December 5th, 2020 will mark the 40th anniversary of a lavish space opera hitting US theaters and subsequently gaining a cult following. The movie in question is, of course, Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon, a cinematic adaptation of American cartoonist Alex Raymond’s comic strip of the same name. First published in January 1934, the titular hero would soon find himself the star of many an adaptation: three movie serials with actor Buster Crabbe in the role of Flash (1936’s Flash Gordon with a running time of 245 minutes and a total of thirteen chapters/episodes; 1938’s Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars comprised of fifteen chapters, and 1940s Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe with twelve chapters), a 1954 TV series that lasted a single season and ran for 39 twenty-five-minute episodes, an animated series The New Adventures of Flash Gordon that went on from 1979 to 1982, several unofficial films, animated television films and cartoon series.
But of course, the most famous adaptation is none other than Hodges’ SF classic, whose iconic visuals, flashy colors and cheesy dialogue with its over-the-top delivery remain very much alive in the collective memory of an entire generation. But Hodges almost did not get the chance to sit in the director’s chair – George Lucas, himself a great fan of both the comic and the film serial, was very much interested in acquiring the rights from Flash Gordon publisher King Features in the early ‘70s. After failing to do so, Lucas made the decision to create his very own space opera – thus, a little thing called Star Wars was born. The rights to Flash Gordon were given to Italian-American producer Dino De Laurentiis instead. He first wanted Federico Fellini to make the movie, but that idea fell through. Then director Nicolas Roeg came on board and worked on pre-production for a year, only to leave the project due to De Laurentiis not liking his movie treatment. After that, the producer took Sergio Leone into consideration, but he refused, claiming the screenplay to be a far cry from its source material. It was only then that Hodges was ultimately hired. He later claimed he had confronted De Laurentiis with the fact that he was the wrong man for the job, seeing as how he knew nothing about either comic strips or special effects.
Nonetheless, Hodges was all in and realized soon enough that dark and bleak was not the direction he wanted to go in. Instead, he opted to utilize Raymond’s comic strip drawings and simply turn them into storyboards. That was, after all, the logical thing to do – to use the source material by quite literally creating a cinematic adaptation in its image. And if that is not indicative enough of the route Hodge’s movie was going to take, suffice to say that the script was written by American screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., best known for his work on the campy 1966-1969 live-action TV series Batman starring Adam West. The result? Flash Gordon is probably the most comic-stripy live-action movie ever made and that should be considered an accomplishment in and of itself. But it was not so easy for Hodges to make the comedy film he was aiming for, because De Laurentiis had other things in mind. According to the director: “Dino believed in Flash Gordon. He’d always say, ‘Don’t forget, Flash-y Gordon, he save-y the world!’ You’d look at him and he was serious. I realized it was not possible to make it serious. It was Saturday morning cinema, so I really had to attack it from the comedic angle. When we showed the rushes, the crew would fall about laughing, but Dino didn’t understand it. He took me aside and said, ‘Mike, why they laugh?’ But he kept me on the straight and narrow. He made me take it seriously, even the comedy, so the film ended up with a balance between his belief and my cynicism.”
The story follows the titular character, a New York Jets football player who, through no will or fault of his own, ends up boarding a spacecraft with travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and disgraced scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). They land on Mongo, a planet ruled by Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) who decided to have a bit of fun and casually went about destroying Earth by inducing natural disasters. Can Flash, a man armed only with the skills that make him one hell of a football player, help save our planet from total annihilation?
The attempt to win over fans of the original comic strip by pandering to their love of the medium would eventually succeed, but the movie initially did poorly at the box office (except for the UK, where it earned £14 million). And if you asked Hodges, one of the culprits behind Flash Gordon not becoming an instantaneous smash hit was none other than the man who portrayed Flash Gordon himself. But let us first take a look at how Sam J. Jones landed the role of the savior of the universe to begin with. De Laurentiis knew he wanted someone who could portray the football-playing character with ease. His first pick was Kurt Russell, who turned down the offer due to his perception of Flash as one-dimensional. On the other hand, a young Arnold Schwarzenegger was very much interested in the project, but was rejected on account of his heavy Austrian accent (lucky for him, the producer would later on cast him as Conan the Barbarian).
Soon enough, De Laurentiis’ mother-in-law came to the rescue, after having seen Sam J. Jones as a contestant on the show The Dating Game. She urged the producer to take a look, seeing as how Jones was a well-built, semi-professional, blond football player for the Seattle Flyers and a former Marine. Ten months of auditioning later, Sam J. Jones was cast as star-quarterback Flash Gordon, on a mission to save Earth. But due to the actor’s contractual disputes with the producer, he left the movie before it went into post-production. This meant that Jones was not there to dub his own dialogue, which resulted in professional voice actor Peter Marinker filling in for him. This also implied that reshoots could not be done with Jones, leading Hodges to hire a body double. Ultimately, the football-player-turned-actor refused to do any promotion for the movie he would soon become best known for, prompting Hodges to later state that Jones’ decision was a contributing factor to the movie’s initial lack of success.
Box-office hit or no box-office hit, Flash Gordon is not only a picture that movie-lovers and comic-book enthusiasts alike still talk about and quote to this very day, but also a film whose shooting process was as thrilling and chaotic as the storyline itself. As it turned out, much needed to be improvised – the Forest Kingdom of Mongo proved to be a problem because the camera was too big to fit through the trees, members of the international cast and crew did not always understand one another and then there was the issue of Danilo Donati’s amazing costumes. Because the Oscar-winning costume and production designer was held in such high regard, he was free to make both sets and costumes of his own accord, without prior consultation with the director. To make matters even more complicated, Donati did not speak any English and Hodges’ Italian was next to zero, so the director simply let Donati do his thing and decided to improvise around his creations. Since the extravagant costumes severely limited the actors’ movements, Hodges’ hands in terms of working with his cast were tied until Donati presented them with his lavish work on set. This led to, but was not limited to, Max Von Sydow needing to lie down in between takes to take a break, because his costume was not suitable for sitting.
Aside from the remarkable production design, the flamboyant costumes and the film’s overall tongue-in-cheek tone that gives new meaning to the word camp, the element of Flash Gordon that vastly contributed to it becoming such an instantly recognizable cinematic gem is by far its soundtrack. The main theme with its infectious chorus (Flash! A-Ah! Savior of the Universe! Flash! A-Ah! He’ll save every one of us!) is nothing short of a classic rock anthem. Written by Queen guitarist Brian May and performed by both May and Freddie Mercury (with drummer Roger Taylor singing the high harmonies), Flash perfectly matches the movie’s high and exuberant energy. But De Laurentiis had supposedly never heard of the group. It was the people in his office who commissioned the band to compose the film’s entire soundtrack in 1979, but when the producer heard of this, he allegedly uttered the question: “Who are the Queens?”
Flash Gordon has undeniably already gone down in history books as one of the most iconic superhero movies ever made and has since left a significant cultural mark. Director Edgar Wright’s film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was heavily influenced by Flash Gordon’s visual style. The characters of Seth MacFarlane’s 2012 comedy movie Ted are huge fans of Hodges’ picture and do not fail to reference it several times, with Sam J. Jones making a cameo as himself in both Ted and its sequel. New Zealand director and screenwriter Taika Waititi credited Flash Gordon as the biggest source of inspiration for his film Thor: Ragnarok. And British stage and screen actor Brian Blessed, who played the part of Prince Vultan, is still remembered for his one-of-a-kind delivery of a single line (“Gordon’s aliiiive?!”), which remains the most famous and most frequently quoted part of Flash Gordon to this day.
Screenwriter must-read: Jesse Alexander's screenplay for Flash Gordon [PDF1.(NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Gordon’s Alive is pleased to present the penultimate pair of features exhumed from the pages of vintage Starlog magazine. Issue #44 contained both articles reproduced above and below, starting with a very rare conversation with Director Mike Hodges.
Faithfully adapted by Bruce Jones and supported by amazing art by award-winning Al Williamson, the Flash Gordon comic of the movie would appear in various guises all over the world. Arguably most common Stateside was the softcover album by Western Publishing on newsstands as the film hit theatres – Hardcovers were to follow as the release travelled across the pond to the UK and beyond. The adaptation would last be seen across three issues of the Whitman comic book.
Flash Gordon: Mike Hodges Interview
Mike Hodges on Flash Gordon (1980) | BFI
Brian Blessed - Flash Gordon Interview
Flash Gordon-Queen [Making Videos From Days Of Our Lives Doc]
Sam Jones Interview - Flash Gordon 40th Anniversary
Flash Gordon Interview: Melody Anderson on the 80s classic - Gordon’s Alive! in 4K