Sunday, September 25, 2011
Oddball Film Report: FLASH GORDON (1980)
Popular comic strip character Flash Gordon, a football star who found himself engaged in endless cosmic adventures, first came to the screen in a 1930's serial. Universal doesn't have much of a reputation among serial fans, with the exception of the studio's three Flash Gordon serials, which are counted as among the very best cliffhangers ever assembled. FLASH GORDON, FLASH GORDON'S TRIP TO MARS, and FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE tell the interplanetary saga of how Flash, his gal Dale Arden, and eccentric genius Dr. Zarkoff blasted into outer space to do battle with monstrous despot Ming the Merciless of the planet Mongo. The combatants were vividly brought to life by the perfectly cast actors who portrayed them. "Blond giant" Buster Crabbe (who also played comic strip characters Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and the King of the Congo) is perfectly cast as the dashing football hero turned adventurer, while Charles Middleton remains the definitive Emperor Ming. Despite the spare change budget, the serials also have a polish and grandeur even the best Republic actioner couldn't hope to match.
Later, the serials were edited into features that could be shown at kiddie matinees and the new medium of television. Flash's origin adventure was condensed into a film titled ROCKETSHIP, which managed to tell the entire story of the serial in one breathlessly paced film (where most films of this time would slice the serial into two parts and release two separate movies)! When space heroes became all the rage on television, a Flash Gordon series was produced that bore little resemblance to the original character. This time, Flash, Dale, and Zarkoff were citizens of a future world, and they battled an assortment of generic mad scientists as they moved about the planets. (The show also featured some rather shockingly leftist politics, considering the period. Maybe this was due to the show actually being filmed in -I understand- Germany instead of the States!)
In 1974 came the porno spoof film FLESH GORDON, which beats the odds by actually being a pretty entertaining film. The flick remains rather infamous for its knockout special effects provided by the likes of David Allen, Jim Danforth, and Rick Baker, among many others. At least part of the show's enjoyment is that these guys provided a cavalcade of impossibly wonderful effects. The sequence in which Flesh fights a "beetle man" on a stairwell remains one of the most impressive stop motion sequences I've ever seen. While a spoof of the Flash Gordon origin story, this is one of those rare films that manages to have its cake and eat it too by producing a genuinely exciting adventure yarn with some comedy that's actually funny. I'd probably watch more pornos if I could count on them to be as entertaining as FLESH GORDON. (For completion's sake, there was a sequel produced a couple decades later. But what little I saw of that really didn't stand up to the first film.)
In 1977, the release of STAR WARS created a public appetite for any larger-than-life space adventure that could be rushed onto screens. Among the earliest cash-ins were the rather loopy Italian vehicle STARCRASH and the magnificent BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which was both a feature film and a short-lived teleseries (the idea being to produce a weekly movie experience, and the million dollar an episode budget kept it from being a returning series -although the rather less satisfying Galactica 1980 attempted to bring the series back for a very short time before the unrelated new series of the same name managed to last multiple seasons). Later, we were treated to big-budget movies like STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY and it's super-fun teleseries (at least that first season, which is terrific stuff), and Disney's under-rated epic THE BLACK HOLE. Sooner or later, Flash Gordon was going to make his presence known.... (Actually, Buster Crabbe has a cameo in and episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century as an aged fighter pilot, Captain Gordon. In a memorable scene, Buck congratulates Gordon on his skills in combat, asking where he picked up those moves. Gordon responds "That's from before your time, son.")
FLASH GORDON (1980) is an odd duck. It can't seem to decide if it wants to be STAR WARS type earnest adventure, or BATMAN style camp. The production values are good, and the design mirrors the comic strip rather nicely. The cast is good, yet the music is inappropriate in the extreme (the hit soundtrack was performed by the rock band QUEEN, giving the whole affair a rock opera feel that fails to mesh with the subject matter. Annoying no end are the occasional injections of riffs from the main theme song. "Flash! Ah-ahhhhhhhhh!"). All in all, it isn't bad entertainment, if not for some really weird flourishes from time to time (like the score). Still, you never forget you're watching a film made after STAR WARS. While not quite as outrageous as THE ICE PIRATES, you get the same sense of the crew not knowing how serious to take the material. Had they gone in a gee-whiz direction, like the Indiana Jones films, they could have really had something (ironically, the 70's porno version better captured the spirit of innocence in the material). But, then again, we are talking about an Italian film here, offered up by the man who nearly killed King Kong, Dino De Laurentiis.
We follow the same basic story as had been told earlier. Ming targets earth for destruction, and the only man who knows why earth is under siege is Dr. Zarkoff. After Flash and Dale meet on an airplane, they encounter trouble caused by Ming and make a crash landing near Zarkoff's isolated lab. Zarkoff then forces them to help him launch his rocket into space. They arrive on Mongo, are captured, and are brought before Ming the Merciless. Ming's daughter falls for the handsome and courageous Flash Gordon and saves him from certain death. Flash then convinces the oppressed people of the various sub-kingdoms of Mongo to join forces and rise up against Ming. Meanwhile, Ming has selected Dale to be his new bride.....
One thing has me at a disadvantage, and that's the fact that the version I'm reviewing is a cropped tape. About half the picture is missing, making some of the impressive vista offered up by the film a bit less awesome than they no doubt were in the theater. Even so, the overall effect is pretty fun, if not for the constant jump back and forth between camp and high adventure. The casting is also a mixed lot. Sam Jones plays Flash, and doesn't seem quite right for the part although he has his moments. He has the looks and the good natured attitude, but he suggests Reb Brown more than Buster Crabbe. (Not to be unfair by comparing Jones to Crabbe, but its hard to get around it. Jones seems to be trying too hard at times.) On the other hand is Max Von Sydow as a nicely ruthless Ming (again though, they sure tried to make him look like Charles Middleton). The oddest casting choice is that of Timothy Dalton as Prince Barron, the rightful leader of Mongo. Dalton has always been a 'serious' actor (although his occasional comedy turns show a very genial guy) and his casting would seem to negate the whole 'camp' approach. On the other hand, he's an Errol Flynn type (thus his spot-on perfect casting in THE ROCKETEER) and Prince Barron wears Robin Hood-style garb. You can see Dalton trying to make a real character out of his part, yet the film sort of plays against this. The result is that, rather than it being a fine performance that adds depth to the affair, Dalton just sticks out like he doesn't belong. Imagine if THE THIRD MAN had a character wearing a chicken suit for no apparent reason, and his wearing of said suit is never addressed by the other characters. That's how weirdly out of place Timothy Dalton seems in FLASH GORDON.
In the end, BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (another Universal release, and the VHS boxes look almost identical from the sides) much better mixed high adventure and light-hearted humor. On the plus side, there were plenty of other post-STAR WARS science fiction movies to pick from during this period. Serial fans, meanwhile, will be amused that even after the multi-millions of dollars De Laurentiis spent on his version of the story, the cheap and crude Buster Crabbe version remains the definitive take on the material.