4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“Should we stop the torture?” — Two Versions of Flash Gordon

In the early 1930s, one of the most successful comic strips was Buck Rogers, produced by the John F. Dille Company. Based on a pair of novellas by Phillip Francis Nowlan published in 1928 and 1929, the strip about a person from the present who finds himself having adventures in the far future proved hugely popular, and King Features Syndicate, one of Dille’s competitors, wanted their own science fiction strip to go with it, and tasked Alex Raymond, one of their staff artists, to come up with something.

Aided by writer Don Moore, Raymond gave them Flash Gordon.

Where Rogers, in essence, traveled through time, Flash Gordon instead simply goes to another world, which is threatening present-day Earth. Gordon, a polo player and Yale graduate, and his girlfriend Dale Arden are kidnapped by a mad scientist, Dr. Hans Zarkov, and taken in Zarkov’s rocket ship to Mongo, a planet that is about to collide with Earth.

Mongo is ruled by the despot Ming the Merciless, and is divided into several distinctive regions with hilariously descriptive names: Arboria (a forest), Frigia (an ice kingdom), and Tropica (a jungle), plus a flying city where the Hawk Men live and an undersea kingdom where the Shark Men live.

Both Gordon and Rogers proved to be immensely popular throughout the 20th century, being translated into various other media over the years. The Flash Gordon strip continued daily until 1993, and then as a Sunday strip until 2003.

The most popular iteration of Gordon on screen were the movie serials, starring the great Buster Crabbe, and that’s the version most etched on the general consciousness. The advent of television in the 1950s has led to several small-screen attempts, mostly animated ones, though there were two live-action ones as well, one in 1954, one in 2007.

In the 1970s, Dino De Laurentiis acquired the film rights to Flash Gordon. Originally, he wanted Federico Fellini to direct the film, but the Italian master never did it. George Lucas tried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon from De Laurentiis, but was unable to close the deal (he made Star Wars instead, so I’d say that worked out okay for him…).

Working off an adapted story by Enter the Dragon’s Michael Allin, the script was by Batman ’66 veteran Lorenzo Semple Jr., who brought the same goofy camp approach to Alex Raymond & Don Moore’s creation that he did to Bob Kane & Bill Finger’s. Model Sam J. Jones, fresh off his role in 10 (and last seen in this rewatch in the 1987 version of The Spirit) was cast in the title role, beating out Kurt Russell and Arnold Schwarzenegger. TV actor Melody Anderson had her first film role as Dale Arden, with Topol (famous for playing Tevye on both the West End and in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof) playing Dr. Hans Zarkov. European actors Ornella Muti (Aura), Max von Sydow (Ming), Brian Blessed (Vultan), Timothy Dalton (Barin), Peter Wyngarde (Klytus), and Mariangela Melato (Kala) rounded out the main cast.

The film did decently in the U.S. and phenomenally in Europe (particularly in Italy, where Muti and Melato were both very well regarded), but a falling out between De Laurentiis and Jones kept any sequels from being done.

In the early part of the new millennium, the father-and-son team of Robert Halmi Sr. & Jr. got together to acquire the rights, hiring Peter Hume (among other things, a supervising producer on Charmed) to develop a TV show that was aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in the U.S. and Space in Canada. Produced in Canada, the show kicked off with a two-hour pilot, which was cut down to ninety minutes at the last minute, with the full two-hour version only available as a two-parter on the DVD set. It starred Eric Johnson (fresh off a run as Whitney Fordman on Smallville) in the title role, with Gina Holden as Dale, Jody Racicot as Zarkov, John Ralston as Ming, and Anna van Hooft as Aura. Rather than use a spaceship, the show had travel back and forth between Earth and Mongo using dimensional rifts, with Ming having designs on Earth’s water, most of Mongo’s water supply having been tainted. Two new characters were added to the mythos, Baylin, a bounty hunter from Mongo played by Karen Cliche, and Ming’s chief scientist Rankol, played by Jonathan Lloyd Walker.

The show was not a hit, and was cancelled after one season. The show’s miniscule budget was a big problem, as a storyline that’s supposed to be about a contemporary human visiting a fantastic alien world, instead has a contemporary human bopping back and forth between his hometown and an alien planet, both of which look just like Vancouver….

A new live-action film has been in development hell, with names such as Breck Eisner, J.D. Payne, Patrick McKay, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Protsevich, Julius Avery, and John Davis connected to write and/or direct at various points. More recently, Thor: Ragnarok‘s Taika Waititi was announced as developing an animated Flash Gordon movie.

 

“Flash, I love you—but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!”

Flash Gordon
Written by Michael Allin and Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Directed by Mike Hodges
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Original release date: December 5, 1980

Screenshot: Starling Films

On Mongo, Ming the Merciless is bored, but his people show him a new planet to torment: Earth. He brings about hot hail, earthquakes, and various and sundry other natural disasters.

Flash Gordon, quarterback for the New York Jets, and Dale Arden, a travel agent, are sharing a private plane for reasons the script never bothers to explain. Ming’s craziness includes a weird eclipse and red clouds, and the turbulence sends Dale into a tizzy, and Flash comforts her.

Hans Zarkov, a scientist who has been fired from NASA, and his assistant, Munson, discover that the moon is moving out of orbit, which is causing a lot of the problems befalling Earth. He plans to take the rocket he constructed and fly it into space to stop what’s happening. Munson thinks he’s crazy, and refuses to go. Zarkov then proves he’s crazy by pulling a gun on Munson.

The pilots of Flash and Dale’s plane are disintegrated by one of Ming’s ray-beams. Flash, who has taken some flying lessons, manages to crash-land on Zarkov’s property, running over Munson as he’s trying to run away. (It’s not clear whether or not the plane squishes Munson, but five minutes later, the rocket takes off, and even if Munson survived the plane crash, the backwash from the rocket surely fried him. Poor bastard.)

Zarkov tricks the pair into his rocket, as he needs a co-pilot. Flash manages to get the gun away from him, but as they struggle, Zarkov’s head hits the takeoff button, and they blast into space. The G-forces knock them unconscious, and when they reach the area of the moon, Ming’s people grab the ship and bring it to Mingo City, Ming’s capital. The trio are brought to Ming’s throne room, where his people are giving him tribute. However, Ardentia has no tribute to give, as Ming did damage to their land. All that the prince can offer is his loyalty—so Ming instructs him to kill himself. Instead, he tries to kill Ming, who uses his ring to freeze the prince in place and then kill him. Prince Vultan of the Hawk Men brings tribute from Frigia, which Prince Barin of Arboria claims he stole. However, General Klytus reminds them not to fight in Ming’s presence.

Ming orders Zarkov to be reconditioned, Dale to be made one of his concubines, and Flash to be executed. Flash tries to escape and makes a good show of it against Ming’s troops using his football skills, but ultimately, he’s taken.

Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura, is very taken with Flash and saves him from death with the help of Ming’s chief surgeon, whom she has seduced. Another of her lovers is Barin, and she brings Flash to Arboria for safekeeping. Barin is not pleased about it, but he can’t afford to piss Aura off. Aura’s ship has a telepathic communicator, and Flash uses it to let Dale know he’s alive.

Zarkov manages to fend off the conditioning by remembering great human works of art (Shakespeare, the Beatles), but he pretends to be brainwashed. Dale manages to get one of the handmaidens drunk and switches outfits with her so she can escape from Ming’s harem. She finds Zarkov, telling him that Flash is alive. Klytus and General Kala overhear this, and instruct Zarkov to pretend to escape with her so they can find Flash.

Once they’re en route to Arboria, Zarkov reveals that he’s still his own person. (Why Dale is so chummy with the guy who pulled a gun on her and kidnapped her is left as an exercise for the viewer.) However, while they’re on their way, they’re taken by the Hawk Men. Vultan plans to turn them over to Ming. Dale and Zarkov point out that Vultan hates Ming—he surreptitiously took out some of Ming’s guards who were fighting Flash back in the throne room—but Vultan’s position isn’t strong enough for an outright revolt yet, and turning Dale and Zarkov over will lull Ming into a false sense of security regarding Vultan’s loyalty. However, Dale reveals that Flash is in Arboria.

Barin tricks Flash into entering the sacred temple of Arboria, which means he must put his hand in the big tree and hope the creature that lives in it doesn’t bite him and infect him with madness. Flash pretends to be bitten, and then takes Barin down, at which point he runs away. Furious, Barin insists on chasing Flash himself. Eventually, Flash is being attacked by a giant crab, from which Barin saves him, wanting to reserve killing Flash for himself.

However, Vultan’s people show up then, and take both Barin and Flash to the flying city of the Hawk Men. Vultan accuses Barin of harboring a fugitive, and Barin declares his right to trial by combat—and he chooses Flash as his sparring partner.

The fight goes on for some time on a circular platform that tilts to and fro over an abyss, and which also has spikes popping up out of it every once in a while.

When Barin almost defeats Flash, Flash begs him after he’s gone to team up with Vultan and try to overthrow Ming. But then Flash gets the upper hand, but rather than let Barin die, he saves him. Impressed, Barin pledges his loyalty to Flash.

Having gotten Ming’s permission to use whatever means necessary to find Flash, Klytus tortures Aura, who gives up Flash’s location. Aura is stunned to see that her father has allowed his only daughter to be tortured.

Klytus goes to the Hawk Men’s city, ready to arrest everyone, but they overpower him and impale him on the platform’s spikes. Scared of Ming’s retribution, Vultan abandons the flying city, leaving Flash, Dale, Zarkov, and Barin behind. Ming himself arrives soon thereafter and takes Barin, Zarkov, and Dale prisoner, the former two to be executed, the latter to become his latest bride.

Flash is left on the flying city, which Ming then fires upon. However, Flash manages to escape on a rocket cycle, and meets up with Vultan, who is hiding out in Arboria. Vultan regrets abandoning Flash, and is grateful for the chance to make amends. Flash flies his rocket cycle near Mingo, which lures Kala’s warship Ajax away from Mingo City. Flash leads them into a cloud, where the Hawk Men are waiting in ambush. After overtaking Ajax, they fly it to Mingo City.

Meanwhile, Aura has managed to free herself by killing her bodyguard with blades she hid in her underwear. She then frees Barin and Zarkov, who take out Kala and the generator that is messing with Earth’s moon.

Flash and Vultan plan to crash Ajax into the lightning field that protects Mingo City. But Ajax is too badly damaged, and Flash has to fly it himself—he says it’s worth it, to save billions. However, Barin and Zarkov get the field down in time so that he just crashes, and the Ajax impales Ming in the midst of his attempt at marriage to Dale. Ming tries to fight Flash, but instead he is sucked up by his ring, seemingly dead.

Aura marries Barin and they become the new rulers of Mongo. Barin names Vultan general of his armies. Everyone is grateful to Flash, Dale, and Zarkov, though now they have to figure out how to get home.

Meanwhile, someone picks up Ming’s ring…

 

“We’ll believe anything for funding…”

Flash Gordon
Written by Peter Hume
Directed by Rick Rosenthal
Produced by Peter Hume and Robert Halmi Sr. and Robert Halmi Jr.
Original release date: August 10, 2007

Screenshot: Sci-Fi Channel

Ming, the “Benevolent Father” of Mongo, meets with his chief scientist, Rankol, who has created a dimensional rift to Earth. Rankol sends a probe through before it closes.

Steven “Flash” Gordon runs his third straight Tri-City Marathon in his hometown of Kendall, and wins for the third straight year. He is interviewed afterward by new local reporter Dale Arden, his high school girlfriend. Their reunion is only a little awkward, though Dale doesn’t tell him that she’s engaged.

Flash is being followed by a weaselly guy in an RV. When he and his best friend Nick are about to go into a night club, Flash chases RV guy down, who claims to have been Flash’s father’s assistant on the Portage Initiative, which Flash has never heard of. He also talks about Dr. Gordon like he’s still alive, even though he died thirteen years earlier in a fire. But Flash recalls lots of really weird stuff that happened in his father’s workshop before his death.

A Latino trucker shoots down Ming’s probe and brings it to Dale, hoping to sell it to the TV news. When told they don’t pay for stories, the trucker asks for her lottery ticket, and she agrees. (It later turns out to be a winning ticket, to Dale’s chagrin.)

A rift opens in a bowling alley, which Dale very reluctantly reports on. After seeing the story, Flash goes to ask Dale about it. Dale then admits that she’s engaged, to a local cop named Joe.

An armored goon appears and kills a guy in a cowboy hat and steals his car. Flash and Dale go to the crime scene, and then try to figure out who RV guy is. After a lot of research, they determine that he’s Dr. Hans Zarkov, and they find him at a warehouse where he has all kinds of odd equipment.

Zarkov tells the truth: the Portage Initiative was attempting to open dimensional rifts. There was a fire thirteen years ago, but the reason there was no body wasn’t because he was burned to ash, but because Dr. Gordon went through a rift.

The armored goon goes to the Gordon house and takes possession of Flash’s mother, who calls him and asks after the Imex. Flash has no idea what that is, but his mother calls him “Flash” rather than “Steven,” which is a red flag.

They go to the house and take down the goon after a protracted fight (and permanent damage to Laura Gordon’s blender). The goon has a tracker and also Dr. Gordon’s driver’s license. The tracker leads them to another rift. Flash wants to go through it—it’s the only way to find his father—and Dale accidentally gets sucked through with him.

They find themselves on another world. They’re immediately taken prisoner, thrown into a cell with a mutated person. When they report to Ming who they are, the Benevolent Father immediately brings them to him. He apologizes for the treatment, and says he knows nothing of Flash’s father, but will be happy to help find him, though there’s little hope that he survived.

Mongo is a troubled world. There is very little clean water, most of the supply having been poisoned. Ming has the only “source water,” and he rations it to his subjects. His rule is based entirely upon his access to the only clean water on the planet.

Ming and Rankol are both a little too curious about the Imex that Flash mentions in passing, and he realizes that Ming sent the goon. The pretense dropped, Ming has Rankol interrogate Flash, while he has Dale made part of his harem.

Rankol soon learns that Flash really has no clue what the Imex is. But before Rankol can cut open his brain to examine it, Flash is rescued by a young woman who claims to be an abbot. She wants asylum on Earth, but Flash insists on rescuing Dale first. However, Dale has gotten herself free from the harem and has gone to rescue Flash.

The three of them go through a rift back to Earth. Zarkov detected the rift, and goes to pick them up in his RV. Zarkov is not thrilled that they brought an alien back.

Flash finally figures out that the Imex is actually Dr. Gordon’s watch, which he gave to Flash: a Timex (but at times, the clock hand blocks the T). Inside it is an alien chip that apparently is a database to all knowledge in the universe.

Unfortunately, the abbot is really Princess Aura, Ming’s daughter, who is trying to get the Imex for herself in order to show Ming that she’s more than a pretty face.

Ming has sent Baylin, one of his bounty hunters, after both Aura and the Imex. She gets them both after subduing Flash. However, Flash and Zarkov manage to get to the rift before they can go through, and Flash pretends to destroy the Imex. (We soon learn that it was another one of his father’s watches that Aura had the whole time.) Aura offers to bring Flash to his father if he gives over the Imex, but when he “destroys” it, she angrily goes through the rift promising that he’ll never see his father again.

Unfortunately, the rift closes before Baylin can go through.

On Mongo, Ming castigates Aura and has her confined to her quarters. On Earth, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov wonder what the next move is and what will happen with Baylin stuck on Earth. And back on Mongo, Dr. Gordon is seen unconscious, connected to a strange set of machines….

 

“What a damned nuisance!”

Screenshot: Starling Films

It’s really too bad that Mike Hodges chose to put lots of images of Alex Raymond’s magnificent art from the Flash Gordon comic strip over the opening credits of the 1980 film, because it serves as a reminder of what this movie could have been in the hands of someone who actually had affection for the high-adventure strip.

Instead, he hired the guy who wrote the first episode of Adam West’s Batman (and more than a dozen after that). Even Lorenzo Semple Jr. himself later said (in an interview with Starlog) that the humorous approach to the source material was a mistake.

Which is too bad, because there’s a lot to like about the 1980 film. For one thing, I like the old-fashioned aesthetic. Every other contemporary science fiction screen production was heavily influenced by Star WarsBattlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, even Superman: The Movie—so it’s nice to see Hodges and his cinematographers design this as more of a throwback to the cheap-and-cheesy production values of the Buster Crabbe serials.

And the supporting cast couldn’t be better. Max von Sydow and Ornella Muti are obviously having a great time as Ming and Aura and Peter Wyngarde’s voice is perfect as the armored Klytus. Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed were pretty much born to play Barin and Vultan, and honestly the whole movie is worth it to watch Blessed shout his way through the picture. (“DIVE!” followed by the trademark Blessed square-mouthed laugh…)

Sadly, the acting kudos end there. Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, and Topol are only about halfway to two-dimensional performances as Flash, Dale, and Zarkov. Jones and Anderson play Flash and Dale as completely vacuous, and Topol starts out playing Zarkov as a crazed mad scientist, but suddenly he becomes a brilliant rational and helpful scientist. (And his solution to not being brainwashed is right out of Semple’s Bat-toolbox, as that was the sort of thing the ’66 Batman always did to outsmart his opponents.)

And the movie just stumbles around from plot point to plot point without rhyme or reason. Flash’s heroism makes no sense and is given no explanation, Ming’s ardor for Dale makes even less, since Anderson plays her as a total dip, and it’s never explained why Flash and Dale are suddenly friendly toward the guy who, and I can’t emphasize this enough, pulled a gun on them and kidnapped them into space.

Still, the 1980 movie is at least a cheesy bit of fun, plus it has Queen music! Not a lot, mind you. The opening credits say, “Music composed, performed, and produced by Queen,” which sounds impressive, but mostly they just did the one song (“Flash—ah-ahhhhh!“) and Brian May also played “Here Comes the Bride” on the guitar for the abortive wedding between Ming and Dale. That’s about it. (Edited to add: Stephen Schneider, Walker, and Thomas in the comments have all corrected me—apparently there was more Queen in the soundtrack than I gathered from watching it. Mea culpa.)

Screenshot: Sci-Fi Channel

Sadly, “fun” is not a word that would apply to the 2007 Flash Gordon hardly at all. Peter Hume’s heart was in the right place in many ways. His Dale is more Lois Lane than Melody Anderson, thank goodness, and his Ming is thankfully free of the yellow-peril connotations that were all over the original comic strip, and which was gleefully adopted by putting hooded eyes on von Sydow in 1980. In addition, Ming is more the charming despot than the mustache-twirling villain, and John Ralston does okay with it.

Eric Johnson certainly looks the part of Flash, but his range goes all the way from A to B, and he’s rarely called upon to stretch it that far. Gina Holden is charming as Dale, but feels like a low-rent Teri Hatcher, while Anna van Hooft’s Aura is a low-rent Ornella Muti and Karen Cliche’s Baylin is a low-rent Lucy Lawless. (Having said that, over the course of the series, Baylin actually becomes the most interesting character in the cast, which is hilarious, since she’s new to this version.) Panou as Flash’s friend Nick and Jill Teed as Laura Gordon are incredibly uninteresting.

Two standout characters, especially in this pilot movie, are Jody Racicot’s Zarkov and Jonathan Lloyd Walker’s Rankol. Rankol, like Baylin, is a new character created for this show, and Walker plays him with a low-key menace that combines with his floating all around to make him scary as hell. And Racicot’s Zarkov is a delight, a weaselly, squirrelly, neuro-atypical scientist.

The biggest problem with this pilot movie, though, is one that would dog the TV show throughout its run, and by the time they fixed it, it was far too late: the show keeps going back to Earth. After spending the beginning of the second half with Flash and Dale on Mongo, getting captured, being interrogated, playing word games with Ming, being made into concubines, and so on, to have them then come back to Earth and deal with Flash’s Daddy issues and Dale’s relationship issues and other mundane concerns is a massive comedown because, well, those concerns are incredibly mundane, and can’t compare to visiting another friggin planet. Nobody wants to watch a Flash Gordon story that takes place in a made-up suburb, they want it to take place on Mongo.

To make matters worse, the show looks horrible. The special effects would look mediocre on an early-1990s show, much less one produced fifteen years later. I actually wrote up the descriptions of the show for what was then SciFi.com, and to do that, I was sent the rough cuts of the episodes, before the effects were put in. Almost every single time I saw the final episode, the rough cut actually looked better than the dreadful effects they put in. Which is really sad, and makes it hard to take it seriously.

It’s ironic: the 1980 film had a huge budget, but deliberately looked cheap. The 2007 series wanted to look good, but had no budget, so it got stuck looking cheap.

Maybe someday we’ll have a Flash Gordon adaptation that eschews cheap all together….

 

Having done two early 20th-century comics adapted to movie form over the past two weeks, next time we turn to a later-20th-century one, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Keith R.A. DeCandido urges everyone to buy his newest book Alien: Isolation because it’s awesome. So there.

citation

80 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.