Still Alive 40 Years On
Tripwire contributing writer Laurence Boyce examines the new Blu-ray of Flash Gordon released to commemorate its 40th anniversary…
Director: Mike Hodges
Stars: Sam J Jones, Melody Anderson, Max Von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti
Way back in the mists of time, I saw a screening of Flash Gordon at my university cinema. As soon as Brian Blessed’s credit came up during the opening, there was a delighted whoop of joy and round applause amongst the assembled throng of students. Now that’s a mark of a popular cult film.
Originally released in 1980, Mike Hodges big screen version of Alex Raymond’s classic comic book is perhaps the archetypal cult film. As with many cult films, it failed to set the world alight on its original release but it quietly became popular with a hardcore fanbase who saw it on home video or TV showings. Soon there were people who could quote dialogue verbatim (including a certain line confirming that Flash Gordon was, indeed, no longer deceased….) and would often regale it’s eclectic cast (amongst them a person who would be James Bond, that man from Fiddler of the Roof, an actor better known for Ingmar Bergman films and that bloke who played Jason King in the campy 70s TV show) with questions about the film. It would be a popular special screening for nerdy students who wanted to see it on the big screen (such as people like me). Despite never seemingly being discussed in the great pantheon of sci-fi films, it held a special place in the heart for many and would go on to influence a generation of filmmakers. Go see Thor:Ragnarok and tell me there isn’t a massive debt to Flash Gordon and I’ll happily set the bore worms on you.
Perhaps one of the reasons Hodges’ Flash Gordon is popular that it is so bombastic and gleefully over the top. It’s a never ending riot of primary colours, with an insistent and pounding soundtrack by Queen (though some of the electric score composed with Howard Blake is also wonderfully contemplative) and OTT set-design. Made in an era when Star Wars had made ‘black and sleek’ the vision for a sci-fi film, this went the other way. Indeed, it was Raymond’s comic book come to life even down to the choice of framing and camera shots. Even some of the more messy elements (such as a story that is riddled with narrative inconsistency, even by golden age comic book terms) can be forgiven thanks to the aforementioned eclectic cast and their resolution to not act like the material is beneath them.
It’s now been 40 since the films was released and the new 4K Blu-Ray release of Flash Gordon is a testament to the film’s staying power amongst the memory of film fans.
The highlight of this release is, unsurprisingly, the 4K version of the film. It looks absolutely gorgeous with the colours vivid and the set designs sparkling. And while it cleans up some of the special effects (visible wires and the like) we’re not talking ‘Lucas Special Edition Whitewash’ here. There’s still a clunkiness and physicality that adds to the entire charm of the film.
The disc also comes with a commentary Mike Hodges recorded almost two decades ago. He makes for pleasant company throughout the duration of the film, though – as he admits – he hasn’t really seen it since it first released. He does get forgetful at times, getting names wrong here and there, but there is a moderator who pops up now and again to prod him in the right direction. And there are plenty of fascinating idea and anecdotes. One of the most interesting things is how Hodges sees the film as a comment on American foreign policy with Flash, all dumb naïve Americanism, wandering into a culture he has no idea about. It’s certainly does put a new perspective on the film though it’s disconcerting to hear Hodges lament about the then contemporary reign of George Bush Jr. One wonders what poor Hodges – still going strong at the age of 88 – thinks of the present day.
You’d think the second commentary by Brian Blessed would consist of somebody shouting for 90 minutes. But, for all his public persona off bluff, bluster and bombast, Blessed here is an engaging raconteur actually usefully analysing the film alongside providing plenty of anecdotes. It’s one of the more pleasant and joyful commentaries from an actor, consisting as it does of a man who is happy to be there rather than out of some contractual obligation.
One of the most fascinating extras on the disc is an examination of what Nic Roeg – who was at one point slated to direct to the film – would have made of Flash. Suffice to say it would have been a very different affair – though likely just as big a cult as Hodges version – and this provides some really interesting insight into a film that ultimately never was.
The disc has lots of vignettes, many of which are culled from the 2017 making-of documentary Life After Flash (which is included for those who want to shell out the Ming Dollars for the 5 disc ‘Collector’s Edition’). They’re a mixed bag – Brian May talks about the soundtrack, Sam ‘Flash’ Jones talks about his acting background – but they hold the interest. There’s also a nice ‘Greenroom’ where, at a 35th anniversary screening of the film at BAFTA, many of the cast sit together and reminisce. There’s a particularly nice story with Blessed talking about a British Prime Minister getting him to stand on the desk in the Cabinet Office and say “Gordon’s Alive….”
There are also the usual trailers, a ‘Behind the Scenes’ featurette made to publicise the film at the time (with Max Von Sydow blowing the whole ending – they had a different view of spoilers back then) and an interesting sit-down interview with Hodges which goes over his whole career. There are also two episodes of the 1979 Flash Gordon cartoon series which, if nothing else, is of interest due to the fact that they were written by Paul Dini.
For those who have Flash already, the extras may not be a deal breaker. But the restoration should be. Flash Gordon is as camp and ridiculous as it always was and it is still so much fun 40 years on. Gordon is most definitely still alive.
Flash Gordon is released by Studio Canal and is available as a 4K UHD Collector’s edition, Blu-ray, Steelbook, DVD and digital