HIGH CAMP IN OUTER SPACE

How did the ex­u­ber­antly over-the-top Flash Gor­don, 40 years old this year, make it to the screen in all its gar­ish glory? Direc­tor Mike Hodges re­mem­bers it all fondly

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

“I was a bar­tender at a place called Pier 70 in Seat­tle,” he re­calls. “I was set­ting up with a cou­ple of the bus boys; no­body else was there. This sharp-look­ing guy walked in, about my age. He had a suit on. Re­ally classy guy. He asked for a glass of wa­ter. I served him. And he said to me: ‘What are you go­ing to do with your life?’ And I said: ‘Well, I’m go­ing to go to Hol­ly­wood and I’m go­ing to be an ac­tor.’

“And he looked at me and when he caught me with those eyes; his eyes just pen­e­trated my whole be­ing. And he looked at me very boldly and he says: ‘Well, why don’t you stop talk­ing about it and just do it?’ And I went down to grab some­thing and when I got back up he was gone. And I said to the other two guys: ‘Hey, where’s that sharp-look­ing dude in the suit?’ And they said: ‘Sam, what are you talk­ing about? No­body has been here ex­cept the three of us.’

“I knew right then and there it was prob­a­bly a vis­i­ta­tion.”

It’s quite a story, though no more colour­ful than any num­ber of anec­dotes from the set of Flash Gor­don. An in­ter­na­tional cast and crew – not always ca­pa­ble of un­der­stand­ing one an­other – was as­sem­bled, in­clud­ing Cana­dian Melody An­der­son as Dale, Swe­den’s Max von Sy­dow as Ming, Is­raeli Chaim Topol as Dr Zarkov, Ital­ianRus­sian Or­nella Muti, Welsh­man Ti­mothy Dal­ton as the dash­ing Prince Barin and, most mem­o­rably, English man Brian Blessed as Prince Vul­tan.

“The English thought they knew, and the Ital­ians thought they knew, and the ac­tors were caught in the mid­dle of all this con­fu­sion of, ‘What’s go­ing on?’ ” re­calls Melody An­der­son. “It was, well, an in­ter­est­ing 4½ months.”

Partly due to time con­straints and partly to the eye-pop­ping de­signs, much of the film was im­pro­vised dur­ing pro­duc­tion. The thickly wooded For­est King­dom of Mongo be­came an is­sue when the crew re­alised the cam­era couldn’t fit through the trees. They were more than a third of the way into the shoot­ing sched­ule be­fore com­ing up with the liq­uid par­ti­cles that would form the Mongo sky­line. And there were Danilo Donati’s in­cred­i­ble cos­tume de­signs to ne­go­ti­ate.

“I could never an­tic­i­pate any­thing un­til I was ac­tu­ally on the set with the cast and the cos­tumes on,” re­calls Hodges. “The cos­tumes lim­ited the move­ments of the ac­tors. The de­signer was a lovely man but he didn’t speak any English and my Ital­ian was zero.

“The film has an im­pro­vi­sa­tional feel­ing to it. We had to make do with what­ever Dino pro­vided us with. That was fun once you got the hang of it. As a direc­tor, with most films you have com­plete con­trol. With Flash Gor­don, that was not pos­si­ble and I had to adapt ac­cord­ingly. There were so many comedic episodes. It was all mad­ness. But it was de­li­cious mad­ness.

“When you asked a ques­tion, Dino would say: ‘Mike, how many films you make? I make 300 films.’ It was always 300. The num­ber never changed.”

Rave no­tices

A hit sound­track by Queen helped the film to­wards a £14 mil­lion take in the UK alone. The North Amer­i­can box of­fice – $27,107,960 – was mod­est by com­par­i­son, even with rave no­tices from Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. It cer­tainly didn’t help that Sam J Jones had dis­agree­ments with De Lau­ren­tiis and de­parted prior to post-pro­duc­tion. That fall­ing-out re­sulted in some of Jones’ di­a­logue be­ing dubbed by pro­fes­sional voice ac­tor Peter Marinker. It also meant there was no Flash Gor­don to pro­mote Flash Gor­don. But ru­mours that Jones was en­tirely re­dubbed are greatly ex­ag­ger­ated, says Hodges.

“I think when Sam got the role, he got an agent or a man­ager or some­thing,” he says. “That’s what hap­pens when you land a big role. An en­tourage ar­rives to take a per­cent­age of the salary and pre­tend they can get more money for their client. So I think they were try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with Dino to ex­tract more money. The dis­agree­ment wasn’t di­rectly be­tween Sam and Dino.

“So af­ter Christ­mas, Sam didn’t come back. It didn’t mat­ter to me be­cause the prin­ci­pal pho­tog­ra­phy was al­ready done. There were some lines – a lim­ited num­ber – and some fight­ing noises that had to be revoiced, so I just got an ac­tor to do an im­per­son­ation. There were some wide shots where I had to use a dou­ble, but I was able to fin­ish the film with­out any prob­lem at all.

“I do think it af­fected things in Amer­ica be­cause you have th­ese talk shows, and you have to have your star or your lead ac­tor on the cir­cuit for a film like that. We had to send Ming.”

Over the four decades since it pre­miered, Flash Gor­don has gained a huge cult fol­low­ing, a 2018 mak­ing-of doc­u­men­tary film, Life Af­ter Flash, and celebrity cham­pi­ons in Edgar Wright and Seth McFarlane. The lat­ter per­suaded Sam Jones to get back into Ly­cra for Ted and Ted 2.

“I had to ask the crew not to laugh at the rushes,” says Hodges. “Be­cause Dino won­dered why they were laugh­ing. I mean it was an ad­ven­ture for chil­dren at one level, and you had to have that kind of be­lief in cin­ema that young peo­ple have. So some­where be­tween Dino and me be­ing re­ally rather face­tious about it all, we seemed to man­age some­thing quite unique.

“If you’re young you can watch it and take the ad­ven­ture se­ri­ously. And if you’re an adult, you’ve got other things to amuse you.”

Flash Gor­don Spe­cial 40th An­niver­sary 4K restora­tion is avail­able from Mon­day, and is now show­ing at the Light House Cin­ema in Dublin

PHO­TO­GRAPHS:

Clock­wise from main: the orig­i­nal 1980 poster art; Topol as Dr Zarkov and Sam J Jones as Flash; Ti­mothy Dal­ton as Prince Barin and Or­nella Muti as Princess Aura; Brian Blessed as Prince Vul­tan; direc­tor Mike Hodges on set with Jones.

UNIVER­SAL

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