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DVD SAVANT

Flash Gordon
Saviour of the Universe Edition


Flash Gordon
Universal
1980 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / min. / Street Date August 7, 2007 / 26.98
Starring Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Mariangela Melato, Deep Roy
Cinematography Gilbert Taylor
Production Design Danilo Donati
Film Editor Malcolm Cooke
Original Music Howard Blake
Written by Michael Allin & Lorenzo Semple Jr. from characters by Alex Raymond
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Directed by Mike Hodges

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In reaction to the success of 1978's Superman: The Movie, producer Dino de Laurentiis returned to the world of comic books visited in his earlier Barbarella and Diabolik. Directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Pulp, Croupier), 1980's Flash Gordon is a dazzling production that relies too heavily on a camp sensibility. Often amusing but never particularly witty, this updating of Alex Raymond's 1930 space opera has a huge vacuum at its center, where an exciting hero should be.

Flamboyant visuals and energetic supporting performances help make Flash Gordon an enjoyable, grandiose spectacle. Universal's Savior of the Universe Edition plays up the angle that the film is an unacknowledged camp masterpiece, a claim that wouldn't even make sense on the planet Mongo.

Synopsis:

Evil galactic Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow) amuses himself by threatening the earth with imminent destruction. To save the earth, fanatical scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) pilots a spaceship to Ming's interloping planet Mongo, bringing along famous football quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and spirited Dale Arden (Melody Johnson). In Ming's gaudy palace, the trio witnesses the reign of terror by which Ming keeps his various kingdoms in line, especially Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen (Brian Blessed) and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) of the Robin Hood-like Arboreans. Ming brainwashes Zarkov, plans to marry Dale and orders that Flash be executed, but his plans don't work out. Narrowly escaping various dangers, Flash motivates Ming's minions to revolt and inspires the Emperor's spoiled daughter Princess Aura, a menace in her own right (Ornella Muti) to appreciate the benefits of virtue.

Flash Gordon has an agreeably fast pace and spirited performances. Lorenzo Semple Jr. keeps the script almost as dumb as the original 1930s serial, putting pressure on the actors to bring the characters to life. For the most part they come through. Max von Sydow's quasi-oriental Ming hams up the villainy in deadly earnest, while Timothy Dalton is likeably single-minded in his Errol Flynn-styled heroics. Italian minx Ornella Muti (The Most Beautiful Wife, Swann in Love) slithers and seduces as Aura, reminding us that the original Ming-Aura relationship must have been lifted from the Fu Manchu stories. Mariangela Melato, of Swept Away ... by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August is underused as one of Ming's female torturers. Perhaps not the most important character but best into the spirit of the show is Brian Blessed as the jovial barbarian Prince Vultan. He looks perfectly comfortable in a set of outsized Hawkman wings, whether bellowing with laughter or bashing in heads.

Against the colorful aliens, the earth folk do the best they can. Topol is more a convenient wise-ass than a scientist, cleverly tricking Ming's brainwashers and otherwise staying out of the way. Melody Anderson's Dale Arden is split between playing cheerleader for the hero ("Go! Flash! GO!") and finding ways to delay her bedroom date with the sinister Ming. That part of the fantasy requires Dale to dress up in robes and jewels appropriate to a concubine of Mongo, a costume that seems to embolden her even further. Flash Gordon has an uneasy vein of adult humor that plays with lightweight verbal innuendos while presenting Mongo as a veritable Planet of the Fetish People. The kink factor figures heavily in the costume design, especially the inventive undergarments of the various vixens of Mongo.

The big letdown is Sam Jones as Flash. A big muscle-bound blond, Jones looks as though he could have been the model for "He-Man" in the Masters of the Universe toy line. His voice is completely overdubbed, robbing him of any chance of projecting a personality. The script interprets him as a one-dimensional gee-whiz Good Guy. Wearing a "Flash!" logo on his chest, Gordon is his own product placement. Oddly, beyond a few embraces Flash and Dale are not promoted as a particularly romantic couple. When Flash catches the oversexed Aura hoping to sneak a peek at his bare butt, he just looks sheepish. As if taking a cue from 1979's Disco fever, this Flash Gordon's appeal is Camp, in the original gay sense of the word.

Probably owing to their talented Italian designers, all of De Laurentiis comic book movies are visually arresting. Some of the elaborate work in Flash Gordon is truly eye-popping. Moving a step beyond the psychedelic cosmos of Barbarella, Danilo Donati comes up with an outer space that resembles a melted artist's easel, a vast cosmos filled with clouds of yellow and orange. The various palaces are gigantic structures with mirrored floors and vaulted ceilings, and armies of servants and soldiers prance about in bizarre costumes. Peter Wyngarde's face is completely hidden behind a chrome mask and the diminutive Deep Roy trots along behind Princess Aura as her personal pet. Squadrons of Hawkmen fly like the monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, and a man-eating monster lives in the marshes of Arborea.

By weird coincidence, several specific occurrences in Flash Gordon 'resonate' with similar events in Barbarella and the later De Laurentiis production Dune. The Hawkmen of Flash fly on feathery wings, just like Barbarella's angel friend Pygar. The exaggerated worship of evil in Flash also reminds us of Barbarella's perverse city, with its bisexual queen played by Anita Pallenberg. In both Flash and Dune the helpless heroes are spirited by spaceship out of palaces to safety, and both films have slave functionaries whose eyes have been pierced by mechanical devices. Flash must stick his hand into a deadly tree trunk, a scene similar to Kyle McLachlan enduring the 'box of pain' in Dune.

All three films have rock soundtracks, and the late-70s disco-inflected Queen compositions for Flash Gordon push the film further into the pre-Aids pansexual 'big party' atmosphere. Although everything about Flash Gordon can be described as 'campy', the movie still just sort of sits there, waiting to catch fire. The absence of an exciting central hero prevents that entirely.


Universal's Savior of the Universe edition of Flash Gordon looks terrific in an enhanced widescreen transfer; most of us caught the film on subsequent cable TV runs when it was grievously diminished by pan-scan transfers. The gaudy colors practically leap off the screen. Fans of the soundtrack ("He'll save every one of us!') will appreciate the DD 5.1 audio. Be careful opening the packaging for the first time. The cover hinges at the top, and you can tear the package apart trying to get it to open through the sides! Included over the disc tray is a dramatic pencil sketch; both it and the attractive cover illustration are by Alex Ross.

The show has four extras, three of which will appeal only to the rabid fans that I assume saw Flash Gordon at an impressionable age. 1 Don't expect much reasonable discussion of the film. Comic artist Alex Ross heaps reams of questionable praise onto the movie, and then happily moves on to his specific observations. The respected screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Pretty Poison, The Parallax View, the Batman TV show) appears to have been coached to claim that Flash is the next big cult discovery, and that millions of fans secretly think it's the greatest film ever made. Well, he almost says that. Semple's big De Laurentiis pictures were the 1976 King Kong and a limp remake of Hurricane.  2.

A supposed trailer for a new Sci-Fi channel Flash Gordon TV Show turns out to be a tiny 12-second blip. The really interesting extra is the first episode (Chapter One: Planet of Peril!) of the 1936 Buster Crabbe serial. It's clunky, sure, and awfully similar to the Semple story. I understand that it was one of the most popular serials ever, and inspired a generation of kids hooked on Sci-Fi and fantasy pulp fiction. 3


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Flash Gordon rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurettes with Alex Ross and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Chapter 1 of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial
Packaging: Folding box case
Reviewed: August 4, 2007

Footnotes:

1. To remind himself to be tolerant of the guilty pleasures of younger viewers, Savant only needs to remember the 'amazing' films that helped form his own childhood imagination. Hey, at age seven I was deeply moved by Teenagers from Outer Space.
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2. In 2001 I did a montage for the Oscars show; one of the other montages celebrated the fabulous filmic heritage of Dino De Laurentiis, who was being given some kind of achievement award. Beyond his couple of Federico Fellini movies, what could the editor show? Scenes from films like The White Buffalo made the montage play like a pathetic joke.
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3. One strange observation: seen in its proper widescreen shape, the entire animated title sequence is horizontally stretched. It appears to have been filmed flat and simply allowed to 'scope out' when projected. Viewers with widescreen monitors can watch it in 4:3 mode to see what I'm talking about.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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