This year marks the 40th anniversary of Flash Gordon, the colorful, campy adaptation of the classic comic strip created by Alex Raymond in 1934 that starred a then-unknown Sam J. Jones as the eponymous hero, a football player from Earth who finds himself on the planet Mongo and facing off against Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow). Partnered with travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and Prince Vultan (a spirited Brian Blessed), Flash tries to save Earth from Ming’s machinations. Thanks to an impressive production design and a soundtrack by Queen, the film has become a cult favorite. Take a look at some facts you might have missed.
1. Flash Gordon was almost directed by George Lucas.
As a fan of both the Flash Gordon comic strip and the film serials starring Buster Crabbe, George Lucas was hoping to adapt Flash Gordon as a feature in the early 1970s. He attempted to negotiate for the rights with King Features, which owned the property, but the company wasn’t interested. So Lucas decided to do make his own space opera—1977’s Star Wars—and producer Dino De Laurentiis acquired the rights instead. After a falling out with director Nicolas Roeg (1977's The Man Who Fell to Earth), De Laurentiis hired Mike Hodges (1971's Get Carter) to direct the film.
2. Flash Gordon shared a writer with the 1966 Batman television series.
If the camp approach to Flash Gordon seems familiar, it may be due in part to De Laurentiis hiring Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to write the film. The screenwriter also worked on Batman, the 1966-1969 live-action television series starring Adam West as a lighthearted Dark Knight. Semple saw Batman as a comedy, writing the first four episodes and remaining on as a story consultant. But De Laurentiis apparently wasn’t that interested in Flash Gordon being too comedic. When Hodges showed his producer some of the rushes, the crew laughed. De Laurentiis didn’t. He wanted a serious take on the material. Hodges later said De Laurentiis taking a serious approach helped balance the campier aspects of the film.
3. Sam J. Jones got the role of Flash Gordon because he was on The Dating Game.
Casting the role of Flash Gordon was tricky for De Laurentiis; he was determined to find an actor who could be at home in a comic strip fantasy world. Ultimately, it was De Laurentiis’s mother-in-law who provided the solution. She was watching an episode of The Dating Game and saw Sam J. Jones as a contestant. She recommended De Laurentiis take a closer look. Like Flash, Jones knew how to play football—he was a semi-pro for the Seattle Flyers—and was also a former Marine. Jones later said it took around 10 months of auditions and waiting before he got the part.
4. Queen was hired for the Flash Gordon soundtrack even though Dino De Laurentiis didn’t know who they were.
Queen’s soundtrack for Flash Gordon has gone on to become one of the movie's biggest assets, mixing in dialogue and vocals by Freddie Mercury to create a rock anthem that’s perfectly suited for the film’s energetic style. But when the band was approached with the job in 1979, it came from people who worked in De Laurentiis’s offices. The producer himself didn’t know anything about the group. “Who are the Queens?” he reportedly asked.
5. Max von Sydow’s Ming costume in Flash Gordon was so heavy he had to lay down between takes.
The costumes in Flash Gordon were courtesy of Oscar-winning costume designer and production designer Danilo Donati, who had also worked with famed Italian film director Federico Fellini. Outfitting actor Max von Sydow in an elaborate costume with a headpiece to portray Ming the Merciless, Donati’s design was beautiful but cumbersome. Since Von Sydow reportedly wasn't able to sit in the costume, he had to lay down on a board in order to get off his feet between takes.
6. A portion of Flash Gordon was improvised.
Because Danilo Donati was so well-respected, he had the freedom to create costumes and sets without necessarily consulting with director Mike Hodges. “[Donati] spoke no English,” Hodges told Radio Times in 2020. “He’s absolutely brilliant, I loved him, but he just really went off, basically, on his own, and did what he wanted to do.” Hodges decided it was best to improvise scenes, making decisions once Donati had finished with the set decoration.
7. Brian Blessed kept making “pew-pew” noises on the set of Flash Gordon.
A portion of credit for the success of Flash Gordon goes to Brian Blessed, a Shakespearean actor who embraces the role of winged soldier Prince Vultan with an exuberant spirit. Blessed was so invested on the set that when he was shooting a scene involving an army of hawk-men attacking the rocket ship Ajax, he kept making “pew-pew” noises, forcing the director to yell cut and start over. “I couldn’t f***ing live without making noises,” Blessed told Radio Times in 2020.
8. Sam J. Jones had a falling out with Dino De Laurentiis over Flash Gordon.
Shortly after production on Flash Gordon took a holiday break, director Mike Hodges realized he wouldn’t be seeing much more of his leading man. Though he had finished his shots, Sam J. Jones had gotten into a contractual dispute with De Laurentiis and was unavailable for reshoots or dubbing. To get around the issue, Hodges hired a body double and a voiceover actor to finish the shoot. Jones was also unwilling to help promote the film when it was released on December 5, 1980, which Hodges later said hurt its performance at the box office. It made just $27 million.
9. Flash Gordon inspired Thor: Ragnarok.
Director Taika Waititi scored a big hit with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, a more comedic take on Marvel’s Thor character. In 2020, Waititi said that Flash Gordon was a major inspiration for his Thor film, which he wanted to be “unapologetically a space opera” with “color and life and energy and humor, and cool music.”
10. Brian Blessed claims Flash Gordon is the Queen’s favorite film.
According to Brian Blessed, who received an Orders of the British Empire honor for his work in the arts and charity in 2016, Flash Gordon is the most popular film in the Queen Elizabeth II household during the holidays. Blessed told Yahoo! Movies UK in 2020 that the Queen watches it with her grandchildren. Blessed also said the Queen once asked him to repeat his most famous line from the movie: “Gordon’s alive?”