Best of the 80s – Flash Gordon (1980)
All hail Ming of Mongo and his arch-nemesis, Flash Gordon (he of the bulging muscles and minimal brain cells)!
Flash Gordon, made in 1980, has a soundtrack by Queen, who apparently were saving their best songwriting efforts for Highlander six years later. All they managed to produce for this film was a theme song that sounds like six guys hovered around a Wikipedia entry and said, “So…he’s a hero. And he saves people. So – ‘Flash – he’ll… save every one of us?’ and then repeat chorus? Great. Done.”
The film stars Sam J. Jones, an actor so wonderful that 99% of his dialogue had to be dubbed in the final edit, Melody “no one will ever hear from me again” Anderson and Topol, otherwise known as the guy from Fiddler on the Roof who would spend much of the 90s trying to recapture his glory days in various dinner theaters throughout the country. Sweet. Let’s get started with the details…
Flash Gordon, based on the original comic by Alex Raymond, was not the first feature film version of the iconic character, but is by far the most memorable one. Flash’s adventures were born in the 1930s when pulp sci-fi adventure was at its height, and several early films and television shows were built around Flash’s attempts to bring down the evil powers trying to destroy Earth.
By the time we get the 1980 film, Flash has been around for 50 years, but still looks as buff and clueless as ever. In this film incarnation, he’s played by Sam J. Jones as a New York Jets football player trapped on a puddle-jumper plane with the intrepid (she says trying not to chuckle) reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Their small prop plane is brought down in the middle of nowhere by freak electrical storms. Dale Arden, despite having the coolest name ever, is not really a model of feminist power and spends much of the first half hour of the film latched on to Flash like the world’s most expensively coiffed parasite.
Upon leaving their crashed plane (perfectly intact with nary a hair or bronzed pec out-of-place), they stumble upon the workshop of disgraced scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). Zarkov has been discredited by his colleagues in the U.S. government because he believes that Earth is under attack by the deranged ruler of a distant planet. Lo and behold, Zarkov is right (Hail, Ming!), and before you know it, the wily scientist has managed to trick the uber-intelligent Dale and Flash into helping him drive his jalopy of a rocket to find the mysterious planet that he believes holds Earth in its grasp.
The journey to planet Mongo is full of strange Queen-composed elevator music and manages to make all the passengers look like they are one lava lamp away from a scene in That 70s Show.
Once they land on Mongo, the Technicolor rainbow of cheese commences in full force. We are introduced to Ming, the despot ruler of this mongrel universe, who has some pretty impressive telekinetic powers and an even more impressive Fu Manchu that he pets constantly to show when he is contemplating something DASTARDLY. Ming is played by Max von Sydow, who is one of three actors (all of whom are European, natch) who would survive the splendid catastrophe that is this film and go on to have successful careers. Overall, Von Sydow admirably decided to go all Pacino as Tony Montana with his performance and it works pretty well. He embraces the oily cheese of it all and is so over-the-top fabulous that he basically creates a souffle out of the darn thing.
As the heroes arrive on Mongo, Ming is holding his bi-weekly State of the Planet meeting, which basically boils down to demanding gold, crops and first children from the many tribes of his planet. These tribes include a race of bird people, a group of white guys who love to wear green, some random small folks that sound like R2D2, and one of the lost tribes of Africa, who are up first. Bad luck, dudes.
Ming, having completed an off-planet course sponsored by the Sith School of How to Win Friends and Successfully Torture Minions, can basically make a dude do whatever the heck he wants with his super-powered telekinetic ring. It amazes me that none of the downtrodden tribes of Mongo have figured out how to snatch that darn ring off his nightstand, but I digress.
After proving his awesomeness by forcing one of the tribe’s leaders to literally fall on his sword for not paying tribute, Ming turns his attentions to Flash and companions. Flash tries unsuccessfully to escape by using the world’s lamest football long pass and Ming arches an eyebrow and discovers that Dale is kind of hot and he’d like to keep her as his current pet. Zarkov, as a scientist, is also useful, so he’s sent off to be brainwashed to serve the empire. Flash, however, lacks any observable use (showing once again that Ming, despite his murderous tendencies, is a practical guy) and is sent off to be tortured and killed.
Luckily for Flash, Ming’s slinky daughter, Princess Aura, has daddy issues (“I love him and want his approval! I hate him and will work to destroy him!”) and sees Flash as a great opportunity to get even. She kidnaps Flash and tries to hide him on her other boyfriend’s planet, the green and rainforesty Arboria (get it – “arbor”ia – like trees and stuff!). Great plan. The other boyfriend is Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton – his career survives!), who loves Aura despite her obvious psychological issues. Barin says sure, he’ll watch her other love toy, then promptly proceeds to try to kill Flash by subjecting him to the planet’s rite of passage, which involves sticking a hand in a stump and hoping it is not the hole hiding the deadly scorpion. Those wacky Arborians! Flash pulls a classic fake out and pretends to be wounded, then escapes with Barin in pursuit.
Now back to Dale and Zarkov. Zarkov manages to overcome the Mongo brainwashing by saying the alphabet backwards while watching awkward home movies of himself. He sets out to save Dale, but Dale is one step ahead of him. Dale has been trapped inside the world’s tackiest motel room (complete with orange upholstered rotating circle bed) with Ming’s maidservants, who are trying to ply her with some kind of psychedelic Jamba Juice that will make Ming tolerable to sleep with. Dale convinces one of the maids to drink the stuff with her, then steals her clothes, knocks out a nameless, faceless guard and steals his laser weapon. Go, Dale! You are almost making up for the first half hour when you were totally useless! Dale and Zarkov are captured by Vultan, leader of the Hawkmen, on their way to save Flash.
Flash and Barin are ALSO captured by Vultan (Brian Blessed – his career survives!), who is a busy guy despite all appearances to the contrary, and taken to their Sky City (not nearly as clever a name as Arboria, Hawkmen). Because there is no such thing as television on Mongo, the Hawkmen subject Flash and Barin to yet ANOTHER form of gladiator-style torture on a rotating, suspended pit of spikes. Flash gets his one brilliant idea and declares that fighting each other is pointless: the Arborians and Hawkmen should team up with Flash and defeat Ming.
Barin is game, but then Ming’s mask-faced minion Klytus shows up. It turns out that the fickle Aura ain’t so good at resisting torture, and has given up the location of both her boy toys to her daddy. Klytus makes a threatening speech and basically the Hawkmen are SO out of there. Barin and Flash kill Klytus Wicked Witch of the West style and it is officially on like Donkey Kong.
Ming shows up, wanting to reclaim his pet, Dale, and deal with this nuisance Flash once and for all. He offers Flash rule over Earth as a fellow despot and Flash, noble to the core of his witless soul, says no way. Ming grabs Zarkov and Dale and orders the city destroyed. But, wait! Flash manages to find a rocket cycle and escape before the whole thing implodes.
Flash runs into an apologetic Vultan, who’s all, “Let’s be friends now and sorry about that whole making you perform like a circus monkey and leaving you to your death thing”. They make up and decide to attack the Imperial City, crashing Ming’s wedding to Dale. Ming has decided he will take her as his “wife of the moment”, which once again makes him more hilarious and interesting than any other character in this film.
Here’s where the theme song blares continuously for the next 15 minutes, as Flash and the Hawkmen break through Ming’s defenses with much “pew-pewing” of laser weapons and equally annoying acting prowess.
In the end, Flash really does save every one of us, if only because with Ming’s death, the movie must finish its onslaught on all the senses and get to the credits.
Flash Gordon is a cult hit for the very reason that it is so incredibly awful that it is essentially brilliant. It basically vomits in the face of good taste and keeps on smiling. Who could ask for more?
Need some great Ming quotes? Of COURSE you do!
“Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror. “
Amen to that.
“It’s what they call tears, it’s a sign of their weakness.”
“Klytus! Are your men on the right pills? Maybe you should execute their trainer!”
All hail Ming!