Click here to return to the main site.

Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Flash Gordon (1980)
(40th Anniversary 4K Restoration)


Starring: Sam J. Jones, Brian Blessed, Max Von Sydow, Timothy Dalton, Ornella Muti, Melody Anderson, Peter Wyngarde, Topol and Deep Roy
Distributor: StudioCanal


Certificate: 15
Release Date: 31 July 2020

StudioCanal delivers a sci-fi care package to fans either in lockdown or locked out of theatres with multiplex editions of the Dino De Laurentis rebuttal to Star Wars. George Lucas tried to get the film rights for the Flash Gordon comic strip and Universal Studios serials starring Buster Crabbe as Flash and Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. But as Flash screenwriter Michael Allin puts it, “He wasn’t George Lucas yet” and couldn’t afford the sticker on the windshield. This, children of all ages, is how we got Star Wars (1977). Lucas couldn’t afford Flash and invented his own space opera serial, complete with “Forward” prologues tilting off into infinity. Just like Flash. Dino De Laurentis saw the “$kywalker” phenomenon, had loved the comic books since his boyhood in ‘30s Italy and could afford the film rights. What was turning George on? And Dino? (1936) (1940)

Mega-mogul De Laurentis envisioned a space epic shot in Rome with no less than Federico Fellini at the helm. Fellini became disenchanted and “sort of disappeared” (it’s still not certain what happened) and the Caesar of cinema went after U.K. director Mike Hodges and produced the film in U.K. At that time Hodges was hotter than a baker’s apron having just finished the Michael Caine crime classic, Get Carter (1971) which was (and still is) protean for the genre, not only in U.K. but the whole world.

There would be no mistaking this picture for anything but a conscious statement on Star Wars. Star Wars IV: A New Hope’s cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (Dr Strangelove 1964) is enlisted to lens Flash Gordon but oh so different is his palette in Mongo Mean Time. His frame compositions are more fun than the precious austerity Lucas demanded - and we all loved. Art director. Danilo Donati too would assure that this wasn’t a simple knockoff. He invented multi-hued skies composed of Jackson Pollock swirls. With the blessing of De Laurentis, indeed, his decree, Flash would return to the camp-deco-fairy tale look of the ‘30s comic strip and serials. His boyhood fandango.

Let it be said that this look polarized 1980 audiences from the get-go. When I saw it first run (yes, I am that old, so shut your pie hole) I was disdainful. Besotted with the Lucas look of Rank Colour stock which the auteur from Modesto, California gravitated toward utilitarian-hip grey, the circusy symphony of Flash’s saturated red, black and gold world seemed… well, cheap, corny and buffooney. Very uncool. I didn’t understand camp even though I thought I did, even though I was enthralled with Republic serials from the 1930s (Fighting Devil Dogs, 1938 and Daredevils of the Red Circle 1939 and the 1940s Spysmasher 1942 and The Crimson Ghost 1946). But the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials were always just a little too flamboyant for me, outdatedly ornate and resolutely unreal. Sort of like an old-fashioned kid’s sailor hat with a stupid scalloped brim. My aesthetic inhibitions, formed in fascist Kansas had to be enlightened by a higher consciousness, a new and different state, like California.

Susan Sontag wrote the be all, end all essay on camp. See:

Dino’s Flash Gordon asserted it once and for all for sci-fi. Like it or lump it.

In 1980, watching Flash Gordon first run with me was my little Armenian nephew, Zavag. Zavag had been carried in his mother’s womb in bomb-shattered Beirut and still carried the shellshock with him. Nervous and withdrawn, sudden noises upset and frightened him. But he loved Flash Gordon, gleeful with it, out of his seat and dancing in the aisle. Its otherworldly look, gung-ho acting and music by Queen were keys to his cinematic soul. And the unabashed heroism of the New York Jets quarterback turned space warrior probably felt okay too.

Freddie Mercury and Brian May loved it too. We can tell. Their pulsing score and title song, with Mercury and May duetting, is still the most distinctive and recognizable intro in all sci-fi history. Even for people whose parents hadn’t been yet conceived in 1980. I say, nothing puts the mind at ease like a stirring Moog and beaucoup flange. With orchestrations by Howard Blake always faithful to the Queen music, its signature electronica echo, reverb thrum, trills and warbles, exulting in pure audio torque, inaugurated the '80s decade of neo-reality escape.

Max Von Sydow was approached with trepidation. Would the star of so many Ingmar Bergman classics deign to be Ming the Merciless? Is the Pope a Catholic? Does the bear do you know what in the woods? Von Sydow was delighted. He chewed on the role with the same gusto old buzzard head Charles Middleton had in the serials. Buster Crabbe said the actor became Ming and dominated the set. Von Sydow used his magnificent presence the same way.

In the mountain of extras, director Hodges shares about his chaotic work conditions with a theatrical set designer who gave him sets that could only be filmed one way. How he stopped planning and just came every morning to the Twickenham soundstage to see what awaited him. (Flash’s unscripted football game in Ming’s court was invented by Sam Jones and Melody Anderson on the set with Anderson becoming an all-American cheerleader improvising: “Go, Flash go!”) De Laurentis haunted Mongo like a jolly patriarch. Yet everybody had a good time. The tomfoolery was contagious, and it shows in the knowing looks on the actors’ faces.

The StudioCanal 40th Anniversary 4K restoration was scanned from the original 35mm neg to produce 4K files. Over 500 hours of manual restoration repaired damage to image stability, scratches and unwanted flicker. The soundtrack was rehabbed of dropouts, digital clicks and optical distortion. The image was colour graded for 4K HDR home entertainment units. The release is available in DVD, Blu-ray, 4K UHD and even 8D audio. I say, go at least for the Blu-ray. The imagery will etch itself in your memory. The sound, if you play it too loud, said a source I looked up, could be dangerous, causing tinnitus but the same source said 8D audio doesn’t really exist so I don’t know anything about anything. (But I did get tinnitus standing too close to the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound.) Somewhere, Ming the Merciless is laughing.

Many of the extras appear on the popular modes but the 5-disc Collector’s Edition rewards the collector who cares - with every presentation mode - for the playback equipment you don’t have yet. There’s a bonus Blu-ray disc Life After Flash, a 2017 feature length docu celebrating the film and its stars, directed by Lisa Downs; a primo sound track disc by Queen and Howard Blake; a reproduced booklet of Flash’s debut in the original 1931 comic strip; literature galore; poster and pre-production art; 4 art cards with the various incarnations of Flash film posters through the years; and a sew-on ‘Flash patch’.

Blu-ray extras include Behind the Scenes With Flash Gordon with writer Michael Allin, providing background on the rights purchase, idiosyncrasies of De Laurentis (“I like your face.”) and Mike Hodges, maestro of control, learning to swim with improvisation. But it is the video essay Lost in Space: Nicolas Roeg’s Flash Gordon that’s the crème de la crème for second mile historians. It details the ill fated first try by Nicolas Rogue, hot off Don’t Look Now (1973), his vision, his clash with De Laurentis and his philosophy of film. Roeg is literally the Avant gardist who came in from the cold and commercial sensibility couldn’t handle his pressure test. Roeg saw Flash and Dale as Adam and Eve being chased across the universe by a jealous God. Deus maximus Ming wants to depopulate each planet down to one woman with whom he would repopulate the planet in his own image. This docu is worth the whole kit and kaboodle. Let it be noted, Dino’s opus still climaxes with Flash racing to interrupt Ming’s wedding with Dale and yes, Mendelssohn’s Here Comes the Bride is played by Queen. Some hits are universal.

Every actor gets a share of abundant jokes fired off with Joan Rivers rapidity, probably courtesy of writer Lorenzo Semple.

Dale: “Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth.”

Zarkov: breaking an encrypted hatch code: “Ha! I thought it was one of the prime numbers on the Zeeman series. I haven’t changed!”

Timothy Dalton and Topol, shackled to a wall,

Dalton: “Tell me more about this man Houdini.”

The sexual innuendos are endless: virtually A to Z. Name it, it’s in there. Lorenzo Semple was famous for these one liners and had already demonstrated his wit for De Laurentis in his King Kong (1976) which for all its monkey-suit shortfall did give us Jessica Lange - and retroactive realization down the road that no amount of Peter Jackson special effects superiority could compensate for Jack Black. Sue me.

But the whole thing has a point. The individual matters against the tyrant, the oligarch, the mass manipulator. Dale says she will marry Ming because she said she would and is told by a Mongo minion, Ming never keeps his word, with anybody ever. Dale: “Keeping our word is one of the things that make us better than you.”

Kudos to StudioCanal for presenting this restored Flash in theatres and the Luna Drive In Cinema this summer. Zoe Flower, with marketing, wrote me these showings were well received.

“Pathetic Earthlings,” Ming laughs mercilessly, “who can save you now?” I think we know the answer to that one. Freddy Mercury wouldn’t lie.


John Huff

Review image

Buy this item online