The Art Deco of “Flash Gordon”

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There is a cultural phenomenon that affects many people above the age of 30, and especially those over 40, that when they hear the slow thudding rhythm of certain electric bass string . . . dum, dum, dum, dum, dum . . . that have no control over the imminent outburst of “FLASH! Ahhh-ahhhh!

Yes! We’re talking about the band Queen’s 1980 hit “Flash” that was the title song of the movie Flash Gordon.

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Flash Gordon first appeared on January 7th, 1934 when publishers King Features Syndicate, Inc. were unable to secure the rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars series.

The first appearance of Flash Gordon in 1934

The first appearance of Flash Gordon in 1934

The creator of Flash Gordon was Alex Raymond, a staff artist with King Features, who was commissioned to make a story that would rival the then successful Buck Rogers franchise. Ironically the same actor, Buster Crabbe, played both Flash Gordon AND Buck Rogers in the film serials of the 1930s and 40s.

From the 1930’s through to the late 1970’s there were numerous incarnations of Flash Gordon with a TV show in 1950’s, a cartoon show in the 1970’s and 80’s, but it was the year 1980 that gave the world perhaps the most memorable adaptation.

Flash Gordon Uniform

Sam Jones as Flash Gordon

In the 1970s, Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis owned the movie rights to Flash Gordon and several directors, such as famous art film director Federico Fellini, came close to making the film; after going through several directors, Laurentiis gave the job to English film director Mike Hodges.

Another Flash Gordon irony comes in that just in the same way it was the failure to obtain John Carter of Mars that led to the creation of Flash Gordon, it was George Lucas’s failure in the 1970s to secure the rights to Flash Gordon that led to the creation of Star Wars instead.

In 1980, the movie Flash Gordon was a moderate success at the box office, but is often dismissed for being too camp in its humor and the garish colors of the set and costume designs. It is, however, its production designs that elevate the film to a level of artistic integrity and retro-futurism. Designer Danilo Donati utilized the styles of Alex Raymond’s original art from the comic book and the look of the old matinee movie serials to capture the Art Deco feel of the 1930s.

British rock band Queen recorded the entire soundtrack for the film and released the hit single “Flash.” The band’s role in the music video is basic, portraying them in a recording studio while the film plays overhead behind them, but the clips from the film and the use of Raymond’s art perfectly illustrate the continuity between 1934 and 1980.

Critics of Flash Gordon are often heard saying that it is “cheesy,” but this is all 100% intentional. In the video war rocket Ajax looks like it’s leapt straight out of the original comic book, and many of the uniforms look like winged statues that adorn Art Deco skyscrapers of the Jazz Era. Given that audiences had, by 1980, developed a taste for the “lived in universe” look of Star Wars and Alien, it was actually a daring move to capture the clean and polished nature of classic science fiction space operas. The film may not please everyone, but it definitely succeeds within the parameters of its artistic intentions.


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