The 1980 Flash Gordon had so much promise. They had a budget, an all-star cast, and the filmmaker behind the 1971 classic Get Carter. They had Queen! How many shit-storms had to coalesce to create this altogether Perfect Storm of movie failure? Quite a few. Here are the weirdest secrets of the making of Flash Gordon.
To be fair, many people, including myself, absolutely love this critically panned movie. I don't know how many times, after someone asks me where I am, I've responded (in my head) with "I'm flying blind on a rocketcycle!" Or when I'm running late for something the pounding bass of the theme song pulses in my head as somewhere in my brain a woman screams, "Flash! I love you! But we've only got 24 hours to save the Earth!" I love this movie. I love it for the stilted way characters say their lines, I love it for the over-the-top costumes, and I especially love it for the cheese-ball drama that infuses every scene.
With that out of the way, here's how we got such a masterpiece of drek:
It basically all started, as most things do, with George Lucas. The popularity of Star Wars made science-fiction big business. Ironically, before Lucas made Star Wars, he asked Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis for the rights to make a film based on the 1930s action and adventure comic strip icon Flash Gordon. De Laurentiis shrewdly denied Lucas' request. In turn Lucas went on to create his own little-known action adventure space epic; Star Wars. After the success of Star Wars, De Laurentiis knew it was time to film his Flash Gordon saga.
Originally Dino hired Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell To Earth) to write and direct the film. Roeg secluded himself and consumed as many Flash Gordon comics as possible, saying: "It took me a long time, but suddenly I tore into what I felt he was doing! It was extraordinary, and I became so excited at the idea that I said to Dino, 'Look, I'll go away and write. I think I know what I'd like to do with it... It took me a year, almost exactly a year, till I'd got it down how I wanted to make Flash Gordon. And I nipped back and said to Dino, 'Look, this is it. It's ready.'"
Roeg had an artist draw up story boards which included:
"an interpretive, metaphysical Mongo. His concept of the film was devoid of comic-strip design and shoot-'em-up melodramatics. Instead, Roeg envisioned Flash as a metaphysical messiah. He abandoned, for example, Raymond's classic slab-sided towers — they were replaced by a startling crystalline version of the city Mingo."
De Laurentiis saw Roeg's vision of the film and responded: "I don't want to make that picture. Please stay and I'll tell you the picture I want to make."
Which just goes to show that Roeg probably should have picked up the phone and run a few ideas past De Laurentiis before spending a year working on it. Either way, Roeg left the project:
"End of project! I just couldn't take it on, because I thought to myself, Well, even if I'm well, well below average intelligence and I've taken a year to get it, and then I learn that I could have done it in two days, that'll give me a complex I'll live with for the rest of my life! But anyway, then Dino told me what he wanted to do. It seemed all right, but I think I'll stick with mine!"
De Laurentiis then hired Mentor Huebner to do the production illustrations. Huebner's storyboards adhered closely to the style of the original comic series, often taking the form of comic book panels themselves.
Huebner reminisced, "I remember the original Alex Raymond strips quite well, and we had the reprinted books in my office, Mike's and Dino's. We used what we could, but some designs were too impractical to build, so we adapted the material, and retained the artistic flavor."
Now De Laurentiis just needed a writer. At one point, the Flash Gordon movie was being written by Sam Peebles, who had written the Star Trek episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before." But instead, De Laurentiis called on his frequent collaborator Lorenzo Semple Jr., who he had worked on King Kong with. Semple was also a writer and executive producer on the 1966 live-action Batman series.
Semple Jr. talked a little bit about his collaboration with Dino De Laurentiis, "He reads English better than many people realize, but translates all of his scripts into Italian. We were living in Nantucket at the time, and his translator was a woman whose name I forget. She could barely translate the scripts; if it said, 'The tall, beautiful woman walked into the room,' she'd say, 'Oh, what a beautiful cat.'"
But Laurentiis didn't care that his translator was terrible, Semple, Jr. adds: "I told him the translator was horrible, her translations aren't any good; he said, 'I do not want to be fooled by the words; I do not want to be fooled by written words. I want to know the story.'" Could that possibly explain this scene?
Flash Gordon still needed a director now that Nicolas Roeg was out of the picture.
Originally producer De Laurentiis wanted Federico Fellini to direct — clearly, this didn't happen, so he did the next best thing. As a nod to the famous Italian director, Princess Aura's pet was given the name "Fellini." Then De Laurentiis hired Mike Hodges who was originally going to direct the sequel if Roeg directed the first picture.
As Semple Jr. puts it, "Mike Hodges did a great job directing, but it was sort of out of control, the whole thing. It was really designed around the costumes." Aesthetics over substance really appears to be a running theme, not only from the director's chair, but also from the casting couch.
Sam J. Jones (Flash) was not the actor the studio considered first. Originally, De Laurentiis wanted Kurt Russell, who turned it down because of the one-dimensional nature of the character. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger was denied the role because of his thick accent.
So we ended up with Jones, who apparently got the job solely from his appearance on The Dating Game: "I went on, and lost the date but got the job! Dino... I should say Mr. De Laurentiis, or a member of his family, was watching. They called me, and the next morning I went in with my manager for an interview to meet Dino and his staff." He had previously appeared in a bit part in the movie 10 with Bo Derek, and aside from his spread in Playgirl, Jones hadn't really had that much time in front of the camera.
In fact in the book Dino: The Life and Film of Dino De Laurentiis, the movie mogul says, "He was a blond, buff, American boy, in great shape and even capable of acting." So basically, acting chops were not a very high priority. But eye color was. Originally the production crew wanted Jones to wear blue contact lenses during the shoot, but during a screen test, according to Jones, he asked to take them out as he couldn't read his lines.
As far co-star Melody Anderson, she wasn't all that enthused about the movie in the first place, like Kurt Russell, Melody Anderson had a hard time getting into her flat character. Dale was supposed to be an "All-American" girl, a role that Anderson had a hard time with because of the epic props, and the sensual nature of the script, "The exotic and the sensual is much more interesting for the audience to watch than the average girl next door. I had to be careful not to make Dale too dull. It was not a character I could put my teeth into. She was just an average lady, and that was tough."
But she took the role anyway: "It was like I'd been kidnapped! I told (Dino) that I was planning to leave New York for Los Angeles, and I was going to do a TV series. He said, 'You're gonna do Flash Gordon'. I said, "No, I can't!" De Laurentiis was unrelenting, and Anderson flew to London the same night, and agreed to play the role of Dale Arden.
As far as Ming the Merciless actor Max Von Sydow was considered, it was a project that interested him from the start, "I had read the comic strip when I was a boy and I liked it very much. It was published weekly. I read it and I was fascinated by this guy who traveled through the universe. And then it just came up that I should be in it and I was very pleased. And enjoyed it very much."
And as you might expect, for the future Bond, Timothy Dalton, it was simply a paycheck.
Probably the most telling quote that explains the uneven nature of the film is from Melody Anderson on the multi-cultural film crew: "The English thought they knew, and the Italians thought they knew, and the actors were caught in the middle of all this confusion of, 'What's going on?' It was, well - an interesting four and a half months."
So the actors had a completely different sense of the tone of the movie than the director and producer:
"The director said, 'I want you and Sam to try to go for a relationship, make this as human as possible. Don't camp it up or go for laughs.' That's why the movie's so funny, because we didn't try to make it campy. In fact, I'm surprised that (people) are laughing, because we weren't out to make a funny film. In fact, De Laurentiis was very upset when he showed the film and people started to laugh, because he thought they were laughing at it and not with it. In fact, he re-did the cheerleading scene. He wanted it to be serious...with macho man out there. Play it very straight, the more you play it straight, the funnier it is. I think that's why Flash and Dale work, because of the way we played it."
Sam J. Jones basically agrees: "The film's very campy, very adventurous. We played it straight; we couldn't have played it any other way. When the crew watched the rushes and were laughing hysterically, Dino said, 'Why are you laughing?' And then they discovered they had a comedy, that it was camp. I've heard from the screenings that some people couldn't hear the words because of all the applause and laughter... but we did play it seriously.
Meanwhile, the director called Flash Gordon "the only improvised $27-million movie ever made." In fact, the inception of the "quarterback stuntfight" scene kind of explains a lot — Melody Anderson, and Sam Jones conceived this absurd fight scene in Ming's palace.
"In the beginning scene, all these people are bringing gifts, and one group brings these eggs. Sam Jones was saying, Flash Gordon was supposed to be a quarterback, so why don't I use one of these as a football?' Then I thought, 'Well, I'm the All-American Girl, shouldn't I be a cheerleader?' It was very funny... that's how the whole film went, because there was no time to prepare. We would just create and throw things in as we went along."
One of the most ground-breaking things about Flash Gordon was its use of bluescreen for things like flying sequences — which resulted in some of the same problems as the Star Wars prequels.
Says Anderson, "I was being held up. All I see below me are the mattresses and a wind machine. The director's saying, 'Okay, Melody - look up and see the sky palace!' Everything's black, and all I see are lights and cords hanging down. It was difficult. There weren't even scale models to get an image in your mind of what you were seeing."
While Anderson had it bad, the Hawkmen had it worse, Between takes, Anderson would walk around the set and "watch all those poor Hawkmen. They're the ones who pick me up and kidnap me; then I fly. They could never sit down, because when they did the wings would dig into their backs. When we had a rest period, you'd see all these guys lying on their stomachs with wings, like they were ready to take off. It was a very funny sight."
Brian Blessed, who played King Vultan, says it took about three days to prepare the Ajax sequence and put everything, including dozens of hanging Hawkmen, in place. Blessed put in his own special effects, going "pew pew pew" as he "shot" his cardboard bazooka. Because of this they had to take another day to reset. Blessed didn't feel too bad as Jones was also a pretty hot hand with his prop gun, also filling in the "pew pews."
Another big time waster was a huge mix-up in the make-up department. Originally Ming causes Flash to hallucinate that Dale has turned into an attacking spider: "There was a scene where Dale Arden is supposed to be turned into a spider by Ming. At least, she's a spider in Flash's eyes. He sees an image of Dale as this monster who's about to eat Flash." Anderson was covered in green body paint and "had vampire teeth and a headpiece that weighed about 25 pounds with real glass eyeballs. I had blood dripping from my mouth... After I'd been in makeup for four hours and on the set for another six, the director came in and said, 'This is wonderful! But we can't use this, it has absolutely nothing to do with the script!'"
While some of the other props might have looked good on screen, they were shoddily made. Which led to a lot of the cast and crew just standing around. According to Jones, while filming the tilting-disc fight scene (between Dalton and Jones) the actors would get covered in paint by the disc that was spray painted silver. They would have to take extra time between each take to wipe silver paint off their bodies.
Meanwhile, according to Retro Cinema:
"Never knowing what sets the designers would build or how impractical the costumes would be, Hodges showed up to the studio and shot whatever he wanted. Meanwhile, the Italian crew didn't speak enough English to report back that the film was headed in a very different direction from DeLaurentiis' vision."
And a lot of Sam Jones' lines ended up being dubbed by an impersonator, according to Hodges:
''I was very fond of Sam but here's what happened: we did the main shooting up until Christmas and then we stopped for the break. After Christmas I came back and did all of the second unit stuff too. For instance, I had to do the shots with the flying men and that sort of thing — what passed as special effects back then (laughs). So I also had to shoot a whole bunch of other stuff with a stunt double for Sam and I had to re-voice the occasional line of dialogue too (According to Jones it was a majority of his lines). Not much but some—and I got somebody to impersonate Sam's voice. You would never know it wasn't him."
So, apparently we can't be too sure if it was Sam J. Jones' brilliant reading of "I'm flying blind on a rocketcycle" is him, or the guy who dubbed his lines (seriously, nobody knows who did it, to this day).
According to the book Dino: The Life and Film of Dino De Laurentiis, Jones kept getting into fights during the filming of the movie — at one point, Jones was in the hospital with a big scrape on his face, and De Laurentiis himself barged into the operating room to make sure they fixed his face so as not to leave a visible scar. But Jones kept causing trouble, and then at Christmas, he left for Los Angeles and never returned — so De Laurentiis recalls that he told Hodges, "We'll keep going, with the very best stand-in you can find." As the book comments, "It was perhaps the very first time in cinematic history that a $30 million production was completed after the star had gone AWOL."
Also according to that book, after Flash Gordon was released and flopped, Jones sued De Laurentiis for breach of contract, demanding that De Laurentiis honor his option for two further Flash Gordon films. Sadly, Jones lost, and the sequels were never made.
Queen weren't Mike Hodges' first choice for the soundtrack. Apparently he was pulling for Pink Floyd to do the movie. Meanwhile, Dino De Laurentiis had never heard of Queen before. According to Queen Online:
"Their Manager arranged a meeting with De Laurentiis and mentioned Queen's interest in scoring the film. Rumour has it that De Laurentiis' first reaction was simply, "Who are the Queens?" They were, as it turned out, the first rock band he had ever listened to, and the outcome was that the band was commissioned to write the music for the movie."
According to Brian May: "We saw 20 minutes of the finished film and thought it very good and over the top. We wanted to do something that was a real soundtrack. It's a first in many ways, because a rock group has not done this type of thing before, or else it's been toned down and they've been asked to write mushy background music. Whereas we were given the license to do what we liked, as long as it complimented the picture."
The sound effects that punctuate the album were actually Queen's idea, according to Roger Taylor: "We've been offered quite a few films, but Flash Gordon was something which Brian and I were quite attracted to because of its sci-fi thirties connotations. The album was totally under our control and it was our idea to put dialogue on the album. That wasn't the original idea. We thought we'd get little snippets to give some idea of what was happening in the film and some atmosphere of the story."
The Box Office
Semple claims Star Wars, which was the reason Flash Gordon was greenlit in the first place, was the main reason this film failed: "One of the reasons it flopped: "Star Wars" was a realistic movie in its own crazy way. It wasn't done campy. People expected a different thing from sci-fi by that point. They expected something like "Star Wars." "Flash Gordon" is basically just silly — in an inspired way."