The new Star Wars movie has a lot of people reveling in nostalgia, especially those old enough to have seen the original film in the theater as a five year old. But nostalgia, while comforting, can do us a disservice. It can close our minds to new ideas, keep us from appreciating risks, and make us overly judgmental. And over time, it can warp our memories, glossing over flaws and imparting more depth, meaning, or quality to something than may be warranted. Sometimes the rosy glow of nostalgia can bring you to heartbreak when you reexamine a movie or tv show in the harsh modern light. I always thought Welcome Back, Kotter was a funny show from my childhood until I saw it 20 years later on Nick at Nite. It was horrifying. So be wary of nostalgia.
Which brings me to the Dino De Laurentiis 1980 space spandex epic, FLASH GORDON. Allow me to encapsulate the story.
Blond himbo NY Jets star Flash (ah-ahhh) Gordon and sexy travel agent Dale Arden are kidnapped by Dr. Topol from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and rocketed off to Planet Mongo, where Ming the Merciless is attacking Earth from a natural disaster creating control panel. Negotiations breakdown quickly and Flash is sentenced to death, but Ming’s kinky daughter, Aura, wants a new boy-toy and sneaks him out of the palace unexecuted. Dale is left behind to be Ming’s bride, because that’s how the Mongos roll. Aura hides Flash in the woodland kingdom of Prince Timothy Dalton, which is a terrible idea since the future James Bond was her former squeeze. There is awkwardness, mostly in the form of Prince Bond trying to kill him. Eventually they are both captured by Prince Vultan (Mongo is lousy with Princes), leader of the Hawkmen. Prince Vultan is played by Brian Blessed, possibly the least aerodynamic creature ever to have wings. Flash and Prince Bond have a whip fight on a tilting, spiked platform of death for the Hawkmen's amusement. They get their money’s worth. Then Ming’s forces attack the birdhouse palace and Princes Bond, Vultan, and non-prince Flash join forces. They attack Ming’s lightning shielded palace in a pointy golden hotdog shaped spaceship, desperately attempting to stop Ming’s wedding to Dale, and also save the Earth. Mostly to save the Earth, I suppose, but the big tension seems to revolve around the wedding. Kind of like the end of THE GRADUATE, but with more lasers. Can our motley band of heroes succeed? Yes, they can. The theme song by Queen already spoiled it.
For years after Star Wars (truthfully, all years since Star Wars), I was mad for space epics. FLASH GORDON was one of my favorites. I saw it in the theater and a million times on HBO. Then it was gone, as it happened in the pre VCR days (or my pre VCR days, at least). I didn’t see it again until a few years ago when the Blu Ray came out. You know that thing about nostalgia and memory that I was talking about earlier? I have to admit, FG was not as awesome as I remembered. It was ten times more awesome.
Make no mistake,it’s dumb, astonishingly dumb at times. Hawkmen riding sky cycles dumb. And goofy to the point of satire. But it is not satire, it is 100% earnest. It owns the flashy, archaic ‘40’s take on the future, and makes it disco. There isn’t a single moment in this film where it isn’t trying its hardest to entertain you. It is glorious. It’s like if your dog put on a play for you. It might not make a lot of sense, and the production design might be questionable, but you have to love it. Unless you don’t like joy.
The characters are fantastic. Flash is a dope, but he’s a classic hero, super determined, courageous, and willing to sacrifice it all for his friends. Sam Jones plays him so forthright and passionate; he turns his adversaries into allies. Except for Ming, but maybe if he had time for a few more pickup football games with him, who knows? Dale Arden could have easily been just another shrieking damsel, but Melody Anderson plays her as feisty, smart (relatively speaking for this movie), and capable. She knows how to handle a laser. And she’s honorable enough to refuse to poison Ming on their wedding night. Dr. Zarkov is kind of the bumbling scientist character, but he’s smart enough to work the system and help Flash from behind the scenes. And even if he is bumbling, you can’t stay mad at Topol. Timothy Dalton is super suave and dashing as Prince Barin. Even then, you could really see him one day becoming James Bond, briefly, while Pierce Brosnan wasn’t available. Plus, he has an amazing mustache. And then there is the hawkman’s hawkman, Prince Vultan.
I cannot emphasize enough how awesome Brian Blessed is, swaggering around with fiberglass folded wings dangling from his back. He’s like your favorite overly loud and often inappropriate uncle that no one invites to family functions but he shows up anyway, usually a little drunk. All movies could greatly benefit from at least a Brian Blessed cameo, if not a substantial leading role. All of them.ON THE WATERFRONT? Better with Blessed. SOPHIE’S CHOICE? Better with Blessed. FOREST GUMP? Waaay better with Blessed.
Can we get a handclap for Max Von Sydow? As a kid, my top three capital V villains were Darth Vadar, David Warner’s Evil from TIME BANDITS, and Ming the F’ing Merciless. Max von Sydow played him so effortlessly evil, a man delighted by his continuous string of foul deeds. He’s at the top of the heap, and he makes sure everyone knows it. One of the wedding vows in his forced marriage to Dale is not to blast her into space… until he grows weary of her. There is a bit of exposition about the Earth being considered some kind of threat to Mongo, but you get the feeling Ming is just eager to destroy it because he can. What’s the point of having a natural disaster making machine if you are not going to use it? In other words, it’s good to be the Ming.
While we’re on the natural disaster machine, what exactly is Hot Hail? I never got a clear demonstration, but there is literally no way it could be good.
Ming also has a troupe of memorable henchpeople, who all get remarkable deaths. Proto-Lady Gaga dominatrix Kala liquefies into a pool of oil. Gold faced Klytus’ eyes pop out of his mask when he gets spiked. But the best death is reserved for Ming himself, who becomes a rocket ship shish kabob. You could get away with a lot in a PG film back then, especially with different colored blood.
Ultimately, FLASH GORDON is not a movie for adults; it is for the kids inside of adults. I’m speaking metaphorically, otherwise that would be gross. It is nostalgia at its purest and most benevolent. If you are willing to pack away all of your irony and just go with the goofball adventure, it’s a wonderful ride. This freeze frame is the most appropriate reaction you can have to this movie.
Long live Flash Gordon.