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Exclusive: New 'Flash Gordon' book provides unprecedented historical account of the 1980 film

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Nov 24, 2020, 10:45 AM EST

Flash...AHHH!! Savior of the universe! Almost four decades after its initial release in December 1980, the Flash Gordon movie is getting a first-of-its-kind retrospective book that explores the project's genesis, troubled production, unmade sequels, and more eye-opening facets about the cult favorite sci-fi film. On sale from Titan Books next week,, Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film was written by Mongo super-fan John Walsh, author of last year's Harryhausen: The Lost Movies. Speaking with SYFY WIRE over Zoom in early September, Walsh recounted the book's long and winding road to publication.

"It took me about eight months to negotiate with King Features who is the rights holder; [and then] Universal Pictures, who did own the film; and then StudioCanal who now owns the film," he said. "I spoke to [producer] Dino De Laurentiis’s wife, Martha, to tie up a few of the loose ends, and then I got started on it. So it was the usual making-of in the sense that you speak to the people who made the film, but the more you spoke to people, the more you realize people didn’t really know what went on."

As a result, Walsh had to think like a motivated conspiracy theorist (à la Charlie Kelly and Pepe Silvia).

"I had to go around to each and every person who took part in the film, find out what they thought was the truth, then go back to them, and actually verify," he added. A lot of what happened in 40 years was that people had created their own mythology  ... I started with Post-It notes, then got a massive whiteboard in my office, and got loads of cards and had to do strings and everything. [I noted] where the evidence was confirmed, where it was contradictory, and who I could go back to, and how I could try and get people to admit they were wrong or maybe find out that they were wrong."

Even with permission to take a deep dive into the original film, Walsh still had a momentous task ahead of him. "It wasn’t a straightforward making-of," he added. "If you think of the making of Star Wars books, there isn’t a massive alternate reality that’s running alongside. Star Wars is more or less the film it was intended to be. So was Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Flash Gordon [on the other hand] was not."

For instance, the book features never-before-seen concept art created for the project when the late Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth) was attached to direct the first movie. The ultimate director, Mike Hodges (who was interviewed for the book) was actually supposed to helm the second entry in what De Laurentiis envisioned as fully-fledged trilogy.

You can check out an exclusive piece of concept art from Roeg's short-lived tenure below:

Nicolas Roeg concept art for the unmade Flash Gordon from 1978-1979 under the art direction of Ferdinando Scarfiotti (The Last EmperorFlash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film by John Walsh, published by Titan Books — © 2020 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

One could even describe De Laurentiis as the Kevin Feige of his time.

"Dino’s vision [is what] most impressed me," admits Walsh. "He spent thousands and thousands of dollars getting production designers and a famous director like Nick Roeg to create concept art. His vision was like an expanded universe for Flash Gordon, and we have original concept art from Paramount Pictures, who the film was originally for, which shows the expanded universe. It shows Lion Men — who are like Chewbacca — and it shows all of the other characters that would’ve been and should’ve been."

The sequel was going to adapt the Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe storyline from 1940. What's more, is that De Laurentiis also planned to recast Sam Jones in the title role with another actor for the second and third installments.  "That would’ve been fascinating because the Claymen, who are men made of clay and rock — and other kinds of flying creatures and dinosaurs — would’ve been in the second film," Walsh said of the plot that never was. "I think Dino planned to have more elaborate creature effects [in the sequel]."

Obviously, no follow-ups were ever made when Flash Gordon ended up being a critical and financial disappointment. While the IP was a direct influence on Star Wars, it arrived three years too late. By 1980, George Lucas had changed the blockbuster game with the release of A New Hope, which renewed the public's interest in science fiction. Even so, Flash was bigger in every way...at least that was the plan.

"Flash Gordon was bigger than Star Wars by every possible measure, except box office performance. Its budget was three times bigger than Star Wars," Walsh explains. "It had three times more special effects shots than Star Wars. It had larger sets than Star Wars, which used lots of glass paintings on small interior sets to expand them ... So hang on, why does it look the way it does? A little bit like the original 1930s serials? The answer was kind of obvious: They had all the money they wanted and none of the time they needed."

Unfortunately, Star Wars had a monopoly on the cultural consciousness and any movie that even remotely resembled the galaxy far, far away was seen as a cheap knock-off. However, Walsh did reveals that his book explores the legal gray areas surrounding Lucas, who pitched a Flash Gordon movie to King Features in the early 1970s. They rejected his concept and the aspiring director simply went off and made his own version that ended up eclipsing Flash Gordon 100 times over. Ironically, Star Wars (and James Bond) ended up influencing Flash, which got a last-minute opening sequence of Ming (Max von Sydow) attacking Earth after Hodges saw the now-famous opening crawl of A New Hope.

"Imagine you were the head of Warner Bros. and I was pitching you something about a movie spinoff of Robin. And you and I couldn’t reach a deal, and I went off and made my own version, which is very similar, called Dave, and it was based on a bird of something, you’d be dragging me through the courts by my hair," Walsh said of the potential infringement. "So yeah, we have a thing in the book where we fully explain that and the book is signed off by King Features, so it must be truth if I wrote it and they said it’s ok."

Concept art by Ferdinando Scarfiotti that would have been beyond the budgets or technology of the film to achieve on screen. Credit: Bob Lindenmayer and BFI Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film by John Walsh, published by Titan Books — © 2020 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

 

The film was following in the footsteps of Star Wars, with its black star fields and metallic grey spacecraft. Mike Hodges wanted to bring the comic strip quite literally to life. Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film by John Walsh, published by Titan Books — © 2020 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

In terms of speaking with members of the cast, Walsh was able to get ahold of almost everyone involved with the movie's ensemble. Even with certain actors having passed away (like Max von Sydow and Peter Wyngarde) or being unavailable (as was the cast with Timothy Dalton), the author was able to find a workaround.

"I was in touch with [von Sydow's] son, Cedric. He's making a film about his father’s life and so, we emailed some questions across. I think the only person who’s living that we didn’t get hold of was Tim Dalton ["Prince Barin"]. But I had some contacts and got some unpublished comments from Tim I was able to use," he said. "In the case of people who have passed, like Peter Wyngarde who played Klytus, I got his last interview that was unpublished. "But everyone else we got: [Sam Jones], Ornella Muti ["Princess Aura"], Melody Anderson ["Dale Arden"], Topol ["Hans Zarkov"], Brian Blessed ["Prince Vultan"], and even some smaller players who played minor roles in the film. Everyone who’s living I spoke to and everyone who’s dead, I channeled their last interviews, which is kind of cool."

Another standout interview was with De Laurentiis' widow, Martha:

"She was extremely frank and open with me in terms of what happened to Dino, what happened to this title, what happened to Dino’s companies, and how he would’ve felt now this many years later that it’s a success. He wouldn’t necessarily be as happy as you might expect, and for very good reason. I would have loved to speak with Dino … He’s one of the great raconteurs; he had so many great plans, he had such great vision and focus."

Part of the improvised football fight scene in Ming’s palace. Credit: Bob Lindenmayer Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film by John Walsh, published by Titan Books — © 2020 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

 

Taken from from the spreads discussing Brian Blessed’s roll as Vultan. Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film by John Walsh, published by Titan Books — 2020 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

 

Flash escapes with Lion down an elevator, Arboria: Surviving storyboards, created by legendary artist Mentor Huebner, depict scenes that expand the characters and their narratives. Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film by John Walsh, published by Titan Books — © 2020 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

Of course, no in-depth book about the making of Flash Gordon would be complete without an acknowledgement of the famous song written and performed by Queen. After all, Flash is for every one of us.

"To use rock music for an opening or end title sequence may have seemed adventurous on a science fiction film, but to score rock music at the apex of the on-screen drama was a significant risk for Mike Hodges," Walsh said, providing us with the following quote from the director:

"I did enjoy shooting this battle sequence. It's so preposterous, everyone getting out on the wing and the Hawkmen fighting. The music here just carries the sequence. Queen did such a brilliant job with this music. It's so exciting. Pauline Kael [legendary film critic from the New Yorker] called it “A disco in the sky.” She wrote an incredibly long and great review for this film, a doyenne of American cinema critiques. She loved it. She never liked any of my serious films. But she certainly liked this one."

Credit: Titan Books & John Walsh

Last summer, it was announced that Taika Waititi would helm a new Flash Gordon project at Fox/Disney — a job the Oscar-winning writer/director rightly won after his [inter]stellar work on Marvel Studios' Thor: Ragnarok. Unfortunately, the IP's big screen future isn't covered in Walsh's book, but that's only because the author filled it with everything he wanted and more (at least when it came to the 1980 feature). Had he come up short on content, he admits that he planned to look beyond the movie by focusing on the influence it had on future pieces of pop culture, like Seth MacFarlane's Ted. Still, if he had his way, the author would've gone that extra mile and continued beyond the publication's 200 pages.

"I needed a bigger book! It was like, ‘No, no, you can’t have more pages. Who do you think you are, J.W. Rinzler?’ I wanted it to be as thick as a couple of bibles," he said. "The film and the book ends at the same point, so we don’t get into legacy shoes. A second book could be written with more pictures of costumes and weapons and merch and other things because there was so much."

In a way, though, Walsh still gets to have his cake and eat it too because he also started up a podcast where he interviews crew members he couldn't get for the book. The audio endeavor is more focused on the technical side of the film's production, as well as StudioCanal's recent 4K restoration of the original film print.

"How did they find the original film elements? Was it the original film negative or the inter-positive? Who did it? What was the work that they had to do? To what extent did they clean it up?" the author posited. "I did one of my first podcasts with the restoration team from StudioCanal. The second or third is the guy who did the new poster, Matt Ferguson. I’ve done a podcast with some of the big fans; I’m doing some with the prop houses; I just did one on Dino De Laurentiis. So a 200-page book doesn’t really cover it. There are so many other things outside of the book."

Flash Gordon: The Official Story of the Film goes on sale next Tuesday, Dec. 1. You can pre-order a copy on Amazon for $50 right here.

"This is absolutely jammed with the very best pictures in the very best quality," Walsh concluded. "I set the bar kind of high for myself; I became like a pale-faced, ginger Indiana Jones looking for all of this. I must say I even exceeded my own expectations of finding the lost stuff. Because no one wants to pay for a book that’s full of photos you’ve seen before. You’re not $50 for something that’s usual usual because why would you?"


Credit: SYFY WIRE