Sam J. Jones, the Flash Gordon of the 1980s (Photo by Kenneth Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
Artillery Row

Gordon’s (Still) Alive: Flash Gordon at 40

Remembering the cult-classic science-fiction romp

‘Gordon’s ALIIIIIIVE!’ With those two words, the then 43-year old character actor Brian Blessed secured himself a place in cinematic immortality. Before the 1980 film of Flash Gordon was released, Blessed was a hard-working regular presence in British television and film, and was probably best known for his performances as PC ‘Fancy’ Smith in the Sixties’ police series Z Cars and for his role as the emperor Augustus in the much-acclaimed drama I, Claudius. Yet, with his indelible performance as Prince Vultan, ruler of the Winged Bird-Men, he saw to it that he would remain in work for the next 40 years, essentially reprising his role as a shouting, bearded and regal presence in whatever he did subsequently.

Blessed, a much cannier and more self-aware man than his bombastic public utterances may sometimes have indicated, has been careful to associate himself closely with Flash Gordon in the public eye. It has been re-released several times on various home video formats, and usually Blessed can be found giving uproarious interviews and exuberant commentary on them. And even in 2020, he has still managed to find a new and attention-grabbing angle on his involvement in the film, confidently telling the presenter Edith Bowman that it is the Queen’s favourite picture. He went on to say that she told him ‘You know, we watch Flash Gordon all the time, me and the grandchildren. And if you don’t mind, I’ve got the grandchildren here, would you mind saying ‘Gordon’s alive’?’

While similar disclosures of royal bias have led to outrage and strongly worded denials from Buckingham Palace, it seems doubtful that HRH is likely to be too worried about an actor claiming that his best-known role belongs in her preferred science-fiction blockbuster, even allowing for the possibility that there is an element of exuberant exaggeration in Blessed’s retelling of the story. Yet even as he boasted to Bowman that ‘Everywhere I go, they all want me to say ‘Gordon’s alive!’ The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, horses and queens, and prime ministers, they all want me to say ‘Gordon’s alive!’, it’s their favourite film’, he did not touch on the reasons why a deeply bizarre and commercially unsuccessful sci-fi romp has gone on to be regarded not merely with fondness, but as a cult classic. The strange and riotous story of Flash Gordon and its creation is every bit as dramatic as what made it on screen, and probably even more amusing.

The character of Flash Gordon was created by Alex Raymond for a Thirties’ comic strip, and was originally conceived as an attempt to imitate the success of the character John Carter of Mars, who had been originated by Tarzan’s author Edgar Rice Burroughs. When the rights were not forthcoming, Raymond, one of the greatest science fiction artists of his day, came up with the square-jawed epitome of all-American decency, Flash Gordon. Along with his love interest Dale Arden and scientist sidekick Hans Zarkov, Flash takes to the skies in a rocket ship and ends up on the planet Mongo, where he finds himself battling the evil emperor Ming the Merciless. It was hugely successful and was made into a serial film starring Buster Crabbe, a former Olympic gold medallist in swimming whose particular blend of wholesomeness and athleticism was perfect for the character.

However, as the events of the 20th century wore on, the morally uncomplicated character of Flash seemed an anachronism. The notorious soft-core pornographic film Flesh Gordon, featuring characters such as ‘Emperor Wang the Perverted’ and ‘Dr Flexi Jerkoff’, was a considerable hit in the early 1970s, and seemed to make the whole idea of dealing with the originals in a non-ironic fashion impossible. The film rights belonged to the producer Dino de Laurentiis, whose career had evolved from working with the likes of Federico Fellini (on La Strada and others) and the neorealist director Roberto Rossellini to making bombastic spectacles such as The Bible: In The Beginning and Waterloo. Although he still made the odd artistically respectable film, such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, de Laurentiis felt that he was patronised by the Hollywood establishment as an Italian vulgarian, and chafed at his treatment. Let me make a massive hit, he thought, and then they’ll listen to me.

He initially thought that his remake of King Kong, starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, would be this film, but it was instead a notable flop. A young writer-director called George Lucas had come to him as he nursed his wounds, earnestly enquiring as to the availability of rights to the Flash Gordon character, but de Laurentiis, who had gone through an unsuccessful period of trying to develop the project with Fellini earlier in the decade, decided to make his own film based on the subject, and sent Lucas away. The disappointed filmmaker decided instead to develop a similar project, an obscure arthouse picture named Star Wars which met with a certain amount of approval and recognition upon its release in 1977.

The producer, believing that sci-fi pictures were now back in vogue, hired the director Nicolas Roeg to work on the project. Roeg, who had had great successes with his cult adult-oriented films Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth, was an unlikely candidate to make a mainstream blockbuster, but he had been an admirer of the Alex Raymond comic and spent a year trying to find an appropriate visual style for the picture. De Laurentiis, tiring of having to deal with an auteur’s demands, fired him, and set about trying to find a suitable replacement. He asked the legendary Italian director Sergio Leone to make it, but Leone turned him down, believing it would be beneath him. After several other major directors refused to take on the project, de Laurentiis finally came to, of all people, Mike Hodges, who was the filmmaker behind the gritty crime films Get Carter and Pulp.

Hodges, who had had a miserable experience being fired from the Omen sequel Damien: Omen II, was unsure that he was an appropriate director for the film. As he said in a recent interview, ‘I knew nothing about special effects, and I knew nothing about American comics. I was more into The Dandy and The Beano.’ And the screenplay, by the writer of the Batman TV series Lorenzo Semple Jnr, was a very odd one indeed, being full of camp humour and bizarre innuendo. De Laurentiis, however, was uninterested in making a comedy, instead believing that the film should be little less than the next Star Wars. Space opera on a grand scale had worked for George Lucas, so it could succeed for him. Hodges was unconvinced, but needed the work, and so agreed to direct it.

What then ensued was a riotous conflict between Hodges and Semple, who agreed that the film should be an over-the-top comedy, and de Laurentiis, who genuinely thought that it had all the elements of a grand and stirring adventure. The lead actors, Sam J Jones and Melody Anderson – as Flash and Dale – had all the wide-eyed woodenness that their characters seemed to demand, but Hodges was given carte blanche to hire a supporting cast who all seemed to be considerably more in on the joke, including the actor-singer Topol (as Zarkov), RSC actor Timothy Dalton (as the heroic Prince Barin) and the louche Peter Wyngarde, as General Klytus, the villainous head of the secret police. Bergman regular Max von Sydow agreed to play Ming the Merciless, which he did with camp relish. Hodges also managed to cast playwright John Osborne, who had been so memorable as the villain in Get Carter, in a cameo as a priest. The ornate sets were designed by Danilo Donati, a regular Fellini collaborator, and Queen co-composed the soundtrack with future Snowman musician Howard Blake.

It had all the trappings of success, apart from the obvious conflict between Hodges’s vision and de Laurentiis’s ideas. After the director, exasperated by the producer’s meddling, walked away a couple of weeks into filming, a compromise was agreed upon: Hodges would make the film in the high camp way that the script suggested, and de Laurentiis would market it as the next Star Wars. Yet the intrinsic absurdity of the film’s production was too much for the cast and crew, who fell about laughing at the kitsch excess whenever the day’s rushes were previewed, much to de Laurentiis’ confusion. He earnestly asked Hodges what, exactly, was so funny about scenes featuring Blessed in a tasteful winged leotard, shouting ‘DIVE, my hawkmen!’, or Anderson earnestly delivering the immortal line ‘Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the earth!’

Flash Gordon is the kind of lively and blessedly unpretentious romp that cinema could do with more of

Upon release in America in December 1980, a few months after the darker second Star Wars instalment The Empire Strikes Back, it became clear that de Laurentiis’ confusion at the exuberance of the reinvented Flash Gordon was mirrored by those of audiences, who, expecting a straightforward space adventure, were disappointed by the irreverent and jokey tone. Jones’s performance came in for particular criticism, and the film was a flop at the box office, earning a comparatively poor $27 million; The Empire Strikes Back had made over $180 million earlier in the year. It did considerably better in Britain, thanks to Queen having a hit single with the theme song ‘Flash’, featuring a sample of Blessed’s immortal dialogue. Part of its success lay in the average British cinemagoer’s comparative ignorance of the Flash Gordon character, and so what seemed an irreverent desecration of an American icon in the United States was instead regarded as a hilarious and tongue-in-cheek romp.

Today, it remains a strange but largely enjoyable folly. If the lead performances are never going to be anything other than wooden, there is enormous fun to be had from the vitality of the character actors hamming away as if their life depended on it, the hints of the perverse (mainly supplied by Ornella Muti as the ‘bad girl’ temptress Princess Aura) and the blessed lack of the wide-eyed seriousness that bedevilled the likes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And, of course, the joy of Brian Blessed finding his signature role. While it would be inaccurate to describe Flash Gordon as a good film, it is still, four decades on, the kind of lively and blessedly unpretentious romp that cinema could do with more of. As a whole new audience are about to be introduced to it, Gordon remains alive, and we should be thankful for that.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover