The opening credits list “Music Composed and Performed by Queen, Orchestral Score Composed and Arranged by Howard Blake”. So right away you know you’ll get Queen numbers throughout the film and that the regular score will be played by a full orchestra.
Also you learn that the Screenplay was by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and that Mike Hodges was the Director.
The basic plot is based on the black-and-white Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Charles Middleton serial from 1936. Of course this is in color, and not just color, but color from a palette that can easily be called psychedelic. The music is loud, the action is frenetic, and the cast includes both actors of limited experience and classically trained actors. And Prince Vultan of the Hawk People is played by Bryan Blessed, who as far as I can tell has never met a line that couldn’t be enhanced by a huge toothy grin or snarl. Remember him on the first year of Blackadder?
At any rate this film has always had its detractors, many of whom cry “Camp!” as if that were a bad thing. What is “Camp” anyway? I guess most people would say that it’s a style of presentation of anything artistic (film, music, paintings, TV, a comedy act) that features exaggeration, happily shocks or stuns the middle-class sensibility, displays a nose-thumbing attitude of I-don’t-care, and thus usually has absolutely no regard for audience reaction. It may, but does have to, include affected (read “effeminate”) behavior. Which is why Paul Lynde was considered camp. Many would argue that camp just means BAD. But no major motion picture can afford to be bad – at least not on purpose, because you want the box-office to include people who come back to see the film again, and maybe even a third time, don’t you?
So. Is “Flash Gordon” camp? NO. It’s outrageous in its characterizations (the good are so-o good and the evil are so-o evil), but the acting in general is not exaggerated. Okay, some of the actors really seem to relish their parts, but actors should like what they are doing.
To me, this exchange, delivered very flatly by Frank Shannon as Zarkov in Chapter One, The Planet of Peril, from the 1936 serial, is much closer to camp than anything in the movie:
Zarkov: I need a man to help me. Will you go? It’s the only chance to save the Earth.
Flash: I’ll bet on a long shot with you. When do we start?
Zarkov: At once. There’s no time to lose.
Flash: What about Miss Dale? We’ve got to get her to a place of safety.
Zarkov: There’s no place of safety on the Earth.
Flash: All right then; we’ll take her with us.
Dale: Oh please take me with you.
Zarkov: (shakes head no)
Flash: All bets are off.
Zarkov: In that case we take her.
Briefly, The Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow) finds Earth and wants to play with it before he destroys it. He creates tornadoes, earthquakes, and something called hot hail to bedevil the planet. Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), quarterback for the New York Jets, has come to the end of his vacation and catches a plane out of the camping area. Dale Arden (the beautiful Melody Anderson) NYC reporter, is the only other passenger on the flight out. Hot hail falls, the pilots disappear, and Flash has to crash land the plane, luckily right outside the lab of Dr. Zarkov (Topol), who has been trying to get his lab assistant Munson (William Hootkins) into his spaceship so they can take off for the planet which has invaded Earth’s space and is the source of all the bad weather. Munson, of above average intelligence, has run away. So when Flash asks Zarkov for a phone, the scientist says that it’s in there, indicating the spaceship. They become his unwilling crew to get to the invasive planet and stop it from crashing into the Earth (which is not Ming’s intention, since what Zarkov sees is not a planet but Ming’s spaceship. It’s just mighty large). When they land on the spaceship they are captured and taken to Ming, who is receiving tributes from the nobility of his various slave states. Prince Vultan is there, as is Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), who has a thing for Ming’s daughter Princess Aura (Ornella Muti). Aura is a spoiled, treacherous little thing, who wants what she wants when she wants it, and she wants Flash as soon as she sees him. But then Ming orders him executed on the spot. Zarkov throws Flash something that looks like a melon, but must be very hard, because Flash uses it as a football and begins to rush and block the guards, frequently throwing the “thing” and hitting them with it. The football game ends with a big belly-laugh.
There are interesting shots, like the one where the camera is angled upward to match the angle of the stairs it is photographing. A large door on the landing opens by receding into the ceiling and soldiers emerge. First you see their heads, then upper bodies, as they leave the landing and march down the stairs.
Peter Wyngarde plays Klytus, Ming’s right hand, and wears a golden mask throughout. Was this inspired by Darth Vader(1977)? Also featured are actors not yet well-known: Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) plays Man at Airfield, Kenny Baker (R2D2) plays one of the Dwarfs, and Jim Carter (Mr. Carson on Downton Abbey) plays one of the Azurian Men.
This is sheer fun with not a serious moment. You come in knowing that no hero or hero’s buddy is going to die, no “message” will be delivered, and your ticket money has been well-spent. And you won’t be condescended to with camp.
Shot in Todd-AO and Technicolor, “Flash Gordon” was filmed at Twickenham Studios, England, and on location in The Isle of Skye, Scotland, and at Shepparton Studio Centre, England, EMI Studios, England, and Brooklands Industrial Park, Weybridge, England.