Hollywood Flashback: Campy 'Flash Gordon' Saved the Universe 40 Years Ago

Sam J. Jones in a football sequence — improvised that day on set — from the 1980 space opera 'Flash Gordon.'
Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Sam J. Jones in a football sequence — improvised that day on set — from the 1980 space opera 'Flash Gordon.'

Though George Lucas originally hoped to remake the 1930s movie serials, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis held the rights to Flash since the 1960s and refused to relinquish them.

There are good movies, there are bad movies, and then there are good bad movies. Flash Gordon, which debuted Dec. 5, 1980, falls squarely in the third camp — with an emphasis on "camp."

George Lucas originally hoped to remake the 1930s Flash Gordon movie serials, based on the Alex Raymond comic strip. But Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis had held the rights to Flash since the 1960s and refused to relinquish them, leading Lucas to instead create the massively successful Star Wars. By 1979, the world had space-opera fever, and De Laurentiis put Flash into motion.

He first offered directing duties to the great Federico Fellini, who passed. He then went to Nicolas Roeg, who labored on a script for a year. De Laurentiis hated Roeg's abstract take — Roeg envisioned Flash as a "metaphysical messiah" — and replaced him with Mike Hodges (1971's Get Carter). But he retained Fellini's production designer, Danilo Donati, to create Mongo, the planet ruled by Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow).

It's Donati's eye-popping sets, done in golds and reds, that made the biggest impression, as well as his costumes — including those for a burly race of Hawkmen whose wings were so heavy, the actors had to lie on their stomachs between takes. That and Queen's soundtrack, which matches the visuals' glorious excess. (Hodges' first choice had been Pink Floyd; when they fell through, he suggested Freddie Mercury's band, prompting De Laurentiis to ask, "But who are The Queens?") The starring role went to Sam J. Jones, a handsome former Marine who moved to Hollywood because he admired Clint Eastwood.

Jones, then 25, got the audition after De Laurentiis' mother-in-law spotted him on The Dating Game. "She said, 'I think I just saw your Flash Gordon on TV,' " recalls Jones, 66. (Kurt Russell had passed, finding the material too flimsy.)

The film was widely panned — The Hollywood Reporter declared it "horrendous" — and lukewarm box office scuttled plans for sequels. But it gained cult status over time. "For me, it's a visual masterpiece," says Jones. "Just sit back and enjoy the ride."