A lot of films get called "space operas" — some rightly, some seemingly because people can't find other ways to describe them. (WALL-E? The Chronicles of Riddick? Avatar?...really?) But in reality, every movie with that label should be compared to the all-time greatest: Flash Gordon.

Mike Hodges' seminal 1980 film — a blend of camp, lighthearted action, glorious rock 'n' roll and astounding visual design — celebrates its 40th anniversary today. It's long past time it received the celebration it deserves.

Based on a King Features comic strip of the same name that ran from 1934 through 2003, the movie follows New York Jets quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), who saves the Earth — and much of the known universe — without, apparently, being able to save his own football franchise. At the opening, Flash is flying back from vacation alongside an attractive travel agent named Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) when their plane is struck by a heretofore unknown phenomenon known as "hot hail." This deadly affliction is visiting Earth — along with earthquakes, tidal waves and more — through the powers of one Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), ruler of a distant planet called Mongo, who loves to destroy other civilizations for laughs.

When the pilots are killed, Flash manages to wrestle the plane to the ground. It crashes into the hideout of mad scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol), who's determined to fly his homemade rocket ship to Mongo in an attempt to stop Ming's assault. Although Flash and Dale have no intention of joining this suicide mission, Zarkov tricks them onto the ship. The adventure has begun.

Once on Mongo, our heroes discover one of the strangest and most beautifully imagined worlds this side of David Lynch's Dune. There's Ming himself, the evil emperor fond of marrying the most beautiful women he can find — on his condition promising "not to blast them into space...until such time as he grows weary of them." (IS THIS DIRECT DIALOGUE?) There's Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Ming's rebellious daughter, who's in love with Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), the ruler of Arboria, a forest and swamp land that's like a cooler Dagobah. Finally, there's Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed), the club-wielding leader of Sky City, which is populated by the massively winged Hawkmen.

In this land of shifting allegiances, Flash beats up a bunch of Ming's bodyguards by playing football with a giant green egg, is put to death by Ming (he survives), is forced by Barin to stick his hand into a weird stump (where a deadly monster lives) and is forced by Vultan to fight Barin on a platform with spikes that poke up at random times. Ultimately, though, Flash manages to rally the populace against Ming's rule. Meanwhile, Zarkov has his memory erased — he defeats this by reciting great works of human literature and song to himself — and Dale is betrothed to Ming, all while the countdown to the ultimate destruction of Earth continues apace.

At the film's close, Flash leads a rebellion that overthrows Ming and unites Mongo in a harmony extending to all its various peoples. He and Dale even consider staying on the planet but decide not to because Dale is "a New York City girl" and "it's a little to quiet" around there for her. It should be noted that Ming does not quite die — instead, he sucks himself back into his ring of power, which is picked up in the movie's final shot by a gloved hand, over which superimposed text reads: "The End...?"

The movie is obviously set up for a sequel that has never managed to appear, despite decades of Hollywood rumors — and that underscores both the complexity of making Flash Gordon in the first place and the difficulty of following up a project like this.

The comic's rights were owned by the titanic producer of all things schlocky and wonderful Dino De Laurentiis (Barbarella, Serpico, Death Wish, Orca, Conan The Barbarian, Blue Velvet, Army of Darkness, and about a thousand others) who, the story goes, rotated through directors George Lucas, Federico Fellini and Nicolas Roeg before settling on Hughes. Sam J. Jones reputedly won the starring role over Kurt Russell and Arnold Schwarzenegger but found working with Hughes so difficult that he left the set early, resulting in a good deal of his dialogue being dubbed by Peter Marinker. Lorenzo Semple Jr. — who helped develop the Batman TV series in the 1960s and wrote scripts like The Parallax View and Papillon — was convinced the entire venture would be a failure, as it was too comedic. And at least initially, all of this madness did hurt the film. Although it performed moderately well at the box office and received a number of glowing reviews, De Laurentiis' plans for a trilogy were canceled, and the movie came to be seen as something of a disaster.

But as much as any film of its type, Flash Gordon has benefitted from the passage of time. The soundtrack, with songs performed by Queen (and additional orchestral arrangements by Howard Blake), is a masterpiece, both sonically and in the way band's glam-opera style matches the plot and the visuals. It was also one of the first films scored by a rock band, helping open doors for everyone from Tangerine Dream to Jonny Greenwood.

The actors' performances glow with a self-awareness that is not — as many early critics had it — undercutting, but instead takes extraordinary pleasure in the material. Is it all ridiculous? Of course. But it's ridiculous in a joyous, larger than life way — insisting that the primary reason for watching a movie is to be entertained, rather than being lectured at, presented with pseudo-ethical dilemmas or bombarded with sophomoric superhero moralizing.

And all of this is before mentioning the stunning visuals from cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, art supervisor John Graysmark, costume and set designer Danilo Donati and editor Malcolm Cooke. In the end, Flash Gordon is the greatest space opera not because it's campy, but because it's beautiful — from soundtrack to color palate, wardrobe to set decoration — and because it demonstrates something the Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi knew well: There's as much value in playfulness as there is in profundity.


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