When I was in college, way back in what I believe is affectionately referred to as ‘the day’, a good friend and I used to spend many idle hours debating the merits and demerits of certain movies. The one that was the most polarising between us was 1980’s Flash Gordon. Long story short, he thought it was an abomination and I adored it. I recently caught it on television, watched it again after many years and…I still adore it! I haven’t spoken to my old friend in many a year but I did find myself wondering if he still finds it as repugnant as he ever did.

Back in 1980 the cinema industry was still reeling from the effects of the Star Wars phenomenon. Every studio was churning out science fiction movies like they were potential gold mines. Some of these films were dreadful knock-offs and some were classic additions to the genre. And then there was Flash Gordon, in a class all its own. Based on the 30’s comic strip, Flash Gordon was a strange case of Star Wars coming full circle. George Lucas had been inspired to make his sci-fi epic because of the influence of the original Flash Gordon serials of his childhood. And the success of Star Wars directly led to the green light for this big screen adaptation. A classic case of cinema feeding itself.

It was Dino De Laurentiis, responsible for the abysmal King Kong remake of 1976, who decided to resurrect the blonde-haired, all-American, beefcake hero. Updating the character from polo player to New York Jets quarterback, De Laurentiis engaged the services of British director Mike Hodges (Get Carter) to direct what he hoped would be an epic to rival Lucas. Needless to say, it wasn’t and it didn’t. Flash Gordon performed poorly in America, where audiences failed to buy into the movie’s garish pantomime stylings. However, it found its audience across the pond in Europe, specifically Britain, where appreciation for high camp is a little more prevalent.

See if you can guess which one is Flash.


Casting – There’s nothing like some prime cuts of European ham, and Flash Gordon is a veritable butcher’s shop of Old World overacting. Max Von Sydow chews the scenery as Ming the Merciless, grabbing most of the movie’s best lines and delivering them with villainous disdain. Brian Blessed, who possesses a voice that can start avalanches, booms and cackles his way through his scenes as the winged Vultan. Meanwhile, the always excellent Timothy Dalton struts around in green tights, and makes even the most ridiculous lines seem credible. And Peter Wyngarde, who had disappeared for years after being caught doing naughty things in public toilets, oozes the right stuff this time as the evil Klytus. And let’s not forget the wonderful Topol, clearly having a blast as Dr. Zarkov. If I were a spaceman, ya ha deedle deedle bubba bubba deedle deedle dum. None of these performances was ever going to rattle Oscar’s cage, but they sure are fun to watch.

Brian Blessed. Great big, lovable hunk of ham.

Design – Italian designer Danilo Donati was responsible for the sets and costumes of Flash Gordon and he really did an astounding job. With his cavernous, art deco sets and bright, outlandish costumes (Von Sydow’s was so heavy he could only stand for a few minutes at a time), Donati created something which truly was in a world of its own. The designs in Flash Gordon are totally unique. It looks like The Wizard of Oz on acid, and no movie before or since looks quite like it. The costumes are all rooted firmly in bright, primary colours, and there are enough shiny things on show to satisfy even the most acquisitive magpie.

Men in tights, with whips. Who says homoerotic action scenes can't be harmless fun?

Soundtrack – I’ve never been a great fan of Queen, for the same reason I never really got Meatloaf. It’s the whole Rock Opera thing. Too melodramatic for my tastes. However, there’s something irresistible about Queen’s score for Flash Gordon. Somehow, among the camp performances and skin-tight costumes, the music of Queen just fits perfectly. Mike Hodges had considered Pink Floyd for the movie’s score, and even though I’m a huge fan of The Floyd, I still think he made exactly the right choice picking Freddie Mercury and his merry men. All together now, ‘Flash! Ah-aah! He’ll save every one of us!’

Flash! Ah-aah! King of the impossible!

Dialogue – Usually when I hear corny dialogue in a movie I gag and spit in barely contained rage, but there is something utterly endearing about the lines in Flash Gordon. The small cult following that it has picked up over the years is largely based around how quotable its screenplay is. Here are a few choice cuts. I suspect you will either chuckle nostalgically over these or scratch your head and wonder what the hell I’m talking about. It’s been that kind of post. Hey ho.

Flash Gordon: Prince Barin! I’m not your enemy. Ming is! Let’s all team up and fight him.

Dale Arden: Flash, I love you, but we only have 14 hours left to save the Earth!

Princess Aura: No! Not the bore worms!

Kala: Dispatch war rocket Ajax to bring back his body!

Prince Barin: Freeze, you bloody bastards!

Ming: Remove the earth woman! Prepare her for our pleasure!

Dr. Zarkov: Don’t empty my mind! I’ve spent my whole life filling it!

Ming: Klytus! Are your men on the right pills? Maybe you should execute their trainer!


Sam J. Jones – There aren’t many movies that could survive the failings of its lead actor, but Flash Gordon is a triumph of generous compensation. Sam J. Jones was plucked from obscurity to play the heroic chump, and glumly headed back to obscurity afterwards, stopping only to pick up the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor. Any other movie could easily sink under such weight, being carried, as it is, by an actor without the heft to take the load. But Flash Gordon provides enough bright lights and dizzy distractions to pull your focus away from the fact that the guy playing the title role may just as well be a quarterback for the New York Jets, rather than an actor playing one. Jones fell out with De Laurentiis during production, and plans for a sequel had to be shelved. I wonder how many sleepless nights Jones has had over that decision.

Jones locates his lines. They've been helpfully written on Ornella Muti's forehead.

Flash Gordon will always be one of those movies that you either love or hate, that you either get or you don’t. But few comic book adaptations have been as faithful to the look and style of their progenitors as this is. Flash Gordon perfectly replicated the campy, gaudy flavour of the original strip and got a lot of stick for doing so. Misunderstood among the dark, grungy sci-fi movies of its time (Star Wars, Blade Runner and Alien), Flash Gordon is a guilty pleasure that rewards the right frame of mind. Don’t take it seriously, leave your brain in neutral for a while, and you’ll have a ball. And if my old college friend is reading this (you know who you are), I rest my case.



Note: Click on all the images to see them full size.

If you love movies as much as I do, there’s a good chance that you love movie posters too. You probably have them on your walls, use one as your desktop wallpaper, and perhaps even collect movie posters like some people collect Picassos. I have a few myself, and why not? Some movie posters truly are works of art. Or at least, they used to be. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’ve got another case of that rose-tinted nostalgia-vision, but it seems that the hand-crafted movie poster has become an endangered species.

Growing up in the eighties, I spent my childhood in awe of the great movie poster illustrators, the artists whose work embellished the films I worshipped. I was a budding artist as well as a movie fanatic, and the eighties may have been the heyday of the movie poster artisan. It was, I see now, the perfect time for me to grow up in. Part of the excitement of any new movie, particularly those by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, was that first glimpse of the new artwork by Drew Struzan or Richard Amsel. These were artists who created posters upon which their signature was redundant. You knew who had created it simply by the style of the illustrations. They were in a league of their own, and in my opinion will remain so.

Star Wars reinvigorated the movie poster, accentuating the concept of the one sheet as a collectible piece of artwork. That’s not to say movie posters weren’t collectibles before then but, as it did with so many other things, Star Wars set the bar a little higher. The movie poster was suddenly romantic and energetic again, and the best designs for Star Wars ably captured the film’s wonder, sweep and spectacle. The posters were not just promotional tools, but important artistic creations in their own right. Perhaps, the most famous is the image of heroic Luke Skywalker, complete with accentuated physique, holding his lightsaber aloft, with the giant head of Darth Vader in the stars behind him. Known as Style A, this was a poster design interpreted first by Tom Jung (who would create posters for all three of the original Star Wars trilogy) and then by The Brothers Hildebrandt, with dramatically differing styles.

Drew Struzan’s poster for the film, in collaboration with airbrush artist Charles White III, was a nostalgic piece harkening back to the Saturday morning serials upon which the movie was based. It has a torn poster on plywood effect that only came about because the original design had no room for the movie credits. The romantic design ethic continued with The Empire Strikes Back. Roger Kastel illustrated the classic poster for the Star Wars sequel (see below), having previously created the iconic image for Jaws. Again, it is an evocative illustration encompassing a montage of scenes and characters. The fantasy and romance pours from the poster and the colours beautifully reflect those of the movie. Tom Jung also created his own poster for the movie, featuring a striding Darth Vader holding out his hand, a pose reflecting the movie’s famous and oft-quoted line, ‘I am your father’.


Richard Amstel produced two wonderful illustrations for Raiders of the Lost Ark, having earlier worked on the poster for Flash Gordon (above). The Indiana Jones series, a natural successor to the romantic nostalgia of Star Wars, followed suit in utilising great artists to render promotional materials. Amsel’s work on Raiders still ranks among my favourites of all time (see his alternative version at the top of this page). The beautifully realised image of Harrison Ford lifting out of the sandstone (a mix of watercolour, acrylic, airbrush and coloured pencils) is not only iconic, but sets the tone and setting of the film perfectly. Again, Drew Struzan was given the chance to create his own design for the film, for its 10th anniversary re-release. Sadly, Richard Amsel died in 1985, only thirty-eight years old. Struzan then became the go-to guy for the Indiana Jones movies, as well as many others connected with the Spielberg/Lucas machine, such as the Back to the Future trilogy and the Star Wars prequels.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there were many great artists working during this period. John Alvin created the famous poster for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which portrays the fingers of the alien and Elliot touching. The idea paid homage to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (suggested by Spielberg). Alvin was also responsible for the paws emerging from a box for Gremlins and the original poster for Blade Runner. Bob Peak created the art for each Star Trek movie poster, throughout the eighties. They, and many more like them, are the reason why movie memorabilia from that period is among the most sought after.

These days things are different. The ease and speed at which a poster can be knocked together using Photoshop means beautifully hand-rendered movie posters are a far rarer beast. To the men signing the cheques, it’s far cheaper to hire someone to sew together a couple of head shots or do a photo montage on the computer. I understand it, this is a business after all, but there was something about those old posters that fired the imagination and stoked the sense of wonder as you awaited your first screening of the next celluloid dream. They produced the kind of artwork that cannot be achieved with a mouse and keyboard, any more than an Impressionist masterpiece can be. The industry no longer seems to need the artists the way it once did, and it is always sad when an art form becomes surplus to requirements.

Struzan is still working, however rarely, and still producing immaculately hand-drawn posters. Hellboy was graced with his work along with, naturally, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, the golden age of he and his peers is long gone. At forty, I may grumble about my age, but I will always be grateful to have spent my formative years during the heyday of these unsung artistic giants. And I will always remember how I was just as influenced and inspired by the artistry they used to promote the movies as I was by the movies themselves. Thank you, guys.


Drew Struzan’s website

A wonderful site dedicated to the work of Richard Amsel

Tom Jung’s page at IMP Awards

John Alvin’s website