In the annals of love-it-or-hate-it comic book movies, Flash Gordon sits in a corner all its own. Not only does it inspire opposing sides of praises and pans, but even the growing community that loves the movie usually can't decide on the reason: is it camp or not? This was a point of contention at my favorite DVD review site, DVD Talk, where patriarch Glenn Erickson (aka DVD Savant) proclaims it 'relies too much on camp sensibilities.' But two days earlier, seasoned reviewer Brian Orndorf said of it 'the word "camp" is tossed around quite a bit in any discussion of "Flash Gordon," and I have to be bitterly honest here, I just don't see it.' There you have it, and I'll weigh in on this subject a bit later. With the long-anticipated (and rumored) release of Flash Gordon: Saviour of the Universe Edition this week, we can easily immerse ourselves in the world of Mongo without paying for a Region 2 DVD. It's great to finally have this on DVD, but as I'll address below it's largely a disappointment.
I think one of the problems people have with Flash Gordon is that it takes itself seriously, with virtually no attempts at self-parody. Remakes such as Scooby Doo and The Brady Bunch Movie were sold as big jokes from the beginning to capitalize on how we view those television shows now, while Flash Gordon simply wanted to be a gaudy action spectacle. Looking at the old Flash Gordon comic strips, the story and characters seem more suited for television (ahem) than film, but there's little that makes sense about why Flash Gordon ended up as such high quality entertainment. It certainly isn't due to the plot, which can be summed up in one sentence, from its IMDB page:
A football player and his friends travel to the planet Mongo and find themselves fighting the tyrant, Ming the Merciless, to save Earth.
When talking about this movie, you have to start with the lavish production design, which resulted in perfectly-visualized characters (almost without flaw) and radical special effects. When Flash, Dale and Dr. Zarkov enter Ming's temple, director Mike Hodges gives us throw-away shots of servants, enemies and who-knows what else dressed in costumes that must have taken a great team of minds to dream up. And they're just in the background -- up front and center we have the jaw-dropping Ming the Merciless, played to perfection by Max Von Sydow. Ming is some combination of Fu Manchu, Skeletor and Donald Rumsfeld, as he's infinitely evil but also just goofy enough to act as comic relief in some scenes. Ming's line of 'Klytus I'm bored!' opens the movie as we Earth through his cross hairs and sets up his character, and the film itself, in entertaining fashion.
At his side is Klytus (Peter Wyngarde), the sinister toadie who hides behind a cleverly-designed face of metal. Klytus is an effective, understated contrast to Ming, and the result is a memorable pair of villains. The supporting characters really make the movie, as Brian Blessed nearly steals the show with his performance of the enthusiastic winged viking Prince Vultan. Most of the characters are simply fun to look at, such as Ornella Muti's Princess Aura, who has one of my favorite shots of the movie as she slyly peeks a glance at Flash as he enters Ming's temple.
But it's bad news when the title character of the movie is maybe the weakest link of the whole film, and that's what we have with Sam J. Jones as Flash Gordon. We meet Flash as he's coming back from vacation (by himself?), despite the fact that his New York Jets are playing a game -- what kind of professional athlete takes a vacation during the season? I'd love to see this on the ESPN bottom line: 'Eagles QB Donovan McNabb out for Sunday's game at Giants (vacation).' I mention this because it's the only nugget we get about Flash's personality, the rest of the script is mostly him throwing henchmen around and making dunderheaded observations ('This Ming is a psycho!'). Jones himself sticks out like Dane Cook in a John Sayles film -- he just doesn't bring it, and his cause isn't helped by the fact that his deliveries are dubbed over. It's odd that the script doesn't give Flash much to work with, but perhaps that was by design once Jones' limitations as an actor were made obvious.
Flash Gordon is greatly aided by the musical talents of Queen, which provided the soundtrack. More durable than Freddy Mercury's famous 'FLASH!' yelp are the driving rhythms from Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor. The latter's pulsing drums really fuel the action in a lot of scenes and the movie's final scene is pushed to another level with the band's rising beats. The bombastic music fits with the overall, late-70s style of the film -- with every location and costume giving off a golden hue. It's this aspect of the production that I think critics point their 'camp' finger at, but I just see creative and highly stylized approach to a fantasy story. You'll never mistake this for Star Wars, there are no white plastic walls or tech-talk -- it has a look all its own that never tries to be realistic, and that's a good thing. But even if parts of it can be interpreted as camp, why should its defenders take offense to that? If it stands apart from other films of its era and genre, why should that be a negative, especially when most of today's superhero and action movies look the same?
The DVD: Since it's dubbed 'The Saviour of the Universe' edition, you would expect quite a bit from this DVD, especially since it's the Region 1 debut of the movie. Expectations are further stoked by the DVD's packaging, highlighted by Alex Ross coverart and a nifty design where the packaging opens by flipping up the cover, like a legal tablet. But the clothes still do not make the man, which is where we're left with this DVD. Beyond a great anamorphic transfer and sound, all you have is a retrospective from Ross (who was onboard anyway to design the cover, as well as an upcoming toy line), some reminiscing from screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and the first episode of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial. The interviews with Ross and Semple would have worked well in the framing of a larger documentary (like the generous one we got with The Monster Squad recently), but on their own are not particularly useful. Ross is more than happy to gush about his favorite movie, but comes off as another fanboy, going so far as to call the ending 'the greatest in cinematic history.' Semple gives us a few anecdotes from the set, but is mostly content to give excuses about why the script wasn't better (no one read it, not even the set designer). The 1936 Flash episode is watchable for about 5 minutes, when it becomes clear that it's mostly made up of stock footage and near-actors.
But a final throw-in tells us why we should not be surprised at the neglected extras: a 10-second promo for the soon-to-premiere Flash Gordon series. If this really was the motivation to finally release Flash Gordon on DVD, then there is no excuse for the weak extras, because I would expect the producers of the new series would have lots of access to the original source material and those familiar with it. Why not a documentary on the entire Flash Gordon universe (in all its incarnations), which would do more to fuel excitement for the series than simply a 10-second promo.