HAIL FLASH GORDON!
Thirty years ago, the phenomenal success of "Star Wars" caught the attention of Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis. When he learned that one of George Lucas' chief inspirations was '30s SF icon Flash Gordon, he immediately moved to purchase the rights to Alex Raymond's classic comic strip. Envisioning that cinema audiences would appreciate the "real thing" over Luke Skywalker, the film producer spared no expense in striving to make his space adventure into a top-notch production by raising a budget of forty million dollars in the late 1970s.
To tell this space opera, De Laurentiis began by hiring screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, the man behind the classic 1960s "Batman" television show. To direct the opus, the Italian producer recruited Mike Hodges, best known for his noir classics "Get Carter" and "Pulp." After a long casting search, Sam Jones and Melody Anderson were chosen as Flash Gordon and Dale Arden. Surrounding the two youthful American leads was a fine international cast led by Brian Blessed and Timothy Dalton. A rich score from classic rock group Queen also added to the film's endurance.
Almost thirty years later, we've reunited these principal players to speak about a film that still brims with charm, adventure, humor, sexual innuendo and good old-fashioned fun. Some despise the film; some absolutely love it. The one thing that we can all agree on is that "Flash Gordon" is unforgettable.
Semple: "Dino gave me a big book of the Italian version of 'Flash Gordon,' the comic book, a nice coffee table book all in Italian. That's what he liked, you know, the Italian comic book, and it started like that. But it's impossible to exaggerate the importance of Danilo Donati, the designer. He was the one who really set the whole movie, the tone of it and everything. And Dino had great reverence for him; he's a wonderful designer, and worked with Fellini and others."
Hodges: "For me it was an adventure. I knew little about 'Flash Gordon,' being brought up in the UK, and even less about 'special effects'. I was going in a learning curve as steep as the film's hero." Jones: "Dino is very adamant about casting the inherent characteristics or being loyal to the actual physical look of the originals. In other words, if you look at a picture of me at the age of 25, and you look at a picture of Buster Crabbe at the age of 25, I mean, we look like brothers. We really look like brothers! So I had that going for me, as well. I'm not sure how many, but there were a few other actors that he had flown to the screen test... I don't know how many times they put me on film, tested me. I tested, and then I found out a couple of days later that they were going to hire me as the lead."
Anderson: "I flew from New York immediately out to London and to be casted the moment I arrived, no sleep time at all. And as soon as I arrived they whisked me off, dyed my hair black, and for some reason decided to shave the front of my head so my hair would look like a wig, and I thought, 'Why don't you just get a wig?' And it was all fast and tiring, and I remember I was in tears by the end of the day." Dalton: "Well, when I was a kid we used to go to Saturday morning pictures in the cinemas. All the kids went, and you got all the serials and all the cartoons, all the funnies and the comics and that kind of thing. And 'Flash Gordon' was a regular, the old black-and-white 'Flash Gordon.' So there is that added interest when you see that they're going to make this new film of "Flash Gordon." Blessed: "Many years ago, when I was a child in Yorkshire, England, in South Yorkshire near Sheffield, there were two cinemas. And I used to go and see the matinee of 'Flash Gordon,' which was Buster Crabbe, the blaack-and-white version. And after every episode, I'd come out of the cinema " about eight years old " and I would always pretend to be Vultan, the flying Hawk-Man, and I never realized, of course, that many, many years later, I would actually play Vultan. When they were casting 'Flash Gordon,' I went to a studio at Pinewood, and Dino De Laurentiis had got great paintings of Vultan all over the studio from the comic strip, and it looked exactly like me. It was extraordinary! And to me it was a dream come true. It's the happiest film I think I've ever been on."
Hodges: "The inspiration was Alex Raymond's original strip cartoon. It was our bible. If you liked the strip - but not Buster Crabbe's serials - then we achieved what we set out to do. Lorenzo and I worked very closely on the script. I don't see the film as 'campy' nor as science fiction " but as science fantasy. It had to be fun. But it also needed an ingredient for adults attending the film " eroticism and sexual innuendo! I recently came across a quote from Terry Southern. When asked what would you read as an adolescent for erotic purposes, he replied 'They had what we called 'little fuck books' [Tijuana Bibles] which featured characters taken from the comics... there were one or two of genuine erotic interest; "Blondie" comes to mind as do 'Dale' and 'Flash Gordon'...' The film was working on two levels."
Semple: "The problems were never artistic problems. I was there the whole time, but there were constant production problems, and that's what most of the problems were. Dino wanted things cut down, or this and that. And it was unlike the stuff that Mike had ever done. It was a huge, really out-of-control production, and the thing had to be made to fit the set. That's really what happened when we were shooting. And Dino, especially, had no idea what he wanted. He wanted something 'Flash Gordon,' and I adored Dino, but he didn't have much idea about the difference between sort of camp and Star Wars. People expected a much more realistic movie, obviously."
Blessed: "What I like about Timothy is that he has doubts. I love it when actors are vulnerable. I think he gets nervous. He's not as cocksure as people think, and he is vulnerable. I think actors, the best actors, are vulnerable -- I mean, Brando and Jack Nicholson and people like that, they're all vulnerable. There's something about them that's vulnerable and they produce something exciting, they take risks. Timothy is a very vulnerable actor, which I think makes him very interesting. I couldn't persuade Peter Wyngarde to take his mask off as Klytus. I was giving direction all over the place to people and relaxing them, and saying, 'You've got to be bold! Come in and state your case, and then you can bring out all the subtleties you want.' But I said to Peter Wyngarde, he's got such a wonderful face, 'Don't wear the golden mask. Let's see the wonderful face. How about lovely make-up on your face?' But he was set on wearing that golden mask. But I was always giving advice to people, and it was just sensatiional fun.
"And it [the set] was full of dwarfs and all kinds of people. I love dwarfs. They're the happiest people in the world. And I loved to chase them around the set and stuff like that. So the whole thing was colossal fun. I mean, everything I did took one take, and so forth. I remember one particular point, because when I landed on my rocket, I had a great bazooka. Of course, it's made of cardboard. And they got all the dynamite ready for that scene for three days. They got all the special effects ready. My 2,000 Hawkmen flew in, and I said, 'Come on, Flash, follow me!' And I started firing all over the place, pow, pow, pow, and doing that with my mouth, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow. And they said, cut, cut, cut, Brian! We put in the special effects."
Brian May (of Queen): "Well, we were aware that this hadn't been done before. As I remember, the film's producer, Dino De Laurentiis, was not convinced that Rock Music could work as 'score' " i.e., as background music " for a film that was not about rock music! Mike Hodges had persuaded him to allow this 'experiment' to take place. After we had finished our week's intensive work, during which almost all the themes that we would eventually use had been demoed ... he came in and we all sat while the big man Dino listened ... it was like we were at an audition. He was pretty stony-faced. At the end, he said something like, 'I don't think this music is right for my film', and left. This was after he had just listened to the rough of my title tune, 'Flash', which I was very excited about, along with most other people who had heard it. After he had gone, we all felt pretty despondent, and Mike Hodges said something like, 'Ahem... Don't worry " he will come round.' I don't think we had much hope, but whatever Mike said to Mr. De Laurentiis later on ... a couple of days later we heard that it was all okayed."
Blessed: "When Flash and Dale are unconscious in the rocket at the beginning, the music that's quiet, where they're both sweating in the Sea of Fire inside the rocket, is so romantic and nostalgic and ethereal. And when he's about to die, Flash, and be gassed, that tableaux, that whole scene with the drums beating, and the lovely green and red and purple sky in the background... It's the most wonderful tableaux. The music, again, is sensational."
May: "So for the title track I wanted to portray the cartoon-like quality that I saw in it... but the 'soaring guitars' were just the normal vocabulary of my dreams! Of course as soon as any one of us presented an idea, the other members of Queen would rush in and help build it. A lot of the style of it is due to the way Roger [Taylor] and John [Deacon] played it, and the way Freddie [Mercury] interpreted the vocal."
Blessed: "The director, and the writer and the producer, didn't know how to end that scene. Sam looked up and said, 'Oh, I know. Run the camera.' And this machine came forward, (and) you think it's going to kill him, 'Look out, Flash!' And it says, 'Hail Flash Gordon, savior of the universe.' And Sam just jumped up in the air and went, 'Yeah!!' And that was it. It was so simple and so pure. And it's very, very difficult. I think Sam is the definitive Flash Gordon because he is so pure."
Topol: "Yeah, it was a fun movie to do it. And the main thing, I quit smoking on that film. [laughs]"
Anderson: "Dino didn't quite get the irony piece of it. He got upset when some people would watch the dailies and would be laughing, he'd say, 'This is 'Flash Gordon,' this is a serious movie. Why are you laughing? And it was written to be exactly what it was, which was high camp. And it was very, very big among the whole Warhol group, and downtown, and actually we were a huge hit throughout Europe and Asia. It was, for whatever reasons, political reasons between Dino and Universal, they really didn't promote it in America that much. But they had cardboard figures of us up and down the shelves every day in Paris. In Europe it was very successful. I don't know what happened, but they did not promote it in the U.S. as they did overseas and in Asia, where it was just a huge hit."
Hodges: I think I'm right in saying that it was only in North America that the film wasn't successful at the box office. The distributor wasn't able to use Sam for interviews, and this sadly affected its performance. Also because of this the campaign was ill conceived. At one point the posters majored on 'Ming The Merciless' - not a smart idea for a film called 'Flash Gordon.'
"I'm not surprised it's become a cult movie; it had all the ingredients when we made it. Besides Ming the Merciless being more prominent on the poster, much of Sam's dialogue on-screen was dubbed by an unknown actor since he wasn't allowed." [Pop's note: Jones wasn't allowed to loop his lines in post-production and was embroiled in an escalating legal dispute with De Laurentiis over salary issues, which also precluded his participation in the film's promotion.]
Jones: "Dino and I talked about two years ago, and I had to do it, I had to call him. I felt like there was this weight on my shoulders. And I decided to call him and say, 'Hey, Dino, first of all, I just want to tell you it was a major blessing working for you all those years ago, and I feel like there's been this weight on my shoulders all this time, that we had some rift between us, and I just wanted to set things straight, that I wanted to thank you for bringing me in. I had a great time. If there's anything that's still pending between us, I just want to tell you that I'm sorry for any problems on my part, or my team of attorneys.' And he was cool. He said [imitating Dino's thick Italian accent], 'Oh, okay, Saaam. It's oookayyy, Saaammm.' He has that voice. Anyway, I just felt that there was a freedom and a peace with that. Because, when you're young, and you have sometimes seconds or minutes to make a major decision, if you don't have advisors with you who you trust, who you know are really looking out for your best interests, sometimes you'll go with your best instinct. And even though your best instinct may be correct, wisdom and history repeats itself where you need to seek counsel on certain things. And at that time I wish I had certain counsel. And it's always good, especially now, because I'm 52 years old now, it's always good to have a humble spirit. Even though you may be 100% right and everybody else wrong, if you go into it with a spirit of arrogance and attitude, you're still wrong for making that decision without seeking the rights and without walking with humility. And I think at that time, I assessed everything, weeded out, and if I had to it do over again, yes, I would seek counsel not from maybe a team of attorneys that wanted to get a piece of Dino, but from somebody who was wise."
[This article originally appeared in the pages of "SFX," February 2008 in England. About a year's worth of work went into completing this article about one of my favorite films. For sharing their memories about the film, many thanks to Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Brian Blessed, Timothy Dalton, Topol, Brian May, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and Mike Hodges. Article is a copyright of George Khoury.]