Sunday, January 1, 2012
FLASH GORDON (1980)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
“I love you, Flash, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!”
I probably hadn’t watched Mike Hodges’ FLASH GORDON straight through since seeing it in the theater in 1980. On watching it again I had most of the same reactions to the film that I did back in the day. I loved the opulent costuming, which almost but not quite made up for the lack of good visual FX. Lead heroes Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson, as Flash Gordon and Dale Allen, still seemed pretty awful. In contrast Max Von Sydow made a Ming as fearsome and regal as the classic version by Charles Middleton, and Ornella Muti made one sexy Princess Aura.
On the other hand, I remembered FLASH ‘80 as a very fast-paced film, but this time I noticed an awful lot of slow talking-heads scenes. This FLASH-film was almost certainly greenlighted on the strength of the serial’s influence on the mega-success STAR WARS, but director Hodges doesn’t come anywhere close to duplicating the breathless quality of either Lucas’ film or the original FLASH serial. Some of the talking-heads scenes are devoted to portraying all the high intrigue at Ming’s court and in the land of Arboria, so it may be that Hodges and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. were trying to impart a little more realism to the fantastic manner in which the determined Earth-hero manages to rally the dissident tribes of Mongo against the tyrant Ming. Given the two-dimensional characters involved, though, those static scenes drag badly.
By the time I saw the 1980 film, I was well aware of Semple’s reputation for campy scripting on the 1960s BATMAN teleseries. I had ambivalent feelings toward the series, but though some of the camp-humor worked for BATMAN, I remember groaning at the overly obvious humor Semple used in FLASH. This time, however, I noticed that Jones and Anderson are the only actors saddled with the lame humor. As Hans Zharkov the actor Topol gives a twitchy but essentially believable performance, and all of the villains—both the classics like Ming and Aura, as well as new creations like Kala and Klytus—play it straight. In contrast, during the teleseries such villains like Penguin and Catwoman were permitted, not infrequently, to camp things up. It’s true that Brian Blessed, as Vultan king of the Hawkmen, gets to play a very hammy character, but his performance fits the character. In contrast Flash’s other “friendly enemy” Prince Barin—who has a mad on for Flash due to Aura’s crush on the Earthman— is a bit over-serious, and might have been better depicted here as a cavalier Han Solo type.
For many years FLASH GORDON was a key myth of the early 20th century. Alex Raymond learned well the lessons of the TARZAN books and comic strip, for the first year of the FLASH strip show the hero running around slaying copious monsters the same way Tarzan slew jungle-beasts. That trope was soon set aside to emphasize the struggle of democracy against tyranny. Hodges and Semple are never able to put across this theme with any consistency, possibly because they chose to focus on Flash as a somewhat airheaded “regular guy” rather than an ultra-principled aristocrat filled with a sense of “noblesse oblige” to other (possibly lesser) races.
The Hodges FLASH still uses a little of the “Yellow Peril” imagery associated with Ming and Aura, including a scene in which Ming allows his rebellious daughter to be tortured for her disobedience, which reads like various similar scenes in the FU MANCHU books. Frankly, I prefer the outright use of the original paraphernalia to some more politically correct version (as seen in the 2007 FLASH teleseries). As always, Ming and Aura exist to threaten white sexuality, though just for a change it might be nice to see a version in which Ming is just as attractive to Dale in a “forbidden fruits” manner as Aura is to Flash.
Among the many Mongo-tribes seen at Ming’s court is a party of black men, one of whom sacrifices his life in an attempt to kill the evil emperor. The name of this character, “Thun,” was an interesting tip of the hat to the early years of the strip, when for a time Flash ran around with a “lion-man” ally of that name. However, this tribe never plays any significant role in the story, which focuses largely on Flash’s winning the Hawkmen to his side. Given that the film wasn’t able to render the troops of winged men realistically—they “fly” at their enemies with rigid and unmoving wings—maybe Hodges would have done better to stick with some down-to-earth “lion-men.”
FLASH ’80 may have also been produced with an eye to the success of 1978’s SUPERMAN. However, like a smattering of other “comic-book” films produced in response to the Man of Steel’s success—POPEYE, LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER—FLASH crashed and burned at the box office. Thus the (?) at the end of the film, suggesting a possible sequel, never came to pass. It’s still enjoyable, though, on the level of good eye-candy, and for the magnetic villainy essayed by Max Von Sydow.