From the Vault: In Defense of Bad Movies, Part 2 – FLAAAASSSHH!

Check out the muscles on Blonde Conan!

In Part 1 of In Defense of Bad Movies, I outlined the disconnect between film critics and the general public. If you want to read it, you can certainly do that. Now that I have made this particular bed, I’m going to lie in it by taking a pipe wrench to the skull of a film most beloved and personal to the Geek Nation. Let’s all watch some people’s heads explode. Fun!

Since I mentioned Flash Gordon (1980) in Part 1 as an example of a bad movie, I thought it would be worthwhile to explain why I think this is so. Before you start typing your hate mail, there’s some objective criteria below that you ought to look at. I put pictures in the post, so you wouldn’t have to just take my word for it. If you make it all the way to the end and still feel triggered, feel free to leave a comment. I’m bracing myself for impact. Okay, enough of that; let’s go tip some sacred cows!

“Gordon’s Alive?!”

Flash Gordon is a bad movie. It was bad in 1980 and it has not aged well. It’s not a bad movie for what it gave us, a campy, over-the-top spectacle of outdated special effects and a plot that’s actually worse than the cliffhanger serials starring Buster Crabbe (and this is subjective—lots of people like it for that very same reason), rather, it’s a bad movie because it rendered a 45-year-old pop culture icon largely unrecognizable for no other reason than it could. Maybe it’s not fair to compare it to the very recent idea that a movie should reflect more of the source material than not; I mean, we are talking about the 1980s, when everyone still smoked cigarettes and didn’t know no better, and one of the best movies of 1980 was Kubrick’s The Shining, which did the same thing—jettisoned huge chunks of the book and replaced it with Stanley Kubrick’s sensibility. His “take” on the novel. So, why does The Shining get a pass and Flash Gordon does not?

Brilliant. Terrifying. And irreverent with the source material to the point of being dismissive.

It’s simple: Kubrick’s The Shining is nearly universally loved by both Kubrick fans and horror movie fans and is universally considered a great movie, despite being a genre film, from a noted auteur. The film fits within his overall catalog of movies as a stepping stone from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Barry Lyndon (1975) up to Full Metal Jacket (1987), in professional growth and artistic development. Contrast this with Flash Gordon, which opened to mixed, confused reviews. Some people really liked the high camp that was intentionally shoehorned into the movie. Others thought the high camp didn’t work and stated reasons. What every review did agree on was that the movie was jokey and hokey and played for laughs and felt intentionally cheap in some places. Not everyone liked the Queen soundtrack, either.

So, there you have it. The movie is campy and cheap. The mattes and optical composites look like bad chroma-key on Channel Eleven’s 10 PM Weather Report, circa 1979. The dialogue is clunky, and sometimes that’s funny and sometimes it’s not. Flash’s “sword” looks more like a hockey stick, and he doesn’t really ever use it. Aside from the general look of Ming the Merciless, the movie bears no resemblance to the thing that’s been in the public eye for forty-five years prior.

That said, I kinda still like the movie. Not all the time; I have to be in a specifically nostalgic mood to watch it, and even then, I don’t usually make it all the way through. My eleven-year-old self thought this movie was amazing. But then again, my eleven-year-old self hadn’t read any of the Alex Raymond Flash Gordon strips at that time, either. Shortly after first seeing Flash Gordon, I tracked down the Buster Crabbe serials. Watching them only added to my confusion.

This is Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon from a Sunday strip dated Aug 14, 1938. Raymond was an artist’s artist, and he is still studied and appreciated by comic creators to this day. 

I didn’t understand what “camp” was, not really. The movie was less campy that the Batman TV series, but the football fight scene in Ming’s throne room—with Dale acting as a cheerleader—was ludicrous. The music makes it fun, but it’s a far cry from a duel with swords, like what we see in that famous Alex Raymond panel in the comic strip.

Years later, when I got my hands on the Flash Gordon comic strip reprints, I became righteously indignant. The disconnect between the original stories and the over-saturated, intentionally camp 1980 movie is equal to roughly the distance from Earth to Mongo. It soured me on the film, and I couldn’t watch it for a long, long time after.

Still, it’s not as if I wasn’t warned. Here’s a news item from Fangoria #8 (Oct 1980), incidentally the first issue of Fangoria I ever bought:

FLASH GORDON: Flash or Trash? That’s the question on the lips of everyone concerned about the fate of Alex Raymond’s comic strip soap opera now that its cinematic fate is in the hands of Dino De Laurentiis. The screenplay is by Lorenzo Semple Jr., whose best- known work to date is the De Laurentiis King Kong screenplay, preceded by the Batman TV scripts. As for effects, we’ve heard from one source that they are said to be excellent—and from another that outmoded effects techniques are being used, with shoddy results that perfectly complement the “low-camp” approach of the screenplay…De Laurentiis seems anxious to become the Hollywood Czar of science fiction—he’s already bought into Dune and Conan, and has recently been waving stacks of money under Ilya Salkind’s nose in an attempt to buy into Superman III. If anyone brings the current boom period for fantasy film to a premature end, it will be shortsighted producers who underestimate the public taste. Whether good or bad, Flash Gordon just might be a portent of Things to Come.

In hindsight, Fangoria was right on the money with its prognostications in the last two sentences. Regardless, the critical reception when Flash Gordon first premiered was mixed. To succinctly illustrate this point, here are Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert talking about Flash Gordon. Pay attention to Roger Ebert’s comments:

Ebert: …I’m fond of it. I don’t think it’s great. I just sort of like it.
Siskel: What I object to is [it’s as] if you’re rewarding a film that doesn’t try hard, for not trying harder.
Ebert: Aw, now, well, you just miss all of the fun when you talk like that.

Ebert closes out the program by calling Flash Gordon “…A tacky extravaganza that’s dumb but entertaining.” Here’s the whole episode if you’re curious. 

The thing is this: they both agree that the movie is bad. Ebert, who wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), itself a cult classic, understood the intrinsic value of bad movies. I don’t think Siskel ever did. Ebert forgives it, because he kinda likes it as a separate thing unto itself. Siskel doesn’t forgive it and considers it to be both overblown and mediocre at the same time.  That pretty much sums up the two prevailing opinions about this movie. And this is from 1980. There’s been a disconnect about this movie all along, in that it does not deliver what the movie title promises.

Another Sunday strip from Raymond dated June 12 1936. Not even his best stuff, and yet this artwork leaps off the page. Check out that
gorgeous action sequence in panels 4 and 5. Incredible stuff.

Simply put, the only Alex Raymond content in the movie is found in the opening credits montage, in those amazing panels taken from the legendary comic strip, paired with Queen’s histrionic theme song for the movie—a soundtrack that most certainly contributed to the film’s nascent success and subsequent cult classic status. The rest of the movie, on the surface, is ludicrous, high camp. To an eleven year old just discovering all of the vast history of science fiction in print and other media, this film was a Charm’s Blo-Pop. It was fun, and Brian Blessed nearly steals the movie in his Falstaffian portrayal of Prince Vultan, and Ming’s daughter was hotter than Georgia Asphalt, and Ming himself was simply insane, for Pete’s sake, his whole reason for attacking the Earth is “Why Not?” and when War Rocket Ajax’s spire impales Ming at the end of the movie, you know what you just watched was not Star Wars, and it sure as shit wasn’t Empire Strikes Back, but you didn’t have anything else to compare it to, so yeah, it was fun and crazy and weird, and to an eleven year old seeing all of this for the first time with no critical faculties developed,  that’s enough. What was there to compare it to? Battle Beyond the Stars? Seriously.

Watching Flash Gordon now, I am often sent down memory lane to where I was and what I was doing at age eleven and twelve and, if I’m in the right frame of mind, I find I can still like some parts of the movie. But it’s a bad movie. It’s part of my reminiscences of growing up, and it’s very hard to untangle the movie from my memory of the movie. Nostalgia spackles over many of the faults in this film, and it’s powerful glue, because it’s so personal and so tied to precious childhood memories.  But nostalgia can’t change the fact that the movie was badly made.

On the Flash Gordon Wikipedia page, there is an interesting, if not revealing, section under the Production heading called “Development.” It’s worth a look:

Initially, producer De Laurentiis wanted Italian director Federico Fellini to direct the picture; although Fellini optioned the Flash Gordon rights from De Laurentiis, he never made the film. George Lucas attempted to make a Flash Gordon film in the 1970s; unable to acquire the rights from De Laurentiis, Lucas decided to create Star Wars instead. De Laurentiis then hired Nicolas Roeg to make the film. Roeg, an admirer of the original Alex Raymond comic strips, spent a year in pre-production work. However, De Laurentiis was unhappy with Roeg's treatment of Flash Gordon, and Roeg left the project. De Laurentiis also considered hiring Sergio Leone to direct the Flash Gordon film; Leone refused, because he believed the script was not faithful to the original Raymond comic strips. De Laurentiis then hired Mike Hodges to direct.
Lorenzo Semple, Jr. wrote the script. He later recalled:
 Dino wanted to make Flash Gordon humorous. At the time, I thought that was a possible way to go, but, in hindsight, I realize it was a terrible mistake. We kept fiddling around with the script, trying to decide whether to be funny or realistic. That was a catastrophic thing to do, with so much money involved... I never thought the character of Flash in the script was particularly good. But there was no pressure to make it any better. Dino had a vision of a comic-strip character treated in a comic style. That was silly, because Flash Gordon was never intended to be funny. The entire film got way out of control.

In other words, Flash Gordon fans and appreciators of Alex Raymond’s comic strips didn’t want to write the movie that Dino wanted. When one of them wrote it anyway, Dino didn’t like it. He kept looking until he found the guy most responsible for doing camp super heroes and tongue-in-cheek movies, and he got him to write the script. But even Semple, Jr. didn’t like what the movie became after he was done with it, because it strayed so far from the source material.

This concept art looks awesome. And it was used to sell the movie to foreign markets. I’ll bet they were pissed off when the movie came out! Talk about a Bait and Switch…

What Flash Gordon has become, quite by accident, is a cult classic. The Queen soundtrack, the over the top performances, and the whack-job dialogue are all cited by fans as to what makes it great. It’s enjoyable to watch because for a generation, it’s a reminder of when we did not have an embarrassment of riches like we do now. It’s impossible to untangle Flash Gordon from pleasant memories, laughing at it with friends, or hearing it referenced in other popular culture; even repeating the quotes to friends to get a laugh all contribute to the idea that the movie is a kind of cultural touchstone for fantasy and science fiction and comic book fans. Despite it being a bad movie, or perhaps because it completely is, Flash Gordon is rightfully a cult classic. But it’s not a good movie. People watch Flash Gordon now for the same reason that people used to watch Barbarella (1968) in the 1980s.

There’s an old Jewish expression: if three people tell you you’re drunk, go lie down. Dino’s reply to that practical advice, apparently, is to get everyone else drunk, so he doesn’t look so bad in comparison. Dino sure knew about making movies. He made enough of them, and if you go back and look at the movies in The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons series, you’ll find his family’s name on many of them. They all have swords and have people riding on horseback. So, if he wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie, and base it on Alex Raymond’s character, either in print or from the serials, he could have easily done that, especially with the technology available in 1980. But he didn’t want to make Flash Gordon. He wanted to re-make Star Wars, only differently. His way.  Like the Batman TV show. If we’re being completely honest, George Lucas only made Star Wars because he couldn’t get the rights to make Flash Gordon

De Laurentiis was a schlockmeister, a monied boor with zero impulse control. He didn’t have the taste in his mouth that God gave a turkey vulture, much less a person with critical faculties and an education in filmmaking. Quick aside: he fought with people throughout the production of Conan the Barbarian and King Kong, as well. People tried to tell him not to do certain things, because those things were stupid and awful and bad, and he never listened to them. In the end, he made exactly the movies he wanted to make.

Liking Flash Gordon does not make you a flawed human being. Calling Flash Gordon your favorite science fiction film of all time, and in the same breath wondering why so many people think Blade Runner is so great makes you a terrible film critic, because the instrumentation you use to measure a film’s worth is not calibrated correctly. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not even a venal sin; I’m a terrible basketball player and I sleep just fine at night. I think accepting that Flash Gordon is bad—not faithful to the source material, badly produced, and needlessly campy—and still thinking that the movie is okay, or something you like to watch once a year, can and should be a compatible thing. I think that there are a lot of film critics who will add years to their life if they will do that one simple thing.

A gorgeous poster. Also, a giant lie. 

Maybe you don’t feel that way; fans as a rule tend to be uncritical of the things they love. Maybe there are other movies that you vehemently defend when people mention how bad they are. Everyone’s critical faculties are wired differently. As an adult, you should be able to look at the criteria by which a person is making a judgement call and take that into consideration. If there are measurable reasons, to which your answer for them is “Yeah, but still…” then they have a point and that’s worth acknowledging, if not completely considering. If their reasoning boils down to, “It just sucks, okay? It just does. How can you think it doesn’t?” then that’s an uncritical response and you can safely ignore it.

You may not want to examine your preferences in such detail. Maybe you just want to like what you like and damn the torpedoes. If that’s the case, then you need to expect someone online occasionally calling one of your favorite movies garbage. Movies that really, truly divide the room critically are few and far between. You’ll either been in the majority or the minority when it comes to movies, and especially genre movies, and most of the time, you’ll know it, too.  

No matter what, you need to own your choices, and not apologize for liking what you like, even if (and perhaps especially if) it’s a bad movie. 

2 thoughts on “From the Vault: In Defense of Bad Movies, Part 2 – FLAAAASSSHH!

  1. Loving the source material is the reason two (relatively) recent movies based on things I loved as a kid are movies I’ve avoided like the plague. I grew up watching “The Banana Splits” and “Land of the Lost” on TV. Some bright sparks in Hollywood decided to do a movie of “Land of the Lost” as a Will Ferrell comedy and to turn “The Banana Splits” into a horror flick.
    Compared to that, Dino was a frickin’ genius, but I understand where you’re coming from.

    1. I don’t understand that impulse to make Banana Splits a horror movie. Land of the Lost was just a wasted opportunity. I’ve still got a real fondness for those Alex Toth-designed cartoons that ran intermittently in the Banana Splits show.

      And if we’re being fair, not EVERYTHING Dino touched turned to shit. Despite his efforts to make Conan a jokey schlock-fest, the first movie was successful…but it’s because everyone fought him tooth and nail during production. He got his way in Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja, and you can see how THOSE turned out…

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