A powerful, mysterious energy beam pushes the Moon out of orbit, on collision course with Earth. The gravitational turbulence and resultant meteorite storm play havoc with the plane on which football player Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) are riding. When the pilots mysteriously disappear, Flash takes the controls and manages an emergency landing, killing Munson (William Hootkins), assistant to the former NASA scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). Zarkov believes the Moon’s erratic behavior is caused by an attack from outer space. When Flash asks to use the phone, Zarkov tells him the phone is in that rocketship in the corner, at which point Flash and Dale obligingly climb into said rocketship and allow themselves to be abducted on a space journey to the planet Mongo, home of the Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow).
Ming’s agents seize control of the craft and bring it to a landing in Mingo City, Mongo’s capital. Flash, Dale, and Zarkov are captured by Ming’s soldiers and taken to his imperial court. There, Ming is instantly attracted to Dale and decides to take her for himself. Flash resists, and even engages Ming’s soldiers in a football game—which they don’t understand—before being knocked out when Zarkov throws a metal watermelon at his head. Don’t ask.
Ming condemns Flash to death and sends Zarkov to be brainwashed into his Secret Police. Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), wants Flash for herself, and secretly orders the Imperial surgeon to inject him with antidote. Once everyone is sure he’s dead, Aura revives him and spirits him away to Arboria, the forest kingdom of her betrothed, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), who is jealous of Aura’s affection for Flash—and just about every other man on Mongo.
Meanwhile, Zarkov undergoes Ming’s mind control treatment, but his willpower—and the Beatles—overcomes the device and, pretending to be a loyal agent, rescues Dale and they escape the city. But on the way to Arboria to join Flash, they are captured by Hawkmen who take them to their incredible Sky City, an awe-inspiring crystalline metropolis that floats among the dazzling purple and red clouds of Mongo. The Hawkmen’s boisterous king, Vultan (Brian Blessed), is astonished to learn that “Gordon’s alive!” and sends his Hawkmen to Arboria to capture him.
In Arboria, Barin, hoping to get rid of his rival, challenges Flash to reach into a stump containing the “Wood Beast.” Flash accepts the challenge, but when he realizes Barin set him up, he tricks Barin and slips away into the swamp. Barin pursues, but then both are captured by Hawkmen and taken to the Sky City. There, Barin challenges Flash to a fight to the death on a floating platform of metal spikes. Flash wins the contest but spares Barin’s life. Overcome with emotion, Barin pledges his loyalty to Flash.
Ming’s commanding general, Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), evidently not anticipating that Ming’s oppressed subjects might be a teensy bit resentful, comes to the Sky City unarmed and unescorted to take control of the situation; thus Flash heroically picks up the unarmed cyborg and throws him onto a bed of spikes, killing him gruesomely. When Ming learns of Vultan’s collusion with Flash, he comes to the Sky City and takes Barin and Zarkov for execution and seizes Dale to be his bride. The Hawkmen evacuate to Arboria, and Ming offers Flash a kingdom of Mongo, and if Flash accepts, the attack on Earth will be ended. For some reason Flash turns down this sweet deal, and Ming leaves Flash alone on the Sky City and destroys it.
Flash escapes the disintegrating Sky City on a rocket cycle. He teams up with Vultan and his Hawkmen to steal Ming’s flagship Ajax and turn it against him. Meanwhile, Aura rescues Zarkov and Barin and they disable the city’s defenses. Flash, having taken over the Ajax, steers the huge rocket into the wedding chapel and, having already landed a plane on Munson, now seeks to prove he can’t land anything without killing somebody, and impales Ming on the pointy thing that sticks out the nose of all Mongo rocketships. Weakening, Ming threatens Flash, but then turns his magic ring on himself and disappears. A floating robot informs Flash, “You saved your Earth!”
Barin takes the throne of Mongo and declares that all the kingdoms of Mongo shall live together in peace. The Hawkmen take flight and form the words “THANKS, FLASH,” in the sky.
A gloved hand picks up Ming’s ring...and we hear Ming’s laughter...
This is one seriously weird movie. On the surface, it’s very faithful to the early days of the comic strip and the first serial. It has all the major characters except for Prince Thun, we visit several of the classic kingdoms of Mongo, and we get a very concise and exciting story about Flash uniting the disparate kingdoms against Ming and saving the Earth from destruction. Storywise, it’s like the first serial wrapped together into a two-hour package.
But in feel—good lord, what the heck kind of a movie is this? Sometimes it seems like a serious adventure story filled with characterization and tension, other times it feels like a hallucinogenic trip, and most of the time it feels like a parody. Public reaction to the film is mixed, all the way from “it’s awful” to “it’s the greatest movie ever made.” I can’t even agree with myself about it! Gadzooks, it’s terrible...but it’s terrific! I hate it for its cynicism, its self-parody, its lack of respect for the source material...but I love it for the excitement, the fun, the incredible special effects that hold up great today, the weirdness of it all, the rousing music soundtrack by Queen, the quotable dialogue, the great performances by the supporting cast.
No doubt some of my affection for this movie stems from the fact that it’s a childhood favorite. This movie was my introduction to Flash Gordon, and for my entire childhood was my only exposure to Flash Gordon, except for one time when I caught part of an episode of the animated series. When I first saw the serials, I kind of laughed at the primitive special effects, and I viewed them with a clinical curiosity about the source material of one of my favorite movies—but it didn’t take long for the serials to take over as my perception of the real Flash Gordon. Later, I started collecting the original comics, which enthralled me as much as they did readers in the 1930s. Soon I began to see the movie as a silly romp that, though fun in its own right, was not a legitimate Flash Gordon movie.
I love it, I hate it, it’s awful, it’s great, it’s a thrilling ride and an exciting adventure, it’s a ridiculous and laughable piece of B-grade trash. How can the same movie have that ridiculous football scene and the magnificently tense Wood Beast scene? How do I evaluate this movie? Well, I don’t. I just watch it and have a good time. I love this movie because it’s a childhood favorite and because it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s got some great performances, the visual look is unique and amazing, and because without it, I might never have been introduced to Flash Gordon. But when I watch it today, I also can’t help but sorrow for the movie that might have been.
One obvious liability is Sam J. Jones as Flash. No one can replace Buster Crabbe, who was the definitive Flash, but Jones doesn’t seem like a hero, he comes across as more, well, an idiot. It’s not all Jones’ fault, of course; for one thing, for unknown reasons and without his knowledge, they dubbed his voice. But more importantly, in this movie Flash is written as a brainless football player, not a hero of Greek mythic stature, as he was in the comic strip, serials, and animated series, and even the ‘50s TV series. He’s a tourist on Mongo, not a leader with the skill and charisma to unite the fragmented kingdoms. He walks around with a befuddled look on his face and allows himself to be led around by stronger characters. I honestly don’t know what Ming is talking about when he tells Flash, “I’ve never before met your like. You’re a hero, can’t you see that?” When your hero and title character comes across as a guest star in his own movie, that spells trouble.
Melody Anderson as Dale Arden is only moderately better; she’s dimensionless and boring, but she bears a striking resemblance to Jean Rogers. At least that’s something.
However, the supporting cast is excellent. Max Von Sydow is magnificent as Ming; he might even outdo Charles Middleton. I remember when I first showed this movie to my wife, we had just watched the serials, and when Ming first showed up in this movie, she gasped and said, “It’s the same guy!” In the original comic strip, Ming never displayed any ambition to conquer the universe; once, at the very beginning, he was referred to as “Emperor of the Universe,” but from then on, he was usually referred to as “His Supreme Intelligence, Ming, the Merciless, Emperor of Mongo,” content to rule with an iron fist over the kingdoms of Mongo; his concern was enforcing his iron will on his subjects and he never looked beyond his own world. The serials added his mad ambition to conquer the universe—though he seemed to have little success. In the animated series, Ming had evidently already conquered a number of planets by flying Mongo around the universe like a spaceship, bringing worlds close to destruction by near collision, and then taking advantage of the resultant chaos to conquer.
In this movie, Max Von Sydow’s Ming seems to really, truly be the Emperor of the Universe. He has no mad ambition to conquer because the whole universe is already his. He attacks the Earth not in attempt to conquer it, but just because he’s looking for something to do. In contrast to Charles Middleton’s deranged intensity, Von Sydow’s Ming is self-assured, content, and wraps himself in the trappings of Emperorhood and just enjoys. He seems almost godlike, as though he not only rules the universe, but has always ruled the universe. At one point, Aura points out the planet Aquaria, which appears to be a collection of asteroidal debris somehow suspended in Mongo’s atmosphere. Perhaps Aquaria was a planet that dared to resist and was destroyed, and its remains are displayed here as a trophy, or perhaps as a warning to others who would resist. Maybe this is the fate that awaits Earth. In any case, we’re not told; it’s just another example of this movie’s surreal, dreamlike imagery.
No one makes a better Prince Barin than Richard Alexander, but Timothy Dalton is good in the role—at least he’s a lot better than Roland Drew! Brian Blessed pretty much steals the show as a delightfully over-the-top King Vultan. “SQUADRON FOURTEEN...DIIIIIIIIVE!!” And best of all, Ornella Muti drips with raw, irresistible feminine sexuality as Princess Aura. I can’t decide between Brian Blessed and John Lipson as my favorite Vultan, but Ornella Muti is, beyond any doubt, absolutely the best, best, best Princess Aura ever. The best Princess Aura possible.
Topol brings depth and sophistication to Dr. Hans Zarkov. In previous versions of Flash Gordon, Zarkov has been no more than a one-note brilliant scientist—aside from an occasional sardonic sense of humor regarding the young ’uns, he’s been stereotypically logical, intellectual, infinitely knowledgeable about every scientific field, and able to invent anything in a matter of minutes—basically a bearded version of Buck Rogers’ Dr. Huer. This movie deepens his character tremendously. We learn that he’s a German Jew whose family escaped the Nazis when he was a child; that he married, and his bride drowned in a swimming pool on their wedding day; that he worked for NASA but was forced to resign due to his irrational-sounding theories about alien invasion of the Earth. The fact that he worked at NASA makes it believable that he has the connections to build his own spaceship. When he learns that Klytus and Kala are going to empty his mind, he pleads, “No, don’t do that, I beg you; my mind is all I have. I’ve spent my whole life trying to fill it!”
General Klytus is a very welcome addition to Flash Gordon lore. Peter Wyngarde makes him both sinister and somehow likeable. Evidently some sort of cyborg, he’s entirely garbed in a black robe and hood, and only a metal face and arm are visible. But there’s something alive in there. You can see his eyes, and sometimes his mouth, and he desires Princess Aura. The costume is striking; he’s almost a more memorable villain than Ming himself.
The movie is downright surreal; the sands of an hourglass run up; agents have visors covering empty eye sockets filled with wires; characters melt away when shot; it’s hard to tell whether characters are people or robots or both. Kingdoms hang in mid air as if the world is incomplete; as if Star Trek’s Melkots read Flash Gordon and re-created the parts of Mongo necessary to tell this story. How do you take that literally? If Flash walked to the edge of Arboria, would he fall off? Or would the land magically fill in for him? At one point, Flash and Dale speculate that this is all a dream—I wonder if perhaps it is. There is a dreamlike quality to it. Could Flash have fallen asleep on the plane and this is all his wild dream?
There’s no denying, this is a fun movie. You can watch it again and again and again. It’s so fast-paced and thrilling and weird and funny and quotable and gorgeous to look at. But as a Flash Gordon fan, I can’t help thinking that it could have been so much more. The comic strip was an epic, Star Wars-caliber adventure; the movie could have been the same. The raw material was there; the costumes, the sets, and the special effects are beautiful. Aside from the incredibly phony lizard men, the costumes are dazzling. The look mimics the vibrant colors of the comic strip. It’s got a good story and, aside from Sam Jones and Melody Anderson, a terrific cast. It’s impossible to watch it without getting totally absorbed in it and having a great time.
However, I don’t think they really were trying to do a real Flash Gordon movie; Sam Peeples, of Star Trek fame, submitted an excellent and intelligent script, but Dino Di Laurentiis rejected it (it became the basis for the excellent animated series) and brought in Lorenzo Semple, Jr., a writer on the campy Adam West Batman series, as screenwriter. Semple admitted he couldn’t take the material seriously, and his script was incredibly tongue-in-cheek, cynical, and self-aggrandizing. Also, there were too many creative people with too many different ideas—and too many languages involved, and therefore limited communication. There was no cohesive vision, no single artist to bring it together. So you have a bunch of random ideas, different looks, different stories, thrown together. The set designer even said he never read the script! The only glue that holds the movie together is the rock soundtrack by Queen.
When I hear people talk about Flash Gordon the movie, aside from throwing out famous quotes like “Flying blind on a rocket cycle” and “Flash, I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!”, I don’t hear them talk about the story, the characters, the locations, the journey, all the things I find compelling about Flash Gordon—no, what people remember is the music. One fan described the movie as a “rock opera.” Well...that’s not what I want from a Flash Gordon movie. I want the epic odyssey of Flash and his friends as they wander the universe seeing strange sights and meeting unusual characters in exotic lands, not a Queen music video that uses Flash Gordon as a jumping-off point.
It’s a shame that a legendary character with such a rich history, so many adventures, who was the single iconic space hero of two generations, is known now solely as a brainless football player in this weird acid trip of a movie.
But...this movie is fun. No getting around that. From the first moment it casts an indefinable spell. All the ingredients are wrong, but like a fried egg chili chutney sandwich, it comes together and works. Maybe I’m setting the bar too high. This movie is perfectly paced, entertaining, fun, thrilling, and wonderful to look at. Were the serials really any less stupid? What more is required of a Flash Gordon movie than that you have a good time? If that’s the requirement, this movie fulfills it in spades.
The movie leaves off with Flash, Dale, and Zarkov still conspicuously on Mongo, and a mysterious figure (Queen Azura according to some sources) picking up Ming’s ring. Obviously a sequel is implied, but this never materialized. There has been talk recently that Sam Jones will be coming back for a long-delayed sequel; I’m not sure how to feel about that. They were going to do a reboot, and as sick as I am of reboots, this reboot would have been faithful to the storyline and feel of the original comics. I would have liked to see that. Instead we’ll have another silly, campy movie with a rock soundtrack, further distancing people’s perception of Flash Gordon from its venerable origins and sealing this goofy movie’s place as the standard vision of Flash Gordon. As a childhood fan of this movie, I’d love to see a sequel. But as a fan of Flash Gordon, I kind of wish this movie would go away.
In the 1980s, Flash and Ming came to Earth in the animated series Defenders of the Earth, in which Flash teams up with Mandrake the Magician, Lothar the strong man, and the Phantom, along with their kids. I’m not going to review that series because it’s not really Flash Gordon—and besides, it went on forever and I’m tired of writing these reviews every day.
There was another animated Flash Gordon in the 1990s which reimagined Flash and Dale as teenagers and set Mongo in a parallel universe with Ming as a lizard creature. I’ve never seen it and have very little interest in it.
Most recently was the short-lived TV series on “SyFy,” which, from what I’ve heard, went down the typical “SyFy” route of stripping away everything fantastical, everything otherworldly, everything remotely sci-fi about the story, leaving a dry political thriller that might as well just be a mainstream drama. I’ve never seen it and have no wish to.
It’s possible that someone one of these days will give a legitimate go at a real Flash Gordon project—my choice would be a live-action TV series that’s faithful to the original comics. But I don’t think anyone in Hollywood or television today has the imagination or the sense of wonder to do it properly. And I don’t think audiences today have enough of a sense of wonder or curiosity to embrace such a thing. So, regrettably, aside from “FLASH! AH-AH!,” I think Flash Gordon is dead.