Control Nathan Rabin: Flash Gordon (1980)
Welcome to the latest installment in Control Nathan Rabin, the column where I give the living Saints who pledge to this website’s Patreon page an opportunity to choose between two dodgy-looking movies I must watch, then write about.
Patrons chose Mike Hodges’ 1980 cult classic Flash Gordon over Ice Pirates, that movie you thought was awesome because you saw it when you were ten years old and didn’t know any better. I’ve been dragging my feet on this entry for a few months now but I’m glad I did.
After Thor: Ragnorak, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, I’m in a cosmic, Jack Kirby state of mind, as is the rest of pop culture, and Flash Gordon kaleidoscopic campiness makes for a wonderful companion piece to the recent spate of trippy, out-there superhero epics that blur the line between mind-bending science fiction and super-heroics.
I’m not entirely sure why it’s taken me this long to finally catch this camp milestone. I suppose it’s probably because when it comes right down to it, I'm just not a space opera kind of guy. I am a casual fan of Star Wars at best and I’d always thought of Flash Gordon as a campy, failed attempt to replicate the incredible, zeitgeist-capturing success of George Lucas’ blockbuster with all of the space monsters with one of the primary inspirations for the saga.
There’s an element of truth to that, but it would be more accurate to say that Flash Gordon is what would happen if Star Wars got fucked out of its mind on quaaludes, benzedrine, cocaine and champagne and then decided to fuck Barbarella in the orgy room of Studio 54.
When you look at it that way, how could I possibly resist Flash Gordon? It belongs to a subset of entertainment that flourished in the late 1970s and early 1980s that felt like it was directed and masterminded not by human beings but rather by sentient bags of cocaine.
Of course a sentient bag of cocaine is not listed as the director of Flash Gordon. No, that distinction belongs to Mike Hodges, who came onboard for Italian schlock maestro Dino DeLaurentis after everyone from Federico Fellini to Nicolas Roeg flirted with directing the film before bailing.
The ghosts of all of the films that might have been haunt Flash Gordon, including Alejandro Jodorowky’s Dune. It almost feels like the spirits of all of the weird and wild and possibly impossible ideas coursing through the iconic filmmaker’s thwarted adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic traveled through the universe and somehow ended up attaching themselves to this tacky, vulgar, yet weirdly irresistible piece of commercial product.
Flash Gordon begins in the most exquisitely 1980 way possible, with Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow, in what we can all agree is his finest hour and finest film) insolently complaining, “I’m bored.” He could be any debauched libertine of the Reagan era except that he’s a crazed despot with the power to cause devastating earthquakes and other natural disasters with the press of a button.
With his exquisite crimson ensemble, Ming looks like a fabulous gay space Pope for whom Dorothy’s ruby red slippers aren’t just a camp touchstone: they’re an entire aesthetic.
Ming decides to fuck with Earth pretty much just for a laff. He’s like the universe’s most powerful troll only instead of tweeting mean things about the Kardashians he’d destroy California and not feeling a moment’s guilt over it.
Ming’s unprovoked attack on earth, which, it should be noted, is a total dick move, attracts the attention of Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol), who is the kind of scientist who wonders why they call him mad just because he wants to put the brain of a brain of a shark into a gorilla. The scientist of questionable sanity teams up with Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and Dale (Melody Anderson) and the mismatched trio travels via a rocket ship to Ming’s home planet.
As an unemployable Juggalo who’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, I have a hard time following the plots of most space operas. So I appreciated how simple the film is. The movie opens with Ming ruling outer space, much to the chagrin of various oppressed factions, including the Hawkmen, dudes with golden wings who look like club kids designed by Fellini.
That’s true of Flash Gordon as well. As limply played by Jones, he looks like he should be handing out disco biscuits from a silver tray at Plato’s Retreat, not saving the universe. That leads us to the big, if not fatal problem at the heart of this otherwise pretty terrific movie: Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon is a whole lot of fun, but it'd be a cult classic with an actual actor in the title role.
The part calls for a movie star like Kurt Russell, who turned it down for being a nothing role in a movie of dubious/non-existent taste, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was not cast because of his impenetrable Austrian accent.
That’s ironic, considering that Jones, for whom being a native speaker of English is one of his main qualifications for the gig (if not the primary qualification), ended up having a lot of his lines re-dubbed by another actor after he decided, as an unknown starring in a potential blockbuster/franchise, that he had better things to do with his time than star in some dumb movie, so he left the production early and a stand-in and re-dubber handled the remaining workload.
Jones isn’t a movie star. He’s not even a goddamn actor. He’s just a handsome guy, a plasticine Ken doll of a human being, who acted in a movie. He didn’t even finish the job. It’s hard for anybody to deliver a compelling and non-embarrassing performance when someone else is speaking their words. It’s even harder when you are a complete neophyte with no discernible talent beyond looking good in leather slave shorts. Ah, slave shorts.
Alien’s tagline famously warned “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Flash Gordon substitutes, “In space, everybody wants to fuck you.”
That is particularly true of Flash Gordon and Dale, who are ripe objects of widespread interplanetary lust first and foremost and All-American heroes a distant second.
Even if Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Richard O’Brien wasn’t a cast member here, and if Flash himself wasn’t referenced in the classic musical’s “Science Fiction/Double Feature”, Flash and Dale would still remind me of Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Brad and Janet, comical figures of gee-whiz American innocence who enter a horny underworld where the only power greater than the evil of Ming the Merciless is the intergalactic horniness he shares with seemingly every character in the film.
The threat of sexual violence is strong in the old-time serials Flash Gordon is descended from. But the threat was almost invariably implicit. That’s not the case here. Take, for example, a scene where Dale is preparing for her new, unwanted role as Ming’s concubine, wife and sex slave.
Dale is understandably miffed about her new role as a sensual prisoner to a demented space overlord but she’s told that if she drinks an unnamed potion that “Many brave men died to bring from the Galaxy of Pleasure” it will make her nights in the intergalactic bone zone with Ming “more agreeable.”
The understandably chagrined earth woman asks if agreeing to be Space Roofied will make her forget the awful sex she’s about to endure. The answer she receives elevates the creepiness level of the scene from “disturbingly high” to “off the charts.” Dale is told that, no, this outer space sex drug will not help her forget having sex with a crazed alien tyrant but “it will make you not mind remembering.”
This was 1980, alas, when intimations of sexual assault were still considered a fun way to spice up space nonsense for children. So apparently nobody saw anything creepy about our heroine being told, “You won’t forget fucking the bad guy against your will, but you’ll be so fucked up on this sweet, sweet Outer Space Spanish Fly that you’re going to love the sex you’re going to be forced into so much that you’ll be writing a letter to Penthouse that begins. ‘I never thought anything like this would happen to me but I found myself on a planet where I was the unwilling sexual conquest of an insane tyrant. Well at least at first I was unwilling. Then I drank a potion wth no name that many brave men died harvesting from the Galaxy of Pleasure and let me tell you, it got my motor running!”
Just when you think this scene in a PG-rated family-friendly Star Wars knock off can’t get any creepier, Dale downs the space sex potion and experiences a sensual shiver of excitement from this sex drug. “Wow! This isn’t bad!” she raves.
By this point, we’ve already seen Dale’s “O” face when Ming, that horny motherfucker, shoots his sexy space ring ray at the heroine and she’s suddenly and very visibly overcome with sensual pleasure.
The movie is intent on one-upping itself with creepiness, so we learn that no one has had as powerfully orgasmic a response to Ming the Merciless’ sex ray, not even Ming’s own daughter.
Is PG-rated Flash Gordon suggesting that Ming used his weird sex ray on his own daughter? Pretty much. This might be the only blockbuster where the inevitable X-rated parody might actually be less sex-obsessed and perverted than the PG-rated blockbuster it’s sending up.
This brings us to Princess Aura, Ming the Merciless’ sex-obsessed daughter. As played with white-hot sexuality by Ornella Muti, she is easily the film’s most compelling character, a siren and sexpot in red satin who saves Flash Gordon’s life and makes a revolt against her father possible in no small part because she wants to fuck the bland earth hunk’s brains out.
In one of many scenes that give the movie an unmistakable Barberella feel, at one point Flash communicates telepathically while being erotically fondled by an exceedingly amorous Princess Aura.
“Oh my God this girl is turning me on” Flash confesses (he’s not the only one) despite, you know, being involved with Dale, who he encourages to distract Ming for as long as possible by faking orgasms while having sex with him.
When Dale adorably asks how, Flash replies, “Girls know how. It was done to me.”
Not you, Flash!
Aura is of course whipped erotically for her role in saving Flash Gordon’s life and making a space revolution possible. Lest we imagine that this was a painful experience, one of the heavies leeringly refers to Aura as an “interesting girl” who “found (her whipping) quite enjoyable.” Actually, it’d probably be more accurate to say that she found her whipping to be simultaneously painful and exquisitely enjoyable.
Pretty fucked up, huh? Astonishingly, that is not the only incident of sexy, sexy whipping to be found in Flash Gordon. Deep into the film, Flesh, I mean, Flash Gordon is pitted against a dashing outer space Prince played by Timothy Dalton in, what else, one of those homoerotic, BSDM-leaning whipping fights you find throughout the world of family entertainment.
For all of the fanboy heavy breathing over Princess Leia’s slave bikini, the Star Wars franchise seems fundamentally asexual. They seem to inhabit a pre-sexual boy’s own adventure world of derring do whereas Flash Gordon is as horny and obsessed with sex as a teenaged boy with a permanent erection.
So it makes sense to have Queen do the soundtrack, since few pop acts exude as much nuclear-power sexuality as Freddie Mercury and the boys. The Flash Gordon theme song is a goddamn thing of magic and mystery, a glorious sonic melodrama that builds up the title character to levels no man could possibly live up to, particularly an absolute beginner like Jones.
Queen and Flash Gordon are the perfect combination, to the point where I was irritated that every scene wasn’t accompanied by a soaring Queen anthem.
Flash Gordon was supposed to be huge, and while it did not do badly at the box office, all things considered (it was, for example, the top-grossing Sam J. Jones film of all time after 10 before Ted topped both) it makes so much more sense as a loopy, trippy cult film than as a wholesome blockbuster. Or rather, it’s poetically apt that the movie will live forever as a cult classic since making sense isn’t exactly the film’s strong point.
Flash Gordon is less a movie than a coked-up waking dream. It’s not Star Wars, but rather something infinitely weirder and more personal, and in many ways, more wonderful, especially for Gen-Xers whose fantasies and nostalgia are rooted in the excess and decadence of disco rather than the earnest retro adventure fantasies of George Lucas.
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