As a rule, I’m against tampering with films. I’m no fan of the revised Star Wars, or ET with the guns turned into flashlights for PC reasons; no thanks. A film is of its time, warts and all, and should remain untouched, for better or worse. But this brand-new, razzle-dazzle two-disc Flash Gordon blu-ray marks an exception to the rule; at great cost, time and effort, they’ve somehow removed the myriad of wires and strings that used to mar the many effects shots, and it’s a labour of love that should be appreciated by the film’s legion of fans. Of course, Flash didn’t wow US audiences back in the day, but the cult that resulted is sizeable and loyal, and this 40th anniversary revival should connect with a wide captive audience under lockdown.
Producer Dino de Laurentiis had the right idea; Star Wars would bring back the Saturday morning serial, and he could surf the wave. He was proved right when Raiders of the Lost Ark came out the following year, and this revival of classic Flash Gordon serials from the 1930’s was certainly ahead of the curve. He assembled a top-notch cast, some incredible production values, and a Queen soundtrack, but somehow Flash Gordon didn’t catch the swell, which is a shame because it’s a jolly romp with visuals that recall and surpass the gloopy psychedelic of the same producer’s Barbarella.
Flash Gordon (Sam L Jones) is a US football player who starts a fragile romance with advertising woman Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) on a flight that crashes near the base of Dr Zarkov (Topol); a rain of fiery hailstones provides the mechanism for their meeting. Zarkov is planning an urgent trip to space, and Flash and Dale come along, racing against time to save the earth from oblivion. Once on planet Mongo, they run into the unrepentantly fascist rule of Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) and his scheming daughter Aura (Ornella Muti).
There’s tonnes of other fun around the edges; Brain Blessed as a hawk-man (“Gordon’s ALIVE!”), Timothy Dalton’s uncertain prince, Peter Wyngarde, buried under his costume as henchman Klytus; in fact the costumes, by Pasolini’s regular collaborator Danilo Donati, are quite stupendous, as are the sets. Queen’s music always struck me as underused, although the main, instantly recognisable theme gets a substantial airing. Random bystanders include Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan, R2D2 Kenny Baker, playwright John Osborne, Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien and 80’s It-girl Suzanne Danielle.
As well as being re-touched and restored, the second blu-ray disc offers a wealth of material, from an in-depth interview with Hodges on his ‘souffle’ of a film, also revealing why a fall-out between the producer and Jones scuppered the US release. Brian May also seems somewhat wary of de Laurentiis, and amusingly suggests how nervous Queen were attending the premiere. Even the poster artist is recruited to explain his art. Many of the key players return, for anecdotes and re-unions (circa 2015), notably Brain Blessed who holds forth in striking fashion on flying vomit, raffles, dwarves, rib-breaking fights, how’s your father and all kinds of other subjects; his contribution is priceless. “I’ve never felt like such a tit in all my life,’ should join the growing, groaning repository of classic Blessed quotes.
Flash Gordon wasn’t to my taste back in 1980, but it’s wormed my way into my affections since, and stands tall today as a deserved cult-classic with the widest of appeal. It’s camp, it’s silly, it’s funny and it manages to update the Boys Own charm of the original serials. It’s literally never looked better than on this pressing, and this lavish blu-ray package gets a full five stars for sheer-entertainment value.
Thanks to StudioCanal for early access to this film.
Flash Gordon returns to select UK cinemas this weekend, and hits blu-ray on Aug 10th 2020. The link below is for the DVD, Blu ray and 4K collectors collection.