Thursday, 20 August 2020

Flash Gordon (1980)

Flash In The Can

Flash Gordon (1980)
UK/Italy/Netherlands/USA 1980
Directed by Mike Hodges
Studio Canal Blu Ray Zone B

When I was a kid, from the first omnibus TV screening of the original 1936 Flash Gordon serial by the BBC in 1975... which was shown as two long ‘compiled’ episodes with a Hoppalong Cassidy movie playing between the two, I was absolutely hooked on Flash Gordon and that theatrical serial and its two sequels, Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe, were... and still are... three of my favourite things within the world of film.

Now I’m not going to talk about the serials much here because... well, I intend to watch them again sometime over the course of the next year and write about them for this blog... but I will say that many decades later, when I read some of Alex Raymond’s original Flash Gordon newspaper strips, I was shocked to find that, as far as the first serial goes at any rate, the 1936 Hollywood version with Buster Crabbe, with all its episodic twists and turns and globe-trotting travels on the planet Mongo, was remarkably close to the original source material.

Now, around about the same time as I first saw that original serial, a young director called George Lucas was trying to buy the rights to make a modern, Flash Gordon movie (the rights were optioned with Fellini at the time, I believe, who gets name checked as a character in the 1980 version). He couldn’t afford the asking price so, in the end, he put all his ideas into making his own space opera which borrowed quite a lot from the feel of the original... that film turned out to be Star Wars and, as you undoubtedly know, the rest was movie history, as far as that story goes.

However, the Flash Gordon film then being made by Dino DeLaurentis was floundering and creative differences forced one of the original directors for this movie to part company... so, yeah, we missed out on the great Nicholas Roeg’s vision for Flash (which, given the direction he was going, I’m not sure wasn’t a blessing in disguise) and eventually Mike Hodges went on to direct the new movie.

Ironically, of course, it was the success of the first Star Wars film itself that paved the way for the atmosphere in which a film like Flash Gordon could be taken seriously by studio executives. The bandwagon machine for post Star Wars clones was an immediate rush for anything science fiction to be given a green light and the next ten years saw a lot of films, some bad and others good, coming out to greet the viewing public. Stuff like Star Crash, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Battle Beyond The Stars, The Humanoid... things that might not have made it to the cinema in exactly the same way they might have, if at all, without Lucas’ film hugely changing the cinema going map. Even the popular James Bond franchise was retooled and the next intended film for the series was replaced with a ‘name only but not the original story’ version of Moonraker, to keep up with the general public’s voracious demand for science fiction.

I remember seeing Flash Gordon back in 1980 at my local cinema in Enfield and thinking to myself that, although it was obviously nowhere near as good as those original theatrical serials (nothing to do with Flash Gordon since has ever touched those... but I’m sure there’s a great film series to be realised from these stories yet), this film was still a huge amount of fun and, if it wasn’t anywhere near as close to the original story, it did have some anchor points and some of the spirit of the template was certainly there. So I liked it a lot, in other words... and ended up seeing it three times at the cinema, if memory serves.

The wonderful Arrow films has released a nice new Blu Ray restoration of the movie overseas but, alas, due to rights issues, the new UK version has been released by Studio Canal. I was going to go for the big £50 boxed edition but I thought that was a bit of an expensive option and I had most of the stuff in it anyway... so I saved some money by buying the new, slimmed down 2 disc 40th Anniversary Edition and then augmenting it with the third of the discs in the deluxe edition set, the documentary film Life After Flash, as a separate Blu Ray purchase (I got a nice little handwritten note from the director thanking me when that film came through in the post and I am looking forward to watching and reviewing Life After Flash for this blog at some point in the very near future).

The film is, mostly, nicely presented and the production values are, for the most part, excellent. I hate the first couple of spaceship designs used in this but the final one, War Rocket Ajax, is a nice, spectacular design worthy of the original strip and the whole film is like a bizarre fusion of 1930s eye candy reimagined for the 1980s. It’s so colourful too... like somebody had hired Mario Bava and Dario Argento to do the lighting and then just let them run riot with the thing.

The cast is wonderful... Sam J. Jones as Flash is a lot more of a presence than I believe people gave him credit for. Melody Anderson’s Dale Arden is, perhaps, a little stronger as a character than she was in the 1930s but that’s no bad thing either. Now I always loved the original 1930s cast and especially Frank Shannon as Dr. Zarkov. Here, Zarkov is played by Chaim Topol and he’s absolutely amazing in the role, if a little over the top. That being said, most of the cast are a little over the top because the movie does almost demand a larger than life delivery of the lines. I mean, Brian Blessed as Vultan, King of the Hawkmen, is a completely brilliant bit of casting and Timothy Dalton as Prince Baron is... as written, a little more intimidating and complicated than the original... but still great. And Ornella Muti as Princess Aura, daughter of Ming The Merciless, is who every teenage boy was thinking of at the time. And of course, there’s the great Max Von Sydow as Emperor Ming, playing it to the hilt just as Charles Middleton had done in the 1930s. Plus a load of great character actors in the piece too, of course, such as Richard O’Brien and the late, great William Hootkins. Nothing much can go wrong there.

The films is exciting, fairly pacey, very humorous and has some exciting laser battles towards the end of the picture. There’s maybe too many “that characters dead, they’ve had it now, oh no they’re not... “Gordon’s Alive!” moments in the film but this just, generally, reflects the cliffhanger nature of both the original serials and the newspaper strips so... I’ve got no complaints. It’s also a very sexy film and as far as the costumes and certain comments go, it certainly reflects the first of the three 1930s serials in this respect (the costumes... or lack of them... had to be completely toned down for the second and third serials, is my remembrance).

And then there’s the music. Queen’s hit song is fantastic and some of the other action sequences are exciting too. Alas, they didn’t really do their job is my understanding and, though they got a hit record album out of it, a fair amount of extra music had to be hastily written by Howard Blake using their themes, from what I've read over the years and there’s some nice stuff from him here too (I have a ‘promo’ CD of his parts of the score and it’s a real eye... err... ear opener). Still, the main Queen song, Flash, is great and the pulse which starts it and goes through some of the action scenes certainly makes the hairs on your arms stand up at times. The opening credit sequence accompanying this song, utilising fast montages of the original Alex Raymond newspaper strip, is probably one of the best title sequences in cinema history, as far as I’m concerned.

I have two slight problems with this new Blu Ray restoration. Once is that the highly visible strings on the Hawkmen have been digitally removed and I think I noticed  few other little special effects ‘enhancements’ as I watched this new version. Nobody needs this kind of Lucas-like tinkering. We want to see the strings and the wobbly sets please... they’re part of the history of the film. The other thing I wasn’t too sure about was the scene where the Ming punches through the windscreen of the plane near the start. The saturation seems hugely overblown here and you really can’t see that it’s a facsimile of Ming punching through anymore... just a big red blur. I think that was a bit overdone and another unwelcome bit of ‘restoration’. However, the majority of the film is still beautifully lurid in its design (contradictory as that may sound to some) and hugely entertaining.

And there you have it. Flash Gordon (1980) is a fun film which lovers of cinema should definitely take a look at if they like a good night in with a good movie. A feel good film which doesn’t, alas, live up to the 1930s serials but certainly makes a much more successful go of it than any other versions since then (don’t talk to me about the 1950s German/US TV show starring Bantam paperback Doc Savage cover model Steve Holland as Flash... it was a bad attempt at best). This film is easily one I’ll watch again and again and it’s loaded with extras including a half hour look at the unfilmed Nicholas Roeg version and... and this is a real good one... a commentary track by Brian Blessed. I haven’t listened to that yet but I already know that’s going to be worth the price of purchase alone and it will be going on sometime soon.

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