By the 1970s, sci fi cinema had bloated from its Golden Age roots into something outsized and overwhelming and almost tragic. It was all about the bombast; the skin-tight outfits with their bright colors and spangled cloth and flapping capes; the mediocre effects; the improbable rubber creatures. These films were stuffed to the gills with pretentious Greater Meaning, often cheerfully undercut by generous helpings of lame humor.
Star Wars changed everything. Although the worst excesses of the genre weren't all immediately (or entirely) carved away, Star Wars made it clear that the sun was setting on a certain kind of sci fi movie. The sparkly body-suits, the papier-mâché monster-masks and the middle-school humor didn't just look dated in comparison with Lucas' lean east-meets-west aesthetics and basic chosen-one narrative - they looked cheap. Perhaps even worse, they looked tawdry.
I feel an appealing kind of dissonance when I watch a post-Star Wars film of the pre-Star Wars family. Ray Harryhausen's epic, wonderful, utterly ridiculous Clash of the Titans, for example, seems like a product of about 1963 - not the 1980 blockbuster it (really!) was. These films feel so strange, so charming, so innocent, and so misguided: the work of people who simply hadn't made peace with the fact that the Golden Age of bodysuits and space-needles was over. Perhaps no film rages against the dying of that Golden light more than today's Monsters & Mullets entry, 1980's Flash Gordon. A lodge in a garden of cucumbers, Flash Gordon is about as un-Star Warsy as they come.
Queen sings us into the film's opening with a thrumming base-line and then a choral "Flash! Ah-Ah!" This, it turns out, is the movie's theme song.
An Evil Bad Guy (we assume; we haven't seen his face yet) stands before an Evil Bad Guy Control Panel. On this panel are arrayed a number of natural disasters he can activate with a remote-control ring. His options include "Hurricane," "Earth Quake," "Hot Hail," "Volcanic Eruption," and "Tidal Wave." He cackles and sets off the Earth Quake. His screen shows buildings falling down. Which cataclysm to choose next? Delightfully, he chooses Hot Hail. Hot Hail is, apparently, literally hail that is hot. We know it's hail because it plinks when it smacks into things. We know it's hot hail because it steams after it hits the ground. We watch the Hot Hail slam into a station wagon idling in the middle of nowhere. This station wagon is inhabited by a very tan, dead-eyed blond man wearing a tight white t-shirt that says "Flash."
The Hot Hail lasts for approximately three seconds.
A van, prominently labeled "Dark Harbor Inn," pulls up alongside the station wagon, and a woman in a red dress emerges. She and the blond man run over to a little plane sitting on a nearby dirt runway, and embark on some journey... somewhere. We learn she's a travel agent named Dale, and scared of flying. We also learn that he's called Flash, and he's famous, for some reason we won't learn for another fifteen minutes. Flash and Dale make cute as only two dead-eyed actors can make cute - unconvincingly. Why Flash was sitting in a station wagon in the middle of nowhere during a hail storm, why he's taking a plane with a travel agent, where he's taking a plane with a travel agent, what the Dark Harbor Inn is, or even who the fuck Flash is are all questions left unanswered.
Meanwhile, glowing rocks fall out of sky. When I say "fall," I mean "drift lazily." It's clear someone off-screen is, very gently, tossing charcoal briquettes into the scene. (These glowing rocks are, one assumes, supposed to be meteorites. You know, flaming space debris that slams into the planet at 44 miles per second.) We hear the evil laughter again. And suddenly EVIL RED CLOUDS appear and block out the sun! More charcoal briquettes drift to the ground! A guy we learn is Zarkov, an iconclastic scientific genius, can tell that the briquettes are "fragments of moon-rock." He knows this because he poked one with a pencil. Apparently there's also a solar eclipse going on. And more red clouds. And the moon is falling out of orbit and into the Earth. I don't know how Zarkov knows this, but he has an accent and a panel of beeping machines, so he must be right.
Zarkov is on the outs with the scientific community of the world because he has this crazy theory that someone, somewhere, wants to destroy the planet. But he's built a ship to fly into space to save the world! Here's the catch: two people need to go because the ship requires a pilot and, um, someone to keep his or her foot on a red pedal. SERIOUSLY. He actually says "I need one person to keep a foot on that red pedal during blast-off." This is in the actual script.
Anyway, Zarkov's assistant gets kinda wigged out by the Hot Hail and moon-rocks and plastic spaceship and runs away. Fortunately for Zarkov, Flash's plane was attacked by the evil red clouds, which ate the pilot and co-pilot. Flash and Dale crash-land the plane in Zarkov's greenhouse. Zarkov is delighted, because now he has someone to hold down the red pedal during blast-off. He tricks Flash and Dale into the ship by telling them there's a phone inside and then, when they all start fighting about the fact that they've been tricked into a fucking spaceship, accidentally initiate blast-off. The ship takes off. Dale, Zarkov and Flash strap themselves in... and promptly fall asleep.
Everyone wakes up. Flash and Dale had fallen asleep holding hands and, uh, kinda all over each other. So he's a little "oh yeah, baby," when he wakes up to find her drooling on his shoulder. She wakes. Flash asks if Dale remembers him. She manages to refrain from pointing out THAT HE'S WEARING HIS NAME ON HIS T-SHIRT.
Flash leaves the ship and is attacked by guys in sci fi outfits (sparkly red bodysuits and capes) wielding sci fi weapons, like laser hand-guns. By which I mean, laser guns that shoot out a hand. I could not make this shit up if I tried.
Thank god they've landed on a planet where everyone speaks English. Flash, Dale and Zarkov are ushered into a big red hall filled with aliens. Two of those aliens are Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed: Timothy is basically dressed like a cross between Robin Hood and Tinkerbell, while Brian Blessed is wearing leather underwear and cardboard wings. The two are arguing about a hunk of rock while everyone else is pledging fealty to Emperor Ming, WHO IS NOT A RACIST ANALOGUE AT ALL.
For reasons totally unrelated to the way Ming looks, acts, and is otherwise portrayed, I'm going to call him Fu-Manchu. He has a daughter, named something lame and sci-fi-y, like Aøliîna, but whatever. She is the Daughter of Fu-Manchu. Anyway. Daughter of Fu-Manchu makes eyes at Flash. Flash makes eyes right back. Dale gets kind of territorial about a guy she's known for three minutes.
It's at this point that we learn who Flash is and why he's famous. Flash is the star quarterback of the New York Jets. (Apparently he's a polo champion in the comic. Lateral move?)
While Daughter of Fu-Manchu makes eyes at Flash, Fu-Manchu makes eyes at Dale. When Fu orders Dale to come closer and she refuses, he activates his remote-control ring (just in case we weren't certain that Fu was the unseen baddie with the cataclysm-control-panel from the film's beginning) which causes her to glow red and make sexy at him. Flash is all, "dunno, but me likey" when she asks him what happened. No, really. A terrifying space tyrant just made a woman Flash ostensibly cares about lose control of her own body and wiggle seductively against her will, and our hero's response is "I don't know what that was, but it was pretty awesome." Hah hah, agency is for doofuses.
But, one way or the other, Flash bored now. Zarkov tosses him a football-shaped object. Flash positively lights up, delighted that he's been given a prop he knows how to use. He hunkers down in good foootball-player form and tackles the offensive line of baddies. Then he tries to sack Fu. Dale cheerleads. I'm not actually making this up. But even the star quarterback for the NY Jets can't win against a lineup of guys in red velour, and Flash goes down. Daughter of Fu-Manchu touches up her dad inappropriately and asks if she can have Flash. Fu decides to execute him instead. Daughter of Fu-Manchu runs off-screen; when we catch up with her she's making out with Timothy Dalton. I really have no idea what's going on.
The next scene opens with Flash chained up, shirtless, and wearing a spiky box on his head, in some sort of dungeon. Because this is a sci fi movie, there are actors in violently cheap rubber lizard-suits in a nearby prison cell. Dale, now wearing a tight red dress and crown because she's been forced to joing Fu-Manchu's harem, runs in and throws herself on her chained-up meathead. (A guard takes off the box first.) Flash is all "mmm dress pretty." Dale responds, chirpily, that she's pretty excited by how well sex-slavery suits her. Oh my god I swear this is an actual scene in an actual movie that I am actually watching.
Whatever. They make sad for a bit about how Flash is going to be executed. Our next sight is of Flash, wearing nothing but black vinyl hotpants, being strapped into an electric chair. Fu and his minions and harem assemble to watch Flash bite it. Dale cries. Fu-Manchu and Daughter are fascinated that humans, whom they resemble in every way, can make water fall from their eyes. One wonders how Fu keeps his eyeballs moist, if not with liquid secretions from tear-ducts. Hot Hail?
Later. Daughter, in what will turn out to be her second of many, many changes of revealing costumes, brings Flash back to life by opening his coffin and injecting him with something. Daughter gropes Flash - Flash's corpse, remember - and then, ew, kisses him. He comes to, a little surprised that a) he's alive again and b) some lady is sexually molesting him. Tangentially: his coffin has a mirrored lid. Mirrored on the inside. It turns out this is all in service of a gag where Daughter gives Flash some clothes to change into, promises not to watch him, and then sneaks peeks at him in the mirror. The mirror on the inside of his coffin.
This movie is kind of breaking me.
Daughter has given Flash a red and black vinyl costume, complete with a fiddly scarf to fling about his neck - a scarf! - and they make their escape from The Palace of Fu-Manchu. Meanwhile, Fu has strapped Zarkov to a table and pointed a humongous laser at him, threatening to kill him Goldfinger-style. He monologues a bit and then starts to leave. Zarkov's all "do you expect me to talk?" In a different, better movie, Fu-Manchu explains that, no, he expects Zarkov to die. In this movie, however, Fu has the Evil Lady Leader of his Evil Secret Service suck all of Zarkov's knowledge out of his head. Zarkov, poor man, gets to see and hear all his memories on a screen as they're pulled from his brain. This includes his wife's death by drowning, the Holocaust, Hitler and, ick, his own birth and conception. Then Evil Lady puts all the memories and knowledge... back? (Even Jared couldn't figure this out.)
Meanwhile. Daughter is teaching Flash to fly some sort of sci fi plane-thing with the help of a few heavy-handed double entendres. But Flash is too thick to understand what her "manipulate this small button gently, darling, gently" talk is actually about. Daughter, with palpable frustration, makes her sex-talk explicit: "it's extremely sensitive. Like me." It's best to be unambiguous with Flash.
While this is going on, Dale is being introduced to her life of sex-slavery by Fu's other harem girls. One gives Dale a drink that will make her nights with Fu "worth remembering." Dale takes a deep sip and thinks it's delicious. Sex slavery is TEH AWESUMS.
Flash uses his manly wiles to get Daughter to teach him to communicate telepathically with Dale. Daughter does, but sexually molests Flash while he tells Dale to "fake out" Fu, in whose bedroom she's just been locked, until Flash can come rescue her. Then Flash gets distracted by the woman with her hands down his pants and leaves Dale to her fate. Dale gets a worrisome glint in her eye and offers a slave-girl a drink.
Fu comes into his bedroom, unbuckles his belt, and starts feeling up the unconscious girl in his bed, thinking she's Dale. But it's the slave-girl! Dale has escaped, leaving some other woman to be raped! Dale gets a gun by kicking an guard and then takes out half the palace defense by, honest to god, taking off her heels and busting out some serious karate. Then she puts her shoes back on and flutters away. The Evil Lady in charge of Zarkov's programming watches (lustfully?) on a monitor. Oh, yeah, Zarkov's now a baddie! Evil Lady sends Zarkov to capture Dale.
Flash and Daughter have landed on Degobah, or maybe the forest moon of Endor? It's green and swampy, and there are treehouses. They hear the sounds of, Daughter explains, "a young man being initiated." Into group masturbation I'd guess, judging by all the pounding and gasping. The young man being "initiated" into "manhood" is dressed in green, like Timothy Dalton. While Timothy and his band of merry men watch, he thrusts his arm into a tight, dark hole in a dead tree. And gets pricked by a pulsating scorpion-thing. Apparently he's now going to die in agony, so he bursts into tears and begs Timothy Dalton to kill him. Timothy obliges. Daughter pulls Timothy aside and they make out. Eventually, Timothy comes up for air and wonders why she's on Degobah. Daughter explains that she brought her boy-toy for him to hide and care for. Timothy is rightly a little upset by this development. They make out more, and Timothy does some hair-grabbing and hand-pushing and stuff, to reestablish his alpha-manliness.
Meanwhile, Zarkov captures Dale... but he's not evil! He's regained control of his brain! Because "you can't beat the human spirit!" Also, apparently, because he recited Shakespeare to himself and it saved his mind. Brian Blessed and his winged compatriots appear, nab Zarkov and Dale, and carry them off to the Floating Brian Blessed Angel Palace.
Timothy puts Flash in a cage with some of the rubber lizard-dudes and dunks him in a swamp.
Jump-cut to Daughter, tied face-down on a slab and being whipped by Evil Lady. The manacles holding Daughter down are hand-shaped. THERE'S NOTHING SEXUALLY EXPLOITATIVE ABOUT THE SCENE, I SWEAR. Especially not after Fu drops by to watch and then promises his daughter in marriage to his Number One Minion. Then Fu decides to force Dale to marry him.
Back to Degobah. Timothy sits in a treehouse and sulks. Flash and all the others in his cage (some people in rubber lizard suits, a Blessed-Angel, a couple of the Robin Hood Degobah people) aren't dead yet - despite being trapped in a cage 98% submerged in a gunky swamp. Indeed, they're working on escaping.
At the Blessed-Angel Palace, Brian Blessed threatens to turn Dale and Zarkov over to Fu. Dale's all "you hate Fu. Why not take him out yourself? He's totally weak; he couldn't even kill Flash." Everyone's like, "yeah. Hey, yeah!" as they remember that Flash's idea of combat is to pretend he's playing football.
Degobah. Flash has escaped and is facing off with Timothy. Timothy challenges him to a manly-man combat, where each, one after the other, is to plunge his arm into a deep, dark hole in a tree and risk being stung by the pulsating scorpion within. Flash says "no, ew" because Flash is a totally heterosexual dude who understands there's only one body-part a man should be plunging into deep, dark holes, and it shouldn't be plunged in the company of another man. Timothy Dalton calls him a coward and thrusts his own fist into the tree. Flash doesn't cotton to being called a coward, no siree, so rams his fist into the tree. They continue to glower at each other and penetrate the tree until Flash gets stung. Except he's not! Flash is totally faking! He pulls Timothy's sword on him then runs off. Timothy Dalton gets rightly pissy at being outsmarted by a cro-magnan lunkhead and gives chase in his twinkly little pointy-toed green suede boots.
Flash immediately falls into a mud-pool and drowns. No he doesn't. He finds a root and uses it to pull himself, exhausted and mud-spattered, to dry ground. Timothy watches from a tree as the ground starts grunting and grows arms and tries to eat Flash. Instead of allowing nature to take its course, Timothy shoots the ground, saving Flash. But! There are Blessed-Angels nearby, and they shoot at Timothy! And then capture Flash and Timothy and fly them to the Blessed-Angel Palace. Brian Blessed looks utterly delighted to have more people to bellow at, and proceeds to do so. Timothy Dalton bellows the fuck right back. They argue about the niceties of local law at top volume. Finally, Brian Blessed concedes that Timothy Dalton has the right to fight for his freedom. Hilariously, Timothy chooses to fight Flash. Flash is very confused. Then Dale rushes across the Blessed-Angel Palace floor, flings herself into Flash's arms and plants a passionate peck on his chastely closed lips. To which he responds by proposing. To a woman with whom he's spent approximately five conscious minutes in the same room. As one does.
Right, it's time for the Timothy Dalton/Flash Gordon showdown! With whips! And Brian Blessed has a remote control that makes the floor they're fighting on tip from side to side! And he can make spikes shoot up from the platform! Better and better. Timothy Dalton immediately gets, and keeps, the upper-hand. Dale screams that she loves Flash but they only have fourteen hours left to save the Earth, (oh, yeah; the Moon's still going to crash into Earth), so stop screwing around already. Flash is all "uch, Flash busy!" and promptly falls over.
Somehow in the middle of their whip-fight Flash and Timothy make friends over their mutual desire. To kill Fu. What did you think I meant? "What is this shit?" Brian Blessed demands. "Slash-fic," everyone responds. Flash and Timothy agree that humanity is better than Fu-Manchuity. Everyone cheers. I swear I am not making this up.
Fu has taken a ship and flown to the Blessed-Angel Palace with a coterie of minions and guards. Number One Minion makes land first and strides across the combat floor to sneer about torturing Daughter. Timothy punches him and Flash tosses him onto the spiky tippy floor. Number One Minion gets impaled and, like, goozes to death.
But Brian Blessed and the Blessed-Angels think that going against Fu - the guy with the power to control Hot Hail, remember - is sheer lunacy. So they fly away. The Earth's fate now rests on the shoulders of a fantastically dumb football player, a woman who just got engaged; stop harshing her buzz already, a mind-wiped ex-scientist, and Timothy Dalton. I definitely know who my money's on.
First the talky part of the show-down. Fu shows up and tries to buy Flash off by offering him the opportunity to rule the galaxy. Fu also wants Flash to "breed" with Dale - after marriage, of course - so that they can litter the universe with their spawn. Flash refuses all these tempting offers, so Fu leaves Flash there and goes back to his ship to kill Flash from afar, by blowing up the Blessed-Angel Palace. OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS. Fu has the power to control minds and bodies; he's facing off with Flash on a floating palace that happens to be covered in spikes and also hovering over a swirling vortex of doom and instead of using his ring to make Flash throw himself off the flying palace or even just onto the spikes that are right the fuck there he returns to his own ship to blow up the Blessed-Angel Palace from afar BECAUSE THAT IS OBVIOUSLY THE BEST AND MOST EFFICIENT WAY TO KILL HIS ENEMY.
Somehow, Flash escapes.
Meanwhile, the Blessed-Angels are hanging out on Degobah, sad about the fact that they're all giant cowards. Flash, midair on the "rocket-cycle" he used to escape from Fu, calls Brian Blessed on some sort of telephone, and convinces him to fight the good fight.
Daughter, meanwhile, now dressed in a slithery pink harem costume, gets thrown into her own father's harem. Dale gets into a pillow-fight with her because she is super-mad at Daughter, and that is how women deal with anger. Then they have a good cry and make friends. Daughter of Fu-Manchu pulls a little box full of poison out of her slithery costume and hands it to Dale, explaining that her dad "always drinks a power potion before he makes love." If Dale slips the poison into Fu's evil cup of evil as he's preparing to rape her, he'll die and that'll be the end of everyone's problems.
But Dale refuses. We learn that Dale agreed to marry Fu if he'd spare Zarkov and Timothy, captured at the Blessed-Angel Palace. And humans are better than non-humans because humans keep their promises, Dale explains, so she won't lie and poison Fu EVEN IF DOING SO WOULD SAVE UNTOLD MILLIONS OF LIVES ACROSS THE GALAXY, not to mention keeping her personally from being forced into marriage and multiple women, including Fu's own daughter, from lives of sexual servitude. 'CAUSE HUMANS KEEP THEIR WORD. Then a harem girl takes Dale away to get ready for her marriage.
But the FLASH AH-AH music cues us that our meatheaded hero is about to save the day. On his rocket-cycle. With an army of flying monkeys! No, it's an army of Blessed-Angels. A big dildo-shaped ship blasts off to fight Flash. The Blessed-Angels dive-bomb it. Brian Blessed and Flash hang back and watch, like the exemplary leaders they are. A lot of guys in underwear and cardboard wings rush around on the dildo-ship set fighting guys dressed in gold lamé. Flash finally deigns to show up (after everyone else is dead) and, after a lot more running around, takes control of the ship.
MEANWHILE. Lady Evil unrolls a poster-sized picture of Dale and introduces her to Fu's citizens as their new empress. Fu's daughter kills a guard with her lady-wiles and saves the chained-up Zarkov and Timothy. Timothy, of course, reacts to his rescue by proposing. And then gets really mad when Daughter doesn't instantly respond with maidenly blushes and whispered acceptances and a passionate swoon.
Flash is at the helm of the dildo-ship. Brian Blessed is having a fucking blast. Flash can barely keep a straight face. (Flash: "acting hard."
WEDDING. Mendelsshon's fucking wedding march plays. Fu is standing at the altar in a pink body-suit with a sparkly gold headpiece. Hilariously, another dildo-ship flies across sky behind Fu with a banner reading "all creatures will make merry under pain of death." Dale, in slinky black sequins, is dragged down the aisle. Daughter of Fu-Manchu, in slinky white sequins, is also being dragged down the aisle. Apparently she had to be at the wedding or her father would kill her? I just... I just don't know. When did they have time to change her into another dress? Why is she also being dragged down the aisle? WHY DOESN'T THIS FILM MAKE ANY SENSE AT ALL?
Evil Lady sets up a net of weapons (the, ahem, "lightning shield") around Fu's castle. Flash decides to crash his dildo-ship into the castle. Brian Blessed, seriously cracking his shit up, wishes Flash luck and bails.
Timothy, Zarkov behind, kicks down the door to Evil Lady's control room and bellows, wonderfully, "freeze, you bloody bastards!" Zarkov rips the goggles off one of Evil Lady's minions to learn that, gasp, they're all... cyborgs! Zarkov stays to figure out how to disable the lightning shield. Timothy takes off to go KILL THE BAD GUY.
The priest-guy-thing at the altar, meanwhile, has begun the wedding ceremony. "Do you, Ming the Merciless," he asks Fu-Manchu, "ruler of the universe, take this Earthling, Dale Arden, to be your Empress of the Hour? Do you promise to use her? Not blast her into space... until you grow weary of her?"
Oh, fine; it's completely hilarious. Anyway, the vows continue. Meanwhile, the dildo-ship is on fire! But still Flash flies on! Intercutty Flash flying and marriage vowing. Meanwhile Timothy Dalton, the only useful person in the entire film, is busy kicking down doors and killing villains and, oh yeah, deactivating the lightning screen himself. Apparently this also, somehow, saves Earth.
OH MY GOD THIS REALLY HAPPENS. Flash flies the dildo-ship into the castle and rams the nose of the ship through Fu's back. He then hops out while Fu wrenches himself off the tip of the dildo-ship. They fight, Flash's cardboard sword against Fu's remote-control ring. Except they don't fight; Flash wobbles the sword about a little while Fu falls to his knees, finally collapsing and dying. Well, he phases out, anyway. As Fu puddles, Flash stands over him gloating about how Fu's power is fading because people aren't afraid of him anymore, or something. Maybe. I suspect the spaceship through the sternum might have a little to do with it, too.
But, yay! Flash won! Everyone cheers! Timothy Dalton - the guy who disabled the lightning shield and, oh, saved the Earth - actually, with a straight face, announces that "we owe everything to Flash." Daughter of Fu-Manchu and Timothy kiss, which I assume means they're married now. Since he becomes emperor (someone helpfully exposits), and he can only become emperor by marrying the daughter of the emperor, they must be married? Everyone cheers more. Dale flings herself into Flash's arms again. They joke about whether to stay (everyone is begging them to, of course) or go back to Earth. Dale wants to go back to NYC, because it's "a little too quiet around here". Flash is all "HAH HAH EARTH HUMOR FUNNY!" and laughs.
But then! A black-gloved hand picks up Fu's remote-control ring, which Flash just sort of, uh, left lying around. Evil laughter. Cue end-credits!
In many ways this film feels like an orphan out of time: its plot, from the pseudo-science to the mind-control ring, even down to the bizarre fixation on marriage, screams 1950s sci fi serial. But the movie is unmistakably a product of 1980; there are, for example, aspects of the costume and set designs that are clearly influenced by Star Wars. More importantly the film's bizarre, exploitative sexual politics could only be the product of - and a reaction to - a post sexual-revolution culture. Flash Gordon is many things: weird, non-sensical, charming, occasionally pretty funny... and a slap in the face of the idea that maybe, just maybe, women might want more out of life than a fluffy white dress and 2.5 babies.
The film is an unashamed paean to masculinity, from Flash's all-American goofusy-gallant to the Golden-Age virility of Timothy Dalton's character to the brutish lustiness of Brian Blessed's Conan-cum-Barbarella winged-man. Even Ming's horrific, barely-disguised-evil-Asian-stereotype villain represents a kind of celebratory machismo: the man keeps a prison full of scantily-clad women, takes drugs to improve his sexual performance, and makes available to his harem drugs that will make them enjoy being forced to have sex. He even has an implied semi-incestuous relationship with his daughter. The threat of rape looms constantly, over every female character bar one, the lesbian-with-a-whip Secret Police Commander, but the characters - male and female alike - accept and even joke about rape as an inevitable consequence of, I don't know, life? I may be a sex slave, Dale giggles to Flash at one point, but at least I've picked up some awesome makeup tips. And, Flash assures her, she looks super-hot in her harem costume. Thing is, according to the film's logic, all this is okay - because all these dudes really, really want is to settle down with a nice girl. Even Ming, harem-holding space-rapist, just wants to get married.
Seen in this light, Flash Gordon's utterly bizarre obsession with marriage begins to make sense. A nice, normal, regular ol' end-of-story marriage is a writer's best friend - it's the easiest and cheapest way to show that wrongs have been righted, evil has been overthrown, and that the characters feel the status quo has been reestablished. For Ming to marry would confirm that the wrong side won; once he's out of the way, however, the film's various love-matches can be brought together to reassure the audience that the world is not only safe but it'll keep on turning, and turning out bouncy blond babies. Western ideals about right and might and freedom have been maintained; toss a little heteronormativity into the pot and you wind up with a good helping of steaming status quo ante. Everybody cheers, the end.
Dale's character is a fascinating case; Ming's daughter gives her the tools and information she needs to kill him, and thereby ending the threat he poses to the entire universe. But, no; Dale gave Ming her word she'd marry him and by golly she's going to do it. Poisoning him would be wrong and bad, because it would mean she'd be breaking her promise. And by gum, humans are better than other species because they don't break their promises - they understand ideas like honor and integrity. Later Flash nearly dislocates his shoulder while patting himself on the back for saving billions of people by taking Ming out. And he should be patting himself on the back, the film is telling us, because he killed Ming the right way, the honorable way - by skewering him in the back with a spaceship.
(Aside about the immorality of shooting an enemy in the back, according to, I dunno, the entire Western canon, should be taken as read.)
(Aside about how Timothy Dalton disabled the lightning-screen, allowing Flash to crash his ship into Ming's back, and, oh, also saved the planet should, of course, also be taken as read.)
But Ming's daughter is a text-book study in icky sexual politics herself. She's sexually voracious and can hardly keep her hands off Flash even though she seems to have a pretty intense relationship going on with Timothy Dalton's character. In the end she's captured, tortured, promised in marriage as a reward to one of her father's cronies, and tossed into her own dad's harem. But of course, even after all that, she can't understand Dale's conception of honor. She hasn't got the moral compass to know that good girls only have one boyfriend at a time, the film implies; therefore she couldn't possibly understand what principles are full-stop. She's kind of redeemed at the end, when she saves some of the other characters - but not really. We know this because she doesn't really agree to marry Timothy Dalton, even though he asked her nice and proper and everything.
All that without getting into the film's insane, sexually-suggestive subtext: the initiation rite with the hollow tree and the scorpion, and its follow-up, the tree-fisting battle1 betwen Dalton and Flash. The mirrored coffin. The ridiculously phallic spaceships. The bondage-esque costumes. The constant near-nudity of the majority of the male cast. (Compare the flowing, floor-length robes of the villain and his minions to the skin-tight costumes and regular shirtlessness of the film's heroes.) The way Timothy Dalton's character continually asserts his authority over his straying love-interest - pulling her head back by her hair to kiss her, thrusting her hands away from him (the man is supposed to initiate sexy touching, you raging slut!), trying to kill his perceived sexual rival, and so on. The double-entendres about how flying a spaceship is like, you know, giving a woman an orgasm. Ming's death by spaceship-nose. Oh my god, even the spikes on the floor of the floating palace, which rise and fall as two muscular, spandex-clad men fight each other with whips. It's like this film was written by a committee of thirteen-year-olds.
1. Thanks to Simon Gilmartin (@soylentsoma) for coining "tree-fisting battle."
Monsters: Angel-men, lizard-men, lots of other kinds of aliens, a pulsating scorpion, a hungry jungle floor, and Brian Blessed.
Mullets: Flash has an amazing Flowbie-esque blow-out going on.
Doesn't Anyone Think This Shit Through? OBVIOUSLY NOT.
Ruining my Childhood by Inches: I don't remember seeing this as a kid, so my own childhood is intact. Jared, however, is a little worried that my serious consideration of the film's sexual politics is doing irreparable harm to his childhood.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomness Spectrum Placement: Okay, the sex stuff is awful. And the acting is, by and large, also awful. And the evil Orientalism is loathsome. BUT everyone looks like they're having a really good time. Seriously, Brian Blessed can't wipe the grin off his face. And I have a terrible weakness for Timothy Dalton. And the film is just awash in marvelous quotes. And doesn't take itself too seriously. And it's never dull. Flash Gordon is weird, really and truly weird, with a disturbing knee-jerk conservatism informing its plot and characters - but it tries really hard and it has a lot of fun and, hell, I liked it a lot. I'm going to stick it up at the Awesome end of the spectrum and think no more about it.
Do you expect to suck out my brains?
No, Mr. Bond, I expect to put them back in!