Review by C.J. Bunce
In the early 1980s a segment of genre films was eclipsed by blockbusters like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they were important and unique and genre fans loved them every bit as much as the box office winners. Films like Tron, The Dark Crystal, and Flash Gordon. Now after 40 years fans of Flash Gordon at last have a behind-the-scenes chronicle of the making of the film. John Walsh, author of Harryhausen: The Lost Movies (reviewed here at borg) unearthed concept artwork, original costumes, props, and sketches, and new interviews with the director, production staff, and cast members for the 40th anniversary tribute, Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film, the only comprehensive look at the art, promotional material, and music available for this classic sci-fi/fantasy favorite.
At one level this is the typical “art of” or “making of” book for a movie. The difference here is the movie premiere was so long ago that many details are unavailable, and so the primary source materials end up being the best way for the production to speak for itself. Walsh tracked down original props, costumes, and artwork to get new, detailed photographs, never before available to fans. All the swords, the helmets, and those amazing eyepopping costumes with that splash and dazzle never seen before or since fill page after page. This is foremost a showcase of the vision of Flash Gordon production designer and costume designer Danilo Donati–a double threat on the film who ensured a singular look to the movie from location to location and set to set. The book includes never before seen drawings and photographs of costumes that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film.
In a major way, the book is also the story of director Mike Hodges–who contributed much to Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film, and powerhouse producer Dino De Laurentiis, a quirky executive and visionary whose ideas drove the vision of Flash Gordon from inception to final cut. De Laurentiis wanted audiences to take the film seriously as a comic strip translated to film, but Hodges knew the humor would be essential to translate to modern audiences. Despite the funding and cutting edge special effects technology recently developed for Star Wars and Superman, Walsh conveys that De Laurentiis intentionally took a different approach, highlighted by the fact British rock band Queen was brought in to create themes and songs (Walsh includes recollections from band member Brian May), expanded into an eleventh hour, rapidly concocted full score by composer Howard Blake.
Fans of the film will learn how actor Brian Blessed says he was born for the roll of Vultan, how not paying the actors timely caused Flash actor Sam Jones to walk off the set before production was completed, how Dale Arden actress Melody Anderson updated her character from Alex Raymond’s comic strips to attempt to create a powerful female force on par with contemporary 1980s genre heroines Lois Lane and Princess Leia. Of the new cast interviews the key exception missing is Max Von Sydow, who played Ming the Merciless in what is probably the single greatest adaptation of a comics character ever put on the big screen (Von Sydow passed away in 2020 at the age of 90, after a long and distinguished career). Those without new interviews are filled in by Walsh with more contemporary recollections via fandom magazines and other sources.
Those who love concept artwork will be thrilled with pages of storyboard art, drawn by artist Mentor Huebnor–although neither De Laurentiis nor Hodges relied on them. Paintings from art director John Graysmark and artists Ferdinando Scarfiotti, Chris Foss, and Tom Adams defined the look of the film. John Walsh showcases the special effects, like the powerful clouded skies made with Perspex cloud tanks, the use of blue screens, the use of a motion control camera and optical printer, plus scale models (like a 25-foot model of Ming’s palace), rod work and wires, matte paintings, and other movie magic. The author utilizes interviews new and old from special effects supervisor Frank Van der Veer, his assistant Barry Nolan, model makers Martin Bower and Bill Pearson, and others. Best of all, fans get to see the full model of the dreaded Arborian tree insect, which we only barely saw inside the holes of the tree stump.
Walsh pieces together deleted scenes from the film, including an alternate ending. The book wraps with discussions of the opening title art, promotional poster art, including Richard Amsel’s definitive poster seen on the book cover, and input from fan and noted comic book creator and poster artist Alex Ross.
It’s the ultimate source book for fans of Flash Gordon, and a great look back at the film production methods of the year 1980. Highly recommended for sci-fi fantasy fans, in a full-color jacketed hardcover edition, Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film is available now here at Amazon.