“GORDON’S ALIVE?

Yes, yes, he is. Nearly 40 years after the film that made and then broke him, filmmaker Lisa Downs goes in search of Saviour of the Universe, Flash Gordon aka Sam J. Jones.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Given the bland, anodyne, emasculated superhero and comic book toy commercials currently choking our cinemas, 1980 feels not so much like a foreign country but an alien world. I was 6 when my mother took me to the cinema and I saw Flash Gordon for the first time and, like Mark Wahlberg and Ted, it was a formative experience, but probably for very different reasons.

Sci-Fi was king when I was a kid. Like the rest of my generation I’d queued up to thrill to Star Wars and loved the original Star Trek long before there was a TNG while on TV, Tom Baker was still the best Doctor Who and a ragtag band of political dissidents and petty crooks were taking on a totalitarian government in Blake’s 7. So, when Flash Gordon came along no one expected it to be anything other than another Star Wars clone.

But sitting in the dark, Queen’s score throbbing, I knew Flash Gordon was different. It was big, it was bold and it was colourful. Star Wars may have taken us to alien worlds but they all kind of looked familiar. Sure, there were deserts and jungles but they all looked like, well, Earth. When Flash went to Mongo, one thing it didn’t look like was Earth. Mongo was weird. Mongo was wonderful. Mongo was alien. It was a world of rich, vibrant colours and retro rocket ships, of strange swamp creatures and winged Hawkmen.

And it was camp, it was…sexy. Star Wars was never sexy. It was 1980 remember; Carrie Fisher, her gold bra and Jabba the Hutt’s lascivious tongue were still 3 years in the future. Ornella Muti’s sexually precocious, vaguely incesty, Princess Aura opened the eyes of many a pubescent boy. You could never picture George Lucas’s chaste heroes getting up to any sexy shenanigans. Flash Gordon was different. Flash Gordon, you knew those characters fucked! And you knew that some of them – Richard O’Brien’s devious flute playing Arborian, Peter Wyngarde’s villainous Klytus, Ornella Muti’s Princess and Max Von Sydow’s Ming the Merciless – probably weren’t that picky about who, or what, they fucked.

And right at the heart of the film was Flash himself. Square-jawed and earnest, he was an old-fashioned hero, ready to sacrifice himself to save us all and tall, athletic and good-looking, Sam J. Jones seemed the perfect Flash, a quintessential all-American role model for the Reagan era. His image was everywhere, the focal point of a massive publicity campaign, the film was a hit, sequels beckoned and then…nothing. Internal disputes and Jones’ own prima donna behavior damned the nascent franchise even before the film was completed, Jones’ massive bust-ups with producer Dino De Laurentiis seeing him kicked off the picture, his lines eventually being dubbed by another actor. Still only in his twenties Jones’ career lay in ruins.

Life After Flash traces what happened to him next; his years in the wilderness as a gun for hire in TV and direct-to-video clunkers, his battles with addiction, with bankruptcy, with depression, finding God, his new career as a literal gun for hire – working as a cross-border security expert, ferrying VIPs into and out of Mexico – and his eventual rediscovery thanks to his tongue-in-cheek, OTT cameos in Seth MacFarlane’s Ted movies.

Interspersed with interviews with his family, friends and his Flash Gordon co-stars (Topol, Peter Wyngarde, Melody Anderson, Richard O’Brien, Blue Peter’s Peter Duncan and, of course, Brian Blessed), Downs follows Jones today as he works the international convention circuit and enjoys his cult status. A moving, life-affirming portrait of the man and his myth, Life After Flash is essential viewing for anyone who’s ever ran around an ‘80s playground singing “FLASH! AH-AAAAAH!”   

Movie Review: Life After Flash
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