Flash Gordon (Blu-ray)(Universal Home Video, 6.15.2010)
Dino De Laurentiis was apparently trying to cash-in on the popularity of Star Wars when he decided to produce Flash Gordon. The title character had been a cultural icon since the thirties through a comic strip and a series of movie serials long popular on television. Perhaps because the 1980 film remains true to its pulp origins, not attempting to impose the mythic/philosophical baggage of Star Wars, it was dismissed as camp and failed, making just $10 million at the U.S. box office. Yet its precisely this tongue-in-cheek pulpiness that makes Flash Gordon far more entertaining than any of the more more highly regarded comic adaptations.
“This Ming is a psycho.”
Just as Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), emperor of the planet Mongo, is unleashing a torrent of natural disasters upon the earth, New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) are abducted by Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) and taken to Mongo by the mad scientist. Flash is soon sentenced to death by Ming, despite the pleas of his daughter, Aura (Ornella Muti), who has the hots for our hero. Ming has similar designs on Dale. Meanwhile, baddies Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) and Kala (Mariangela Melato) are out to increase their power, while Vultan (prince of the hawkmen; Brian Blessed), Barin (prince of the tree people; Timothy Dalton) and Aura’s lover bicker.
“You damn Mongo person.”
With the notable exception of Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), who makes Zarkov a bug-eyed hysteric, the international cast does not condescend to the material. Though Anderson -- who has retired from show business to become a substance-abuse counsellor -- and Jones have limited acting skills, they approach their roles without fear of appearing foolish. Now a grandmother, Muti is the perfect embodiment of female sexuality as conceived by comic-book artists. The difficulty she and Melato (star of Lena Wertmuller’s Swept Away) have wrapping their lovely Italian tongues around English vowels only adds to their charms. As always, Blessed has a grand time. If the Academy Award idiots ever deign to give von Sydow an overdue special Oscar, it will be a hoot to see a Flash Gordon clip intermingled with those from various Ingmar Bergman films.
“No one dies in the palace without a command from the emperor.”
Director of two minor masterpieces (Get Carter, Croupier), Mike Hodges seems an odd choice for this material, but he keeps everything flowing smoothly. Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (of Reel Geezers fame), likewise has some impressive credits, including Pretty Poison, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Semple also wrote for the Batman TV series and approaches Flash Gordon in the same spoofing spirit.
“No, not the bore worms.”
However, the true genius behind Flash Gordon is production and costume designer Danilo Donati, who recreates the color palette of the comic books with bright reds, greens and yellows. While the cheesiness of the special effects is part of the charm of Flash Gordon, Donati cleverly uses color to make them not-too-cheesy. The film resembles the decadence of Fellini Satyricon for which Donati did the costumes (one of Semple’s in-jokes is naming Aura’s pet dwarf Fellini).
“Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the earth.”
Donati’s work is perfectly captured by Gilbert Taylor, the least heralded of the great cinematographers. A master of black-and-white (Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day’s Night, Repulsion), Taylor gives Flash Gordon a more vibrant style than he employs in Star Wars. The explosive (some would say garish) colors of Flash Gordon are the main reason for seeing the film and this Blu-ray makes it look better than ever (though, as always with HD technology, the rear-projection shots look more phony).
“Give me the remote control.”
The extras here are all hold-overs from the 2007 DVD. Artist Alex Ross -- who has drawn Batman and Superman comics -- offers an unabashed tribute to his favorite film. He discusses the film’s sexuality with attention to Donati’s love for leather and latex, wondering if the “European flavor” contributed to its failure in America. Ross also adores Queen’s relentless title song (“Flash... AH-AH... sav-ior of the universe!”), the most fondly remembered aspect of Flash Gordon for many.
“Have a nice day.”
In Writing a Classic, the avuncular Semple describes writing the screenplay with little guidance from De Laurentiis and thinks he should have had some criticism along the way. He reveals that Donati did not even read the screenplay, creating sets and costumes that it was up to Hodges to merge with the script. Of the star, Semple says, “You couldn’t have anybody more absurd than Sam Jones saving the earth. Give me a break.” He goes on to say that Jones was perfectly cast and that the film’s silliness is what makes it work. A third extra is the first episode of the 1936 serial, starring my boyhood favorite Buster Crabbe, which demonstrates how surprisingly faithful Semple was to his source. -- Michael Adams