Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Flash Gordon (1980) * * *

The voice of Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) of planet Mongo indicates he will destroy Earth. Ming has been testing the Earth with unnatural disasters, and concludes it a threat to his rule.

Emperor Ming: Klytus, I'm bored. What play thing can you offer me today?
Klytus: An obscure body in the S-K System, your majesty. The inhabitants refer to it as the planet Earth.
Emperor Ming: Pathetic Earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would've hidden from it in terror.
Klytus: Most effective, Your Majesty. Will you destroy this Earth?
Emperor Ming: Later. I like to play with things a while before annihilation.

Sometime later on Earth, New York Jets football quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) boards a small plane when the "hot hail" begins. On board, he meets travel journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) who is also flying back to NYC. After they take off, the disasters become progressively worse, and the pilots are sucked out of the cockpit. Flash and Dale rush to the cockpit and take control of the plane, and promptly crash land into the laboratory of Russian scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). According to Dr. Zarkov's research, the disasters are being caused by an unknown physical source in space sending the moon out of orbit, with moon fragments plummeting to Earth, causing the hot hail. Zarkov has been secretly working on a rocket ship for several years to test his theory, and now intends to go to the coordinates for the source of the attacks. He launches the rocket ship with his unwilling passengers on-board and sets a course for the planet Mongo. Arriving on the totalitarian planet of Mongo, the three are promptly taken prisoner.

Flash, Dale and Zarkov are brought before Ming the Merciless. Ming orders Dale to be removed and prepared for his pleasure, but Flash openly defies Ming and picks a fight with his men, adapting his athletic skills from American football. Ming orders Zarkov into Klytus’ custody for reconditioning and orders Flash's execution. Following Flash's disposal, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) and Ming’s Chief Surgeon, one of her numerous lovers, open Flash’s casket and resurrect him. Aura and Flash quickly retreat to Arboria, kingdom of Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), another of Aura’s lovers.

Flash Gordon: I demand to see the governor! I can hardly breathe in this thing!
Klytus: Yes... you don't look well. I'm told you refused your final meal. The chef will be upset...
Flash Gordon: Tell 'em to go to hell!
Klytus: Maybe just as well. Gas works more quickly on an empty stomach.
Klytus: No one--but no one--dies in the Palace without a command from the Emperor.
Flash Gordon: This isn't happening, Dale. We're not here. It's just a bad dream.
Dale Arden: Oh, I agree completely. We'll wake up in any minute in Dock Harbor and have a laugh about this.
Flash Gordon: Only this time I won't just ask the maitre d' your name. I'll walk over and talk to you.
Dale Arden: You promise?
Flash Gordon: I promise. Cross my heart and hope to...

On the way to Arboria, Flash coerces Aura to teach him to use a telepathic communicator so that he can contact Dale and let her know he is still alive. Relieved, Dale informs Flash she is locked in Ming’s bedchamber. She later escapes and tells a reconditioned Zarkov that Flash is still alive. Dale and Zarkov subsequently escape, but they are quickly captured by Prince Vultan's (Brian Blessed) Hawkmen and taken to his kingdom, Sky City.

Klytus informs Ming of Flash’s resurrection and asks Ming’s authority to pursue the investigation. Ming agrees. Aura and Flash arrive at the forest moon Arboria. When Aura leaves, Prince Barin throws Flash into a cage and lowers him into a swamp. Barin decides to lure Flash into a trap by sending one of his Tree Men into the cage with a key to get out. Flash eventually tricks Barin and escapes into the swamp, and Barin soon follows in pursuit. He catches up with Flash, but before he can kill him, the two are taken prisoner by more of Vultan’s Hawkmen. Aura returns alone to Mingo City only to be taken prisoner and violently interrogated by Klytus and General Kala. They eventually get a full confession.

Klytus: Bring me... the bore worms!
Princess Aura: No! Not the bore worms!

Flash and Barin are taken to Prince Vultan’s kingdom, where Flash and Dale are briefly reunited. Klytus later arrives to arrest Barin and Zarkov for treason. But Flash and Barin double-team Klytus and kill him. In a panic, Vultan orders all the Hawkmen to evacuate, leaving Barin, Flash, Dale and Zarkov behind. Ming’s ship arrives shortly afterwards. Ming orders that only Barin, Zarkov and Dale are to be taken aboard his ship. Ming returns to his ship and gives the order to destroy Vultan’s kingdom with Flash still on it. But as the bolts of energy tear the place asunder, Flash finds one of the Hawkmen’s rocket cycles, and once again escapes death.

On Mongo, Dale is being prepared for her wedding to Ming in Mingo City, Flash approaching alone on the rocket cycle. General Kala (Mariangela Melato), orders weapons to open fire at him. Kala orders Ajax, an Imperial war rocket, to go after Flash and bring back his body. After a huge battle, the Hawkmen, heavily outnumbering Ajax’s crew, seize control of the rocket and, with Flash taking the helm, make their way toward Mingo City. In Mingo City, Princess Aura overpowers her guard and makes her way to the execution chamber, freeing Barin and Zarkov. Barin and Zarkov head for the control center, where General Kala orders all weapons to fire upon Ajax as it is out of its proper flight pattern, and also orders Mingo City’s protective lightning field to be charged up.

Zogi, the High Priest: Do you, Ming the Merciless, Ruler of the Universe, take this Earthling Dale Arden, to be your Empress of the Hour?
The Emperor Ming: Of the hour, yes.
Zogi, the High Priest: Do you promise to use her as you will?
The Emperor Ming: Certainly!
Zogi, the High Priest: Not to blast her into space?
(Ming glares at Zogi)
Zogi, the High Priest: Uh, until such time as you grow weary of her.
The Emperor Ming: I do.
Dale Arden: I do not!

In Mingo City, Ming and a defiant Dale’s wedding has just begun. The lightning field deactivates to reveal Ajax plummeting toward the temple. There is a frantic dash for safety as Ajax smashes into the sanctuary, and its lance-like bow impales Ming right through his midsection. The impact throws Flash clear of the rocket, dazed but uninjured. He grabs a dead guard’s sword and gives Ming an ultimatum: call off his attack on Earth or die. Ming aims his power ring at Flash, but it seems to have no effect. With his power fading, he aims his ring at himself and vanishes. Ming's robot servant declares that Flash has saved the Earth. Barin and Vultan and his Hawkmen arrive, Flash is again reunited with Dale, and a huge victory celebration ensues. Vultan announces to the multitude that Barin is the rightful heir to the now-vacant throne. The newly-appointed King Barin shows his gratitude to Flash, appoints Vultan as the new Army General, and decrees that everyone live together in peace.

The last scene focuses on Ming’s empty power ring, and a hand picking it up as the words "The End" fade onto the screen, followed by a question mark and Ming's evil laughter.

Heroic earthling Flash Gordon saves the world from the nefarious Ming the Merciless in this lavish, intentionally campy adaptation of the famous sci-fi comic strip. The story is as basic as space operas get: Ming has developed a plan to destroy the Earth, and Flash Gordon, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov try to stop him. Along the way, Flash must battle Ming's goons and the temptations of a luscious space princess. The simplistic plot mainly serves as an excuse for spectacular sets and cartoonish action sequences, all set to a rock score by Queen. Certainly not a film to turn to for serious excitement, fine performances, or character development, FLASH GORDON has nevertheless developed an appreciative cult of fans. It is definitely much better than the Buster Crabbe 1930s movie serials in every way.

Based on the classic comic strip and its 1930s film serialization, this trashy classic is campy, adventurous, colorful and bold. Everything is bright and shiny and the sets are huge. At times the production design looks delightfully cheesy, but it's very expensive cheese. The legendary Max von Sydow appears to be having fun as the evil Ming the Merciless, while Ornella Muti as his daughter is the living embodiment of what attracts adolescent boys to comics in the first place. One of the most shamelessly entertaining movies ever made, this is a knowingly absurd sensory freak-out that intentionally uses a camp style similar to the 1960s TV series BATMAN in an attempt to appeal to fans of the original comics and serial films.

The cast also includes: John Osborne (Arborian Priest), Richard O'Brien (Fico), John Hallam (Luro), Philip Stone (Zogi, the High Priest), Suzanne Danielle (Serving Girl), William Hootkins (Munson), Bobbie Brown (Hedonia), Ted Carroll (Biro), Adrienne Kronenberg (Vultan's Daughter), Stanley Lebor (Mongon Doctor), John Morton (Airline Pilot), Burnell Tucker (Airline Co-Pilot), Robbie Coltrane (Man at Airfield), Peter Duncan (Young Treeman), Ken Sicklen (A Treeman), Tessa Hewitt (Hawk Woman), Venetia Spicer (Hawk Woman), Francis Mughan (Wounded Hawkman), Oliver MacGreevy (Klytus Observer No. 1), John Hollis (Klytus Observer No. 2), Paul Bentall (Klytus' Pilot), Leon Greene (Colonel of Battle Control Room), Graeme Crowther (Battle Room Controller), Tony Scannell (Ming's Officer), David Neal (Captain of Ming's Air Force), Bogdan Kominowski (Lieutenant of Ming's Air Force), George Harris (Prince Thun of Ardentia), Colin Taylor (King of Frigia), Doretta Dunkley (Queen of Frigia), Sally Nicholson (Queen of Azuria), and many others. Howard Blake composed the incidental music. Queen wrote and recorded the music score. Lorenzo Semple Jr. wrote the screenplay from Michael Allin's adaptation of characters created by Alex Raymond. Mike Hodges directed.

Rock band Queen's soundtrack is one of the highlights of the film. The music was composed by by Brian May, Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, John Deacon, and Howard Blake. Brian May wrote all the lyrics and Howard Blake arranged and conducted the orchestra, in some cases with Mercury and May. The title song "Flash's Theme" is first rate and relies on a blistering heavy electric guitar and a choir singing "Flash! Ahhhhh Savior of the universe". Unfortunately it also includes some very dated and primitive synthesizer patches played by Freddie Mercury. The other musical numbers are: In the Space Capsule, Ming's Theme, The Ring, Football Fight, In the Death Cell, Execution of Flash, The Kiss, Arboria, Escape from the Swamp, Flash to the Rescue, Vultan's Theme, Battle Theme. The Wedding March, Marriage of Dale and Ming, Crash Dive on Mingo City, Flash's Theme (Reprise), and The Hero. Queen released the soundtrack recording the same day John Lennon was assassinated.

The DVD quality is OK, but the picture transfer could have been better. This film has a lot of blue screen work, but surely it's not that grainy. The Savior of the Universe edition DVD lacks a lot of the extras found on the European Silver Anniversary Edition DVD. While you do get a remastered film with 2.35:1 anomorphic widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Surround and the movie trailer, it lacks the special features of the European DVD. That one has commentaries by director Mike Hodges and actor Brian Blessed, production stills, interviews and concept art. The SotU DVD has none of it.

What you do get is two featurettes. One is from Alex Ross and the other is called "Writing a Classic" by screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. The remastering itself is definitely a big step up from the original DVD release, but still not perfect. The matte blocks are painfully noticeable on the spaceships early in the movie. There is however a whole lot less dirt and distortion compared to the first DVD release. Don't expect an incredible audio experience even if they remastered in 5.1 Dolby Surround. The SotU Edition of Flash Gordon is remastered and available in the US, but a real fan might only go for it if you can't play region 2 DVDs or if you want that Alex Ross featurette. The Silver Anniversary Edition is probably the better of the two, but both are fine.

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