The main characters walking down the aisle in Ming’s court, which is draped in red curtains. Dr. Zarkof, Dale Arden, and Flash Gordon. Flash is wearing a skin-tight red and white T-shirt that reads Flash.

“Excuse me, we’re from Earth and we’re here to Earthsplain to you about freedom.”

Flash Gordon (1980)

🏈🏈🏈 A football player and a journalist are kidnapped by Topol, where, after many adventures, they overthrow the despotic government of Ming.

Film Poster
Pathetic earthlings...who can save you now?





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Flash Gordon is a colorful bit of incoherent nonsense. I think I saw this one in the theaters, but over time my appreciation for it has only increased. Not because the sophistication of age brings me to deeper understanding of the themes therein. Those boil down to “authoritarianism bad, capitalism good.” It’s because I recognize more and more faces from the deep cast of character actors.

“Oh look, there’s James Bond. And that loud guy from Blackadder.”

Flash Gordon the movie is now 44 years old. At the time it was the latest film adaptation of the Flash Gordon comic strip, which debuted 90 years ago in 1934. If you do the math on that, you’ll see that next year, 2025, we will be as far in time away from the movie version as the movie version was from the comic strip.

I say that not to make anyone feel old, but because at this great distance it’s become difficult to tell how much of the weirdness of the movie is an artifact of its time and how much of it was intentional camp done in loving homage to the strip and the serials. We do know that much of the camp was intentional. Lorenzo Semple, Jr., writer for the Adam West Batman series, wrote this screenplay.

A button with a lit-up label reading Hot Hail

In the far future we will have decided touch screen interfaces are horrible, actually, and returned to good-old buttons.

As the movie opens, a bored Ming the Merciless attacks the planet Earth by pushing a lot of buttons. These button presses cause a number of calamities during the opening credits, but it’s the “hot hail” — superheated moonrock falling to Earth — that brings Flash, lady-sidekick Dale, and the mad scientist Zarkof together. Zarkof bundles the two into his rocket at gunpoint, and they set off to confront Ming on his home planet of Mongo.

The relationship between Zarkof, Dale, and Flash has always confused me. Before too long they’re all friends, but I would not forget being kidnapped so soon. That said, Dale and Flash start off on the wrong foot but by the end of the movie we’re supposed to feel like they have a long-standing and devoted relationship.

Princes Aura stroking Flash’s chest while his head is inside some sort of mechanical device

Quarterbacks get all the attention.

My recommendation is to just let this slide. They are all things that are Necessary to the Plot and thinking about it too hard will get in the way of appreciating all the pretty colors.

Speaking of the plot, it’s the standard “Americans unite the masses against the oppressor” story that would become so popular during the Reaganite 80s. To overthrow Ming, Flash must convince the Robin Hood-like Arboreans and the flighty Hawkmen to put aside their differences and unite for the common good.

Sure sounds like a job for a quarterback. Flash is easily the most normal character in the movie. “Just a man with a man’s courage,” sings Freddie Mercury in the opening titles. Johnny Storm can burst into flames. Superman can bounce bullets off of his chest. Flash Gordon has got a good throwing arm.

Meanwhile, Dale ducks the amorous attentions of Ming as Flash flees similar advances from Ming’s daughter, the Princess Aura. While we’re all real familiar with the “evil man / monster / alien forces attractive woman into marriage” story, the “buff guy seduced by the evil princess” storyline feels more like a throwback to 1960s peplum films.

Flash putting his arm into a hole in an old tree stump, while making eye contact with Prince Barin

“I’ve seen this! I just stick my arm in here and then what? Some old woman lectures me about fear being the mind-killer?”

Flash gets to show off his Man Courage many times, but perhaps nowhere quite so much as when he and Barin take turns at Russian roulette by sticking their arms into an old log that’s home to a vicious stinging beast. In theory it’s a rite of passage, but here it serves more as a dick-measuring contest. This scene horrified me as a child, just like the evil pill-bug infestation in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. As jaded by horror films as I am, I can still only watch either of these scenes between my fingers.

Much of the rest of the movie is a wash of color, babble, and deliberate overacting. Max von Sydow plays Ming with a dour deadpan and resists all temptation to give the character any depth. In the context of this movie, that’s a good thing. Brian Blessed plays the hawkman Vultan in his typical chest-beating, larger-than-life, shouty way and would be disappointed if he did not. Timothy Dalton, as the forest-dweller Barin, struggles to keep up.

I should point out here that the director, Mike Hodges, is also responsible for the excellent and subtle English neo-noir Get Carter. Hodges has enough range that I’m inclined to assume all of his choices were deliberate choices.

The court of the hawkmen, all with huge wings and dressed in leather harnesses

I am Brian Blessed and everything is always uproarious!

There’s also a supporting role for Deep Roy as Aura’s pet “Fellini,” a speechless humanoid who she leads around on a collar and chain. I think “Fellini” must be producer Dino De Laurintiis’s dig at Federico Fellini. Years earlier, Fellini was supposed to be the director of a version of Flash Gordon that never got off the ground.

Deep Roy might be familiar to you from The Neverending Story. But he was also crime boss Mambino, he of the super-long eyelashes, in MST3K classic Alien From LA as well as all of the Oompa-Loompas in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

If you have sharp eyes, you’ll even see a young Robbie Coltrane in his first movie role as “Man at airfield.”

I have owned copies of Flash Gordon in several different formats through the years, and this most recent watch was from Arrow’s 4K release from 2020. Even now I am not sure if it’s appreciation or nostalgia that’s kept the most recent release of this movie on my shelf for decades. But if you like this kind of movie, you will like this one. Like Barbarella, Flash Gordon has this campy comic-book movie thing down pat.

Ming and Dale in Ming’s red and gold court; they are dressed formally for a wedding ceremony. Dale is being restrained by two guys in red outfits and facemasks

Hey Mario, guess what castle your princess is in now!