Friday, April 13, 2018

Flash Gordon (1980)

(This post is part of "The Outer Space on Film Blogathon" hosted by Moon In Gemini)

Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope) was the smash hit of 1977. Indeed, it would become the highest grossing film of all time, a title it would retain for many years. As might be expected in the wake of such success, several sci-fi films set in outer space would be released in the years following Star Wars. Among the sci-fi films set in space following Star Wars, both serious and otherwise, were Starcrash (1978), Alien (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Galaxina (1980), and The Last Starfighter (1984). Even old sci-fi properties would see a revival due to the success of Star Wars, including Star Trek (with Star Trek: The Motion Picture released in 1979) and Buck Rogers (with a movie released theatrically in 1979 followed by a TV series that fall). Alongside Buck Rogers would be another older sci-fi property that would be revived in the wake of Star Wars. The comic strip Flash Gordon was nearly fifty years old when the motion picture Flash Gordon (1980) was released.

Of course, just as Flash Gordon (1980) owed its existence to Star Wars, the original comic strip Flash Gordon owed its existence to another, earlier science fiction property. The comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. first appeared on January 7 1929. It was distributed by the John F. Dille Co., a newspaper syndicate that would later be known as the National Newspaper Syndicate,  

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. proved to an enormous success, so much so that other newspaper syndicates took notice. Among these was the powerful King Features Syndicate, who decided they wanted their own science fiction comic strip to compete with Buck Rogers. Initially they sought to license Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars novels, but the syndicate could not reach an agreement with the author. King Features Syndicate then turned to one of their staff artists, Alex Raymond, who was currently illustrating the comic strip Secret Agent X-9, and asked him to create a science fiction comic strip. Borrowing the idea of a rouge planet from Philip Wylie's novel When Worlds Collide, Alex Raymond and Don Moore created Flash Gordon. The comic strip first appeared on January 7 1934.

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon
Flash Gordon proved enormously successful from the beginning, even more so than Buck Rogers. It was quickly adapted to other media. In 1935 a radio show, The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Flash Gordon, debuted. This was followed in 1936 by the Universal serial Flash Gordon, starring Buster Crabbe in the title role. The serial proved successful enough to produce two sequels: Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940).  All three serials were also edited and condensed into feature films. The success of Flash Gordon would continue for many years, so that it would be adapted as a television series in 1954. The TV series Flash Gordon was produced in Germany and syndicated to television stations throughout the United States.

The lasting success of Flash Gordon made it inevitable that a big budget feature film would be made based on the comic strip. In fact, some very recognisable names were interested in making such a film. In the early Seventies George Lucas approached King Features Syndicate about obtaining the film rights to Flash Gordon. Unfortunately for Mr. Lucas, King Features Syndicate asked for more money than he could afford. As a result he went ahead and created his own space opera inspired by Flash Gordon and other sources, Star Wars. In more ways than one, then, Star Wars would not exist without Flash Gordon.

As it turned out, King Features Syndicate had another director in mind besides George Lucas for a Flash Gordon movie. Quite simply, they wanted legendary Italian director Federico Fellini. Although he never actually wrote an Italian continuation of Flash Gordon after it was banned in Fascist Italy as often claimed, Mr. Fellini was a huge fan of the comic strip. For whatever reason, Federico Fellini eventually declined making a Flash Gordon movie.

Filmation's Flash Gordon
Of course, while neither George Lucas nor Federico Fellini would direct a Flash Gordon movie, after the success of Star Wars it perhaps became inevitable that someone would. It was in August 1977 that King Features Syndicate announced that they had licensed the live-action film rights to Dino De Laurentiis. At the same time they announced that licensed the animated rights to Filmation in order to produce an animated television movie. With the rights to Flash Gordon secured, Filmation would produce both the 1979 animated series Flash Gordon and the television movie Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of Them All (although made before the Saturday morning cartoon, it would not air until 1982). As to Dino De Laurentiis, he would produce Flash Gordon (1980).

While Mr. De Laurentiis now had the rights to Flash Gordon, in some respects Flash Gordon (1980) would not be an easy film to make. Initially he hired Nicolas Roeg, who had directed Don't Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), to direct Flash Gordon.  Mr. Roeg began work with screenwriter Michael Allin, who had written Enter the Dragon, on the screenplay. Ultimately Dino De Laurentiis was dissatisfied with Nicolas Roeg's vision for Flash Gordon, and as a result the director would leave the project. Dino De Laurentiis offered the chance to direct Flash Gordon to the legendary Sergio Leone, who turned it down because he wanted to do something more faithful to Alex Raymond's original comic strip. Dino De Laurentiis also hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to write the screenplay. Best known for the TV series Batman, Mr. Semple had also written the screenplays for Papillon (1973), The Parallax View (1974), and Three Days of the Condor (1975).

Dino De Laurentiis finally found a director in the form of Mike Hodges, who had directed Get Carter (1971) and The Terminal Man (1973). While Mr. De Laurentiis had difficulty finding a director, he also had difficulty finding someone to play Flash Gordon. He offered it to Kurt Russell, who rejected it outright. He also considered a then unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger. As might be expected, it was Mr. Schwarzenegger's accent that cost him the role. According to Liz Smith's February 1 1977 column, William Katt was also being considered for the role of Flash Gordon. Mr. Katt had already appeared in Carrie (1976), First Love (1977),  and Big Wednesday (1978). Eventually he would gain fame as the star of the TV show The Greatest American Hero. The part would finally go to a total unknown. Dino De Laurentiis's mother in law had seen Sam Jones on The Dating Game. His only movie appearance had been in the movie 10 (1979).

The role of Dale Arden, Flash Gordon's love interest, would also present some problems. After several actresses had been auditioned, Canadian model Dayle Haddon was cast in the role. Unfortunately for Miss Haddon, Dino De Laurentiis had second thoughts about her only days before the movie was set to shoot. It was then that Melody Anderson was cast as Dale Arden. Miss Anderson had guest starred on the TV shows Welcome Back, Kotter; Logan's Run; and Battlestar Galactica.

Orenlla Muti and Max Von Sydow as Aura and Ming
Max Von Sydow, who was a friend of Dino De Laurentiis, was cast as Ming the Merciless, Flash Gordon's archenemy. As Flash Gordon's friend and ally, another one of Mr. De Laurentiis's friends was cast, Broadway star Topol. Brian Blessed practically demanded to be cast as Prince Vultan, prince of the Hawkmen. He even went so far as to point out his resemblance to Vultan as drawn by Alex Raymond. Ultimately Mr. Blessed was cast in the role and it has since become one of the most iconic of his career.

Even once principal photography was completed, Flash Gordon was not an easy film to make. For reasons that are now unclear, Sam Jones got into a spat with Dino De Laurentiis and would do no further work on the film. Any dialogue that had to be redubbed was then done by another actor, whose name remains unknown to this day. Of course, this also meant that Sam Jones would not do publicity for the film. As a result, the publicity campaign for Flash Gordon was not quite as big as Universal had intended it to be.

Of course, one of the most famous aspects of Flash Gordon is its musical score. Dino De Laurentiis decided that the film should have a score composed by the rock group Queen. The soundtrack to Flash Gordon sold well, hitting no. 23 on the Billboard album chart and no. 10 on the UK album chart.

Sam Jones as Flash
Flash Gordon was released on December 5 1980. It received largely positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film a largely good review, commenting, "Is all of this ridiculous? Of course. Is it fun? Yeah, sort of, it is." Pauline Kael also gave the film largely a positive review, writing, "Flash Gordon is simply out to give you a good time." David Ansen of Newsweek also liked the movie, remarking, "Like the original, Flash Gordon has nothing on its mind but moving its jet-propelled plot from one fairy-tale setting to the next. It's nice to see a movie accomplish exactly what it sets out to do, with wit and spirit to boot." Upon its initial release Flash Gordon did have its share of detractors. The uncredited critic at Variety was not impressed with the film, writing, "The expensive new version of Flash Gordon is a lot more gaudy, and just as dumb, as the original series starring Buster Crabbe." Vincent Canby of The New York Times also gave the film a bad review, writing, "The pacing is so funereal that this Flash Gordon seems far longer and far less funny than the 15-chapter serial Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938)." While Flash Gordon did receive some bad reviews, over all it had a good reception, and it maintains a fairly good reputation to this day. At Rotten Tomatoes it has a score of 82%.

While Flash Gordon received several positive reviews, its box office in the United States was less than impressive. Flash Gordon made $27,107,960 in North America (that would be about $81,827,259 today). It did a good deal better in the United Kingdom, as well as in Europe. According to director Mike Hodges, a sequel would have been possible if not for Sam Jones's disagreement with Dino De Laurentiis.

While Flash Gordon received mostly positive reviews, there were fans of Alex Raymond's original comic strip, as well as various sci-fi fans, who disliked the movie's camp approach. Like the TV series Batman before it (which was developed for television by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.), there were those who felt that the movie was poking fun at Flash Gordon. Whether Dino De Laurentiis set out to create a campy movie is unclear today. Director Mike Hodges seemed to think the only way to approach Flash Gordon was camp. In the book Get Carter and Beyond: The Cinema of Mike Hodges by Steven Paul Davies, Mr. Hodges is quoted as saying, "What else are you meant to do but laugh at a comic strip? When Alex Raymond had first created the strip in the 1930s, man was a long way from landing on the moon. But by 1980 we'd been there, done that! It had to be done tongue-in-cheek."

Melody Anderson as Dale
In an interview with Starlog, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. also expressed the idea that Flash Gordon was meant to be a campy film, although he regretted writing it as such. He said, "Dino wanted to make Flash Gordon humorous. At the time, I thought that was a possible way to go, but, in hindsight, I realise it was a terrible mistake. We kept fiddling around with the script, trying to decide whether to be funny or realistic. That was a catastrophic thing to do, with so much money involved... I never thought the character of Flash in the script was particularly good. But there was no pressure to make it any better. Dino had a vision of a comic-strip character treated in a comic style. That was silly, because Flash Gordon was never intended to be funny. The entire film got way out of control."

While Mike Hodges and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. seemed to think Flash Gordon was meant to be done tongue-in-cheek, Melody Anderson has not only said that everyone in the cast played their roles seriously, but Dino De Laurentiis was not happy that people were laughing while watching the film. She said, "When the crew watched the rushes and were laughing hysterically, Dino said, 'Why are you laughing?' And then they discovered they had a comedy, that it was camp."

Brian Blessed as Vultan
Whether Dino De Laurentiis meant for Flash Gordon to be campy is perhaps a moot point. Despite the fans who are critical of the film and Lorenzo Semple, Jr.'s reservations about it in later years, the camp approach works very well for Flash Gordon. Indeed, in many of the reviews upon the film's release, many of the critics appreciated the film's camp approach and regarded it as one of the best things about the film. Certainly the camp approach of the film is much of the reason it would develop a cult following over the years. It is one of director Edgar Wright's favourite films and he has said that it influenced the look of his film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010). It is the favourite film of comic book artist Alex Ross, who painted the cover of the film's "Saviour of the Universe Edition" DVD release from 2007. Brian Blessed regards Flash Gordon as one of the high points of his career and Prince Vultan's line, "Gordon's alive?" is perhaps the most quoted line of any character he has played.

While it seems possible that a serious take on Flash Gordon in 1980 could have been successful, it also seems likely that it might not have. Over the years the many tropes of the comic strip had been borrowed and reused so many times by comic strips, comic books, movies, and television shows that they no longer seemed fresh and new the way they did in 1934. Indeed, Star Wars, released only three years before Flash Gordon in 1977, was done seriously and borrowed many of the tropes of the original comic strip. Done seriously, Flash Gordon may have run the serious risk of being compared to Star Wars, a film that utilised many of the themes it had originated.

Besides, like the first season of the TV series Batman, Flash Gordon can be appreciated as an adventure movie was well as camp. There is plenty of action and excitement in the film and, while many of the situations in the film might be humorous, everyone in the cast plays their roles straight. What is more, while its humorous tone might set it apart from the original comic strip, Flash Gordon is loyal to the bare bones of the comic strip. Just as in the comic strip, Dr. Zarkov forces Flash and Dale into his spaceship in order to save Earth from a collision with the rogue planet Mongo. Once there, they run afoul of the planet's ruler, Ming the Merciless. What is more, the movie looks a good deal like the comic strip, with many of the costumes and sets looking as if they came straight out of one of Alex Raymond's panels. Indeed, the production design of Flash Gordon may be the best thing about the film, so much so that looking back it seems amazing that it was not nominated for an Oscar for production design.

While it initially did not do that well at the American box office, Flash Gordon has since become one of the most recognisable and most popular sci-fi films of its era. It has maintained a cult following to this day, so much so that articles are still being published about the film in such sources as Empire magazine and the website Uproxx. While there many always be those who object to its camp approach, one thing seems certain. Flash Gordon will continue to be popular for many years to come.


Quiggy said...

It is exactly that camp aspect that appeals to me. As I stated in my own review of this movie a couple of years ago, I was not sure I could handle camp when I was younger, but these days it appeals to me, Great review.

Caftan Woman said...

Interesting. What a checkered history getting this to the screen. Its popularity shows that, ultimately, they were on the right track.

Debbie Vega said...

It was always my impression that this version of Flash Gordon was a big failure, both artistically and at the box office. (Perhaps I mixed it up with the awful Lone Ranger reboot of the 80s?) Now you've got me interested in seeing this. Sounds like loads of fun!

Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!

Killdumpster said...

Does anyone know what thoughts Buster Crabbe may have had on the film? I believe he was still alive when it was released.