Flash Gordon is the hero of a science fiction adventure comic strip originally drawn by Alex Raymond. First published January 7, 1934, the strip was inspired by and created to compete with the already established Buck Rogers adventure strip. Also inspired by these series were comics such as Dash Dixon (1935 to 1939) by H.T. Elmo and Larry Antoinette and Don Dixon and the Hidden Empire (1935 to 1941) by Carl Pfeufer and Bob Moore.
The comic strip follows the adventures of Flash Gordon, a handsome polo player and Yale graduate, and his companions Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov. The story begins with Earth bombarded by fiery meteors. Dr. Zarkov invents a rocket ship to locate their place of origin in outer space. Half mad, he kidnaps Flash and Dale, whose plane has crashed in the area, and the three travel to the planet Mongo, where they discover the meteors are weapons devised by Ming the Merciless, evil ruler of Mongo.
For many years, the three companions have adventures on Mongo, traveling to the forest kingdom of Arboria, ruled by Prince Barin; the ice kingdom of Frigia, ruled by Queen Fria; the jungle kingdom of Tropica, ruled by Queen Desira; the undersea kingdom of the Shark Men, ruled by King Kala; and the flying city of the Hawkmen, ruled by Prince Vultan. They are joined in several early adventures by Prince Thun of the Lion Men. Eventually, Ming is overthrown, and Mongo is ruled by a council of leaders led by Barin. Flash and friends return to Earth and have some adventures before returning to Mongo and crashing in the kingdom of Tropica, before reuniting with Barin and others. Flash and his friends would travel to other worlds and frequently return to Mongo, where Prince Barin, married to Ming's daughter Princess Aura, has established a peaceful rule (except for frequent revolts led by Ming or by one of his many descendants). The long story of the Skorpii War takes Flash to other star systems, using starships that are faster than light.
Flash Gordon was featured in three serial films starring Buster Crabbe: Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938), and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). The 1936 Flash Gordon serial was condensed into a feature-length film titled Flash Gordon or Rocket Ship or Space Soldiers or Flash Gordon: Spaceship to the Unknown; the 1938 serial into a feature-length film entitled Flash Gordon: The Deadly Ray from Mars and the 1940 serial into a feature-length film entitled The Purple Death from Outer Space.
The classic sci-fi adventure film Flash Gordon (1980) stars former Playgirl-centerfold Sam J. Jones in the title role. Its plot is based loosely on the first few years of the comic strip (in particular the famous Alex Raymond Sunday page, "Flight of the Hawkmen") revising Flash's backstory by making him the quarterback of the New York Jets instead of a polo player. Raymond's drawings feature heavily in the opening credits, as does the signature theme-song "Flash!" by rock band Queen, who composed and performed the entire musical score.
Riding the coattails of Star Wars, Superman, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Flash Gordon was not a critical success on release, but the film has been buoyed by its later cult-status, and is particularly lauded for the calibre of both its score and supporting cast, which featured many notable actors. Melody Anderson co-starred with Jones as Dale Arden, alongside Chaim Topol as Dr. Hans Zarkov, Max von Sydow as Ming, Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan, Peter Wyngarde as Klytus and Ornella Muti as Princess Aura. Directed by Mike Hodges, produced by Dino De Laurentiis, with extraordinarily ornate production designs and costumes by Danilo Donati, the bright colors and retro effects were inspired directly by the comic strip and 1930s serials.
Brian Blessed's performance as the Hawkman Prince Vultan lodged the veteran stage and screen actor into the collective consciousness for the utterance of a single line – "GORDON'S ALIVE?!" – which, nearly 30 years later, remains the most repeated, reused, and recycled quotation from both the film and Blessed's career.
The story opens with the voice of Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) indicating he will destroy Earth with a variety of seemingly natural disasters.
Sometime later on Earth, New York Jets football star "Flash" Gordon (Sam J. Jones), who has been vacationing in Dark Harbor, a resort in the Green Mountains, boards a small plane when Ming's “hot hail” begins. Onboard, he meets travel journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) who is also flying back to New York City. Mid-flight, the disasters become progressively worse and when the cockpit is hit by a meteorite the pilots are sucked out. Flash takes control, and manages to crash land the craft in a greenhouse owned by Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol). Zarkov believes the disasters are being caused by an unknown source in space which is sending the moon out of orbit and toward the Earth and has secretly constructed a rocket ship with which he intends to investigate. His assistant leaves after hearing his plan, so he lures Flash and Dale inside the rocket. After a struggle, the rocket launches into orbit, taking the trio into a black hole and to the planet Mongo. There, they are taken prisoner outside of a grand city.
Flash, Dale and Zarkov are brought before Ming the Merciless. Ming is shown to be a ruthless and tyrannical emperor, he orders Dale to be prepared for his pleasure. Flash attempts to resist but is eventually overpowered by Ming's men. Ming orders Zarkov into Klytus's custody for reconditioning and has Flash executed by gas. Ming's daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), manipulates Ming’s Chief Surgeon into resurrecting Flash, to whom she is attracted. Zarkov is delivered to Klytus, who seemingly brainwashes the scientist. Meanwhile, Aura and Flash retreat to Arboria, kingdom of Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), Aura's lover.
En route to Arboria, and upon Flash's insistence, Aura reluctantly teaches Flash to use a telepathic communicator to contact Dale and let her know he is still alive, while Aura attempts to seduce him. Dale informs Flash that she is locked in Ming's bedchamber. Encouraged by Flash, Dale escapes. Klytus dispatches Zarkov to intercept Dale who informs Zarkov and a listening Klytus that Flash is alive. The two subsequently escape, as Zarkov reveals he was able to resist the brainwashing process. They are quickly captured by Prince Vultan's (Brian Blessed) Hawkmen and taken to his kingdom, Sky City.
Aura and Flash arrive at the forest moon Arboria. Aura asks Prince Barin to keep Flash safe. A distrustful Barin, who is in love with Aura, agrees not to kill Flash, but instead contrives to force him to take part in a deadly ritual. The two men take turns sticking their hands into a hollow stump with a poisonous creature inside. When Barin compels Flash to take an extra turn, Flash realises he will not be allowed to win and pretends to be stung by the creature and begs for a quick death. As Barin prepares to strike, Flash grabs his weapon and escapes into the forest. Barin follows, but they are both captured by Prince Vultan’s Hawkmen.
Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) informs Ming of Flash's resurrection and gains Ming's authority to investigate. Aura returns alone to Mingo City only to be taken prisoner and tortured by Klytus and General Kala (Mariangela Melato). They eventually get a full confession and Ming orders Aura to be banished to the ice moon Frigia after his wedding.
Flash and Barin are captured by the Hawkmen and taken to Sky City, where Flash and Dale are briefly reunited. Flash is forced to fight Barin to the death, but when Flash spares Barin's life, Barin finally realizes that Flash can be trusted and that they must join forces against Ming. Klytus arrives to arrest Barin and Zarkov for treason and recapture Dale, but Flash and Barin double-team Klytus and kill him. The death of Klytus in Sky City will bring retribution on the Hawkmen, and in a panic, Vultan orders all the Hawkmen to evacuate, leaving Barin, Flash, Dale and Zarkov behind. Ming’s ship arrives shortly afterwards and he orders Barin, Zarkov and Dale to be taken aboard his ship. Ming finds himself impressed with Flash, and offers him lordship over a subjugated Earth in exchange for fealty, as an alternative to death, which Flash refuses. Ming returns to his ship and gives the order to destroy Vultan’s kingdom with Flash still on it. But once again, Flash cheats death by finding a rocket cycle in the city and escaping before Sky City is destroyed.
Flash contacts Vultan, whose people have found refuge on Arboria, and plot an attack on Mingo City. Flash (seemingly) attempts to attack Mingo City alone on his rocket cycle. General Kala dispatches the war rocket Ajax to bring back Flash's body, but it is a trap and the Hawkmen army intercepts and, after a huge battle, Flash and the Hawkmen seize control of the rocket. In Mingo City, Princess Aura overpowers her guard and makes her way to the execution chamber, freeing Barin and Zarkov. Flash and the Hawkmen attack Mingo City in Ajax and Kala activates the city's defenses, as Ming and Dale’s wedding starts.
Earth is now minutes from being destroyed and Mingo City's lightning field can only be penetrated in time by flying Ajax in to it in a suicide run. Flash volunteers to stay at the helm to ensure it is successful and allow the Hawkmen to invade the city. Just before the rocket hits, Barin manages to sabotage the lightning field generators and Ajax plummets into the city's great hall where the wedding is taking place; the ship's bow impales Ming as all others flee to safety. The impact throws Flash around in the rocket, dazed but uninjured. Ming falls off the rocket nose, seriously wounded, and Flash offers to spare his life if he will stop the attack on Earth, but Ming refuses to submit. Ming attempts to use his power ring on Flash but his power falters and nothing happens. He then aims the ring at himself and is seemingly vaporized by its remaining power seconds before the counter to the destruction of the Earth reaches zero. Ming's robot servant declares that Flash has saved the Earth and a huge victory celebration ensues.
Barin is announced as the rightful heir to Ming's vacant throne. The newly-appointed King Barin shows his gratitude to Flash, appoints Vultan as the new General of the Armies, and decrees that all the kingdoms of Mongo shall live together in peace. Flash and Dale embrace, their future (and Zarkov's) left open for either a return to Earth or continuing adventures on Mongo. The last scene focuses on Ming’s empty power ring, as an unidentified individual picks it up. “The End?” fades onto the screen, followed by an echo of Ming’s evil laughter.
Steve Holland starred in a 1954-55 live-action TV series which ran for 39 episodes. The first 26 episodes had the distinction of being filmed in West Berlin, Germany less than a decade after the end of World War II. This is notable, given that some episodes show the real-life destruction still evident in Germany several years after the war. The final 13 episodes were filmed in Marseille, France.
In this series, Flash, Dale (Irene Champlin), and Dr. Zarkov (Joseph Nash) worked for the Galactic Bureau of Investigation in the year 3203. The actual timeline was established in one episode, "Deadline at Noon", in which Flash, Dale, and Dr. Zarkov went back in time to Berlin in the year 1953. The GBI agents traveled in the Skyflash and Skyflash II spaceships.
The series was syndicated, appearing on stations affiliated with the long-defunct DuMont Network, and many other independent stations in the United States. Stylistic similarities with the Buster Crabbe films are obvious, and may have been desired by the producers. It was recut into a movie in 1957.
In 1979, Filmation produced an cartoon series, often referred to as The New Adventures of Flash Gordon, though it is actually titled Flash Gordon. The expanded title was used to distinguish it from previous versions. The project was originally designed as a TV film but NBC decided to change it into an animated series.
NBC was unhappy with the serial nature of the first season, as it clashed with their re-run style (details can be found on a documentary included on the DVD), so the second season was much changed and also aimed at a younger audience. Each episode included two stand-alone stories, often featuring a young dragon named Gremlin, introduced for comic relief. Unfortunately, this decision led to a decline in ratings and the show was canceled thereafter.
Filmation produced this successful animated television movie, written by Star Trek writer Samuel A. Peeples, before they began their Saturday morning series, but the TV-movie did not actually air until 1982. It was critically well-received, and is considered one of the best film versions of Flash Gordon, though it would never be re-broadcast following its premiere.
This movie has yet to be commercially released in the United States, although some sources indicate that off-air bootlegs are prevalent. The only known commercial releases were by VAP Video in Japan (catalog #67019-128), c. 1983, in both laser disc and NTSC VHS videotape formats and in Bulgaria, where it was released on VHS "Van Chris" and "Drakar". The movie also aired numerous times on "Diema" Channel in the late 90s. In the Japanese release it is presented uncut with the original English voice track, with Japanese subtitles added for its intended audience. At the end of the movie is a trailer for the De Laurentiis live-action movie, as well as trailers for other titles from the VAP Video library at the time. The covers for both versions feature comic-strip panels, using stills taken from the movie. Its last listing was in VAP Video's catalog for 1983.
In the 1986 cartoon Defenders of the Earth, Flash teamed up with fellow King Features heroes The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician in 65 episodes. This series took extreme liberties with all the characters, revealing that Flash and Dale Arden had conceived a son, Rick Gordon, who is in his mid-teens when the series begins. Dale has her mind torn from her body by Ming in the first episode and is preserved in a crystal, which Rick is able to recover and give to his father. Dale is reborn on Earth as Dynak-X, the strategic super-computer based in the Defenders' Headquarters.
In 1996, Hearst Entertainment premiered an animated Flash Gordon television series. This version turned Flash and Dale into hoverboarding teenagers.
The Sci Fi Channel premiered its new Flash Gordon series in the United States on August 10, 2007. On January 12, 2007 at the Television Critics Association tour, it was announced that the live-action series would comprise 22 one-hour episodes, produced in Canada in early 2007. Under an agreement with King Features Syndicate, the series was produced by Reunion Pictures of Vancouver with Robert Halmi Sr. and Robert Halmi Jr. of RHI Entertainment serving as Executive Producers.
The characters of Ming, Dale Arden, and Dr. Hans Zarkov were drastically altered. Eric Johnson, best known for his earlier work on the WB's Smallville, played the title character of Steven "Flash" Gordon. Gina Holden (who has appeared in Fantastic Four and Aliens vs. Predator) played Dale Arden, Jody Racicot (Night at the Museum) played Dr. Hans Zarkov, and John Ralston portrayed the arch-villain, Ming. The show was officially canceled in early 2008.