"Will you destroy this… 'Earth'?"
"Later! I like to play with things a while… before annihilation…"
Perhaps best known for its awesome rock soundtrack by none other than Queen, Flash Gordon is a cult favorite movie beloved for its unabashed and magnificent cheesiness. Based – with, as to be expected, considerable latitude –on the classic comic strip and old movie serials, Flash Gordon tells the story of Earth natives "Flash" Gordon (quarterback, New York Jets), journalist Dale Arden, and scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov who find themselves in a distant spaceborne realm called Mongo, ruled over by Emperor Ming (called the Merciless for good reason), and their battle to stop Ming from destroying the Earth.
Flash Gordon's success, in the years following its release, is undoubtedly due to the fact that it embraced the retro-comedy of its origins in the modern era, rather than trying to somehow update it and remove what were some of the key elements of its appeal.
No sleek, modern, aerospace-influenced vessels here; the ships of Flash Gordon are joyously baroque, rocketships with exuberantly ridiculous fins, pointed ramming needles, ray guns galore, and eye-searingly bright paint jobs with a lot of crimson and gold leaf. No realistic spacescapes and nice round planets with boring, conventional atmospheres for this universe; instead we get to fly through psychedelic torrents of light, drifting cloudscapes, "planets" of whatever shape and composition suit the mood of the designers, and so on. (The Arena, from Grand Central Arena, clearly echoes Flash Gordon in some areas). Even the weapons are ridiculously, impossibly over-ornamented pieces of retro-styled art, down to the dazzlingly-bright and uselessly blunt sword Flash holds in his final showdown with Ming.
Even the characters and their performances are filled with wheels of cheese and acres of overacting. Ming the Merciless doesn't try to avert the Yellow Peril depictions of bygone years, but instead dives headlong into it with a yellowface-wearing, Fu-Manchu styled Max Von Sydow using every ounce of his acting ability to chew so much scenery that he must have supplied every pulp factory in North America with enough material to make paper for the next ten years. Ming is cheerfully, dramatically Evil-with-a-capital E that few other characters are allowed to even attempt, let alone reach.
Sam Jones' Flash Gordon is so clean-cut, heroic, and square-jawed that it's a wonder he can't punch someone out with his chin from across the room. Topol's Doctor Hans Zarkov demonstrates the impossible multidisciplinary capabilities of a Golden-Age space opera scientist, and of course one cannot forget BRIAN BLESSED's over-the-top performance as Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen: "Oh well… who wants to live forever? DIIIIIIIVVVVE!"
It's no surprise that this cheesiness was deliberate; the writer, Leonard Sample, had written many episodes of the 1960s Batman series and recognized that the only way to keep all the key elements of the original series, yet not offend too many people, would be to use the camp approach. It succeeded brilliantly, although the initial release of the film did not perform terribly well.
I actually saw Flash Gordon more times than any other film in my life, at least prior to the era of easy home-video re-watchings. This was due to a friend of mine, Alex Pinchuk (tuckerized by name in Boundary as Helen Sutter's professional nemesis) having a pass to one of the local theaters to see movies whenever he felt like it. This did mean I was kinda sick of it after a while, and it took some years before I could enjoy watching Flash Gordon again.
Watching the movie today is actually sometimes more entertaining because I have more perspective on what and who I'm watching. Seeing a young Timothy Dalton hamming it up as Prince Barin before he became James Bond and, later, Rassilon is very amusing, as is the inspiringly grandiose work of Von Sydow as Ming when compared to many of his other films. There is also the occasional Whedonesque sequences of banter: "I've changed, Aura." "I've changed too, Barin." "HA! I knew it was one of the prime numbers of the Zeeman series! I haven't changed!"
At the same time, it does the same as Galaxy Quest in that it takes itself seriously within its universe; the characters never stop and look at us as if to say "this whole thing is really too stupid to believe, right?". This allows some real tension in between the comedy. Perhaps the most dramatic and painful moments are with Dr. Zarkoff as he is imprisoned and about to be turned into a servant of Ming's regime:
Emperor Ming: "Every thousand years, I test each life system in the Universe. I visit it with mysteries, earthquakes, unpredicted eclipses, strange craters in the wilderness. If these are taken as natural, I judge that system ignorant and harmless - I spare it. But if the Hand of Ming is recognized in these events, I judge that system dangerous to us. I call upon the great god Dyzan, and for his greater glory … and our mutual pleasure… I destroy it utterly."
Doctor Zarkov: "You're saying… it's my fault the Earth is being destroyed?"
Emperor Ming: "Precisely, Doctor! I thought it might amuse you to know that… before your mind is gone."
Flash Gordon is no masterpiece of cinema to compare with the greats of film, but it is a pure, fun romp that doesn't have pretensions to be anything else, and because of that, it succeeds where many more ambitious films have failed. If you've never seen it before, give this oldie but goodie a chance, and you'll probably end up humming the theme tune too… "Flash! AAA-AAAAH! Savior of the Universe!"