Life on the planet Mongo is not easy. Aided by Darth Vader wannabe Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) and the sadistic General Kala (Mariangela Melato), the evil Emperor Ming (Max Von Sydow) rules with an iron fist. All of the citizens are heavily taxed and kept in a state of perpetual war in order to keep them from joining together and rebelling. Those who attempt to defy Ming are executed.
There are many different races living on both Mongo and its moons. The Arborians, also known as the tree people, live in a jungle and are ruled by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton). Until Ming overthrew his father, Barin was the rightful heir to the throne of Mongo. Barin is also one of the many lovers of Aura (Ornella Muti), Ming’s rebellious daughter.
Barin distrusts the Hawkmen, a group of winged barbarians. Led by the boisterous Prince Vultan (the one and only Brian Blessed), the Hawkmen live in a palace that floats above Mongo. Both Vultan and Barin share a desire to overthrow Ming but neither one of them can set aside their own dislike and distrust of each other.
Ming grows bored easily but Klytus has found him a new play thing, an obscure planet in the S-K system. “The inhabitants,” Klytus says, “refer to it as the planet Earth.”
It all leads to this:
You may have been too busy listening to Queen’s theme song to notice (and I don’t blame you if you were) but I have always found it strange that, even though Ming had never heard of Earth before Klytus brought it to his attention, he still had a button labeled “Earthquake.” Whenever I watch Flash Gordon, I wonder if I am the only one who has noticed this.
With Ming plaguing Earth with tornadoes, hurriances, and “hot hail,” it is up to three Earthlings to travel to Mongo and defeat him. Dr. Zarkov (Topol) is an eccentric scientist who was forced out of NASA because of his belief in Mongo. Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) is a reporter. And, finally, Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) is a professional athlete. Because this movie is a fantasy, Flash Gordon is a superstar quarterback for the New York Jets.
The character of Flash Gordon was first introduced in a 1934 comic strip and was played by Buster Crabbe in several classic serials. Among Flash’s many young fans was a future filmmaker named George Lucas, who would later cite Flash’s adventures as being a major inspiration for the Star Wars saga. After the unprecedented success of Star Wars: A New Hope, it only made sense that someone would try to make a Flash Gordon film.
That someone was producer Dino De Laurentiis. (Before writing the script for Star Wars, Lucas attempted to buy the rights for Flash Gordon from De Laurentiis.) To write the script that would bring Flash into the 80s, De Laurentiis hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Semple was best known for helping to create the 1960s version of Batman and he brought a similarly campy perspective to the character and story of Flash Gordon. As a result, the film ended up with scenes like this one, where Flash interrupts one of Ming’s ceremonies with an impromptu football scrimmage:
It also led to Brian Blessed’s entire performance as Prince Vultan, which is especially famous for the way that Blessed delivered one line:
(That also makes for a great ringtone.)
Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson often seem to be stranded by Semple’s script but Max Von Sydow, Topol, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, and Ornella Muti all get into the swing of things. Seen today, Flash Gordon is entertaining but too intentionally campy for its own good. On the positive side, the images still pop off the screen and the soundtrack sounds as great as ever. When you listen to Queen’s theme song, you have no doubt that “he’ll save every one of us.”
As Flash Gordon himself put it after he saved the universe: “YEAAAAH!”