Camp isn’t really something you get as a kid.
For example, I used to settle in every afternoon and watch the Adam West Batman series, and I was gripped by it. Sure, I thought the villains’ schemes and gizmos were ridiculous, but I’d still tune in to see if Batman would escape. Similarly, when I first saw this movie as a kid, I thought it was a fantastic space adventure.
Of course, as an older viewer I saw a lot more to it. Mainly layer upon layer of camp excess and goofiness. And you know what? The movie was all the better of it.
Cashing in on the sci-fi boom following Star Wars, the old comic strip was brought to the big screen, but shedding the square jawed heroics for humour, over the top design and a weird sexual undertone that I missed as a kid (Ming’s daughter Aura, played by Ornella Muti, is rather foxy and the film heavily implies she’s playing around a bit, and I’m sure her whipping scene was a major moment in many a young boy’s life). The result is a unique and bizarre space opera, which succeeds in having some pretty cool visuals. The design of Mongo is well done, with weird, cosmic backdrops in psychedelic colours.
Mongo is filled with diverse, bizarre races of peoples, all feuding with each other and struggling under tyranny of Emperor Ming. It’s a colourful, captivating world with monsters and aliens, and the plot moves along in the style of an old serial with frequent bursts of action and peril.
As plots go, it’s light on depth and character development, but heavy on spectacle, cheap thrills and good fun.
Given the whole tone of the movie is campy and kitsch there’s no shortage of overacting, from Max Von Sydow’s gleefully vicious Ming the Merciless to his henchman who sees footage of Hitler and comments “Now, he showed promise.” It’s all extremely daft and excessive, but in the very best way.
But even among the cartoon characters, lack of subtlety and Queen power chords, there is still something which stands above them all, which overpowers all around it. That steals the whole damn movie.
And that, is the legend that is Brian Blessed.
Blessed plays Prince Vultan, the bellowing, belly laughing leader of the hawkmen. Never one to underplay any role, Blessed cranks it up to eleven here and appears to be having the time of his life. A fan of Flash Gordon as a child, he is reported to have strode into the office of producer Dino De Laurentis, pointing at the character in the comic and exclaiming “IT’S BLOODY ME!”. And it was, it’s the role he’s probably best known and loved for, with his roaring “Gordon’s alive!” becoming his catchphrase.
While Blessed, Van Sydow, Muti and Timothy Dalton all carry their roles off with flair, the eponymous role is filled by Sam Jones, who looks the part but suffers from having his dialogue dubbed over and who is rather wooden in places. Flash isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but is a rather likeable hero, a big, dumb jock who throws himself into the challenge of saving the world. He is, to quote Freddie Mercury, just a man with a man’s courage and there’s something endearing about his slightly stilted performance.
I’ve mentioned Mercury and Queen already, but I have to draw attention to the soundtrack again, which is just kick-ass. Not only the insanely catchy and campy theme song, but the fact that several scenes play out to the background of Brian May’s big, loud riffs. I’d love to see a modern sci-fi or fantasy movie follow this formula, and give the soundtrack over to a rocker to crank out some power chords and solos. You can never go wrong with a bit of Queen.
Is it art? Yes, in a way, it’s a slightly trashy, silly piece of entertainment and it does the job extremely well, marrying some lavish production design with a script which revels in cliche, simplicity and silliness. It’s the kind of movie that you can switch on some dismal winter day and just revel in the goofiness, putting a big, dumb smile on your face.
I love this movie, and I always will.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.