Flash tries to Topol Ming Empire
It would be easy for me to say that "Flash Gordon" is one of the corniest, even campest, comic book adaptations you are likely to ever see. From fake looking sets, dodgy effects, larger than life cliche characters and corny dialogue everything about this movie is corny. But I'm not ripping into "Flash Gordon" for being a cheese-fest because I am sure it was intentional as director Mike Hodges tries to recapture the fantasy feel of a comic book hero from the 1930s. And as such it has to be said that Hodges has captured that feel of an old fashion comic book as well as the previous TV and movie incarnations of "Flash Gordon" although even when you accept it was intentional it's still hard not to laugh at all the corniness.
When the plane they are travelling on gets into trouble football hero Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and the attractive Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) are forced to crash land near the laboratory of mad scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol - For Your Eyes Only). Tricked into boarding Zarkov's space rocket Flash and Dale find themselves heading for the planet Mongo where Dr. Zarkov believes that someone or something is behind the natural disasters inflicting Earth. What they find is The Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow - Robin Hood) who plans to take Dale as his concubine, brainwash Dr. Zarkov and execute Flash although Ming's daughter the Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) takes a shine to Flash and plans to stop her father's murderous plans. The question is can the trio stop Ming before he tires of toying with the Earth and destroys it?
Now I am no "Flash Gordon" expert, I've glimpsed at a few of the old comic strips, seen clips from various shows and movies but never really got into the character like some. But what I do know is that Hodges' version of "Flash Gordon" is very much old school from storyline to characters as well as sets and drama. And whilst I am no expert I do know that the basis of this storyline does come from the original comic book with Flash, Dale and Dr. Zarkov heading off in a rocket to the planet Mongo to try and find out who is bombarding the Earth with meteors and hot hail. But it does mix things up slightly so that whilst we get this authentic intro to the characters and the planet Mongo what follows is different.
As for that storyline well from a non "Flash Gordon" fan it does seem both cliche and cheesy as we have The Emperor Ming trying to destroy Earth only for Flash Gordon to stop him and save the Earth. Throw in some subplots which sees Ming trying to take Dale as his concubine and brainwashing Dr. Zarkov, as well as Flash evading a lot of danger and death. But it is intentionally cliche, simple in so many ways but the perfect vehicle for a movie which is trying to recreate the over the top falseness of a bygone era.
It almost seems that "Flash Gordon" is less about the actual story and more about Hodges recreating an experience from the past especially when if you consider in 1980 we had already had "Star Wars" with its superior special effects and sets. And Hodge does recreate that bygone feel, the bold contrasting clothes, the shaky looking effects, the cheesy dialogue and simple romance. Add in some cheesy fight scenes, more dodgy looking effects and a whole lot of intentional over acting and posturing and you have a movie which looks like it could have been made 40 years earlier. But it works because whilst it is delivered seriously it is also knowingly corny and when Flash spouts some heroic nonsense you know that every word had been crafted to be corny. Heck any movie which has a fight scene where someone use American Football tactics as a form of fighting knows that it is being corny.
But it all works because "Flash Gordon" is a memorable movie and it's memorable for being intentionally corny and old fashioned. And part of what makes it memorable are the performances, in fact in some cases just the actors because Sam J. Jones with that blonde hair and toned frame is intentionally comic book handsome. But it is the more over the top performance as in Brian Blessed, Topol and Max Von Sydow all revelling in the corniness and delivering big performances often bigger than their character. In fact "Flash Gordon" is quite a surprise as alongside these well known names there is also a future James Bond in Timothy Dalton, Richard O'Brien, Deep Roy and for fans of "Blue Peter" from the 80s that is Peter Duncan in a small role.
What this all boils down to is that "Flash Gordon" is a cheese-fest but it is all intentional because this is comic book adaptation is all about recreating the feel of old comic book movies right down to larger than life characters, corny dialogue and shaky effects and sets. It is hard not too laugh but in many ways that is part of the fun of "Flash Gordon" laughing at how movies once were.