When it comes to comic-book adaptations, camp is underrated. Yet these days, they often step back in disgust at the idea of retaining the original source’s colorful ardor — to modernize animation and turn cartoonishness into something gritty à la The Dark Knight is all the rage.
But I like camp. I like the way all tongues remain superglued to the cheek, the way stock dialogue becomes a laugh epidemic, the way broad strokes prove to get the job done just as well as intricate, multifaceted depth. Don’t blame me for thinking Batman & Robin is a roller disco of hilariously mounted Technicolor; don’t blame me for enjoying Barbarella’s shittiness and hating myself for it.
Flash Gordon, from 1980, is widely accepted as one of the finest examples of mainstream schlock. It is also a riot, stunningly infectious in its ludicrous stylings and delightful in its chintziness. The way it mimics the silliness of the 1960s Batman series is no accident: Dino De Laurentiis, the producer behind Danger: Diabolik (another camp favorite of mine) and Dune, made it his mission back in the 1970s to finance a Flash Gordon film of strict melodramatic artifice — with the commercial success of Star Wars trailing in the distance, the idea of finding the humor in the space opera seemed like a logical, artistically interesting move. With Mike Hodges at the helm, the film chews up its intended purpose like a rawhide-ripping German Shepherd.
Sam J. Jones stars as the titular character, a football hero kidnapped by the mad Dr. Zarkov (Topol) and taken to planet Mongo, the living quarters of the crazily eyebrowed Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) and the source of recent natural disasters wreaking havoc on Earth. Why Zarkov believes that he, a football hero, and Lois Lane-esque reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) can defeat a powerful ruler living galaxies away is beyond me; I guess that’s why they call him a mad scientist before he can throw in his two cents and defend himself.
The film follows Flash along as he is executed (and brought back to life), is nearly seduced, partakes in fights to the death, travels to other dimensions, and battles quicksand, among other things. It is a wild movie without much focus, but I’ll be damned if we don’t find ourselves pleasantly entertained at every waking moment, whether our signs of diversion are shown through a snicker or bona-fide fondness.
I’m sure fans of the movie have centered drinking games around the frequent uses of laser beams, the number of times Ming the Merciless raises one of his insanely shaped eyebrows, or the utilizations of mild to poor special effects that savor the use of unconvincing green screen and obviously miniature scale models all blown up (it’s shocking that we don’t see a wire clearly attached to the “spaceships” that travel through the outer space of Mongo’s world). And who can forget the dated soundtrack produced by rock legends none other than Queen?
It’s all frivolous, sometimes beautifully staged space opera. Dino De Laurentiis is a national treasure. Without him, would we be able to bask in the glory of its so intentionally bad it’s good smarminess? B