Jarv’s Schlock Vault: Flash Gordon
“Flash I love you, but we’ve only got 14 hours to save the Earth”
Jarv’s Rating: 4 Changs- wonderful.
Watching that utter rubbish the other night inspired me to do a few things. Firstly, it inspired me to never watch another Lenzi film, secondly it made me trepiditious of the remaining Shameless films I’ve got sitting at home, and finally and most importantly it pushed me into watching one of my favourite films of all time. I’ve actually been wanting to do this one for a while, but couldn’t work out how to categorise it. It’s not underrated, so that was out.
However, when I rewatched it last night, I came to the conclusion that not only is Flash Gordon schlock, but it’s probably the most awesome piece of schlock ever made. It’s got a preposterous plot, terrible acting, an unintenionally hilarious script, actors who should know better slumming it in material that’s clearly (and in a few cases hugely so) beneath them, cheesy special effects, a completely OTT soundtrack and outrageous costume design.
Therefore, it’s schlock.
I’m pretty certain everyone on the planet knows the plot of this film, but nonetheless, Flash is quarterback for the NY Jets (I’m pretty certain they sucked back then as well), and through a series of coincidences that border on the outlandish, travels into space to Mongo and eventually overthrows the nefarious Ming the Merciless, who was destroying Earth for something to do.
This film is fucking golden. When it opens with the simply magnificent Max von Sydow drawling “Klytus, I’m bored” you know you’re in for a treat- and watching him stab buttons to inflict various disasters on the Earth while the noise builds into the awesome soundtrack is electrifying. When Queen (who I normally detest) start their big number and the comic book inspired images flash (no pun intended) across the opening credits, a young Jarv was captivated, and watching it again as a cynical adult still makes me smile.
The film never lets up after that. It heaps preposterousness on preposterousness, covers it with lashings of bad acting, and seasons the mix with a script that delivers gem after gem. “Klytus! Are all your men on the right pills? Maybe you should execute their trainer!” being a notable example. To be fair, Ming gets a huge amount of brilliant lines, and von Sydow delivers them all with a moustache twirling, lip smacking relish. It’s a wonderfully over the top villain’s performance, and is so hammy you’d think he’d been eating nothing but GIANT PIG! in preparation for the role. He’s ably assisted by Peter Wyngarde as Klytus- a henchman with style.
This brings me to the next point- this film is stuffed full of actors that really shouldn’t be there. Aside from Von Sydow himself, RSC alumnae Brian Blessed grins his way through the film despite wearing plastic wings, Timothy Dalton swashes a few buckles long before James Bond as Prince Barin, Ornella Muti vamps as Princess Aura, Topol puts down his fiddle to play genius scientist Zarpov, Richard O’Brien appears in a cameo, and one of the 20th Century’s finest playwrights, John Osborne, makes a strange appearance. All these people give great performances, and all of them are rewarded with their share of ridiculous lines and fun set pieces.
However, the acting is not all good. Melody Anderson is a terrible actress, but her performance as Dale Arden is strangely fitting. Nevertheless, the real plank is Sam Jones as Flash. These two are the leads and some of their exchanges are unintentionally hilarious. There’s an absolute belter at the beginning where Dale says “Say something to distract me” which prompts Flash to relate an interminable anecdote about seeing her in the restaurant, which she responds with “You’re only saying that to distract me”. Fucking genius.
I’ve briefly mentioned the script, but it must be one of the most quotable scripts ever written. Off the top of my head without looking it up on IMDB I can think of at least 20 lines that are all priceless. This in itself has given rise to a life threatening drinking game. You need at least 4 people to do it, everybody draws a character from a hat, and anytime one of your characters says something ridiculous, you have to drink. The person that draws either Ming or Klytus is in deep shit.
This film was directed by Mike Hodges, who made the unarguable classic Get Carter, and it couldn’t be more different. Whereas Carter was a grey and gritty film, Flash is a splash of fluorescent colour. Carter was realistic, Flash is cartoonish. They’re totally different films. It’s a strange progression, and one that’s shared by Donati (the designer) who went from working with Fellini to this. My three minutes of research tells me that Lucas the merciless tried to get his grubby paws on this, and can you imagine the glum and over-serious Flash he’d have made? It certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun.
Overall, would I recommend it? I have to say 100% yes. It gets a spin every Christmas at Casa del Jarv, and every time I enjoy it again. It’s a blend of comedy and excitement, and arguably the greatest “bad” movie ever made. Flash Gordon really is lightning in a bottle- a director, designer and cast assembled to work on material that’s totally alien to them, and that they may believe to be beneath them. Nevertheless, they threw themselves into it wholeheartedly and the resulting film is simply hugely entertaining.
And where else are you going to see a Blue Peter (a terrible British children’s TV programme) presenter stung to death by a tree-dwelling squidgy green venomous blob? Or American football played between fetish-gear wearing weirdo’s while giggling hawkman hits a jester on the head with a mace and a terrible actress cheerleads by sidestepping, clapping her hands and yelping “go Flash go”?
Until next time- “FLASH, AH-HA, SAVIOUR OF THE UNIVERSE!”