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April Fools’ Week: Flash Gordon – The Reigning Queen of Cheesy Sci-Fi

Written by: Ron Bricker

ImageIt's all well and good to love a movie when you're a kid, but watch it again in adulthood at your own peril. If you're not careful, action turns to comedy – and comedy turns painful – right before your very eyes. For April Fools' Week, Tony Lazlo offered up a lifelong guilty pleasure in Flash Gordon, only to give Beth Woodward…a newfound guilty pleasure!

A word from the nominator Tony Lazlo:

Director Mike Hodges last worked in 2004 when he helmed a movie called Murder By Numbers. His most prominent credit is probably the 70s thriller Get Carter. I know him as the director of the 1980 Flash Gordon, which I chose to inflict on Beth Woodward for this year's April Fools' week.

Flash Gordon erupted from the same post-Star Wars hysteria that produced shit like Saturn-3 and the original Battlestar Galactica, but unlike those projects, Flash Gordon boasts a recognizable brand name in its hero and a bona-fide star as its villain. Unfortunately, though, despite its big budget, the movie is stuck with a blank-eyed blonde in the title role and a chortle-inducing production design that lies at the intersection between Metropolis and Club 54. Its most bewildering feature is its striking rock 'n' roll soundtrack, provided by Queen for the hilariously arbitrary reason that producer Dino De Laurentiis really liked the band.

But I didn't submit Flash Gordon to April Fools' week because I don't like it. I actually think it works marvelously, from Sam J. Jones fearlessly flavorless Flash right down to the unstoppable third act, which features an aerial assault on Ming's fortress by Flash and an army of hawkmen, all driven by Brian May's explosive guitar.

Flash Gordon is one of my guilty pleasures du jour – and it was time to share it with someone new. So, good luck, Beth!

Flash Gordon: A Cinematic Cheesefest
By Beth Woodward

What do you get when you combine a Ken doll, Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, a totalitarian alien civilization, insane amounts of spandex, the worst Queen song ever, and lots and lots of cheese?   You get Flash Gordon, the 1980 “classic” staring a lot of people that you’ve never heard of, and a few people that make you wonder whether this was the only film being made that year.

But despite its shortcomings—and there are many—this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie.  It falls into the “so bad, it’s good” category: the dialogue may be corny, the acting may be flat, the story may be almost totally incomprehensible at times, and it may contain enough cheese to erase Wisconsin from the map, but the overall effect is absolutely hilarious.  This movie had me in stitches the whole time…which was probably not the intended effect.  But hey—movies are supposed to be entertaining.  And entertain it did.

Such a camp classic cannot be completely appreciated without looking at each of the individual elements.  And so we have—

The Story

Flash Gordon revolves around (not surprisingly) Flash Gordon, a New York Jets quarterback who looks eerily like a Ken doll.  (He also looks a little like Rocky from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is weird.)  Ken—er, Flash—gets on a small airplane one morning (which, for some strange reason, is called a “bus” in this movie) and meets the beautiful Dale Arden, the poofy-haired Barbie to his Ken.  Dale gets nervous when the plane begins to experience major weather-related turbulence.  Even though the world is experiencing hurricanes, earthquakes, and “hot hail,” Flash assures Dale that everything is completely normal.  But when the sky suddenly turns red and the pilots are sucked out of the airplane, he, too, becomes concerned.  They crash land in the house of Dr. Hans Zarkov (played by Topol, most famous for playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof), a former NASA scientist convinced the world is being attacked by aliens.  Luckily, Zarkov has a rocket ship, and he thinks Dale is just the co-pilot he needs.  Zarkov tricks Flash and Dale onto the ship, and through a series of strange circumstances they manage to accidentally blast off into space.  At this point, Flash and Dale do exactly what I would do if I were being kidnapped by a mad scientist: they fall asleep. 

The rocket then flies to the planet Mongo, a totalitarian world whose evil emperor, Ming, just happens to be the alien hell-bent on destroying Earth.  Luckily for Zarkov, who had thus far been looking like the bad guy in this movie, Emperor Ming is really, really evil.  He has concubines.  And slaves.  And dwarfs.  He thinks Hitler had a really good thing going.  Oh, yeah, and he thinks his daughter is hot, which is just…icky.

Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura, may or may not be evil, but she is really, really horny.  She has apparently slept with just about every man on Mongo, and when Flash arrives, she decides she’s ready to move on to some nubile young Earth-man ass.  This leads to a great scene in which Aura tries to seduce Flash, and Dale—who is telepathically communicating with Flash at the time—intercepts his not-so-pure thoughts.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this on YouTube.  What I did find, however, might be even better: a scene of Aura being tortured after her father learns she has betrayed him.  It’s the kind of scene that leaves you thinking, “How the hell did this end up in a PG-rated movie?”

The Costumes

The year is 1979.  Mike Hodges, the director of Flash Gordon, has a conversation with one of the interns working on the film.

 MIKE HODGES: So, did you go to George Lucas and ask him for some of the leftover Star Wars costumes like I asked?

INTERN: Well…yes.

MH: And what did he give you?

INTERN: An armed security guard to escort me to the door.

MH: [sarcastically] Great.

INTERN: But…I snuck back inside afterwards, and I broke into one of the wardrobe trailers.

MH: So what did you get?

INTERN: Three sand people robes and a C-3PO head that got hit by a car.

MH: Well…it’s better than nothing, I guess.  But we’ll still need more.  Go to the fabric store and get some things for the costume designer to work with.

INTERN: Yes, Mr. Hodges.  [He runs off.]

MH: [Calling after him] Go for spandex!  Lots of spandex!  In the future, everyone will be wearing spandex!!!

And that…pretty much sums up the costumes in a nutshell.  Everything that wasn’t ripped off from Star Wars is made out of spandex.  I mean, seriously…spandex?  What person ever thought that was a good idea?  I cannot believe if there were an alien civilization as advanced as Mongo was supposed to be that its citizens would even consider wearing spandex. 

And for some reason, scuba gear also figures prominently into the costumes.  Maybe they actually thought that scuba gear looked extra-terrestrial.  Or maybe they also raided Steven Spielberg’s old prop trailer from Jaws.

The Talent

INTERN: Uh, Mr. Hodges…there’s something I forgot to tell you.

MH: [rolling his eyes] What is it this time?

INTERN: Well…while I was at George Lucas’ studio, I may have also…kidnapped the man who played R2-D2.

MH: Was R2-D2 the short one or the British one?  I can never remember.

INTERN: The short one.

MH: Excellent.  We can totally use him for something.

There are two types of actors in this movie: the ones that make you think, “What the hell was [insert name here] doing in this movie?” and the ones no one ever heard of again.  Take the two leads: according to IMDb, Sam J. Jones, who played Flash, has done a handful of minor TV and movie roles since 1980, but nothing most people would have actually heard of.  And Melody Anderson, who played Dale, apparently hasn’t done any acting since 1995.

But on the other hand, you have the people you would never expect to be in a movie like this.  Max von Sydow, who played Ming, had a long and illustrious film career stretching back to the late 1940s, and currently has four projects listed as “filming” or “in production.  Some of his more notable, pre-Flash Gordon roles included Father Merrin in The Exorcist and Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told.  I mean, how do you go from playing a man who many believe was the Messiah to…Emperor Ming?

And Topol?  Mongo is a long way from Anatevka, and his performance as Tevye ranks as one of the most memorable in film history. So what is he doing here?  Maybe he wanted the money, or maybe he had been typecast after Fiddler and this is what he could get.  Honestly, I don’t know.  What I do know is that I half expected him to break into “If I Were a Rich Man” at some point in the film.  (And I was a little disappointed when he didn’t.)

As for other notables in smaller roles: Timothy Dalton, who would later play James Bond; Robbie Coltrane, more famous for playing Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies; Richard O’Brien, who played Riff-Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (yet another Rocky Horror connection…hmmm); and of course, Kenny Baker, who played R2-D2 in all six Star Wars films.  I guess The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t keeping Baker too busy.

The Music

I love Queen.  Play “Bohemian Rhapsody” at a karaoke bar, and suddenly everyone is singing.  I know all the words to “Under Pressure,” and it still has one of the greatest baselines in history…even if it was stolen by Vanilla Ice.  And I’m seriously considering having “Another One Bites the Dust” played at my funeral.  But I really have to wonder what they were thinking the day they decided to do the Flash Gordon theme song.  It is, in a word, atrocious—comically so.  It consists of synthesizers—lots and lots of synthesizers—and vocals that sound a lot more like screaming than singing.


Can Queen really get this bad?  I wouldn’t have believed it before I watched this movie, but now I know.  Freddy Mercury must be rolling over in his grave knowing this is part of his musical legacy.  And honestly, this was the only thing that really bothered me about the movie.  You can turn Tevye into a (possibly evil) scientist, you can clad your actors in spandex and aluminum foil, and you can make them speak dialogue that no human being would ever utter, but you just can’t mess with Queen.  That is not okay with me.

Yet if you can forgive Flash Gordon for bastardizing Queen—maybe it’ll help if you watch the “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene in Wayne’s World right after you finish this movie—it’s still a very entertaining film.  It might even be more entertaining during a night of heavy drinking or recreational drug use—not that I’m endorsing that kind of thing. 

But even completely sober, Flash Gordon has a power you can’t resist.  It’s okay…just embrace the cheese.