Flash Gordon (1980)
Another in the genre of Stupid American saves Europe from Itself, although this time (unlike Barberella) the cast is in on the joke. All except for producer Dino DeLaurentiis who was paying for a serious epic. Poor Dino, there was no way director Mike Hodges was going to turn in a reverent swashbuckler on the level of StarWars. The British director had such a low opinion of the Italians he actually named Princess Aura’s hapless pet “Fellini”, and tossed the script aside allowing actors to improvise new lines, even changing the end so Ming would be “buggered at his own wedding” — humor only the British could appreciate. Never knowing what sets the designers would build or how impractical the costumes would be, Hodges showed up to the studio and shot whatever he wanted. Meanwhile, the Italian crew didn’t speak enough English to report back that the film was headed in a very different direction from DeLaurentiis’ vision.
Ironicly, far from sabotaging the film, Hodges and the willing cast improvised a sparkling tribute to Saturday morning serials that captures the giddy pleasure of watching a “bad” film, set against the spectacular art deco sets and exotic costumes of designer Danilo Donati. Flash Gordon is everything it should be and more! A highly watchable movie, unlike Dino’s overly reverent borefest Dune.
Flash Gordon is a fantasy — not scifi — a fact that didn’t sit well with nerds in the wake of StarWars. In the director commentary Mike Hodges is candid (between anti-Bush rants), mocking De Laurentis as a “peasant”, and calling Danilo Donati’s deco sets and fantasy costumes “gaudy”. But he has my respect for turning this out-of-control spectacle into a gleeful fantasy of comicbook proportions. He says most of the charm in the characters was improvised as he and his cast found a sexier tongue-in-cheek movie than the space opera De Laurentis was paying for. It’s the kind of movie where you root for the villains — and Max Von Sydow hits the perfect note as Ming the Merciless, neither insane nor maniacal, he tortures others for his own amusement. “Why? Earth can’t possibly be a threat” pleads Zarkoff. “Why NOT?” counters Ming, as though the answer must be obvious. When you compare Flash to Peter Jackson’s sanctimonious fantasies, or Lucas’s hollow video games, Flash Gordon is a breath of fresh air.
Forget what everyone else says about Sam’s acting, he is THE all-american beauhunk football hero, deliciously exploited in leather shorts and clubwear tanktops. While Melody Anderson is the plucky New York City girl. While escaping from Ming’s harem in a metal slave costume she pauses to grab the matching impractical gold shoes…. In comedy they’re the straightmen, against which every other actor in the film plays over the top in some incarnation: Ornella Muti’s spoiled vixen, Topol’s unhinged scientist, Timothy Dalton’s courtly swagger, Mariangela Melato and Peter Wyngarde as Nazi sadists…. The film is as much a mix of the funny and fantastic, heroic and shlocky as watching any of the great old serials!