Saturday, June 30, 2012

Flash Gordon: A Blast from the Past

What movie showcasing Max von Sydow, Timothy Dalton, and Brian Blessed, and featuring music from Queen, turned out to be a dud?  Answer:  Flash Gordon

It was a blast to see this movie again recently, and by coincidence, some scenes of it are apparently featured in the current movie Ted, about a raunchy teddy bear.  I don’t think I’ll bring myself to see Ted, but Flash Gordon bears remarking on. 

This 1980 movie was known for its exercise in high kitsch, with elaborate makeup and costumes the likes of which probably haven’t been seen in a major movie until The Hunger Games.  The kitschiness and the background numbers from Queen have made this a cult classic, but any unbiased viewing of the movie reveals its slow plot and forgettable dialog. 

What went wrong?  After all, Flash Gordon had fantastic supporting talent from skilled foreign actors.  Max von Sydow (who first became famous to Americans by playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told) shows steely resolve as Ming the Merciless (I only recognized him from his voice, the makeup was so eerily reminiscent of earlier treatments of the character.)  You couldn’t ask for a better Ming. 

Brian Blessed (who did a fantastic job playing Caesar Augustus in I, Claudius) is the deep-throated Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen.  He never for a second looks like he thinks he’s wearing cheesy wings, but completely throws himself into the part.  Who can forget his yelling “Dive!” as he leads the charge of the Hawkmen? 

Timothy Dalton plays Prince Barin of the forest people in Arboria.  So help me, he brings depth to this kitschfest.  That’s right, I said depth.  Whether he’s strutting around with a sword, cracking a whip, or giving a stirring speech, he has all the air of starring in a Shakespearean production.  (That’s a hint to you actors who get stuck in something that’s less than stellar.  Act like it’s the best production the world has ever seen, and hope you get spotted.) 

But again, what went wrong?  The movie has a hollow center.  The fellow who played Flash (whom I won’t name, since this blog does not flame people) had his main claim to fame from posing in Playgirl.  You can guess what level of acting he brought.  The actress who played Dale Arden wasn’t impressive either.  In contrast, the Italian actress Ornella Muti was much more effective as the evil Princess Aura. 

So why did these fine foreign actors sign on?  My proposed answer has two words:  Star Wars.  The first Star Wars movie came out in 1977.  It was a raging success, and it featured that heavyweight British actor Sir Alec Guinness to give it depth.  Also, Peter Cushing played a fantastic villain.  I imagine the pitch was that Flash Gordon would be the next Star Wars:  We’re going to spend X amount of money on sets, costumes, and music, and any of you foreign actors could be the next Obi-Wan Kenobi. 

Once one of them signed on—let’s choose Max—they could say, “We have Max von Sydow!  You know it’ll be a quality production.”  Eh, not so much.

Well, I’m glad Max von Sydow went on to get pretty much any part he felt like—I especially enjoyed him as Dr. Kynes in the 1984 version of Dune.  Brian Blessed is known for playing bombastic kings in various incarnations of The Black Adder, but I remember him most as Duke Exeter in Henry V.  And Timothy Dalton went on to be my favorite James Bond, much more down-to-earth than Sean or Roger. 

So Flash  Gordon is not everyone’s cup of tea.  Watch a few excerpts on YouTube, to see some great actors in yummy costumes.  

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