Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Flash Gordon
Legend tells that Alex Raymond’s comic strip Flash Gordon is the reason Star Wars exists. In the wake of his success with American Graffiti, bearded filmmaking wunderkind George Lucas sought to make a Flash Gordon film. He soon learned the rights were held by our dear friend Dino DeLaurentiis — having picked up the rights a few years earlier when it seemed he could get Federico Felini to direct — and that Dino was not interested selling the rights or in working with a scrawny kid who only had one success to his name.
And then there was Star Wars.
In the wake of that film film’s success, everyone scrambled to make something like it. Which meant Dino had to use his option on Flash Gordon but fast. Felini was no longer in the frame and the project fell to the most appropriate person for the job: Get Garter director Mike Hodges. Known at the time for that stylish gangster flick, its comedic follow-up Pulp, and The Terminal Man, Hodges found himself relieved of directing duties on Damien: Omen 2 when he took a call from Nicholas Roeg (Walkabout), who was slated to helm Dino’s production of Flash Gordon. The extravagant producer was already talking sequel and Roeg thought he would be great for it. The three men eventually had a meeting and Dino was apparently impressed by Hodges, because soon after he was hired to direct the one and only camp classic Flash Gordon.
And since I have to mention this every time I invoke this movie: no, not Flesh Gordon, Flash Gordon. Frankly, it’s the better of the two flicks.
Updating some of Raymond’s antiquated backstory for the character into a 1980 context, Sam Jones stars as “Flash” Gordon, a New Jets quarterback thrust into the role of hero when he and a travel agent named Dale Arden (Manimal‘s Melody Anderson) are kidnapped by the unhinged Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol!) in an attempt to save the Earth from Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow in his personal favorite role) and his Mongo hordes. Despite changing Flash’s professional sport from polo to football and a few other elements, the film still feels like a product of the 1930s, when Flash Gordon movie serials based on Raymond’s comics first appeared in theaters. The sets are outlandish, the performances strike the exact tone Lucas later claimed he wanted for the Star Wars prequel trilogy and the story’s dopey simpleness recalls the days before war bonds and civil rights.
Come to think of it, Ming is totally a yellow peril villain despite Von Sydow’s stellar performance and an attempt to make his make-up a little less objectionable.
Though screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. would later call it a mistake, Dino and Hodges knew the correct tone for Flash Gordon was camp. You can see it in the camera set-ups and the performances of supporting players like Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, Department H‘s Peter Wyngarde as General Klytus and Brian Blessed, who gives a BIG performance as Hawkpeople leader Prince Vultan. And though you might assume the costumes and sets are also part of Hodges’s vision, he’ll tell you straight that he and the brilliant-but-crazy art director Danilo Donati never spoke the same language — literally or figuratively. Arriving each day to find sets he didn’t ask for, Hodges and his performers made up large parts of the movie as they went along. The result is a fever dream of bright colors and that rarest of rare accomplishments: intentional cheese.
As discussed in previous installments of Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, intentional cheese is almost impossible to pull off. But Hodges does it thanks to a number of factors, including Jones’s dedication to playing the part as straight as possible. Though dedicated, Jones is not a great actor; something Hodges uses to his advantage. Since he looks the part and continues to be quite athletic to this day, Jones pulls off most of the action admirably. It’s in quieter moments where his lack of range reveals itself, but the performance manages to play well against the broader turns of Wyngarde or Blessed … or at least plays as “well” as Hodges wants it to be.
But the straight-laced work of Jones (and Anderson for that matter) set against a larger-than-life cartoonish universe is part of the film’s charm. Their goofy seriousness anchors the rest of the proceedings, allowing Wyngarde to camp it up, Blessed to yell lines like “Gordon’s alive!?” with gusto, and Von Sydow to relish his character’s villainy and expansive wardrobe.
Oh, also, the movie is set to the music of Queen (with some orchestral work by Howard Blake).
And if you suspect I might be wrong about Hodges’s intention to make a cheesy film, they will be dismissed by the time Brian May’s take on the Wagner’s Wedding March plays late in the film.
Unfortunately, audiences accustomed to the tone struck by Star Wars recoiled from Flash Gordon. It tanked everywhere but the United Kingdom, and with its commercial prospects diminished, the film took on a reputation as a straight-up bad movie in the years which followed. But it also developed a strong cult following thanks to those who sussed out its camp value, fell in love with Donati’s elaborate sets, or just enjoyed Blessed’s oversized performance. Roger Ebert was an early fan of the film, calling its cheesy tone a wise decision.
Considering the abject failure to get another Flash Gordon film off the ground in the decades since, camp was the only way forward. Like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter books, Raymond’s strips and the 1930s serials were strip-mined by Lucas and others for every idea they were worth. Even by 1980, a “serious” Flash Gordon film ran the risk of looking like another Star Wars ripoff; nevermind that Raymond was exploring the fanciful stars before Lucas was even born. Poking fun at the look and feel of older Flash Gordon media not only set it apart from the Star Wars knock-offs, but it set the film on a course for cult film status.
Flash Gordon is available for rent at the usual streaming platforms, but you owe it to yourself to pick up the Blu-ray release of the film. It only costs slightly more than the streaming rental price and will offer you years of cheesy goodness.
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