Posted on by Scott Delahunt

In 1934, Alex Raymond created a comic strip to compete with Buck Rogers in the newspapers. The strip, called Flash Gordon featured the titular hero, an athlete, caught up with reporter Dale Arden in an airplane crash caused by a sudden meteor showers, who is kidnapped by Dr. Hans Zarkov to travel by rocket ship to find the source of the meteor assault on Earth. The trio discovers that the meteors were sent by Ming the Merciless, rule of Mongo. Throughout the publication of the comic strip, Flash and his companions meet the peoples of Mongo and unite them to rebel against Ming to free the world from his cruel domination.

The comic strip had been turned into three serials, each starring Buster Keaton as Flash. The serials stayed to the core of the comic strip, though minor changes were made. Flash, originally a polo player in the comic, became a wrestler. Dale, originally a brunette, was played by Jean Rogers, who had her naturally dark hair dyed blonde to take advantage of the popularity of the hair colour in film. Still, the serials had a following and were the first science fiction serials produced.

In 1980, Dino de Laurentiis produced a screen adaptation of Flash, simply called Flash Gordon. Written by Lorenzo Semple and directed by Mike Hodges, the movie brought the comic strip to its core elements, showing Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov uniting the peoples of Mongo to defeat the forces of Ming the Merciless. Flash Gordon didn't do well in its initial theatrical run. Several problems plagued the film, mostly related to executive meddling. Sam J. Jones was cast as the hero after de Laurentiis' wife saw him on a game show. At the same time, de Laurentiis himself worked out an arrangement with Bob Guccione of Penthouse to have some of his models as extras. A decision was made to use bright colours at a time when realism was the order of the day for films.

However, the movie is considered a cult classic. What saved the film from the millstone of mediocrity and being tossed into the fountain of the forgotten was director Hodges being able to cast the supporting actors. He turned to veterans of stage and screen, people who could carry the film while the rookie actor Jones learned the craft. (And, yes, you can see Jones's acting ability improve as the movie progresses.) Max von Sydow turned in an understated performance as Ming the Merciless, bringing a subtle menace to the role instead of chewing the scenery as Raul Julia and Jeremy Irons had. Topol, best known from the theatrical and cinematic versions of Fiddler on the Roof, played the indomitable Dr. Hans Zarkov, delivering lines that would be cheesy under lesser talent. Timothy Dalton, who would go on to be 007, played Prince Bain of the Treemen. Richard O'Brien, he of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fame, played Fico, one of Barin's men. And Brian Blessed, veteran of many British productions, played Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen, bringing a boisterousness that defined the Hawk Prince. ("What? GORDON'S ALIVE?!")

Coupled with the supporting cast was the soundtrack. Written and performed by Queen, the music provided a strong rock beat that mirrored and accentuated the action on screen. Scenes that would cause massive eyestrain from the eyerolls became fun, if still implausible; scenes such as the football fight in Ming's court. "Flash's Theme" reached Top-40 radio stations.

Overall, the movie should have been a disaster. Executive meddling created many hurdles for the director. The visuals of the film went in the opposite direction of other movies made at the same time. The special effects looked more like a throwback to the serials than the cutting edge pushed by Lucasfilm.  Flash Gordon should have been MST3K fodder. Yet, the little things pull the movie up. The supporting cast was far better than the movie deserved. The soundtrack itself saved the film from being forgettable. Little details, lines added for humour (Barin to Zarkov while awaiting execution: "Tell me again about this man Houdini."), background gags ("All citizens will make merry upon pain of death" on a "space blimp" during the wedding), all of this added up to get people to watch the movie again. Success? Not really, few people go out to make a cult classic (Rocky Horror notwithstanding). Failure, then? Again, no, the movie is enjoyable and the problem spots start taking on their own charm.  Flash Gordon falls into a gap between success and failure – the movie has a following, but not for what the creators had hoped. It is a cult classic.

Next time, from action figure to action movie.

 

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  • Here’s my definition of a cult classic: it’s when you aim for the wallet and hit the heart instead. (I think I’ve said before that a cult classic is only born, never made.)
    I love this movie far more than I deserve to, and with far less shame than I expected to have. Maybe it’s because so many other people do, too.

  • Scott D.

    That’s a great definition. And, yeah, cult classics can’t be deliberately made. (Exception might be The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and even there, audience acceptance couldn’t have been predicted.) I think the first Street Fighter movie might become a cult classic in its own right eventually.
    I enjoy Flash Gordon far more now than when I did when I first saw it in the theatre. Probably more about how my tastes have evolved than the movie itself.

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