Friday, July 24, 2020

Space 1979: The one George Lucas wanted to make before Star Wars

Title: Flash Gordon
What Year?: 1975 (known preproduction)/ 1980 (US and UK release)
Classification: Runnerup/ Weird Sequel
Rating: Pretty Good!

Something I have hoped to document with this series is just how active and vibrant 1970s science fiction/ fantasy filmmaking was even before Star Wars convinced studios it was big business. I have also shown the flip side, how often projects were held up or directly interfered with by the studio "system". This time around, we have quite possibly the most egregious example all, a space opera/ science fantasy that tried to be "retro" even for the '70s and took so long to make that it came out after the series it very possibly brought into existence.

Our story starts with the introduction of our eponymous hero Flash Gordon, the heroine/ love interest Dale Arden, and mad scientist Dr. Zarkov, thrown together in good time by a plane crash. It must be said as an aside that it is surely a testament to the durability of the source material that this and the opening of the 1972 pornographic parody Flesh Gordon are virtually identical apart from production values and gratuitous nudity. The doctor suspects that this and other recent disasters are the work of an alien force. To investigate, he flies a rocket through hyperspace and discovers the world of Mongo, ruled by Ming the Merciless and his unhappy vassals. Ming  sentences Flash Gordon to death, sends Dr. Zarkov to be brainwashed, and chooses Dale to be his reluctant bride. But Ming's capricious daughter Aura and her sometimes-consort Barin have their own intrigues, and Flash escapes to seek allies among the moons of Mongo. As usual, it all ends with a final attack on the evil overlord's castle, and this time things go about as badly as could actually be expected.

Flash Gordon, based on the Art Deco era comics and films of the same name, had a byzantine preproduction history whose full details are still elusive. It is known that by the mid-1970s, the rights were snapped up by Dino De Laurentiis, a personality so legendary I personally based one of my own characters on him, then in the processing of carving out his sketchy reputation with the 1976 King Kong remake and the Jaws knockoff Orca. As a now infamous footnote, George Lucas approached De Laurentiis for permission to make his own Flash Gordon feature, only to be forced to pursue an original project after being turned down. After a string of sparring between De Laurentiis and various writers and directors, the film pushed forward on a budget of up to $27 million (half again the budget of Empire Strikes Back), with a cast that included Max Von Sydow as Ming, Chaim Topol of Fiddler on the Roof as Zarkov, Timothy Dalton as Barin and male model Sam Jones in the title role. It finally reached US audiences in late 1980, and may have earned as much as its budget.

This movie is subject of one of my most specific recollections. In what readers should by now recognize as a pattern, I saw this movie exactly once before I acquired it on disk, very recently.  It must have been around 1992 if not a little earlier,  with my dad and I think my brother. I distinctly recall Dad had seen it in the TV guide and insisted we watch it together. I still have no idea if he had really seen or known about this movie or if he thought it was going to be one of the original movies. At any rate, it... made an impression. I genuinely liked Ming, I loved the Hawk Men, and racking my brain, I guess I found Flash Gordon himself just there. And I went three decades without forgetting the theme song.

Watching this movie as an adult, it's amazing anyone got away with it, and impressive how many people got away with it. The sets and effects are all excellent, with an Art Deco feel that would have completely gone over my head as a kid. There is also a surprising level of violence and gore that may well have been censored for TV, as well as enough innuendo to wonder if Flesh Gordon had a direct influence on the shape of the production. The cast and characters are also impressive to say the least; as often happens, the supporting cast are the standouts. Topol is the standout, while Dalton is good fun, though for bang for buck, I would have to pick Mariangela Melato  and very British Peter Wyngarde and as Ming's chief generals Kala and Clytus. Melato stands out all the more as nothing is said or implied about a woman being in command. I also picked out John Hallam of Dragonslayer as one of the Hawk Men. Flash remains in many ways the weakest link then and now, yet even he registers a unique emotional range both in the script and as portrayed by Jones. This is a genuinely likeable character who can believably convince others to join him, with a combination of bravery and sensitivity that would become all too rare in the slew of 80s-90s actioners that followed.

Something also has to be said of the score. This is what truly makes the movie. The nearly religious theme song by Queen is true inspired insanity, and sets up a very real sense of approaching martyrdom as Flash flies his literal kamikaze run into the guns of Ming's palace. The synthesizer-driven instrumental score is almost as bonkers with touches of genuine grace, especially in the attack of the Hawk Men. Then there are the repeated notes in the long, tense establishing shots of the finale, suggesting that De Laurentiis really learned something from Jaws.

In all of this, I had a much harder time choosing a "one scene". I was ready to go with the wedding and Ming's hilariously dark vows, which I remembered quite specifically from back when. But then I got a look at the confrontation between Flash and Barin in the latter's own domain. The mentioned innuendo has been especially heavy between Aura and both men, but here there is a real payoff in sexualized tension as Barin challenges Flash to the ordeal of the unseen Wood Beast. By the lord's very explicit terms, both men must take turns reaching into a hollowed tree where the venomous creature lurks, until one or the other perishes from its fatal sting. The tension is real right up to the denouement, and while the resolution may fall short of the setup, it in no way feels like a copout.

For a closing, all I have left is to explain why I rate this film as highly as I do. By my own admission, this film is not as good a others I have given the same or somewhat lower ratings (especially The Black Hole). What makes it uniquely successful is that I cannot point to any scene or element where the movie fails on its own terms. Whatever else one says about it, I have absolutely no doubt that this is exactly the film that De Laurentiis wanted to make from the start. For that, at least, he deserves full credit. And now I have to listen to that damn song again.

For links I recommend a video review from Angry Video Game Nerd/ Cinemassacre (which actually came out a little before I picked up the movie) and an older article from Gizmodo. As usual, you can see my series Introduction for an explanation of my ratings scale and classifications.

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