Savior of the Universe
Fly Me to the Moon March 1, 2021
On Flash Gordon
lash Gordon (Sam Jones) plays for the New York Jets. He’s beloved, and his star is only getting bigger. (Lest someone forget who he is, Gordon often helpfully
wears in public a skintight white T-shirt with “FLASH” spikily emblazoned in red across the chest.) He can’t so much as ride a plane without one of the pilots, starstruck by the up-close sight of this young athlete, asking Gordon if he can sign his copy of the latest edition of People. (The football hero is the new cover star.) In Flash Gordon (1980), Mike Hodges’ lovably campy take on the 1930s comic strip in which this footballer was the protagonist, the titular hero will find another avenue — and an unexpected one at that — to assist his ascendence in the public eye. After serendipitously getting kidnapped by a maybe-mad-maybe-not scientist named Zarkov (Topol, appropriately wild-eyed), who then whisks him away into outer space, Gordon is unexpectedly made responsible for rescuing Earth from doom.
Sam Jones in 1980's Flash Gordon.
Why was Gordon kidnapped, and from whom is he saving the world? Zarkov, we learn, is convinced that a recent onslaught of bizarre natural disasters on Earth is not random but actually the fault of something — or someone — up in the clouds who can somehow manipulate the moon. (Last time he checked, it was more than 10 degrees out of orbit.) Zarkov can’t get his assistant to come up with him in the rocket he’s recently built to investigate. So when Gordon and a spunky travel agent named Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) find themselves at his offices because of an almost-too-unbelievable-to-be-true coincidence I don't want to get into, Zarkov sees an opportunity. Once this forced-together trio is lifted up into the annals of outer space and then sucked into what the film refers to as “the imperial vortex," we discover that Zarkov, whom Arden recognizes too late as that crazy scientist she’s seen sometimes on TV, is right. There is something — someone, really — playing with the moon as if it were as throwaway as a squeeze ball. That someone is doing this very intentionally, and their reasons do not extend beyond I want to mess with Earth before I eventually destroy it.
This extraterrestrial troublemaker is Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), the emperor of the planet Mongo. He apparently does this all the time: play with planets before blowing them up, all because he’s bored and looks at causing problems no differently than a pastime. He has a handy planet-toying switchboard that streamlines the process. Labels with color-coded buttons beneath them read “HURRICANE,” “HOT HAIL,” “TYPHOON.” (You can guess what happens on Ming's Planet of the Day when a certain button’s pushed.) What’s fun about Ming — though one must note that his character is visually a grotesque racial stereotype in the Fu Manchu mold, which has a souring effect — is that he doesn’t have any real motivations besides wanting more power and being evil. “Why do you attack us?” Zarkov asks Ming, to which Ming drily replies, “Why not?” Mostly everything else is so simple in Flash Gordon. No one has any sort of deep, complicated feeling about anything or anything they’re doing. Their life stories could probably be told in a single simple sentence. All one must do is dress up in their required role, perform reasonably enough, and be either liked — or hated, albeit in a winking way — by the viewer.
You don’t detect any cynicism in Flash Gordon, and that’s part of its charm — it just wants its audience to have the same feelings they might poring over a comic strip. But while it doesn’t take itself very seriously it also isn’t so in on the joke that it strikes us as glib. It has the tone of a comic or face-paced movie serial just right. All its little misadventures, which kill the time before Ming is inevitably beat, zip by so quickly they feel weightless. They have the breeziness of a page-turn. And they have the right visual pop. There’s almost too much to look at, but even when Flash Gordon is garish our eyes are never not having a good time. (TV’s Batman series of the 1960s was a major inspiration on the film.)
Flash Gordon is particularly enamored of stop-sign red. Ming is always robed in it — sometimes he looks like a dragon in repose — and his main chambers bathe in it too. The film’s skies look like emptied-out lava lamps whose shimmery and multicolored guts are searching for space to fill. Costumes so nicely complement the personalities of the characters wearing them that they’re almost like auras you could stroke. Designers Carole Hersee and Danilo Donati make sure even minor details make an impression. When Gordon, Arden, and Zarkov are stepping out of their spacecraft for the first time, they’re clothed in white, red, and tan. This color scheme is all brought together by the scarlet painted on Anderson’s bee-stung lips. (When she’s standing in between the men as they walk in a line, she’s like a pretty bullseye.) One planet in the Flash Gordon universe is so unnaturally thronged with trees and grime that we wonder if this is what forests might look like if everything didn’t grow but overgrow in tandem. A room reserved for Ming’s concubines is so engorged in glittering silks, beaded pillows and blankets, and glistening scarves that you feel it could engulf you — death by softness. Flash Gordon is a celebration of stylish exaggeration.
one of the performers, aside from Von Sydow (whose visual caricaturishness is at odds with his European stateliness), feel out of place. Even though one could argue the inexperienced Jones is flat, I think he’s just
right as a wholesome and all-American hero-by-coincidence whose blandness makes it easier for us to view him as a stand-in. When he speaks, it’s a medley of the “I’ll be darned”s and curvaceous Rs you’d hear coming from the mouth of an older brother in a 1960s sitcom. He’s the platonic ideal of an old-fashioned, white, corn-fed, youthful heroism. (When a kid is reading a comic book, it’s a lot simpler to feel like one is in the shoes of the hero when little about them is explicitly defined enough to ruin senses of fantasy.)
Some members of the ensemble especially get correct the sensibility of the movie’s ersatz old-fashionedness. Timothy Dalton, as Prince Barin, has the dashing/comic ratio down about as well as Errol Flynn did at the peak of his swashbuckling days. That Dalton has a slash-like mustache and frequently wears moss-green tights is a likably on-the-nose duplicate of Flynn’s general look in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). (Dalton confidently wears the jade-green eye contacts the makeup department has offered him, too — they complete his whole look as a striking pretty-boy rogue.)
As Ming’s mischievous and bored daughter Aura, Ornella Muti is like a young film noir-style femme fatale who luckily doesn’t have to live with the character type’s general stakes and inexorable doom. All she does is make trouble for laughs, and Muti has a knowing glint in her eye as she’s teasing her toy boy — Barin — into doing little tasks for her, or when she’s rescuing Gordon after a near-death experience entirely because she would like to give him a try. “Of course I am,” she says sweetly when someone tells her that she’s playing with fire in one scene. But there’s an innocence to her mischief-making. When she says to Ming of Gordon, “I want him — give him to me,” it’s like she’s a spoiled little girl asking her dad if he could get her a puppy. Playing the Viking-esque leader of a group imaginatively calling itself the Winged-Bird Men, which flies around on gold pennons, Brian Best is id personified. He has a booming laugh to remind us that whenever he enters a room, he is its happiest, most blustery inhabitant.
Flash Gordon’s very-intentional one-dimensionality and arch artifice add up to something delectable and fun. Getting lost in its revelry rather than trying to make much sense of it is part of the experience. One wonders how Hodges, who had by 1980 mostly made comparatively sobered thrillers, was able to get so right the look and feel of an escapist space opera. But like the movie’s hero when on the football field or in the middle of a forbidden chamber flanked by guards, you can tell that when he was handed Flash Gordon’s tools and ingredients, everything came together like it was supposed to. A