The film begins with the earth targeted through a scope, as an evil guy laughs about inflicting chaos with his various disaster machines. Before we can worry about our impending doom, QUEEN starts playing over the opening credits.
Following a series of news reports that sound perfectly normal if you live in California, we're introduced to Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), Quarterback, New York Jets, and Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), tom-boyish female journalist. Both are on their way back to New York when "hot hail" causes their plane to crash into a greenhouse despite Flash's ace piloting. The greenhouse belongs to crazy former NASA scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol), who for some reason forces the two strangers to get into the rocket ship he had built for just such an occasion. Also we're told the earth is going to be destroyed by an off-course moon in a matter of days. Hey, I remember that game!
The spaceship crashes on Mongo, and the three are promptly captured and taken to Ming The Merciless (Max Von Sydow). We also meet the various races of Mongo: the Hawk-guys, the Forest people, and of course, the African noble-savages. Ming is smitten with Dale after making her dance around by remote, but before he can exert his oriental charms on her Flash uses his FOOTBALL SKILLS to beat up a bunch of goons while Queen music plays. Seriously, this scene rules. Unfortunately, Zarkov makes a bad throw that hits Flash in the head, and Flash is promptly executed while Dale begins her new life in a harem and Zarkov gets reprogrammed by Ming's secret police.
But like a 1930's version of Brett Favre, death can't stop Flash Gordon! He gets brought back to life by Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), an exotically dressed and liberated woman who saved Flash's life so she can have sex with him. Or at least that's what's PG-suggested. She spirits him away to Arboria, kingdom of the forest people and led by Aura's fiance Prince Baron (Timothy Dalton, doing an Errol Flynn impression). En route, Flash telepathically lets Dale know he's okay while hilariously trying not to think about the fact that Aura's "turning him on." Dale takes this information and meets up with Zarkov, who was ineffectively brainwashed, and the two of them escape Ming's city only to be caught in Sky City, home of the Hawk-guys.
Unfortunately Barin resents Flash's all-american good looks and the two end up fighting in a swamp beneath the tree-people's city. Before Barin can kill Flash, Vultan (Brian Blessed, who apparently thinks he's doing a production of Henry V), leader of the Hawk-guys takes both men captive.
Vultan apparently plans to ransom the humans and Barin back to Ming to gain favor and bide his time before eventually taking on Ming one on one. Flash implores him to "team up" with him and Barin to fight Ming, but gets ignored. Barin uses his princely right to engage anyone in a fight to the death, and picks Flash: the dude knows how to hold a grudge. Flash and Barin fight it out, but in the end Flash saves Barin from falling into an abyss. Before the two can explore their budding bro-mance, Ming's goons show up and Barin and Flash promptly gruesomely murder one of them, impaling his body on spikes. Vultan freaks out and evacuates all the Hawk-guys from the palace, as Ming himself shows up. Ming teleports everyone but Flash onto his ship then offers to make Flash the leader of his own province, apparently recognizing that this dude cannot be stopped. I understand Tom Brady was once made a similar offer. Flash isn't interested in politics, so Ming orders the whole palace destroyed. But Flash again escapes death, finding a hover-cycle and escaping just in time.
Ming is so impressed by humans that he decides to marry Dale, but Flash meets up with Vultan, who has seen that this Flash Gordon is worth teaming up with, and Flash lures more flunkies through a cloud where thousands of Hawk-guys are waiting. Princess Aura releases Zarkov and Barin, leading to a final showdown. Will Flash stop the wedding? Will Aura have sex with Zarkov? Will the earth be destroyed by the moon?
This movie starts off pretty painfully dull, with a series of nonsensical plane crashes and rocket ship crashes before we know who the characters are. Apparently this is the result of a pretty literal reconstruction of Flash's first comic. Once we get to Mongo things really start rolling, and we get a fun little sci-fi epic with bright colors, larger-than-life characters and an amazing soundtrack.
The film was a commercial flop in the US, where it received a lot of negative comparisons to Star Wars, but its campy re-telling of Fascism-toppling was a big hit in Europe. Visually and even thematically Flash Gordon plays out more like a for kids version of Barbarella than anything else. You've got Dale joining a harem, Flash being revived from death in his underwear, and Aura's whole character. She's engaged to Barin, saves Flash for sex, gets accused of necrophilia, then gets chained up and tortured by a guy she had earlier insisted "wanted her for himself." Before being killed her torturer suggests that she "rather enjoyed it."
The acting is really uneven: Flash is played by Sam Jones, a guy whose previous experience was playing Bo Derek's husband in 10. He's pretty awful, and then-newcomer Melody Anderson is a little better but doesn't have much of a character. On the other hand, Timothy Dalton, Blessed, Topol, and Von Sydow are pretty uniformly excellent, and have a lot of fun with their characters. Muti is a convincing femme fatale despite barely speaking English.
What's so great about the film is it manages to keep its tone as a sincere action-adventure story while characters shout things like "Flash, I love you but we only have 14 hours to save the earth!" It's this total commitment to re-creating childhood serials no matter how stupid it must have sounded (plus an awesome Queen soundtrack) that elevates Flash Gordon to the level of "mainstream camp," if such a thing exists. Seriously if someone asks you why you like camp, show them this movie. It is just so flat out fun that the absurdity of it all starts adding to rather than detracting from the audience's enjoyment. While most camp involves laughing at the ridiculous aspects of melodrama, this story is actually a compelling enough melodrama that you might even find yourself rooting for the characters.
In addition, Watching Flash Gordon today really puts you into the mindset of what captured the imagination of people in the 1930's. In no particular order, 1930's America was terrified of:
- Plane Crashes
- Liberated Women
- Chinese People
Flash: Flash Gordon. Quarterback. New York Jets.
Dale: Dale Arden, your highness. Live and let live, that's my motto.
Priest: Do you, Ming the Merciless, ruler of the universe, take this earthling Dale Arden, to be your empress of the hour?
Ming: Of the Hour, yes.
Priest: Do you promise to use her as you will?
Priest: Do you promise not to blast her into space? Um, until such time as you grow weary of her?
Ming: I do.
Dale: I do NOT.
Ming: Are your men on the right pills? Maybe you should execute their trainer!
Barin: I've changed.
Aura: I've changed, too.
*Zarkov opens an electronic door lock*
Zarkov: A-ha! I knew it was one of the prime numbers of the Zenith series. I haven't changed.
Zarkov: Don't empty my mind: I've spent my whole life filling it!
Dale: Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!
Vultan: GORDON'S ALIVE?!
Dale: Oh, Flash!
Arbitrary Rating System:
5 space Footballs out of 5.
What to Drink:
Any beer advertised during football games.