Flash Gordon is remembered today – if at all – not for the original 1930s comic strip or the countless TV shows, animated series, books, serials and the like, but for the 1980 big screen Flash Gordon movie featuring that song by Queen. (“Flash . . . aaahh . . . saviour of the universe!”)

Sony Corporation has recently acquired the film rights to the original Alex Raymond strips with an eye to making a new big-screen version of the character to be directed by Breck Eisner. Eisner directed the 2005 movie Sahara which was based on the best-seller of the same name by Clive Cussler and starred Matthew McConaughey. A passable – if somewhat easily forgettable - action/adventure story, Sahara has exactly the sort of light touch one would expect of any Flash Gordon remake.

Only problem is that despite a stolid $122 million in gross box-office earnings, Sahara actually cost a whopping a $160-million to produce and $81.1 million to market and distribute, making it one of the bigger box office failures of recent years. Despite the no doubt ardent wishes of the film’s producers, no sequels were made and Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt character didn’t exactly become a household name in the same way that Indiana Jones or even Lara Croft had become.

Since then director Eisner’s name has been coupled to remakes of Creature from the Black Lagoon (for 2009), George Romero’s The Crazies (2010) and of course Flash Gordon (2010). Since Sahara, Eisner has been relegated to directing TV episodes again. (Eisner kicked off his career in television before moving to Hollywood.)

One somehow expects that any new big budget version of Flash Gordon will probably suffer the same fate of both the 1980 movie and Eisner’s Sahara. It’ll flop at the box office. The 1980 Flash Gordon was ultimately a box office disappointment (except in the UK where it did quite well for some reason). Nothing came of producer Dino De Laurentiis’ hopes that it would turn into a franchise. The failure of the recent 2007 Flash Gordon SciFi Channel TV series also doesn’t bode well. 1980’s Flash Gordon may have grown into a cult favorite over the past 28 years or so, but it would seem that compared to bigger sci-fi franchises (Star Trek, Star Wars) it is indeed a minor cult at best.

"Here’s our message to Hollywood: don’t bother with another Flash Gordon movie!"

But why the poor box office showing? Simply put, audiences didn’t get the joke. Get Carter-director Mike Hodges admits on the Flash Gordon DVD audio commentary that the only way to handle the material at hand was a “tongue-in-cheek” approach. So what audiences unfamiliar with the 1930s Buster Crabbe serial got was a self-consciously camp, over-the-top Technicolor explosion instead of a sci-fi effort trying to ride the whole late-1970s sci-fi wave following Star Wars.

Interestingly enough Hodges also admits in his director’s commentary that he mainly went to the original Flash Gordon comic strips for inspiration. Some shots in the film are actually directly cribbed from Raymond’s drawings. Hodges doesn’t so much as mention the old B&W serials – all of which explains why the 1980 movie is so much campier and over-the-top than the 1930s serial, which is pretty surreal and whacked out in its own way.

To recap: Earth is bombarded by mysterious comets from outer space. It seems that Emperor Ming the Merciless who rules the outer space kingdom of Mongo is actually behind the attacks. Discredited “mad” scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov realises what is going on and pressgangs “Flash” Gordon and his female sidekick Dale Arden, who has conveniently crash-landed into his backyard in a plane following another meteorite storm, into helping him pilot a rocket ship to Mongo and try and stop Ming. On Mongo Flash manages to unite the various small kingdoms under Ming’s tyranny to overthrow his rule. In the original comics Flash was a blonde polo player and Yale graduate. For the movie he is downgraded to a blonde American football star played by Sam J. Jones.

Ming incidentally is a stereotypical Fu Manchu-type Asian supervillain and was played by Max von Sydow. Just how they managed to get a serious thesp such as Von Sydow (he appeared in all those angsty Swedish Ingmar Bergman movies) to play such a deliberately camp character is a bit of a mystery. Or maybe it was just a really good pay check. Who knows?

The 1980 Flash Gordon is deliberately and self-consciously bad. Whether you “get” the joke is up to you. It is one of those “love or hate it” affairs. When I first saw the movie back in 1980 as a kid, I hated it. Even at that young age I found the movie to be too childish. (The very erudite Hodges often refers to the film as a “children’s movie” in his commentary.)

Re-watching it as an adult today I found that my attitude to the movie has mellowed. It’s silly and extremely campy, sure, but I still kinda enjoyed it. But in the interim I have seen the various Buster Crabbe's serials and understood what the film-makers were trying to do. It really is a faithful adaptation of both the comics and the serials. Unlike the Buck Rogers TV series, no attempt has been made to “update” the hardware and special effects to the era of Star Wars at all. I was willing to look beyond its surface crappiness – something which my wife whom hated the movie – could not do.

And that is the problem with Flash Gordon. There is no way to actually translate the material to celluloid without going the self-consciously campy route that the 1980 movie went. If you don’t, then it ceases being Flash Gordon and you might as well do something else altogether. (George Lucas confessed in interviews that he initially wanted to do a Flash Gordon movie, but couldn’t acquire the film rights. So he did Star Wars instead.) But the chances are that audiences probably won’t “get” it in the same way that they also didn’t get the equally self-conscious Planet Terror and Death Proof. Tarantino claimed that audiences were ready for something different, but the box office proved him wrong. Both movies flopped.

The irony too is that while watching Flash Gordon I wasn’t thinking about a potential remake, but instead of . . . John Carter of Mars! Yup, the science fiction character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs before he went on to fame and fortune with a certain Tarzan character. Something about production designer Danilo Donati’s extravagant sets and especially the costume designs worn by actress Ornella Muti as Ming’s daughter Princess Aura reminded me of John Carter - Warlord Of Mars, the 1977 Marvel comics adaptation of Burroughs’ character by Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane.

So here’s our message to Hollywood: don’t bother with another Flash Gordon movie. You’ll just lose a lot of money most probably. Rather let Andrew Stanton, the director of WALL-E and Finding Nemo, write a screenplay for a 2012 John Carter of Mars movie for Pixar as word has it he’s doing right now. Now that we would want to see . . .


Sci-Fi Movie Page | Movie Reviews | DVD Reviews | What's New? | Search | Contact Us | Discussion Board | Download Scripts | Upcoming Movies | Clips & Trailers

Click here to receive our free weekly e-mail newsletter.

Copyright © 1997-forward James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page (unless where indicated otherwise).