Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Guilty Pleasure 1: Flash Gordon

In 1980 it wasn't uncommon that I would spend a weekend at my grandparents' house along with two of my cousins who were close in age. My grandpa would often take the three of us to a movie during the weekend. We first saw "The Empire Strikes Back" on one of these weekends. Later that same year I looked forward to one of those weekends anticipating seeing "Flash Gordon." I got sick that weekend and ended up staying at home and being extremely jealous of my cousins who got to see the movie. It was many many years later that I finally got to see what would become a great cult classic of the 80's.

Of course, Flash is a character that dates back to the 1930's, but this version was pretty much a response to the success of "Star Wars," However, the two films couldn't be more different. Lucas' universe was lived in, it was worn. You won't find a speck of rust here, though. The general feel of Flash is actually much closer to "Barbarella" than "Star Wars."

The look of many of the ships and costumes are right out of the original Flash Gordon comics and serial films of the 30's. Other elements of the design seem like you're walking into a Yes album cover.

The acting is uneven to say the least. Flash is played by Sam Jones, who rumor has it was cast in the role because producer Dino De Laurentis' mother spotted him on an episode of "The Dating Game." Not exactly a promising start. Despite having an unknown in the lead, the film does boast some impressive supporting players including Topol as Dr. Zarkov, future James Bond Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, and Max Von Sydow perfectly cast as Ming the Merciless.

But the casting highlight has to be Brian Blessed in a completely over-the-top performance as the leader of the Hawkmen, Prince Vultan. He's a bizarre cartoon character come to life as he bounds around in his winged diaper.

The icing on the cake is the musical contribution of Queen. With it's extensive use of synthesizers, pounding bass lines, and frequent repeats of "FLASH! Aaaaah," well, let's just say it's a far cry from John Williams.

"Flash Gordon" was not received well upon its initial release. The shadow of "Star Wars" is hard to get away from. But Flash needs to be viewed much like the "Batman" TV series of the 60's. The film seems to be intentionally campy with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor. For example when Zarkov and Prince Barin are blindfolded and chained in a dungeon, Barin delivers the best line of the movie…"Tell me more about this Houdini fellow." Simply put, it's meant to be ridiculous.

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