Every Wednesday, I revisit a film that I have strong memories of watching, to see how well my memories of it hold up to scrutiny, and whether the film is as good (or as bad) as I remember.
What I remember
I associate Flash Gordon with Christmas, probably more so than with any other film. Except for Christmas films of course. I associate them with-
let’s start again
Flash Gordon used to be on tv every Christmas. Or it felt that way. Or, possibly my dad recorded it off the telly and we used to watch it every Christmas. Or, possibly my dad recorded it off the telly and we watched it at various times of the year, but for some reason I’ve built a Christmas narrative around that. Or-
one last try
It’s Flash Gordon. I remember what everyone remembers. Brian Blessed in a tin hat and a pair of wings, Peter Duncan succumbing to the poison of a massive scorpion that lives in a tree stump, Max von Sydow having the time of his life, terrible special effects, cracking soundtrack, Diiiiiive!
What I expected
Pretty much what I just said in that last paragraph.
What I found
Not that. Well, yes, that, but so much more as well. I sometimes forget that before you could just fix stuff with computers, costume and set design was so much more important in creating a sense of place in a movie. We make fun of old Doctor Who episodes with their monsters made out of bits of plastic and cabbages sprayed with car paint but there is a magic to new worlds created with old props that is different to those created by CGI. Not better, or worse, but different. If cinema is a spectrum spanning from theatre to verisimilitude, then films like Flash Gordon sit much closer to the former than the latter. There is little attempt to convince you anything that is happening on screen is, or could be, real. You won’t believe a man can fly.
That isn’t the point of Flash Gordon though. The scenes at the start of the movie, when representatives of various planets gather at Ming’s palace to pay tribute to him, are closer to when Dorothy first lands in Oz, or a busy scene in a pantomime, than to anything in Star Wars. So much so that to compare it with the science fiction films of the same era is pointless. It is closer in style to Labyrinth, or Alice in Wonderland, existing in an ‘outer space’ far closer to a dream than anything that exists in our galaxy.
And, with the exception of the lead, every actor seems to be having a whale of a time. You don’t need me to tell you about Brian Blessed or Max von Sydow but if you haven’t watched the film in a while, it is worth a revisit just for Mariangela Melato’s joyful turn as the unnecessarily evil General Kala. Even Sam J Jones, miscast as Flash and overdubbed for most of the movie, is ok. Sure he looks lost a lot of the time but his character is lost so it works out ok, mostly. His slightly flat performance acts as a sun around which everyone else can orbit, a universal straight man, lost in another universe.
So, how good was my memory?
I had remembered a lot of what happened in Flash Gordon but had misremembered how it happened. I had remembered the story, but the story was never the point.
And how good is the film?
Flash Gordon is silly, glittering and camp, and what you take away from it depends on how intentional you think that is. If, like me, you think that Flash Gordon is supposed to look the way it does, then it is impossible not to fall in love with it. The script isn’t great, the lead is not great, but the film is, well, maybe not great, but, no, state your truth, Ben, the film is great. Flash Gordon is bloody great.