Flash Gordon (1980) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

“He’ll save with a mighty hand, every man, every woman, every child, with a mighty Flash!”

Flash Gordon brings the adventuring space opera from the 1930s to the 1980s, providing bright and gaudy visuals, action, modern special effects and an epic battle between good and evil.

First Impressions

The trailer starts out looking like a Universal Pictures film, with a rotating model of Earth. But soon it seems as if an evil entity is targeting the planet for destruction. Flash Gordon is a bright, action oriented film with iconic looking versions of the characters such as the Hawkmen, Ming the Merciless, and the titular hero. Lots of space action, laser blasts, and…is that Queen on the soundtrack?!?

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon title card.

The Fiction of The Film

A digital target hovers over the Earth as two disembodied voices discuss the destruction that is about to rain down on the distant planet. On Earth, New York Jets Quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) board a small private plane. En route, their plane is bombarded by “hot hail” as weather patterns take a drastic turn, forcing them to crash into a small research laboratory and greenhouse. Inside the facility, Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) recognizes the atmospheric changes for what they are; an invasion from another planet.

Drawing a gun, he forces Dale and Flash into a rocketship which will save them from the destruction of Earth (where the moon is slowly being drawn toward the planet) and transport them to the planet that is attacking them, Mongo. Their rocket travels through a psychedelic black hole, crash landing on a fantastic planet where the trio is captured by soldiers and taken before the ruler of the universe, Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow). He orders Flash to be put to death for interrupting the kingdoms of Mongo presenting Ming with riches and treasure.

Flash is put to death by gas in a public execution, but is saved by Ming’s daughter, Aura (Ornella Muti), who finds the Earthman attractive. As she secrets him out of the palace, Flash observes the masked Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), the head of Ming’s secret police, brainwashing Zarkov. They contact Dale by “thought amplifiers” to let her know that Flash is alive, and discover that she is to be wed to Ming. However she takes matters into her own hands and escapes the palace with Zarkov, who is instructed to let her escape. Zarkov soon reveals that he has retained his free will, and was only going along with Klytus’s orders.

Flash Gordon

There’s no denying that Max von Sydow’s Ming looks good (and menacing) in this costume of red and gold.

Aura takes Flash to hide out on Arboria, a jungle planet ruled by one of her lovers, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton). Barin despises the human, and attempts to kill him with the Arborian initiation of the wood beast. Flash tricks Barin and escapes, only to be captured (along with Barin) by the Hawkmen of Sky City. Led by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed), the Hawkmen–who have also captured Dale and Zarkov in their escape–have Flash and Barin fight to the death on a spiked platform hovering above nothingness. Flash defeats the Arborian but spares his life, asking him to “team-up” so that they all may defeat Ming.

Vultan, surprised by the strengths of Flash Gordon, agrees to help. Klytus arrives to return the prisoners, but Flash kills him. This draws the ire of Ming who shows up personally to offer Flash his own Kingdom, if he will allow Dale to marry him. Flash refuses and is left on the city to die as Ming’s ship destroys the floating towers. Finding and escaping on a sky-cycle, Flash contacts Vultan and Barin, who have hidden on Arboria, in order to get a plan to attack Ming and his troops. Flash is able to convince them that together they can do it.

As the Hawkmen gather in the clouds, General Kala (Mariangela Melato) sends out war rocket Ajax to intercept the rebellious citizens. The hawks board the craft and defeat the troops on board. Flash takes control of the might war rocket and sets it on a collision course with Ming’s palace; a certain suicide mission. Barin and Zarkov kill Kala as they attempt to lower the lightning field that protects the citadel, as they also stop the destruction of Earth. Flash plows the spaceship into the building, skewering Ming on the nose spike. Ming attempts to use mind control on Flash before fading into dust. The heroes all celebrate freedom to their kingdoms, with Barin being elected the new ruler, with Aura by his side. An unseen person picks up Ming’s ring from the ground as his merciless laugh echoes through the throne room.

I’m not your enemy, Ming is! And you know it yourself. Ming is the enemy of every creature of Mongo! Let’s all team up and fight him.” – Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon

Barin. Prince Barin. He pledges his fealty to Emperor Ming, until he realizes the error of his ways later in the film.

History in the Making

Forty years ago today, on December 5, 1980, Flash Gordon unapologetically rocketed onto movie screens, and sci-fi cinema would never be the same. Based on the comic book pulp hero of the same name, the Dino De Laurentiis produced film re-introduced one of the original science-fiction adventure heroes to a new generation of awaiting fans. It represented the circular influence of the character on previous filmmakers, and created a touchpoint for filmmakers to come. It was also a continued attempt to adapt an existing comic book story into cinematic form, something that was rarely successful in 1980.

Debuting 86 years ago in January, 1934, the “Flash Gordon” comic strip was to be King Features Syndicate’s answer to Buck Rogers, a successful space adventurer strip that debuted in 1928 and had already spawned radio, television, and film adaptations. What started as an attempt to gather the rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars characters, ended up being an opportunity for a young cartoonist named Alex Raymond to create one of the most enduring pulp-heroes of the day. As with Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon had a successful string of films and radio dramas adapting his adventures. In fact the star of the Buck Rogers serials, Buster Crabbe, was also picked to portray the adventuring sports star from Earth.

Because of the popularity of these characters, and the serials that bear their name, the imagination of a young George Lucas was captured. As he grew up and became a filmmaker, he sought out the rights in the early 1970s to create a Flash Gordon film of his own. Unfortunately De Laurentiis had ownership of the rights since the 1960s and refused to part with them or allow Lucas to make the requested film. This set the young filmmaker off on his own quest to create an homage to those films of his youth: Star Wars. Unsurprisingly the success of that “little” sci-fi film changed the landscape of genre cinema forever and inspired De Laurentiis to proceed with his plans to create the Flash Gordon film many know and love.

Flash Gordon

Princess Aura ogles Flash as he changes out of his shorts. But why is there a mirror inside the lid of the coffin?


Flash Gordon existed in two worlds simultaneously. Part of the film was a throwback to the comic strips and serials of the 30s and 40s, while part of the film attempted to break new ground by updating the story and appealing to a modern audience. Whether it succeeded or failed probably depends on a number of factors including the audience’s knowledge of the history of the character of Flash Gordon, the age they were introduced to the film, and their ability to suspend disbelief.

Many films that remake older material or adapt stories already told in a visual medium, like comics, pull design elements from those previous versions. It’s usually a way to show reverence for the source material and include a touchpoint for fans to recognize. Flash Gordon does that in several ways. Primarily the story of the film follows loosely along with some of the early comic stories where Flash, Dale, and Zarkov’s rocket is drawn to Mongo, and the heroes meet with members of the various Kingdoms. The design of the war rocket Ajax seems to be taken directly from the serials, including the dart-like tip on the nose, while the costume and character design harkens back to both the serials and the comic strip. The look of Sydow’s Emperor Ming, seems modeled more after Charles Middleton’s portrayal from the 30s and 40s mixed with a bit of a Fu Manchu design than a direct look from the comics, but it has elements of both. Likewise the ostentatious costumes and set design, modeled in bright colors–primarily red and gold–seems as if it was taken right from the Sunday comic section and splashed on screen.

But at the same time the film also makes an attempt to update certain elements of the characters or the story in order to make the film more accessible to modern audiences. Instead of Flash being a polo player, here he is turned into the quarterback for the New York Jets football team, which is probably the reason he wears a shirt emblazoned with his name. This leads to some of the stunts early on in the film where Flash disrupts Ming’s reception by tossing around a golden egg-shaped object like a football, and mowing down the guards as if they were the defensive line. He also adopts a number of colloquial sayings just to update the dialogue and not have it seem as stilted. The film also plays up the sensuality of Princess Aura and Dale in their various skin tight outfits or diaphanous gowns. While Flash Gordon doesn’t trailblaze any new ground per se, other than trying to create a look for a live-action comic, in the optics of the movie, the soundtrack is another thing. The rock score, and main title song, by the band Queen was a new take on the background music. Normally an orchestral soundtrack was created, or in some cases an electronic synthesized soundtrack, but the filmmakers decided that combining their visuals with a successful rock band would make for better chemistry. Right or wrong, it’s a striking and memorable aspect of the film.

Flash Gordon

In this comic-book inspired panel, Ming uses the mind-sifiter on Dr. Zarkov to remove his memories. During this scene Klytus remarks that a German leader from the 1940s “showed promise” when the memory scan races by 1942.

Societal Commentary

Flash Gordon is very much a Saturday matinee/popcorn movie. It doesn’t explore the depths of humanity and its problems. It’s very much a good guys versus bad guys type of film with a simple black and white palette regarding morality. From the outset, it’s completely clear who the audience should be cheering for (go Flash, go!) and who the villain is. There is a little further shading on Prince Barin and Princess Aura as to where their loyalty lies, but that’s really the extent of the ambiguity. Not every film needs to present a complex and nuanced portrayal of the characters’ morality. Basic parables of good vs. evil, while simplistic, can still be just as entertaining.

The film also spoke to the power that Ming held and the powerlessness of the various Kingdoms. All the leaders, such as Vultan and Barin, refuse to go against the orders of the Emperor for fear of reprisals or worse, death. Ming rules with an iron hand, as well as some magical powers, and uses his threats of tyranny to enforce his will. And when that is not enough, he makes “examples” of individuals to remind his citizens what is at stake. Flash knows instantly that Vultan, Barin and the other princes should “team-up” to overthrow Ming, but the leaders of the Kingdoms don’t seem to have ever heard of such a thing. Again, this might seem like a simplistic notion to be discussing, but ostensibly Flash Gordon is an adventure film for younger audiences, and explaining about tyranny and freedom is always an important lesson.

But maybe the film is not aimed at super young audiences. There is an adequate amount of sensuality and sexuality throughout the film, mainly with Princess Aura. Aura at least has some moments where she advances the plot but Dale’s actions in the film are mainly relegated to looking pretty and doing nothing. Aura is continually leading men on with her sensuality and her implied promises, between Klytus, the physician (who saves Flash’s life), Barin and of course Flash himself. Add on top of that her tight spandex outfits, and the film is in danger of getting a PG-13 rating four years before it was invented due to her lusty performances. Dale too is relegated to multiple gowns that leave little to the imagination, as she cheerleads for Flash in his takedown of the palace guards. Other than her one “Princess Leia” moment, where she sneaks out of her cell and steals a gun to blast a couple of guards, both she and Aura are mainly there as eye candy and serve no noticeable existence other than to be ogled. It’s partly due to the time period of the film, and the source material, which didn’t give much for the female characters to do either.

Flash Gordon

Flash, Vultan and the Hawkmen gather to make their assault on war rocket “Ajax,” one of the final attempts to save the Earth.

The Science in The Fiction

The original Flash Gordon stories, along with Buck Rogers, created many of the sci-fi elements and tropes that fans may think of when asked to list what makes up a science-fiction film. Laser guns, spaceships, alien races, and evil warlords are just some of the elements that Alex Raymond created for the comic strips. The film continues to go to these extremes with all the standard elements, plus lightning shields, mind sifters, rocket cycles, and floating cities. In fact the science of Mongo appears to be steeped in as much magic as it is in what Earthlings might consider science.

Ming has his computer targeting system that is able to create hot hail, tsunamis, and earthquakes (why would people of the planet Mongo call them “earth” quakes?). He is able to project this immense cosmic power across the galaxy and beyond to target a planet that he wants to “play” with. He even has the ability to rip the moon from its orbit. That is what Flash is racing to stop, which he manages to do with just two seconds on the clock left. Unfortunately, if the moon were being ripped out of orbit, stopping it before it was completed would still cause massive amounts of damage to the planet as tides were altered and parts of the atmosphere ripped away. But hey, Flash saved the day, right?

Flash Gordon

Having skewered Ming with the nose of his rocket ship, Flash picks up a sword to stop the tyrannical ruler once and for all.

The Final Frontier

Many of the things that some people like about Flash Gordon are exactly the things that others despise. The film seems to take itself seriously at times, but also be a broad parody of the genre as well. Coupled with the on-again/off-again plot and some less than stellar acting (or perhaps over-acting) from several cast members the film definitely has problems. Some of that can be attributed to the nature of the production and the leadership of Dino De Laurentiis. The production combined English and Italian crewmembers with English, American, Italian, and Swedish actors leading to much confusion. There were also several reported lawsuits surrounding the film, including one with Sam J. Jones, which involved non-payment for his work. This came to such a heated argument, that Jones left immediately after filming was complete but did not return for the post production work, so many of his lines were re-dubbed by another actor. That being said, the film has influenced dozens of later productions including the recent film by Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok, who Waititi points to as one of his primary influences.

Besides being influenced by Star Wars, the success of which is likely what got this production kickstarted, the film also has a number of shared actors from that film series. Starting from the beginning, one of the pilots of Flash’s airplane is John Morton (Dak, from The Empire Strikes Back). Then Zarkov’s assistant, Munson, is played by William Hootkins (Porkins, from Star Wars, as well as Major Eaton in Raiders of the Lost Ark). One of Klytus’s observers, bald men who wear computerized goggles, was played by John Hollis (Lobot,  from The Empire Strikes Back). And in the throne room three of the dwarf characters were played by Mike Edmunds (Logray, Return of the Jedi), Rusty Goffe (Jawa, Star Wars) and Kenny Baker (R2-D2). Additionally sharp eyed viewers may find George Harris as Prince Thun (Katanga, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Philip Stone as the priest that marries Ming and Dale (caretaker Grady, from The Shining). And Brian Blessed, while not appearing in a Star Wars film until 19 years later, would show up in The Phantom Menace as Boss Nass. Of course most people are aware that Timothy Dalton would eventually go on to play James Bond in two films in the mid-80s, while Max von Sydow’s continued contributions to the sci-fi genre are lengthy including Dune, Minority Report, and The Force Awakens, yet another Star Wars film!

Flash Gordon still remains popular in a cult-following sort of way. It’s kitschy, and irreverent, and sometimes politically incorrect. But overall, it’s got a wonder and an energy that is hard to beat. Sure there are some moments that can make you cringe, but there’s also moments to get excited about and quote. It’s actually quite amazing that this is a film that is still being talked about 40 years later, since there are so many others from the same time that have drifted into obscurity.

Coming Next

Battle Beyond The Stars

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