A fun, camp and cult science film that bombed at the box office when it came out, it’s a hyper-stylised film with fashion and visuals that seem to be more aligned with hedonistic, high-fantasy disco than anything “science” related.
After the last entry here there were a number of draft entries on the go that had been half-written. So which one to choose, really? A few weeks ago after doing some lazy Sunday tidying I found the next film on my shelf, having forgotten that I had acquired it in some random charity shop somewhere in some small rural town. So I figured it was time to give it yet another watch, after having had seen it many times before.
That film is Flash Gordon, a sci-fi classic that was suited for it’s time, coming out in 1980 amongst a wave of new fantasy and science fiction films. Many of these seemed to be on the crest of 1977’s smash hit, Star Wars, which set a bold new benchmark for sci-fi, with it’s blend of fantasy and realism brought on by the ingenuity of it’s talented special FX and modelling team. Star Wars was a film of that genre where you actually felt like, for one of the first times in cinema, that you were actually in outer space. It should be noted however that 2001 : A Space Odyssey jumped on this a good ten years earlier.
That and the fact that when that film came out it was by far the most popular film of that genre to ever come out, appealing to die-hard science fiction fans and your average cinema-goer all at once. There’s a long list of films that rode that wave: some good, some bad. And there were other films that became popular as well from that spark and pushed that genre into new directions, such as Alien, released in 1979 which combined science fiction with brooding suspence and horror. There was really no turning back from there.
And then there was Flash Gordon, which overall tried to take a different approach than the two aforementioned films, opting for a very stylized concept that aimed to combine the fantastical look of the original comic books that it was based on and then putting that into a high-budget, live action environment. The effort to retain this approach is apparent right from the start of the film, where the opening credits themselves contain many still frames from the actual original comic book artwork.
But in addition to this many other elements of the film have a “comic book” feel: the campy dialogue, the outrageously ornate sets and costume designs and the completely surreal and impossible environments and locations. Many hardcore “logical” sci-fi fans may scoff at this approach but it does make the film, at least to me, more like some weird fevered dream-state than it does trying to be an accurate representation of what life might be like in outer space.
I’ve always had an attraction to extremely fake-looking, fantastic settings in films: settings that are less based in realism but more how one might actually feel being in some alien world that is millions of light years away. Many of the location shots in Flash Gordon are built with scale models superimposed over a massive sky and space composed of technicolour, over-saturated psychedelic cloud atmospheres, likely created by the motion of different fluids in suspension. That and a lot of green-screen techniques were used, superimposing the actors and sets into layers of strange, red, blue, orange and metallic visual worlds. The impossible settings of Flash Gordon I’ve always found are reminiscent of the visual collage work done in Ken Russell’s films such as Lair Of The White Worm and Altered States, the latter of which I’ve covered before.
The main appeal of this film for most however is the extravagant interior designs, costume designs and the fun, theatrical characters that drive the energy of the film. Everything glitters in a metallic sheen with a strange style that combines art deco, Asian influences and forgotten, mystical civilizations of past human history. The costume designs themselves not only take influence from science fiction and comics, but perhaps even from influences of popular culture at the time, coming around at the height of hedonistic disco and the emerging “new romantic” movement at the time. You can see all of these elements combined into one dazzling entrance where the main protagonists Flash Gordon, Dale and Zarkov are captured by the ruthless Emperor Ming (played by Max Von Sydow, complete with a metallic skull cap, ornate flowing robes and loads of eyeshadow) and brought into his main throne room. It’s a spectacle that resembles more of a strange, surreal disco-inspired fantasy than it does the realities of being captured by an alien race. We even get a bit of fun, dance-style choreography in this scene when Flash attempts to foil Ming’s guards using his skills as a football quarterback.
The costume work for the main villians of this film is quite extravagant: Ming’s effeminate orientalism; the threatening BSDM-inspired demeanor (complete with metallic “gimp”-styled mask) of General Klytus (Peter Wyngarde); the cold, icy European demeanour of General Kala (Mariangela Melato) and then of course, the steaming senuality of Princess Aura (Ornella Muti). The overall visual styling of these villians gives me an impression that has less to do with sci-fi and more like that of some high-concept European disco band of the time. This was 1980 after all, and disco had been reaching more dizzying, hedonistic heights over the years leading up to this film. And it was around this time that synthesizers and more “space”-oriented themes started being incorporated into musical concepts. The Italians and French did this well, with artists such as Rockets, the Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder collaboration “I Feel Love” and then slightly later with artists such as Diana Est or The Creatures, the latter whose members could have easily come through the side entrances of Ming’s main throne room and have blended in with the other attendees of his court with ease. The promotional video for “Believe In Yourself” by The Creatures (see below) shows a lot of similarities: the main being the fantastical and sci-fi fantasy inspired costumes. Maybe Ming’s castle doubled as some intergalatic, high-fantasy italo disco club thousands of years into the future.
The music for the film is not too far from this mark; a combination of dramatic glam-rock rock numbers and more lush, synthesizer based moods. This was all done by the rock band Queen, who took on the material quite well and likely the most suitable, “big name” band for the job.
I’ve picked out similarities between disco and the styling of Flash Gordon, but this is a personal comparison for me and perhaps one that is less recognized. But if there were to be one film that had influence on Flash Gordon, I would say that film would be Roger Vadim’s Barbarella which came out over a decade earlier in 1968. There’s many parallels here: strange and psychedelic landscapes, overdressed camp villians, lavish costume design and even with winged, flying men – all based on a storyline drawing heavily from the comic book and space opera genres. Both appeal to the visual, fantasy elements — Barbarella is after all the film where the popular, stylish “new romantic” band Duran Duran got its name from.
Flash Gordon is overall a fun film to watch, not only with the visual design but also the acting. The booming bravado of acting icon Brian Blessed (as Prince Vultan) stand out for me here. We also see a small role from Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s Richard O’Brien, as well as some other small cameos, including Philip Stone as a high priest. Some might recognise Stone from a number of Stanley Kubrick films, including A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Oh, and Timothy Dalton, who delivers one of the best lines in the film.
And on a final note, Flash Gordon was plagued by a lot of production problems, which is an essay unto itself that you can read on this link:
So, there you have it — Flash Gordon as a high-fantasy disco club in some alternate universe. Using this comparative point of reference, we can perhaps say that where Flash Gordon is more The Creatures whereas a film such as David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is more Fockewolfe 190 in its aesthetics. Maybe save that thought for another installment…