Dir: Mike Hodges
Cert: PG • US: 111 min • Universal • DVD & Blu-ray
What is camp? My favourite answer has always been, “Only your hairdresser knows for sure”. Oddly enough I read this on the blurb to an academic book about camp published by Routledge … Another answer, of course, is the 1980 extravaganza Flash Gordon. From its overblown sets to its extraordinary costumes, it is the dramatic instinct exaggerated to epic proportions. “Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!” hollers Dale Arden. Now that is pure camp.
Flash Gordon earns Camp Wings from its very first frames. The camera zeros in on a dodgy papier-mâché model of the Earth, and then the hands of Ming the Merciless (played by Max von Sydow) appear sporting serious Bling. As he starts on his destruction of Earth – a planet he’s never heard of, even though he has a button labelled ‘Earth Quake’ on his Armageddon Console – the beats of the title track start. The soundtrack is by … Who else? Queen! (The single mix, with quotes from the film, is glorious fun. I once found a cover version where a bunch of chaps do all the vocals. The attempt at Dale Arden’s quoted line is perhaps more camp than the original …)
The title track is accompanied by equally camp visuals, a montage of cartoon strips from the original Flash. And following this strip there appears Flash, played by former Playgirl strip model Sam J. Jones. His wooden acting only adds to the sense of the unreal, and serves to magnify the film not detract from it. He and travel agent Dale Arden are in a small plane when Ming kicks it up a gear. The plane is forced down and crashes into what looks to be an enormous greenhouse, sort of like the one at Kew Gardens, in which Dr Hans Zarkov lives. Zarkov, played with vim and vigour by the Fiddler on the Roof himself, Topol, kidnaps the two in his space rocket (which is, obviously, in the middle of the greenhouse) so that he can strike back at the extra terrestrial enemy. He’s suspected for years that an attack is on the way, you see, so his spaceship is primed and ready. Even though he has no real plans. And a cowardly assistant who runs away. Details, details … these things are not to concern a misunderstood genius like Zarkov!
And so after some outer space scenes that are the cinematic equivalent of tie-dye they land on the planet Mongo and are taken before Ming. The scene is nothing less than outrageous. All the colours of the rainbow assault the viewer in glorious Technicolor. This is where the Blu-ray edition really shines, it has to be said. (Or should that be blinds?) Anyway, if Ming and his Bling are not camp enough there’s the drop-dead gorgeous Ornella Muti playing his daughter, Princess Aura, who is followed by a frou-froued midget on chain, and Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan. It makes the Disco Era look like a Conservative Party fundraiser.
There is a lot of story herein, which is of course a good thing, and at one point it sees Flash led to execution wearing just a pair of leather shorts. What else? The scene in which Princess Aura saves him, and he’s still sporting said shorts, is a highlight for the boys and the girls. Aura’s costume is as tight as it can possibly be. One can only mourn the end of the shot as she says to Flash, as he is about to pull down his shorts, “Don’t worry, I won’t look”. There is a mirror that is cheekily aimed in his general direction.
There’s men, there’s women, there’s lizards, and there’s hawkmen, who look to be on sabbatical from a leather bar. (There are no hawkwomen although, oddly enough, Vultan does have a be-winged daughter …) And there’s Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, who gets to swear a lot. “Lying Bitch! Bloody bastards!” Will Barin kill Flash or team up with him? Will Ming marry Dale Arden? Will Dale and Aura have a full-on bitch fight wearing rather flouncy outfits?
Flash Gordon is a gay romp of a film about straight people. It pits a fit blond hero against the power of evil. It has a clearly defined story, and the character motivations make perfect sense. You can cheer the good guys, boo the bad guys, or just settle back and wallow in the visual campery of it. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” as the old saying goes. In the case of Flash Gordon that is decidedly true. Is this a good or a bad thing? Like camp itself, it all comes down to taste.