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
“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.”
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
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.