Running time: 111 min.
Release date: December 5, 1980
The opening several minutes of Flash Gordon are like an assault on the senses: we have the voice of a being who views Earth as a plaything while pressing buttons labelled "EARTHQUAKE" and "HURRICANE" and "HOT HAIL", with the subsequent weather anomaly bombarding the planet. Then we cut to the opening credits featuring clippings of the Flash Gordon comic strip from the 1930s flashing before our eyes to the bombastic sounds of the legendary Queen. This assault makes one giddy with guilty excitement over what we are about to witness. The tone has been set within the first five minutes.
Sam J. Jones plays our hero, Flash Gordon, who introduces himself as "Flash Gordon, quarterback, New York Jets!". Jones certainly looks like an action hero with his blonde hair and physique. Apparently, during post-production, his voice was dubbed over, but this is hardly noticeable during his scenes. He gets on a plane with travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) during some seriously bad weather, which is just the logic required for this film. Something hits the plane, the pilots disappear, and Flash is left to land the plane, even though he hasn't gotten that far in his flying lessons yet. They crash land smack in the middle of a laboratory operated by Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). Zarkov just happens to be ready to fly off into space in his homemade rocket and needs an assistant, so he tricks the two onto the rocket, a struggle ensues and we're off into space to combat whomever is causing the moon to leave its orbit and hurtle towards Earth. That just happens to be Emperor Ming (Max Von Sydow) of the planet Mongo.
When the Earthlings arrive on Mongo, they are taken to meet Ming. He takes a liking to Dale and plans to marry her, while Zarkov is scheduled for brainwashing and Flash is to be executed, but not before Flash attempts to play a little football with Ming's goons, in one of the campier scenes in the movie. Dale acts as cheerleader on the sidelines, while Flash uses his quarterback skills to almost overcome the bad guys. Meanwhile, Ming's daughter, the princess Aura (Ornella Muti), has become attracted to Flash and helps keep him alive, then rushes him out of the castle. We meet other characters such as Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), Aura's lover; we also meet Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed), leader of the Hawkmen. Ming's right hand man is Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), a metal-faced general who acts like he would rather be criticizing your interior decorating rather than scheduling you for torture. Flash works to try and bring everyone together in order to combat the evil Ming and stop his plan of destroying Earth, a plot point that gets forgotten until there is about thirty minutes left in the film. Dale casually reminds us when she tells Flash that she loves him "but we only have 14 hours to save the earth!"
Producer Dino DeLaurentiis has done this before. He was the man behind the King Kong remake of 1976 and gave it the camp treatment. Another link between that movie and this one: Lorenzo Semple Jr. is the man behind the screenplay. You may remember him as the man behind many scripts for Batman, the television series from the 1960s. Flash Gordon has its tongue firmly in cheek from the get-go, so this film is not to be taken seriously and that is what makes it work. The goofiness of a man in a distant galaxy controlling Earth's destructive weather from a computer terminal makes you roll your eyes; but you also can't help but smile at the stupidity of it all. The movie is like that kid in the back of your class who says and does dumb things in order to get your attention and make you laugh.
Director Mike Hodges keeps the movie briskly paced so that there is never a dull moment. The action just zooms from one scene to the next, while Hodges is able to maintain the campy tone without ever letting up. The production design is a thrill to look at, with interesting sets and silly, over-the-top costumes that suit the material. The scene where Flash and Prince Barin have a whip battle on a tilting floor littered with spikes while the whole thing floats over bottomless space is one of the more thrilling scenes in the movie. There is also a scene where Flash and Barin dare each other to stick their arms in a stump that is home to the poisonous Wood Beast; this was some neat camera work, as we got the point of view of their arms from inside the stump.
All of this is performed to a catchy and pulse-pounding score by Queen. As Flash is flying a dying spaceship toward certain death, Queen keeps the blood and adrenaline pumping, leading to a rousing conclusion. As for the performances, Max Von Sydow steals the show as Ming. We also get a seriously professional turn by Timothy Dalton, and Brian Blessed as Vultan gets some of the best lines in the film, amplified by his overacting which only served to ramp up the guilty grinning.
Flash Gordon is campy, silly, stupid and some people would probably hate this movie. However, it has fun and that helps the audience enjoy it. Check your brain at the door and enjoy the setting, the score and the stupidity of it all.