most notably involving the hawkmen) and the at times dodgy special effects, and instead focus on the amazing, almost surreal sets and designs. The colour palette of the film is wide and vivid, something Marvel took on board in their MCU, but DC with their DCEU are still getting their heads around. At times it looks like a Richard Dean painting come to life. (Note: Richard Dean is an amazing fantasy artist, most famous for his Yes album covers, but who has produced mind-blowing work nearly his whole life.)
The story is based on the old movie serials (starring Buster Crabbe), which, in turn, were based on an even older cartoon serial (shown in the opening credits). Thun was originally a lion-headed man and Klytus seems to have been made up for the film, but, apart from that, the film stays true to its source material.
The plot is quite simple, really. Ming is playing with Earth, creating strange weather-based anomalies. Gridiron player Flash Gordon and travel agent Dale Arden take a flight together, but the pilots get sucked out of the plane. Flash manages to crash the plane into a secluded laboratory of disgraced scientist Hans Zarkov, killing Zarkov's assistant in the process (with nothing said about him ever again). Zarkov tries to kidnap Dale to take her to the source of the strange weather, Flash doesn't agree, tackles Zarkov, and somehow the rocket ship takes off with all three inside.
They are allowed access to Mongo (though they don't know it) and are taken to see Ming. Ming decides he wants Dale, but Flash disagrees, so he fights Ming's troops using gridiron until he is clonked on the head. Ming decides Zarkov will become an agent, he will marry Dale and he will execute Flash. Ming's daughter Aura wants Flash as a plaything, but she is over-ruled.
However, using the promise of sex, Aura gets a doctor to give Flash an injection that will enable him to survive the death chamber. Sure enough, he is executed, Aura revives him and takes him to Barin on Arboria for safe keeping. By the way, Aura and Barin are in a strange relationship.
Meanwhile, Zarkov is 'reprogrammed' to be an agent. The scene where he sees his life in reverse is quite eerie. Dale is given a drink with similar properties to Rohypnol (yeah, icky), so she won't mind the wedding night, but she gets the serving girl to drink it and escapes. Zarkov is sent to capture her, but he aids her escape. Apparently, thinking about The Beatles stopped his brain from being wiped.
Back on Arboria, Barin has decided to put Flash in the meat larder in the swamp. But he then sets Flash up to escape so Flash goes into a sacred temple and has to undergo a trial. He cons Barin and survives and flees into the swamp. Barin chases him, but, just before he can kill Flash, they are both taken by hawkmen. Hawkmen also get Dale and Zarkov. Still with me? Good.
Back at the hawkmen's flying city, Barin and Flash fight one another until Flash saves Barin and they try to convince Vultan, the hawkman prince, to join them. But Ming's troops come, and they kill Klytus. The hawkmen panic and flee, leaving the other four alone in the city. This brings Ming himself, and he condemns Barin and Zarkov to death, still decides to marry Dale, and then talks to Flash alone. He offers Flash Earth to rule. Flash refuses, so Ming decides to kill him by destroying the city. Flash escapes on a rocket cycle (why would flying creatures need a rocket cycle? my 9 year old self asked; in case one is injured was my mum's intelligent response).
Anyway, back at Ming's city, Aura is tortured and she offers to help Dale kill Ming, but Dale refuses. The hawkmen find Flash, and together they attack the city, drawing a spacecraft to them where they can attack it. Flash decides to suicide run it into the city. Meanwhile, Aura releases Barin (Timothy Dalton makes saying, "You bloody bastards," sound so uncomfortable it is one of the funniest things in the film) and Zarkov, and they go to stop Ming as well.
The wedding is going ahead, the lightning shield is shut down, Flash crashes the craft into the city and skewers Ming on its nose projection, saving the day. Yay! But, at the end a gloved hand takes his magic ring, leaving us open for a sequel.
Melody Anderson and Sam Jones play it pretty straight, if not slightly woodenly, but the rest of the cast let their over the top personalities shine through. Max Von Sydow and Brian Blessed try to steal every scene they're in, and Dalton looks like he is having fun playing a semi-action hero. While I kept waiting for Topol to burst into 'If I Were A Rich Man', he brings the role of Zarkov to life, and makes us forgive his assistant sacrificing and attempted kidnapping at the start of the film. And Ornella Muti is suitably sexy as the princess with a large sexual appetite.
As I've said, the sets are awesome, and the space-craft keep that 1930s feel from the comics. Sure, some questions are unanswerable how do hawkmen fly in space? how can the space ship flip open the windows? what is keeping the system together? but you only think about them afterwards, not while you're lost in the joy that is Flash Gordon.
The film is not great, but it is a load of fun to watch. Take two hours and relax and enjoy yourself. You can certainly do a lot worse.