1980’s Flash Gordon has returned to cinemas to mark its 40th anniversary, with a 4K UHD Collection’s Edition set to follow in Blu-ray, DVD, Steelbook and digital formats from 10th August – and four decades on, one of the cult film’s most memorable elements remains Max von Sydow’s performance as Emperor Ming “the Merciless”.
The award-winning actor, who also memorably starred in The Seventh Seal (1957), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and The Exorcist (1973), sadly passed away in March of this year, aged 90.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com to mark Flash Gordon’s rerelease, the film’s director Mike Hodges admitted that he never thought the esteemed actor would agree to play antagonist Ming.
“Before I became totally facetious and made Flash Gordon, I was quite a serious filmgoer, and I saw most of [The Seventh Seal director Ingmar] Bergman’s films and marvelled at them. Bergman and Max were synonymous… you know, they were like twins in many ways.
“Dino [De Laurentiis, Flash Gordon producer] had worked with him before, so he knew him. And when he came up with suggestions for who should play Ming, I thought: ‘He’ll never do it.’
“But he loved doing it. He was charming and funny, and just relished the whole thing. I think it was a kind of relief for him, because all those other heavy roles he’d been playing must weigh upon you as an actor. These were big, serious characters he was playing. These were upsetting films in many ways.”
Brian Blessed, who played the winged Prince Vultan, also recalled “getting on absolutely famously” with von Sydow, suggesting that it was a conversation between them which helped inspire how the two-time Oscar nominee decided to play Ming.
“Max and I of course got on very well, both having a classical background, and of course he’d done Ingmar Bergman films and so forth,” Blessed said, recalling how they’d discussed von Sydow’s performance in 1966 film The Quiller Memorandum and in particular a torture scene where he “kept clicking his fingers, using his fingers”.
“If you watch his entire performance [in Flash Gordon], it comes from his hands. Particularly – there’s a brilliant scene where he interrogates Flash on his own. It’s a wonderful interrogation scene where Ming tempts him like the Devil, like Christ, 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. He offers him his own universe and his own galaxy and God knows what. It’s fascinating that he uses his fingers throughout the scene, brilliantly.”
Sam J Jones, who played the title role in Flash Gordon and had made his film debut just the year before in 1979, also remembered how von Sydow gave him “great advice” when he was just starting out.
“He gave me some great professional pointers, about making sure that after they do my close-up and they turn the cameras to do, let’s say, his close-up, to make sure that I’m always there, and ready – not just to give an OK performance, but that when I’m feeding my lines to him or to anybody else, to make sure my performance is even better than it ever was before, so you can really bring the very best of that [other] actor out. That’s really important.”