Exclusively for SFX, Brian Blessed recalls t he making of cult ’ 80s f ave Flash Gordon. Onward, our brave Hawkman!
THE BEARDY LEGEND ON FLASH GORDON!!!
Isaw Flash Gordon as a kid, with Buster Crabbe, who was a magnificent Flash. He was an Olympic swimmer, a gold medal diver and a gold medal crawler for the American team. He was a marvellous actor – he looked a bit like Laurence Olivier. Every time he got injured or hurt he expressed pain very well. A tremendous feeling of pain. And you thought god, he’s in real trouble!
I always think it’s the hardest part to cast. You can take some of the most famous film stars of today – like Tom Cruise, a wonderful actor. You can put a camera on him and he’s got the most perfect smile but he can look sinister. You could put the camera on [ Flash Gordon star] Sam Jones and at any angle he’d look pure. So when Ming says to him, “Who are you?” and he says, “Flash Gordon, quarterback, New York Jets”, it’s so pure, his reply. As Ming says “I’ve never met anyone like you…”
I watched those first big serials in the cinema in Yorkshire. I was born in Mexborough. We had two cinemas and every weekend you saw Flash Gordon. They never cheated – he was always in trouble at the end of each half hour, and you really didn’t know how he’d get out of it. And it was always very plausible, how he escaped. We gathered every week. And throughout each episode there was
always a background moaning, which was the strange atmosphere on Mongo. It was always threatening and sinister. It was impeccably done. It even had walking bombs in it! Anhilatons! Imagine that. Today we’ve got suicide bombers and they were in Flash Gordon.
Flash Gordon has always been the most influential thing of my youth. We all adored it. Great science fiction films were being made in the ’ 50s but Flash Gordon always haunted me more than anything else. I always played Vultan when I was a little boy. I ran down the embankment and jumped over the bushes near the railway station. I never dreamt that one day I would actually play Vultan.
They said, “They’re making Flash Gordon and they want to see you.” I’d never seen the comic strip. I’d only seen the films. They produced some comic strip art for me to look at. And I looked at it and good god, it was just like looking at myself. Vultan is me! I had a beard because I’d been in The Musketeers for the BBC, playing Porthos, and become a character actor. I then yearned to play the part. Of course they wanted big film stars. Mike Hodges, the director, said, “Well, Porthos in
The Three Musketeers is Vultan – Brian is Vultan!” I was offered a fee of £ 30,000, which back then was an enormous amount of money. I was still in the race but not guaranteed to get the part.
dealing with dino
Eventually I went to meet Dino De Laurentiis, the producer. I had a tremendous time with Dino. “I like you very much, kid!” he’d say. “I like your smile, I like everything about you!” Dino and I immediately had the most bizarre relationship. People were terrified of Dino De Laurentiis. He was so powerful that people trembled and never faced him. He was a kind of warlord. Astonishing. But I immediately said, “If you don’t cast me in this I’m going to break your jaw!” And he laughed and said, “Okay, you’re gonna break- a my jaw!” So we always had this kind of extraordinary, confrontational but warm relationship. He said, “I want you to play it, kid,” and that was it. I was in heaven.
It was a marvellous cast. Max Von Sydow and Peter Wyngarde and Timothy Dalton and Topol and Melody and Ornella and all of them… And lots of dwarves. Everybody seemed to be in it. So I raced to the studio. I just couldn’t get there quickly enough. And I knew exactly how to play him, and what to do with him, and what the style was. He was a flying Viking, you might say. Thor, almost. I found the whole thing madly, wonderfully exciting.
Dino would always come into the studio, and if he came into the studio while we were filming everything went wrong, because they were all terrified of him. Even Mike Hodges went red in the face. I was flying one day as
The Prime Minister took me in to see the British Cabinet. I stood on a chair and said, ‘ Gordon’s alive!’
Dino came in. It was all going wrong. Two thousand of us trying to fly! “Please,” I cried. “Bugger off, Dino! We can’t work! It’s going to cost money! BUGGER OFF, DINO!” And he just laughed and said, “Hee- hee, the kid tells me to bugger off… no one talks to me like this!”
I was in this film called Man Of La Mancha, playing the villain, with Peter O’Toole. And a lot of it was filmed in the Dino De Laurentiis studios. This was before Flash Gordon. I remember all the actors were sitting around the studios on a big lawn. It was Dino’s favourite lawn. And he sent his man down to order all the actors to get off it. We’d been suffering with the heat inside, in these dungeons. I remained there, in the middle of his favourite lawn. And O’Toole said to Dino, “Blessed won’t move. He won’t do as you tell him.” And Dino always remembered that. “You wouldn’t move, would you, kid? I like that!”
The first six weeks on Flash Gordon we were filming scenes in Ming’s palace, so everybody was there. Max Von Sydow came up to me. He’d done all those wonderful films with Bergman, particularly The Seventh Seal. He said, “I’m very pleased to meet you. You’ve done Shakespeare parts. I’ve seen you.” And then he said, “I must confess I’m about to make my entrance and I don’t know how to play him.” Now I felt certain about everything. I wasn’t vulnerable at all. So I said, “Well, I saw you in The Quiller Memorandum, interrogating George Segal. You had blond hair and you were a German and you kept cracking your fingers. You acted from your fingers.” I said, “Ming is a wizard, and uses his hands for his power. He’s a wizard and he’s a sex fiend. He has sex potions. He has his own harem. He’s all hands!” And Max said, “That’s it, Brian!” So when you watch the film, you’ll see that he uses his hands a lot. So I rather credit myself with the fact that I gave him this note! A wonderful actor.
Wherever I go in the world I have to say “Gordon’s alive!” I was halfway up Kilimanjaro and there was a Masai warrior. He said, “It’s him! Can you say ‘ Gordon’s alive!’?” So I said “Gordon’s alive!” to a Masai warrior, halfway up this great mountain… I was on this British expedition and this Typhoon submarine came up. All these sailors got out and said, “It’s him! It’s him! Say ‘ Gordon’s alive!’” I can’t walk down the street because everyone wants me to say it. It’s a celebration of freedom, in a way. A short while ago I was at Number 10, doing something about elephants. And so there’s the Prime Minister. He took me into a room and there was the British Cabinet. I stood on a chair and said, “Gordon’s alive!” Wherever I go – people dying in their bed. “Can you just say ‘ Gordon’s alive?’” I’ve said it for the Queen!
Flash Gordon has become more and more of a cult movie, much more than Dino ever anticipated. When there’s criticism and people say it’s camp, I can’t accept that. I think the film is perfect. They mustn’t make a remake. It has a comic strip style, and that’s what’s good about it. It moves apace and it’s full of variety. Fellini’s great set designer does the sets and the music by Queen is beatific. The scene in the rocket, when they set off and fall asleep, that beautiful romantic music… And the skies are purple and green, not black like they were in Star Wars. The whole thing has been a miracle.
Brian signs for us at the SFX Weekender back in 2012.
Worse than flippin’ seagulls. “Yes! The world’s biggest piece of popcorn!”
Saved every one of us: Flash and Vultan.
And normally he’s so shy and retiring.