On the Screen

Flop Sweat

Getting excited over a box office dud

By Steve Wiecking July 31, 2009

Though I suppose someone out there will choose to remind me that I recently got on my high horse to recommend a Czech film about a teacher who diddles his pupil, I’ve really always had a special place in my heart for the Big, Dumb Hollywood Movie. Particularly the Big, Dumb Hollywood Movie that tanks at the box office. Sometimes even pit bulls can be the underdog.

Director Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon, which plays in Cal Anderson Park tonight, did hardly any business when it was released in 1980 because, I’d guess, most Americans didn’t (and still don’t) know how to react to tongue-in-cheek escapism without worrying that their intelligence is being called into question. (These are the same people who would spend the next 8 years thinking Ronald Reagan was doing a bang-up job.) Although Stephen Spielberg would successfully mine tongue-in-cheek escapism three years later with Raiders of the Lost Ark, he and George Lucas, taking the easy way out, didn’t want to laugh at cheesy movie conventions so much as revive them.

Anyway, Hodges and his creative team put a lot of obvious thought into their intentionally brainless movie. It’s a terrific, action-filled spoof of the Flash Gordon 1930s movie serials that starred Buster Crabbe, a 1932 Olympic gold-medalist swimmer who couldn’t act but looked comfortable semi-clothed in outer space (or the jungle, where he’d previously been an almost bare-assed Tarzan). Who better to replace him than Sam J. Jones, a 1975 Playgirl centerfold who couldn’t act but…you see where I’m going with this, right?

Jones’s love interest Dale Arden is played by Melody Anderson, an actress whose most famous later role would be as the lead of the 1983 TV movie Policewoman Centerfold (she may have picked Jones’s brain for research purposes).

In a brilliant maneuver, Hodges surrounds these two glossy specimens with a cast of British and European pros. A magnificent Max Von Sydow, best known as one of director Ingmar Bergman’s stock company, portrays villain Ming the Merciless, who’s busy destroying Earth and oppressing the rest of the galaxy when he gets a yen for Dale (the scene in which he induces a state of ecstasy upon her with his magic ring is just one of many classics here). Von Sydow doesn’t so much devour the role as sup upon it with a nice chianti and some fava beans.

And he may not even be having the most fun: Italian beauty Ornella Muti, as Ming’s nympho daughter Princess Aura, vamps throughout and tears into the film’s best line, “No! Not the Bore Worms!” (screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. also wrote the unloved, close-to-my-heart 1976 King Kong remake in which Jessica Lange asks Kong what his astrological sign is.)

Production and costume designer Danilo Donati makes the movie look like it had a lot of money to spend…but not too much money—easier said than done. He did his homework: His chosen aesthetic hearkens back to the tacky, grab-bag grandeur of the old Flash then throws in a little Wizard of Oz for extra pleasure. There are golden Hawk Men as well as little people wandering around in what appear to be curtain rods.

The fact that rock band Queen provided a score which utilizes the musical motif, “Flash! Ah-aaahhhh!!!” is the final icing on the space cake. If you need further convincing, you’re beyond help, but here’s the trailer:

And here’s Muti being whipped and uttering her famous line:

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