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Gordon’s alive? Flash Gordon (1980)/ Flash Gordon: the novelisation (Arthur Byron Cover) ~ Reviews

August 20, 2013

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(Flash Gordon)

Directed by: Mike Hodges; Starring: Sam J Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Ornella Muti, Topol, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Mariangela Melato and Richard O’Brien; Screenplay by: Lorenzo Semple Jr; US/ UK; 111 minutes; Colour; Certificate: PG

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King Solomon’s Mines (1985). Legend (1985). Return To Oz (1985). Howard The Duck (1986). The Lost Boys (1987). Young Einstein (1988). There’s nothing quite like an ’80s cult fantasy movie, is there? Often trite, almost always camp and usually fairly rubbish, they tend to be box-office bombs the size of Fatman or Little Boy (unlike the now culty but then big earners of their era like, say, 1985’s The Goonies and  St. Elmo’s Fire or even 1986’s Ferris Bueller) and utterly derided by critics on release. Yet nowadays they’re swathed in a warm glow of fanboy goodwill. And why not? They’re all rather delightful. As is another of their number, namely the irrepressibly legendary sci-fier Flash Gordon.

Indeed, Flash Gordon neither troubled the cinematic competition (it ended up down in 23rd place on 1980’s US box-office chart), nor did the critics approve – most seeing it less a flash in the pan as deserving of being flushed down the crapper. But, prior to release, it certainly had everything going for it.

For it was brought to the screen by legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis (1968’s Barbarella, 1973’s Serpico, 1984’s Dune and 1986’s Blue Velvet), scripted by Hollywood heavyweight scribe Lorenzo Semple Jr (1973’s Papillon, 1975’s The Parallax View and 1976’s Three Days Of The Condor ), photographed by versatile Brit DOP Gilbert Taylor (1964’s A Hard Day’s Night and Dr Strangelove and 1977’s Star Wars), scored by The Snowman‘s (1982) Howard Blake – along with, of course, the iconic theme from rock gods Queen – and, in a surprising move, helmed by top Brit director Mike Hodges (1971’s Get Carter, 1972’s Pulp and 1998’s Croupier). Unquestionably quite a list, but then, take a gander at the cast

Heavyweight Swedish thesp and Ingmar Bergman fave Max von Sydow as dastardly despotic alien Ming the Merciless of Mongo; equally as legendary Topol, Fiddler On The Roof star on both stage and screen (1971) and Bond film ally of For Your Eyes Only (1981), as crackpot genius scientist Dr Hans Zarkov; classical actor extraordinaire and future 007 Timothy Dalton as lugubrious woodland world ruler Prince Barin; foghorn-mouthed eccentric actor Brian Blessed as winged Birdman world leader Prince Vultan; velvet-voiced Jason King (1971-72) smoothie Peter Wyngarde as Ming’s cyborg security chief Klytus; respected Italian actress Mariangela Melato as Klytus’s second-in-command Kala; The Rocky Horror Show creator and future host of yuppies-play-games TV show The Crystal Maze (1990-95) Richard O’Brien as Barin’s minion Fico; Italian screen sexpot-on-the-rise Ornella Muti as Ming’s lusty daughter and Barin’s lover Princess Aura and, finally, relative newcomers Melody Anderson and Sam J Jones as heroine and hero, respectively, travel agent Dale Arden and, of course, American football star and saver-of-the-universe-to-be Flash Gordon. Truly, there’s probably not a movie of the ’80s that boasts a cast as eclectic or – 30 years-plus later – as legendary as this. It’s a fortuitous retro wonder.

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Touchy Topol: “Look at me like that, Ming, and I’ll break your nose; just like I did this bloke’s!”

Not totally like the film itself sadly. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s much, much about Flash Gordon to love; but there’s a fair deal that, frankly, at times drags it right down into that Arborian swamp with the humanoid-eating spider monster-thing. First, though, the positives. Along with the fabulously groovy casting, maybe what’s best about the flick is its faithfulness to its source material and its realisation of it. The whole shebang originated as a 1930s US comic strip conceived by Alex Raymond, full of flamboyant colour, design and costumes, in which its all-American hero is transported along with knockout beauty Dale Arden – against their wishes – by nutty Zarkov to the planetary system of Mongo, which is ruled with an iron fist by near-supernaturally powerful Ming, and where Flash and his allies team up with the suppliant planets’ rulers (Barin, Vultan et al) to overthrow the despicable tyrant.

Not only does the movie take this fine sci-fi fantasy premise as its plot and run with it smartly and cannily (Aura aids Flash because she wants to shag him; Barin’s jealous of him and only teams up with him when he discovers ‘humanity’), amusingly and wittily (Dale exclaiming comic-strip-esque: “Flash, I love you, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!”), but also uses the style of Raymond’s strips as less a touchstone, more a flag-bearer for its look. Unquestionably, the gaudy, primary-toned Mongo (all bold reds, glittering golds, imperial greens and shimmering azures) and the pointed shoulder-pads, knee-length boots and slinky-Arabian-harem-almost-there costumes, as well as the alt-fantasy-esque bulky rocket-cycles and blimp-shaped spaceships (all of which seem to sport phallic points) are a feast for the eyes. It’s almost as if the characters of Dynasty (1981-89) have travelled to the most luxuriant brothel in the universe. A journey to the campest forbidden planet you can imagine.

Unfortunately, though, the camp doesn’t end there. And it’s that which is Flash Gordon‘s undoing at times. As well as what makes it utterly, cultily delightful at the same time, to be fair. It’s all or nothing with this flick; nothing’s done by half. While that works with, say, Queen’s awesome, theatrically bombastic, chart-friendly title song over the magnificent Raymond comic strip-referencing opening titles (see video clip below), elsewhere a little more subtlety wouldn’t go amiss. But with the – let’s be honest, often in their screen careers, enthusiastically thesping – Topol, Dalton (“Freeze, you bloody bastards!”) and Blessed (“DIIIIVE!“/ “Gordon’s alive?!“) only too eager to chew the scenery and the fact that this is a movie featuring men with giant wings who fly, foes battle each other on incredibly cool but overtly dramatic tilting discs featuring rising spikes and Richard O’Brien sits in trees playing pipes, it all gets a bit too pantomime for its own good. A bit like Moulin Rouge! (2001). Only in space.

Ironically, the most subtlety comes from the most eye-catching character, Ming. Under all his ostentatious yet brilliant make-up and costumes, von Sydow brings a highly effective quiet terror and ruthlessness to proceedings, stealing every scene he’s in – even those featuring Blessed. By contrast, his antithesis and humanity’s saviour Flash himself is disappointingly one-note; Dolph Lundgren-lookalike Sam J Jones probably wasn’t helped by the fact he was entirely dubbed and the script does him few favours – but then, that doesn’t hold back Melody Anderson’s memorably spunky and resourceful Dale, who’s almost as sexy as the ludicrously appealing Muti as Aura.

In the end, though, as pretty much elucidated above, criticising Flash Gordon for its faults as a movie sort of misses the point – it’s delicious entertainment for precisely the reason it’s camp as hell and, well, crap as you like. The saying goes that you can’t polish a turd, but few of ’em come as polished or as fun as this synth-and-drum-backed, garish, star-packed Mongo mash classic of its (own) kind.

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(Flash Gordon: the novelisation)

Author: Arthur Byron Cover

Year: 1980

Publisher: Jove Publications

ISBN: 0515058483 /9780515058482

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Trust me, my blog-friendly friends, there’s only one way to top the über-campy, culty, delightfully naff fantasy sci-fi experience that’s watching Flash Gordon, and that’s by reading its novelisation. Quite simply, this book genuinely delivers everything the film does, only more; and that, depending on your viewpoint, is likely either laughably bad or wonderfully brilliant – or both.

For one thing – as usual when it comes to novelisations of movies or novels on which movies are based – there’s more characterisation, principally of the protagonists. In surely an improvement on the flick, we’re given both an in-depth look at hero Flash’s psychosis and his back-story. Admirably, the Flash of the novelisation is a far more intellectual, soulful and learned chap than the cinematic Flash is allowed/ has enough room to be. Here the guy’s a pseudo-philosopher masquerading as a football star (no really), for whom being a world famous sportsman’s something of a burden, as are the moments of melancholic solitude his psychological make-up requires him to experience and his inability (superhero-esque) to give his emotional all in an amorous relationship, or so he believes until he meets the delectable Dale Arden and immediately falls for her.

Almost as intriguingly, while the much more down-to-earth Dale is certainly be the tough cookie of the movie, her preponderance for satisfying sex is more than hinted at, thus why Ming’s discovery of her lustiness is what draws him to her so fundamentally and why he desires her as a concubine (a facet of Dale’s character that’s only partially explored in the family-friendly flick). As for Ming himself, well, pleasingly the alien tyrant is afforded a decent amount of detailed characterisation. Most interesting is the attempt to explain how he has some sort of telepathic/ supernatural connection to his despotic ancestors via meditation (which he performs instead of sleeping) and which sort of sustains the force of his will over his servile subjects. Sort of.

And here we come to the drawback of Arthur Byron Cover’s writing – or, as suggested, its savourable delight – namely, the writing style. Now, methinks it’s fair to say that if you’ve sampled any comic books at all, you’ll have noted their frippery of capes, super-powers, semi-eroticism and pantomimic villainy are more than often treated with daft seriousness, even sombre world-weariness.

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Blessed warning: “Careful you don’t spike your crown jewels, Timbo; you’ll need them as 007!”

And, undeniably and understandably, taking his cue from this (no doubt owing to the comic book origins of his subject matter), Cover lays it on as thick as a slab of thick marmalade with extra orange peel. No impressive adjective is avoided; no dynamic verb disregarded; no excitable adverb omitted. The result is a English primary school teacher’s wet-dream; almost every sentence one a creative writing course tutor might suggest ‘could be toned it down a bit’. Consider this description of Ming’s meditative technique:

Ming the Merciless felt valuable insights verging on forbidden knowledge merge with his soul. For moments which stretched until time was a meaningless concept, Ming lay floating, experiencing the peace his turbulent emotions denied him, discovering the nuances of existence overwhelmed by his burdensome ennui‘.

Like i said, though, given the subject matter, there’s a greatness to writing in this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-like style; Cover clearly knows his sci-fi/ comic book-loving audience so utterly goes for it, and if you’re up for the ride it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Indeed, delightfully it also infects the dialogue; Prince Barin observes of our unique, near-perfect hero to an acolyte: ‘If other Americans are like him, they’re the most dangerous breed of men in the cosmos‘. Coming out as this book did in the early ’80s, Ronald Reagan would’ve probably loved that line.

Still, there’s no question Cover knows exactly what he’s doing. Both a comic book writer and a published fantasy fiction author for several decades, who’s to question what he does here when he’s been a success in this genre for so long? After all, even if the ‘overdone’ style becomes a little tiresome at points, there’s no doubt he brings the universe of Mongo (its constituent worlds included) to life effectively and once Flash, Dale and the similarly invested-in Zarkov blast-off in the latter’s rocket, the pace and action never let up.

Admittedly, there’s practically no resolution following the climax, but then there isn’t in the movie (and thus probably wasn’t in the script from which Cover wrote his book from) and that could well be because of the Ming-tastic teaser both leave us with in the very last reel/ the last paragraph – intended, of course, to set up a sequel. A pity, indeed then, that we didn’t get the chance to revisit Mongo on-screen and in-print for that sequel. Hmmm, or on second thoughts, maybe one of both really was enough – or, to put it another way, thanks for the rocket-cycle ride, Flash, but now it’s time to return to terra firma.

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