Flash Gordon: Sam J Jones, Brian Blessed and Mike Hodges on the origins of a "visual masterpiece" and the sequel that never was
Four decades on, Flash is back in cinemas – in a new interview, the stars of the 1980 film and its director reflect on its cult following and warn against a remake.
40 years on from its original release, 1980's Flash Gordon is not only "...ALIVE!!!" but very much kicking – from 31st July, the cult classic is back in select cinemas, with a 4K UHD Collection's Edition set to follow in Blu-ray, DVD, Steelbook and digital formats from 10th August.
Though a box office success in the United Kingdom, the film originally faltered in other markets, but its remarkable visuals, tongue-in-cheek humour and soaring soundtrack by Queen have seen it named a favourite of many of today's most influential blockbuster directors, from Edgar Wright to James Gunn.
Ironically enough, Mike Hodges, the filmmaker who brought Alex Raymond's spacefaring comic strip hero to the screen, had to be convinced he was the right man for the job. Having launched his career in movies with 1971's gangster thriller Get Carter, Hodges was initially "very reluctant" to take on Flash Gordon, considering himself "completely the wrong director" – but the efforts of producer Dino De Laurentiis, plus another important factor, eventually persuaded him to sign up.
"I wasn’t really experienced with special effects in terms of film, and I really didn’t know anything about Flash Gordon," Hodges tells RadioTimes.com. "So, all in all, I said I was just the wrong director.
"Anyway, Dino persisted – he flew me to New York on Concorde, and I met Danilo Donati [production designer and costume designer]. In the end, my two sons persuaded me – they were young children, then, persuading me to do it. So I decided to do it – albeit, terrified."
Perhaps Hodges' most intimidating task was to cast the title character – he "saw a lot of actors, including Kurt Russell" but none of them to him felt right. "There’s a certain look to strip cartoon characters, for a start. In the ‘30s, they were very innocent. You had to find an actor who had this kind of innocence. And Sam had it."
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Sam J Jones, who'd made his film debut just the year before in 1979 romantic comedy 10, came as a recommendation from De Laurentiis' mother-in-law, who spotted the young actor on an edition of Celebrity Squares. "She said, 'Why don’t you get him? He looks exactly right.' and Dino took her advice! He flew him over, and he was perfect.
"I know there were a lot of rotten tomatoes thrown at him at the time, but I always thought he was just perfect for the role. And he genuinely had a kind of innocence."
Jones himself recalls a lengthy process of "eight or nine or 10 months" from first meeting to bagging the role of Flash. "Finally, at the last stage, I was flown to England in, I guess, early-to-mid 1979, for the old Hollywood screen test," he recalls. "You know, 30 days of screen testing – and we’re talking film. We didn’t have video back then. If you wanted to do a screen test, you had to have a film crew, a camera, lighting, makeup, hair, wardrobe, the whole deal. And that’s what we did.
"I couldn’t be like Buster Crabbe from the original black-and-white serials. But I knew I could just be true to myself – and back then, I had a naïveté. I had a purity about me as a human being that had not been tainted by Hollywood yet!
"The purity and the naiveté has not been diluted. It was in its pure form. I had that. And that was perfect – especially if you’re going to play comedy. You’re not going to play the joke. You’re just going to play it serious, and let the joke work itself out, you know?"
And "work itself out" Flash Gordon did – Jones was joined in the cast by respected stars of stage and screen Brian Blessed (as Prince Vultan, ruler of the winged Bird-Men), Timothy Dalton (the Robin Hood-esque Prince Barin) and Max Von Sydow (as Flash's nemesis, Emperor Ming "the Merciless") but production on the film was notoriously akin to glorious chaos, with director Hodges once referring to it as "the only improvised $27 million movie ever made".
"Danilo, the production designer and costume designer, spoke no English – he’s absolutely brilliant, I loved him, but he just really went off, basically, on his own, and did what he wanted to do," Hodges remembers.
"I realised that I wasn’t going to have the control that I would normally apply to a film as the director. So I would really make all my decisions once I had everything in place. I’d wait every morning to see where we were, what the set was, and what the costumes were. And then I’d make it up as I went along.
"So once I learned that that was the role that I had to play, it was delightful. I enjoyed it. And I had a wonderful crew who responded very quickly to everything I would think up and dream up. It turned into a most enjoyable shoot, to my surprise!"
Fuelling the chaotic atmosphere was the presence of Blessed, who admits his behaviour on set was "absolutely off the wall", something he insists "spurred everybody along". "I remember when we filmed the attack on rocket ship Ajax... I say, 'Stand by, who wants to live forever Squadron 40, DIVE!!!’ and we dived... and I went down doing this [making gun noises] shooting all the monster men. The robots. And they said, 'Cut, cut, cut, Brian! We put in the sound effects, not you!’ – I couldn’t f**king live without making noises."
That the final film – which sees football player Flash, travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) travel to the planet Mongo, where they must combat the tyranny of Emperor Ming to save the Earth – holds together as wonderfully as it does is as remarkable a thing as the movie itself. "It's a visual masterpiece," says Jones, citing the work of both Hodges and Donati, a two-time Oscar winner for his work on Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Fellini's Casanova (1976). "It’s the costumes, the sets, the production, the vibrant and rich colours. Yeah, it really is a visual masterpiece."
Unprompted, Blessed echoes his co-star. "I just think the film is a masterpiece. It often gets criticised as being camp.... It’s not camp! It’s comic strip in style. The colour, and the music by Queen, is simply sensational! And the cast is excellent. It’s very comic strip... and I think that’s a great strength and power."
Four decades later and the film still looms large in the lives of Hodges, Jones and Blessed – the latter, especially, cannot escape his character's most famous catchphrase... not that he minds. "Everywhere I go, throughout the world, queens, prime ministers, taxi drivers, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker... they all want me to say, ‘Gordon’s alive’. It’s a celebration. It’s a shout of freedom, you know."
Unlike many of its 1980s blockbuster rivals, though, Flash Gordon was never granted a sequel – partly due to its underwhelming box office returns overseas. But there was talk – Jones says he signed a contract for "at least five or six" potential follow-ups, while Blessed recalls having conversations with producer De Laurentiis about a sequel set on Mars.
"Dino talked to me about Mars, Flash Gordon’s trip to Mars. And I said, ‘Well, great, because it would be very nice to bring into it the Clay People [a tribe native to Mars who appears in the 1938 film serial Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars]’ – I think in the original series, the Clay Men were wonderful, but they didn’t go ahead with it."
If there had ever been a sequel, Hodges says he wouldn't have returned to the director's chair, admitting that the film's so-called cliffhanger ending – in which a caption reading "The End" appears on the screen, before a question mark is appended – was intended as "a sort of joke".
"I spent most of two years on this film, I certainly wasn’t going to make another one!" he laughs. "I wanted to get back to serious films, which I managed to do."
Like any classic property, though, rumours of a remake constantly circle Flash Gordon, with Matthew Vaughn and Taika Waititi both linked to the project in recent years. If it ever happens, Blessed won't be queueing up on opening night.
"You will not even remotely compare to the original," he insists. "Leave it alone! For God’s sake, leave it alone. If you want to bring us back and make us younger, because you can do that with the techniques now, that’s fine, you still can do Mars. But don’t [remake it] - no no no! F**king leave it alone!"
Likewise, the only advise Hodges is willing to offer to any director setting his sights on a Flash Gordon remake is "not to do it". "I have to share all the credit with the crew and cast and everybody, it was a collective effort," he says. "But whatever that was, it’s a unique film, and I don’t think you could make a sequel, let alone a remake.
"And if it’s anything like the remake of Get Carter, I’ll spit blood!"
Flash Gordon is screening now in select cinemas, with a 4K UHD Collection's Edition set to follow in Blu-ray, DVD, Steelbook and digital formats from 10th August.