With eye-popping costumes, brightly colored sets, a distinctive soundtrack and decidedly retro special effects, producer Dino De Laurentiis took his inspiration for Flash Gordon (1980) directly from the comic strip and movie serials of the 1930’s. The resulting sci-fi adventure is a colorful rainbow of camp delights.
During the opening credits classic Alex Raymond drawings streak across the screen accompanied by Queen’s unforgettable title song. “FLASH AH-AHHH!” Not since the experimental sounds featured in 1956’s Forbidden Planet has a sci-fi movie had a soundtrack this unique.
Bleach blond Sam J. Jones plays quarterback hero Flash Gordon and Melody Anderson is his love interest Dale Arden. Not only is Flash on the cover of People magazine, he evidently has a sweet merchandising deal (he wears a t-shirt with his own name emblazoned across the chest).
Shortly after meeting, they must pilot their twin engine plane through a storm brought about by the distant machinations of Ming the Merciless (the perfectly cast Max von Sydow). They crash land, their plane skidding to a stop inside Dr. Hans Zarkov’s laboratory.
No, you’re not watching Fiddler on the Roof (1971), it’s just Topol as Zarkov, a former NASA scientist who believes that the string of natural disasters signal an attack on the earth. He needs someone to co-pilot his space capsule for a counter-attack so, under the pretense of using his phone, Zarkov lures Dale and Flash on board and quickly blasts them all into space.
The capsule tumbles through a vortex and lands on the planet Mongo. Red and gold armored guards bring the trio to the palace for an audience with Ming. Inside the massive throne room the people of Mongo pay tribute. Like Disneyland, each of the diverse kingdoms has a theme. Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and his tree people wear clothing that suggests they just stepped out of Sherwood Forrest while Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) and his Hawkmen dress like leather clad winged gladiators.
The outrageous set décor and costume designs are by Danilo Donati. Everyone, from lead characters to extras, wear finely detailed costumes that feature intricate beading and an obscenely saturated color palate. It’s as if Bob Mackie (best known for Cher’s more memorable outfits) personally dressed every man, woman and child in this over the top sci-fi universe.
After Ming uses his power ring to hypnotize Dale into performing a sex dance, she asks Flash, “What happened to me?”
“I don’t know, but it was pretty sensational.” He answers.
Ming is impressed as well. “Remove the earth woman,” he orders, “Prepare her for our pleasure!”
Asserting his alpha dog status, Flash shouts, “Forget it Ming, Dale’s with me.”
Flash uses his on-field expertise and a football shaped bauble to battle Ming’s royal guard. Dale cheers him on from the sidelines, “Go Flash Go!”, but after a bad forward pass by Zarkov, Flash is defeated and sentenced to public execution.
As Flash is led to his death in a pair of black leather jockey shorts, Ming’s daughter Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) notices Dale’s obvious distress, “Look, water is leaking from her eyes.”
“It’s what they call tears,” Ming explains, “It’s a sign of their weakness.”
Strapped into a transparent chamber, we see Flash’s body go limp as the compartment fills with deadly smoke. But all is not lost. Princess Aura revives Flash with the help of the palace doctor and smuggles her blond boy-toy out of the city.
Without Flash to protect them, Zarkov is brainwashed by a giant laser pointer and Dale is locked in Ming’s bed chamber.
Meanwhile, Flash and interstellar sex kitten Princess Aura are on their way to the planet Arboria. Aura makes every attempt to seduce Flash while she gives pointers on how to pilot their spacecraft. While sitting on his lap, she purrs about her secret pleasure moon “built just for two”. When Flash turns her down, she pouts, “Oh Flash, I saved your life.”
Using an onboard thought amplifier, Flash telepathically contacts Dale letting her know he’s alive. Dale then uses a powerful elixir to dope up a slave girl, switch places with her and escape. Wearing a gold beaded evening gown with matching strappy heels, Dale wields a blaster and does cartwheels while fighting off palace guards.
She soon meets with Dr. Zarkov (his reprogramming didn’t take) and they flee the city on a rocket cycle only to be picked up by a patrol of Hawkmen.
Flash and Aura arrive on Arboria just as Prince Barin is breaking in a new recruit. As a right of passage, young tree men must put their hand inside a gnarled tree trunk playing a variation of Russian roulette. If nothing happens, then you’re part of the tribe, but if you’re stung by the creature living inside…well, at least you don’t have a lifetime of membership dues.
When Aura asks Barin to hide the presumably dead hero, he eyes her suspiciously, “I knew you were up to something, though I confess I hadn’t thought of necrophilia.”
With Flash in the not so safe hands of her jealous lover, Aura returns to Mongo where she is arrested for treason. The gold faced Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) and General Kala (Mariangela Melato) try to torture a confession from Aura in an attempt to locate Flash. Not only do the Mongo citizenry dress in the latest European couture, but they all sound like euro trash too. With her thick Italian accent, Melato turns the most mundane dialog into highly quotable moments of cinematic camp.
Brandishing a cat-o-nine tails, Kala gleefully tells Aura to… “Confess and we won’t hurt you anymore, we don’t like doing this at all.”
Meanwhile Prince Barin dares Flash to join him in the wood beast ceremony. Tense moments pass as each of them take turns placing their hand inside the tree trunk. Flash fakes being stung, catches Barin off guard and escapes into the treacherous swamp where he falls into a pit of quicksand. After freeing himself, Flash is then swallowed up by a subterranean crab monster. Gosh, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. A patrol of Hawkmen save him and take both Flash and Barin to Sky City.
Dale, Zarkov and Flash are reunited. When Barin challenges Flash to a trial by combat, the bombastic Prince Vultan agrees. Their playing field is a circular platform that hovers over a swirling abyss. As they wrestle in gladiatorial combat, Vultan uses a remote control that tilts the platform and unleashes deadly spring-loaded spikes.
Dale shouts her support from the sidelines. “Flash I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the earth!” Way to put pressure on a guy. Flash eventually gains the upper hand but spares Barin’s life. Grateful, Barin pledges his allegiance to help fight Ming.
Ming suddenly arrives and attempts to broker a deal with Flash. “I have never before met your like. You’re a hero, don’t you see that?” He diplomatically offers Flash a kingdom of his own. When Flash refuses, Ming leaves him stranded and blasts the city into atoms. Flash escapes death yet again, this time with the help of a handy rocket cycle.
As Dale is being prepared for her wedding to Ming, guards bring the soon-to-be exiled Princess Aura into her chambers. “You damn Mongo person!” Dale shouts as she gives Aura a well deserved bitch slap. A catfight ensues as Aura attempts to prove she’s now one of the good guys.
“Could tears come from my eyes if my heart hadn’t changed?” she asks giving Dale a drug to poison Ming with on her wedding night.
But Dale has morals (huh?) and refuses Aura’s plan. “I’m lost Aura, nothing can save me now.”
Cue that crazy Queen soundtrack as Flash flies by the palace gaining the attention of General Kala who issues this nutty command, “Dispatch war rocket Ajax to bring back his body.” War rocket Ajax? What’s next? An Acme hero disintegrator?
Flash has teamed up with Vultan and his airborne army of Hawkmen. The brightly colored sky is filled with hundreds of winged warriors that resemble the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Costumed stunt men hang from wires in the foreground while dozens of superimposed miniature Hawkmen stiffly flap their wings in back.
With the rousing battle theme playing (and some ungraceful wire work), Flash and Vultan fight off Ming’s men and gain control of the ship. By crashing the rocket into the atomic generators, they can stop the attack on earth. With Flash at the helm, Vultan tunes into the city’s radio frequency. They are shocked to hear a bad-ass (and amusing) rock guitar version of the wedding march.
Dressed in a sparkling black bridal gown, Dale is led down the aisle for her shotgun (or in this case laser gun) wedding to Ming. In one of the film’s highlights, as Ming concludes his “I do’s”, Dale emphatically replies, “I DO NOT.”
As Ming is about to place the ring on Dale’s finger, Flash crash lands amid the ruins of the wedding pavilion. Like a shish kebab, Ming is impaled on the spear-like tip of the rocket ship. As Flash moves in to finish him off, Ming attempts to use his power ring. But it is no use. Near death, Ming turns the ring on himself and disappears.
Never let it be said that the villains in Flash Gordon don’t die in unique and interesting ways. Earlier in the film, Klytus is also impaled, his eyes and tongue bulging out in a grotesque Tex Avery kind-of-way. When General Kala is shot, she lets out an unlady like belch before dissolving into a pile of used motor oil.
As the people of Mongo cheer their savior, a synchronized regiment of Hawkmen spells out “THANKS FLASH” in the sky. While the celebration continues a gloved hand picks up the discarded power ring and we hear a familiar evil laugh. A “The End” title card appears on screen with a daring question mark added. THE END? You bet it was the end. Flash may have defeated Ming the Merciless, but he didn’t win the battle of critical or box office success.
The Flash Gordon: Saviour of the Universe Edition DVD features a remastered widescreen (2.35:1) print that is virtually flawless. The picture is crisp, the colors vivid, it’s likely that the film looks better now than when it premiered in 1980. The same can be said of the newly mastered Dolby 5.1 Queen soundtrack. The film simply looks and sounds incredible. Special features include interviews with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. and artist Alex Ross. The theatrical trailer and the first episode of the 1936 Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serial are included, as well as an art card by Alex Ross. Any commentary from the cast members or filmmakers is notably absent. The interview and feature length commentary from director Mike Hodges that was part of the European DVD release is sadly missing from this US edition.
Flash Gordon Publicity Images
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