I listen to a podcast called Pure Cinema in which two of my favorite movie buffs, Elric Kane and Brian Saur, deep dive into films of all shapes and sizes. The group introduced me to a great ice breaker when encountering movie fans in the world, the Handshake Five. Basically, you pick five movies that are descriptive of your individual love for cinema, it can be your favorites, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a great way to talk film with new and old friends.
What I’ve discerned from using the Handshake Five method is that every movie is someone’s favorite movie. From the agreed upon classics, which populate everyone’s list, to the much-vilified bad films that start arguments at dinner parties. It’s interesting to discuss why people get attached to certain films; like why one senior citizen held Howard the Duck in such high regard, why a college freshman insisted on Ghosts of Mars amongst the many Carpenter films that could be on a list, and why a middle-aged religious mom of four had High Tension as a favorite horror film.
Sure, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Seven Samurai, and Star Wars are fantastic choices, but it’s the lesser-known films that really awaken my interest with the why and how movies become so beloved by people. A major component of why I think many of these films continue to remain so relevant amidst their fractured early receptions and their low critical scores is the experience and conversation associated with loving film. It’s like folklore, as long as people continue to talk about the monster in the forest, the creature in the lake, or the ghosts in the abandoned mansion, the lore never dies. There is a reason why those films that get categorized as “cult classics” never fade away.
During the dive into handshake films with movie enthusiasts, one thing remains true for me, if Flash Gordon is on anyone’s Handshake Five, it’s almost guaranteed that I will become friends with them. The 1980 film, produced by charismatic producer Dino De Laurentiis and created as a counter to the success of Star Wars (which owes so much to the Flash Gordon comic serial of the 1930s and ’40s), has stood the test of time since its release. With programmers curating special midnight screenings and interactive theater pieces to accompany the film, with blockbuster movies keeping the spirit of Flash Gordon actor Sam Jones alive, and the title theme from the legendary Queen still making people sing with joy, Flash Gordon lives and continues to thrive amongst the superhero craze of today.
Here are a few experiences that have kept the passion and joy of Flash Gordon alive for me.
Early 1990, at a packed Blockbuster Video, my cousin and I peruse the reverse side of VHS tapes in the horror section. I’m holding Halloween 5 and another movie I can’t recall. Suddenly, my cousin comes running back from a different section of the store holding a copy of a film called Flash Gordon. He says, “Have you seen this? You gotta see this movie.” I said, “What’s it about? It looks like He-Man.” My cousin proceeds to tell me a version of the following statement, “It’s like Star Wars, but the bad guy is from The Exorcist and there are these Viking guys who can fly with metal wings.” That’s all I needed to hear to put Halloween 5 down and take Flash Gordon home.
Think about the aesthetic quality of Flash Gordon, the lavish costumes, beautiful matte backgrounds, the pulsating score, and strobing and glowing visual effects trickery. Now imagine that this film was directed by legendary auteur Federico Fellini—yes, the director of Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, and La Strada, who was the original choice for director. Now, imagine that it was directed by Nicolas Roeg—yes, the director of Don’t Look Now and Witches. Roeg, who spent a year writing a Flash Gordon story that less resembled the comic strip version and fell more into the metaphysical analysis of Flash as a messiah, came very close to making his version of the film. However, producer Dino De Laurentiis didn’t want to make that version of Flash and instead started looking to other directors. Eventually, the responsibilities fell in the lap of Mike Hodges, who previous helmed Get Carter and The Terminal Man. Hodges, who arrived to a film production already influenced by other filmmakers, with talks of a sequel already being discussed even before filming on the first film began, had the unenviable task of taking over this movie.
Flash Gordon is the perfect example of aesthetics over substance. The lavish and ornate costumes are on full display early in the film, with characters wearing large metal wings, gentlemen in swamp green three-piece suits, and others in shining gold dress robes and masks. Even the walls are adorned in what looks like red velvet material. It’s an abundance of atmosphere from the very beginning and it never stops.
There is an undeniable quality in regards to the style of the film. An attribute that keeps you entranced even when characters expound stilted plot devices or when they scream lines like, “Flash! I love you! But we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!” Strangely enough, it’s the go for broke ideas, storylines, and designs that make this film memorable and entice the hearts of fans when someone tells you, “It’s like Star Wars, but the bad guy is from The Exorcist and there are these Viking guys who can fly with metal wings.”
December 2012, making small talk with a group of healthcare professionals at a retirement party in a swanky Scottsdale, Arizona steakhouse, I overhear someone say, “I thought Sam Jones was coming.” Immediately the theme from Flash Gordon erupts in my brain and the thought, “I’m flying blind on a rocket cycle looking for Flash Gordon in this restaurant,” consumes me. After scanning the room like a lost kid looking for his mother, I can find no trace of an All-American type who looks like he could have played for the New York Jets anywhere in sight. I find the courage to walk over to the nearby stranger who inquired about Sam Jones and ask him politely, “Hey, were you talking about THE Sam Jones? You know… Flash.” The stranger, who’s face changed instantly from “who are you?” to “what the hell?”, began laughing hysterically. After he composed himself, and right before I was about to walk away from embarrassment, he said to me, “I love Flash Gordon.” We are still friends today.
Flash Gordon, savior of the universe, played by Kurt Russell? That was the first choice for the lead role of De Laurentiis’ fantastic feature, but the character was turned down by the actor due to its one-dimensional aspect.
Flash Gordon, savior of the universe, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger? The then unknown body builder was in the running, but was eventually turned down due to his thick accent.
Eventually, the role would go to a somewhat unknown contestant of The Dating Game named Sam Jones. Apart from a small role in the Bo Derek-starring 10 and a spread in Playgirl Magazine, Jones fit the needs De Laurentiis was looking for, which was simply muscular, handsome, blonde, and American.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Sam Jones for the role of Flash Gordon. The honesty and sincerity of his portrayal, however one-dimensional the role might be, is part of the reason why the film is still so memorable. Call it likability or charm or whatever that quality is that makes an actor memorable from a film, but Jones embodies the sentiments that Flash Gordon is experiencing in this film, the stranger-in-a-strange-land dynamics. Perhaps the most important feature for this film, one which was on the verge of falling off its own wheels, was the casting of a newcomer to balance the film’s extravagance as the guy in a t-shirt and jeans playing football in space.
April 2018, on a relaxed Sunday afternoon around 4:30pm, the International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival programmed a retro screening of Flash Gordon for an eager audience, most of whom had never seen the cheesy space opera. Direction was given to theater operations to turn the movie volume up to 11. I stood outside the theater doors as the film began with the voiceover of Ming the Merciless accounting his destruction of Earth. Then, it happened…
You could hear it outside the theater, that beautiful harmony from the legendary group Queen. It was loud enough that passersby would stop, smile, and say, “I love that movie.” Everyone walking by knew exactly what that melody was from. They sang it, they rushed to get a ticket, or they high-fived someone walking by who expressed allegiance for Flash.
Queen wasn’t the first pick from director Mike Hodges for the soundtrack. He wanted Pink Floyd, but Queen was interested in the gig and a meeting was arranged. It’s noted that when Dino De Laurentiis was first approached with the idea of Queen providing a soundtrack, his reaction was, “Who are the Queens?” But the impact of their score is undeniable, and in many cases it’s the most memorable component of the movie.
It’s all those pieces that come together so nicely for Flash Gordon. The style and design don’t work without a lead character to balance it out in some way. The extravagance of a space adventure needs an equally extravagant soundtrack to establish its silly seriousness. While the film was panned critically upon its release and was deemed a failure, Flash Gordon is still here, still talked about, and still beloved by cinema lovers around the world. And as long as the legend of this ridiculous space science fiction film continues to be talked about, as pop culture and movies like Seth MacFarlane’s Ted continue to admire the fandom of this excessive adventure story beyond the stars, and as people continue to bond over the many components that make this film memorable, Flash Gordon will continue to be a savior of that specific kind of cinema that was made in the 1980s.
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