The Unders | ‘Flash Gordon’ Proves It Takes a Cult to Make a Classic

The year was 1980. Butterfly was a term associated more with hair than a monarch insect. Jeans so tight, you could tell what religion someone was wearing them. From the music to the fashion and all those unparalleled John Hughes’s films, it would be the beginning of a magical decade.

Then, from the distance, you hear a cry unlike any shriek or shrill in the cosmos. (Say it with me, nerds…and cue the video to :23 for a treat. Better yet, just hit play and enjoy the sultry sounds while you read the rest. It makes for a fantastic bloggerific experience.)

Yes, that is the unmistakably eclectic sound of Queen and that is the beginning of an dazzling comic book adaptation named after the King Features Syndicate idea called Flash Gordon. 

buck rogersBack in 1934, Flash was created to compete with the already popular 1927 Whitman Publishing Company’s Buck Rogers. Throughout the years, the new intergalactic heroes fought in parallel paths but never intersected. Buck’s comic ceased printing in 1955. Flash; however, lasted — whether you knew it or not — until 1992.

The two would eventually cross paths during that aforementioned, magical decade when both would happen across multimedia — Buck would find himself in a campy TV series starring Gil Gerard from 1979-1981 but there was a more substantial plan for the brainchild of artist and writer Alex Raymond, considered to beone of the most famous science fiction artists of all time, although he never contributed an illustration to any science fiction magazine or book.

Enough about Alex. Let’s talk Flash…

It Puts the ‘Master’ in a Piece

flash-ming
SOURCE: Dino De Laurentiis/Starling Films

If you aren’t familiar with the comic, or not a rabid enthusiast of what has to be the absolute best soundtrack (not score, mind you) for a science fiction film in the history of ever, you may watch this movie about a football great (played by Sam J. Jones) who gets suckered into a spaceship and blasts off with Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and resident nutbar Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) to the far-off planet Mongo. Zarkov incidentally leads Flash and his soon-to-be-squeeze on the rocket via gunpoint. It’s hilariously great, don’t worry about that.

Oh, and ladies, see Sam Jones up there?

Before he was asked to take on the role as titular brazen galactic wonder man, he was a Marine and Playgirl centerfold model. Take that all you snobs who believe the only way to Hollywood is through acting school. Flash Gordon was a previous dinner platter of  sweaty beefcake with a small possum shoved down the front of his shorts.

Dude had serious talent, just not the typical way.

Anywho, as the rocket flails into outer space, there is a sudden tug on the ship. Then, as if drawn to the planet via tractor beam (it comes from our baddie’s signet ring), they meet the diabolical emperor Ming the Merciless (played by the geek favorite character actor, Max Von Sydow — more on that distinction in a sec).

And from there, the campy and quixotic glory begins. 

Nerds are known for being a vociferous bunch. At times, it’s a good thing and we call it “passion.” Other times, it’s a terrible thing and we call it “trolling.” Whatever side of the proverbial dork fence you fall, when it comes to Flash Gordon, it’s a galvanizing film.

Flash-Gordon-1980-4This movie is both blatantly farcical and delightfully fun all at once. It’s like they are trying not to take themselves so seriously, while creating an iconic sci-fi flick of which B-movie barons have never seen before.

Few movies can make you laugh at it and cheer for it at the same time. With Flash’s exploits to rid the universe of this evil emperor, that’s precisely what happens.

The costumes — namely the imperial fatigues of Klytus, Ming, Princess Aura, and General Kala — are laughably ornate and gaudy, but for some reason this bedazzled domicile of our sinister emperor (which looks like it could double on the Trinity Broadcasting Network) is wonderful in its piss-poor reject version of Studio 54ish dance hall from the STD-ridden 1970s.

This movie is like a wad of cash wrapped in a brown paper bag. On the outside, it seems like trash and may actually smell like it too. But, take a chance to stick your hand in where may be a moldy, half-eaten PB&J and turns out to be 15,000 large. That is this film…and although it may appear as a piece with its fantastically absurd “effects,” it’s still masterful by those who appreciate the story. Again, this was a cult classic blue-ribbon recipient immediately.

(And, of course, we adore that effin’ amazing soundtrack.)

‘Flashes’ of Light

ming klytus

Admittedly, Flash Gordon is a polarizing film. Some geeks snicker at it, believing the film is beneath a low-rent sci-fi adventure (and eff those guys anyway). Others believe that is precisely what makes it so, so great. Did you know George Lucas wanted to direct this? Yeah, and get this…he was turned down. So, Lucas went on to create some stupid sci-fi adventure of his own entailing this ‘Force’ thing…and who the hell knows how that turned out.

Let’s highlight the phantasmagorical amazeballs we have in this film:

  • A literal “space ho” in Princess Aura, Ming’s daughter. She tries to bust a move on every man she sniffs around a corner.
  • prince vultanAgain, the costumes in this movie would make Gianni Versace roll in his grave. It looks like a drag show threw up on the neon-adorned batsh!tt@ery set…and yet, you absolutely love every bit of it.
  • We have the Hawkmen who are the Bizarro of the dudes in 300. Big, burly dudes in leather bikinis but with shaved legs. Village people, anyone? Not for nothing, but the wholly underrated Brian Blessed plays Prince Vultan, the bombastically bearded leader of the renegade bird dudes, steals every scene in which he is placed — and even a few that he isn’t (you’ll see).
  • A pre-007 Timothy Dalton playing the volatile (and slightly horny for the intergalactic hoochie mama Aura) Prince Barin, who kinda dresses like a gay Robin Hood reject.
  • Back to the whimsical Dr. Zarkov: Chaim Topol is actually an Academy Award-nominated actor, like with serious acting chops. He was the Fiddler on the Roof, and yet, graciously agreed to be brainwashed in this film of campy soup. And, if you are ever abducted by aliens or vile space emperors and victimized by a memory wipe machine, have faith. Zarkov beat the machine by “thinking of Shakespeare, Einstein formulas, and…the Beatles.” (Damn, this movie is great.)
  • mingLet’s discuss Ming. Do you realize how many nerd classics Max Von Sydow has been featured? We have Flash Gordon and…big breath… The Exorcist I & II (Father Merrin), The Soldier’s Tale (The Devil), The Seventh Seal (Antonious Block), Dune (Dr. Kynes), Ghostbusters II (Vigo), Judge Dredd (Judge Fargo), Minority Report (Director Burgess),  Solomon Kane (Josiah Kane), The Force Awakens (Lor San Tekka), and the illustrious Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones. Dude has even voiced in gaming, as Esbern in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. And, oh yeah, he played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. The guy is arguably the biggest character geek and godfather of nerddom in cinematic history. And that fabulous, coifed Fu-Manchu looking beard? Please! That’s legendary full-on nerd machismo. 

Tunes of Spectacle or Sh!#show?

freddie queen
CREDIT: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

If this is beginning to sound like something featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it absolutely should not. This movie is priceless in its approach, characterization, and focus to make a nerdgasm of sequenced Candy Land. Everyone who helped make this cinematic treasure what it is appears to be clearly behind it.

And behind all of that lies the greatest soundtrack in history. That bassline and signature riff from Brian May helped this band make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Forget all those other tunes like “Killer Queen,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Under Pressure,” and that “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Whatevs. It was all because of Flash.

(Maybe not, but I’m on an adrenaline high. Shut up.)

This was Queen’s first and best (no offense to the songs provided to Highlander and Iron Eagle, both quintessential Queen songs and Freddie Mercury staples in “Who Wants to Live Forever” and “One Vision” respectively). The theme friggin’ reached number 10 on the UK rock charts and number 23 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200.

The mystical rock opera sound that made Queen famous is completely on display with this soundtrack. Brian May’s capricious riffs on the guitar and overly modulated strums of the synthesizer, Roger Taylor’s rhythmic drum beats — namely when Flash is “riding blind on a rocketcycle,” John Deacon lovely mesmerizing bass lines, and of course, Freddie. (That’s all you have to say.)

It’s an operatic score and deserves respect. Naturally, the music outplays the movie (probably a first in movie history) but the two need each other. It’s a perfect marriage of dork legend. This movie is nothing but pure fun and brilliant entertainment. The camp is over-the-top and who cares. By the time, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov make it to Mongo, Queen is blaring in the background (that football scene, anyone) and that ship wasn’t the only thing sucked in…you on the couch yelling “Go Flash Go” too.

Here’s the football scene if you need an appetizer:

This movie is wonderful and if you have any pride in your nerd certificate hanging on the wall, you must see this movie. We are the cult this classic needed.

Overdone? Yes. Underappreciated? Most definitely! Go enjoy and scream “AH-AHHHH” with us all.

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