Flash Gordon (1980)

Is nine years old perfect Flash Gordon age or what? It struck me that I must have been nine or ten the first time I saw it on HBO. Of course I loved it to pieces then – I must have seen it twenty times – and I was pleased to see our son having a blast with it. It’s a stupid, silly, predictable movie, but between the crazy costumes and set design and all the actors having such a ball, it’s just so darn fun.

I haven’t actually watched this movie in decades. No kidding, the last time I saw this movie, I didn’t know who any of the actors were. But I saw it so often that every line was carved in my memory, and for many years, every performer in it was defined later on as having been in this film. Isn’t it funny how the mind works that way? I bet for years and years to come, so many of the actors in the Harry Potter movies will have their wizarding roles be the first to come to mind for half the planet. Mention Rickman, you think Snape. Mention Max von Sydow, I think Ming. A few of the performers escaped their Gordon roles for me – Dalton, Wyngarde – but I don’t care how many Bergman movies I’ve watched, he’s still Ming.

And speaking of Potter, blink and you’ll miss him, but inside the tiny airport terminal, cast there because they needed somebody hungry in Scotland with an Equity card, there’s the future Hagrid, Robbie Coltrane. Poor fellow doesn’t get a line, but he was glad of the credit and the paycheck, I expect.

Does it hold up as an adult? It’s just a goofball adventure film with BRIAN BLESSED stealing every scene and Peter Wyngarde not getting to show his face, but boy, what a voice. There’s not a darn thing wrong with a goofball adventure movie for kids. I guess for grownups there’s the amazing silliness of “Here Comes the Bride” being played at interstellar weddings – bet Ming doesn’t pay any composer royalties either, the swine – and of course the gorgeous Ornella Muti, who’s the space babe against whom all space babes from the period are judged. But mainly it’s BRIAN BLESSED yelling a lot and the hero looking wide-eyed and incredulous while beating up all obstacles. It’s a good film full of good actors, both the headliners and a gang of character actors from the day. John Hallam, with very big hair, is one of the Hawkmen. I also spotted John Hollis and Deep Roy in scenes here and there, so people who enjoy looking for favorite actors will have a ball with this.

As for what doesn’t work in the far-flung future of forty years’ distance, it’s mainly the special effects. Some of it felt dated even in the early eighties, and the kid let out a snort over Topol’s homemade rocket looking awfully unreal as it launched, but I think the design and the strange skies of Mongo give it a unique feel. It may be artificial, but it doesn’t look like any other movie either, which is a good thing. You can complain about the one-note villainy, or the fellow named Ming with the yellow peril beard wanting to enslave white women, but these were there in the original strips and serials in the thirties. A modern Flash Gordon – there was one 13 years ago I didn’t know about before now – would probably do some things differently, but they were shooting for retro in 1980.

Best scene? For me it’s probably Sam J. Jones and Timothy Dalton having that terrific duel to the death on the tilting floor with spikes. And doesn’t Dalton just go ahead and audition for Bond when he starts taking out Ming’s red-suited thugs in the corridors below the city? For the kid, the whole climax was a blast. He even riffed Ming’s demise as Flash runs a freaking rocket into him, cracking “Well, Flash Gordon can’t land an airplane, so what do you expect?” Happily, his hole-filled memory didn’t have to sit too long to remember one little bit at the end. When we watched “Last of the Time Lords” a month ago, I told him that the end, where a mysterious stranger spirits away the Master’s ring, left behind in the dust, was a tip of the hat to a scene from an older movie, which we’d watch together soon. I’m really pleased he figured it out today.

He says that Flash Gordon is his favorite character, “of course.” Some day down the line, he’ll figure out that Prince Vultan’s really the best character in the movie. GORDON’S ALIVE?!

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