“Flash Gordon” vs the Merciless Megalomaniac from Mongo

To commemorate the passing of Max von Sydow, we are reprinting this guest post from 2018. We will have much more on the legendary actor’s life and work throughout the week here on MovieFanFare:

“Flash! Aaah! Savior of the Universe! Flash! Aaah! He’ll save every one of us!” -from the opening song by Queen

I was originally wary about Flash Gordon. I thought the rumors I heard about it might be true. As it turns out many of those rumors are true. And yet, I can’t help but find myself liking this movie. In fact, every time I watch it, I find myself liking it even more. Now, admittedly a lot of that has to do with the way my tastes have evolved over the years. “Camp” has gone from being something I found vaguely disturbing to something I relish. And, I have to admit, it looks more and more like screen legends Max von Sydow and Topol truly relished their roles in this movie. Von Sydow in particular seems to get as much fun out his role as Emperor Ming as Raul Julia did for his role as M. Bison in Street Fighter. Both of which did not endear them to the critics at large, but both of which garnered Best Supporting Actor nods from the Saturn Awards committee. (Saturn Awards, for those who don’t know, are awarded to the best in science fiction, fantasy and horror each year)

The other part, and one that made the movie greater than it probably should be, at least in my eyes, is the phenomenal soundtrack performed by the rock band Queen. With a driving bass line by John Deacon and accompanied by Roger Taylor on drums to start the movie and Freddie Mercury’s soaring vocals and Brian May’s composition of (most) of the soundtrack, you are drawn into the movie despite yourself. Not many soundtrack composers can accomplish that with what the movie gives you to work with.

The movie did not fare well, but in retrospect has become a cult favorite. If you remember my entry on Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, you know I describe a cult movie as one that may have been a box office bomb (Flash Gordon made back it’s investment, but just barely), but has since garnered a whole raft of devotees of which I am becoming one. Mike Hodges, the director, and Lorenzo Semple, Jr., the writer, created one of the most ridiculous yet intriguing and campy sci-fi movies ever. Mike Hodges came from a serious film background, having directed Michael Caine in two neo-noirish films in the early 70’s: Get Carter, and Pulp. He went on after this to direct a few more movies including the oddball Morons from Outer Space. Semple became somewhat of a bad guy in the sci-fi world due to his camp treatment of Flash Gordon, as well as the 60’s camp TV production of Batman.

Sam J. Jones was nominated for a Razzie for worst actor for Flash Gordon, and OK, so he is pretty bad, and could probably have been replaced by a mannequin and no one would notice, but as I said before his accompanying actors in the person of von Sydow, Topol, Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed more than make up for it.

You should know that there are several of what I call “improbability hurdles” (which I will note at points in the review) in this movie you have to accept to enjoy the movie itself. Let’s face it, this movie has some impossible coincidences that may make you stop and go “huh?”…. If that’s the case you will miss out on some of the best parts. Also you have to accept some pretty hilarious over-the-top acting from a couple of characters. These parts also are enjoyable if you will only accept them as they come.

Flash Gordon (1980)

In the beginning there was Ming. And Ming saw the Earth and it was good. Why? Because now Ming had something new to play with and destroy. Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow) is the ruler of a vast kingdom, of which the many planets are somehow in orbit with his own kingdom. Each moon is essentially another planet that Ming has conquered and brought under his domain. These include a planet of Hawkmen, a planet of tree dwellers, and, apparently, the space ancestors of the munchkins from Oz. OK, first “improbability hurdle” you’ll have to jump is how all these planets can exist in conjunction and how they can all be mobile through space. Because essentially that’s how Ming finds new planets like Earth to conquer.

Von Sydow’s Ming is a ruthless and of course egocentric (what else could he be?) ruler who rules his kingdom of planets/moons with an iron fist and will not tolerate even a little lapse of fealty. Early on, one of his subordinates fails to deliver the proper tribute to him and he orders the leader of the faction to kill himself. When the sub-leader fails to do so forthwith, Ming does the job himself.

Emperor Ming and his second-in-command, Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), begin an attack on the Earth, pelting it with “hot hail” (seeing is believing), hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc. Meanwhile, on Earth, Flash Gordon, quarterback for the New York Jets, boards a plane along with Dale Arden (Melody Anderson).

While in flight, the plane is hit by a meteorite (or Ming himself if you are quick-eyed), and the pilots vanish. “Improbability hurdle” #2: Flash has been taking flying lessons, so he can take over flying the plane. But he doesn’t know how to land. With Dale’s help he does succeed in landing the plane, near “improbability hurdle” #3, which is Dr. Hans Zarkov’s (Topol) laboratory and experimental rocket which he has built for just this moment.

You see, Zarkov is considered a wacko, but he has been predicting the events for months. He built the rocket ship which he intends to fly up to the approaching Mongo to try to stop the destruction of the earth. His assistant, Munson (William Hootkins), has deserted him, so he kidnaps Flash and Dale to help him fly the rocket.

As they approach Mongo, they are detected and brought in by remote to a landing. The three are escorted to the Emperor’s presence. Ming gets the hots for Dale, but he takes an immediate disliking to Flash and condemns him to execution. But Ming’s daughter, the extremely alluring Aura (played by the extremely alluring Ornella Muti), asks that Ming spare him. Aura is supposedly engaged to Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), but she also has the hots for Flash and uses her wiles with the court surgeon to give Flash a dose of something that prevents the execution gas from doing its thing.

Aura helps Flash get away and takes him to Arboria, home of Prince Barin, her lover/fiancé. But the prince is less than enthused to have an enemy of the Emperor in his own lands. He agrees not to kill Flash, but that doesn’t mean he has to treat Flash as a guest. He sticks him in a cage in a swamp. But with the “aid” of Fico (Richard O’Brien, bald but still recognizable as the actor who played Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show), he escapes. He is found in the secret initiation temple for young Arborians and is forced to perform the ritual. Flash gets the upper hand and escapes pursued by Barin, but both are captured by Vultan (Brian Blessed), the prince of the Hawkmen.

Aura is captured and forced to admit to her treachery in helping Flash escape. As her father Ming watches she is tortured and Klytus threatens her with bore worms. Ming, his callousness showing, allows Klytus to do whatever it takes and turns his back on his daughter.

Vultan forces Barin and Flash to fight to the death, but as Flash wins the fight he saves Barin, thus earning Barin’s friendship. Flash and Barin try to convince Vultan and the Hawkmen to attack Ming during his wedding to Dale, when his guard will be down. But Ming has found out about where Flash is and sends his battle ship to destroy the Hawkmen’s place. Ming offers Flash his own princedom, but Flash declines, and Ming abandons him on the moon and destroys it, thus effectively killing Flash. But not so fast, there, hombre. Remember our “improbability hurdles?” There is a space cycle on which flash escapes the moon as it is blowing up. He radios Vultan and finally gets agreement to help destroy Ming.

And thus an exciting final 20 minutes in which the Hawkmen and Ming’s armies battle for control of Mongo. But the key is will Flash survive? He has to pilot a space ship into a lightning field which has to be shut down in order for Flash to get through to Ming. (Is there any question how this is going to end?) This is one of the few movies where the villain is more interesting than the hero, and you kind of hope it’s not all over for Ming. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say a potential sequel was left open.

So remember folks, if there is an earthquake or a tornado on your way home tonight, it might be the second coming of Ming…

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.

Previously on MovieFanFare: Great Movie Scenes: The “Flash Gordon” Football Fight