Thank you for that introduction, and very honored to be asked back to introduce another of the wonderful Cinemaniacs screenings. Tonight’s treat, part of Cinemaniacs’ season devoted to Dino De Laurentis, is Dino’s entry into the post-Star Wars sci-fi space opera genre, the 1980 adaptation of the classic comic strip character, Flash Gordon.
Of course, while Flash Gordon may not have made it onto the screens in such a lavish way in late-1980 were it not for the success of Star Wars three years earlier, it can also be argued that Star Wars itself would not have even existed had it not been for the influence which the Flash Gordon character and universe had on a young George Lucas, who has often stated that the germ of Star Wars evolved from his original intention to remake the Flash Gordon movie serials of the 1930s as a feature film.
The character of Flash Gordon was created by New York born cartoonist Alex Raymond, and first published in black & white Sunday newspaper comic strip form on January 7, 1934, just over 80 years ago. Created primarily to compete with the success of the Buck Rogers newspaper strip, which had first appeared five years earlier, Flash Gordon soon became a heroic phenomenon of his own, both in his home country of America and abroad, including Australia, where for a time his name was changed to Speed Gordon, to avoid any connotation with what the Aussie slang for ‘Flash’ translated to. Of course, these days ‘Speed’ doesn’t exactly sound that wholesome a nickname either.
Flash Gordon was the stuff of classic pulp science-fiction, which at the time was just starting to dominate the newsstand racks, thanks to magazines like Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories and Astounding Stories of Super Science. Though he was initially depicted as a polo player from Yale University, Flash was later changed to a star college footballer, no doubt to make him appear more rugged and less of a toff. When Earth starts getting bombarded by fiery meteor storms, Flash and his girlfriend Dale Arden are kidnaped by the eccentric scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov, who requires the duo’s help to pilot a rocket ship he has built in order to investigate the source of the meteors, which of course end up originating from Mongo, a distant planet ruled over by emperor Ming the Merciless, a Fu Manchu-esque character who would become one of the great fictional villains of the day.
After making a successful jump from comic book strip to dramatised radio in 1935, Flash Gordon found an even greater audience as the star of three very popular movie serials, featuring former Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe as the titular character – 1936’s Flash Gordon was followed by Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars two years later, and finally Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in 1940. These were part of the classic run of cliffhanger serials from that period, short episodic adventures that would play before the feature film, and always ending with the hero in some sort of dire predicament, to help ensure the audience returned next week to catch the following installment and find out what happened (the Batman television show of the 1960s brilliantly parodied these cliffhanger endings of decades earlier). It was in these serials that some of the most popular and iconic images of Flash Gordon were formed, at least in the minds of the mass audience. Interestingly, at the same time he was depicting Flash, Buster Crabbe also played his main fictional rival, Buck Rogers, when his own serail adventures debuted on the screen in 1939. In today’s parlance, it would kinda be like the same actor playing both Batman and Iron Man at the same time in their respective movies.
The 1950’s brought a live-action Flash Gordon television series, which starred Steve Holland, a former paperback cover model, as Flash, and ran for 39 episodes between 1954 and 1955. While the television show is fascinating for having been filmed primarily in Germany less that a decade after the end of World War 2, with glimpses of the real-life lingering destructing seeping its way into some episodes, Flash in the fifties was starting to get overshadowed by some of the more extravagant Technicolor science-fiction epics which studios were starting to produce that decade, classics like War of the Worlds, This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet.
While Flash was starting to seem a little passe, his initial impact on American culture was strong enough to keep the character alive through the remainder of the 1950’s and into the early-70’s, primarily through comic book appearances, original paperback adventures, and the issuing of the original 1930’s radio broadcasts on record albums issued by various different labels. The success of the Batman television series of the mid-60’s sparked a mini-revival of interest in the old movie serials, and several of them, including the Flash Gordon ones, became popular campus cult viewing for hip, pot-smoking students.
Flash Gordon was also one of the first heavily merchandised fictional characters, with colourful friction powered, tin litho ray guns and spaceships produced in the 1940’s, which are today highly collectable and valuable. In the mid-1960’s, Flash found himself chosen as one of the characters to represent Captain Action, a toy put out by Ideal to try and capture some of the success which Hasbro were having with their G. I. Joe line. Captain Action was a 12″ poseable action figure that came in a generic blue and black uniform, which you could then buy separate costume accessory packs to dress him up as a range of superhero and pulp action characters, such as Superman, Aquaman, Captain America, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, The Phantom and, of course Flash Gordon. You could imagine the licensing nightmare it would be today, trying to get permission and rights to cross-pollinate characters belonging to so many rival publishers. Despite the novelty and the detail put into the costumes, Captain Action never really gave G. I. Joe a run for his money, and Ideal cancelled the line after only two years. In 1998, retro toy company Playing Mantis briefly resurrected the Captain Action brand, reissuing the action figure and most of the non-superhero outfits, including the Flash one. In addition, they also produced a Ming the Merciless outfit to go on Captain Action’s main foe, Dr. Evil (named so a fully 30 years before Michael Myers came up with it). And of course in the 70’s, the famed Mego toy company manufactured a great range of Flash Gordon figures.
Flash achieved new levels on notoriety in 1974, when the sci-fi sex spoof Flesh Gordon hit the grindhouse adult cinemas and drive-in screens, in varying degrees of explicit cuts which ranged from R to XXX in rating. Sending up the style and tone of the 1930’s serials, as a sex film Flesh Gordon is disappointingly sub-par, the performances stiffer than most of the male cast, and the screenplay is juvenile – instead of Ming there’s Wang, the planet Mongo becomes Porno and Dr. Hans Zarkov is now Dr. Flexi Jerkoff. Where the film excelled was in its production values, which despite the low budget exhibited a genuine creativity and aptitude for miniature work, costuming, special effects and some pretty darn cool stop-motion animation, provided by the well-known Jim Danforth and Dave Allen. Future Oscar-winning make-up genuis Rick Baker also served on the crew. Flesh Gordon was one of the early adult films to send-up a popular film or iconic character, something which became a familiar site once the days of VHS porn of the eighties kicked-in, but at the time it was still a genuine novelty, and it helped the film enjoy a pretty successful run, both initially and on subsequent re-release. In Melbourne, Australia, Flesh Gordon played for an unbelievable 33 straight weeks at the (sadly long gone) Roma Cinema in Bourke Street. A belated sequel, Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders, was released in 1989 and quickly forgotten about.
By the late-seventies, major studios were riding the phenomenal surprise success of Star Wars and spending big on space – there was Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, Roger Moore’s Bond was going into orbit in Moonraker, Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Kirk Douglas were rocking the intergalactic hammock in Saturn 3, and Disney took us on a (rather unexciting) journey into The Black Hole. Even the Italians were turning out their eccentric low-budget sc-fi adventures, such as Luigi Cozzi’s psychedelic and sexy Starcrash and Aldo Lado’s The Humanoid. Flash Gordon’s first sign of re-emergence amongst this new influx of space adventures was an animated television series, The New Adventures of Flash Gordon, which debuted in 1979 and was produced by the famed and prolific Filmation studios, who were behind such fondly remembered cartoon shows of the 1960’s and early-70’s as The New Adventures of Superman, The Archie Show, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Star Trek: The Animated Series, The Brady Kids and far too many more to mention. Interestingly, before the series debuted, Filmation produced an animated television movie titled Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All, though for reasons unknown it was not televised until 1982, and has never been rebroadcast or released on home video outside of Japan and Bulgaria. Which is somewhat disappointing because bootleg copies that circulate amongst fans and online prove it to be one of the best interpretations of the Flash Gordon character and universe.
So this is where the Flash Gordon character was up to in his history and development when Dino De Laurentis decided to bring him back to the big screen in a lavish and epic way. And now to tell us about the actual Flash Gordon film, please welcome fellow Cinemaniac, and drummer extraordinaire for The Tarantinos, Anthony Biancofiore to the podium…