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Flash back with us (haha) to April 1980: for the last several years, the box office has been dominated by incredible science fiction stories of adventure, amazement, terror, cautionary tales, and visions of fantastic futures and far-off worlds. Films are being released left and right that are going to become seminal features, classics of the genre; Superman, Alien, Rollerball, Star Wars, Star Trek, and many more, but…
Only one film dared to be cheesier, pulpier, and campier than any other. Though at the time it didn’t rock the universe at the box office, Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon, based on the wildly popular comic strip from the 1930s, was destined to become a cult classic. And none of it would have been possible without its dashing, daring frontman, the All-American hero Flash, played by Supa-Star Sam J. Jones!
Casting such an iconic character proved to be the first of many difficult changes the production would face. As Producer Dino De Laurentiis said, the crew searched for almost a year for a star that was right for Flash, and even then, De Laurentiis felt that Flash wasn’t meant to be portrayed by someone famous, they needed a fresh face. The young Sam Jones, who had made the leap of faith and moved to Hollywood to start his show business career two years prior, was on exactly the same wavelength as De Laurentiis.
As Jones has previously stated, “I had [aggressive energy] in me, and nobody could tell me anything… When I went up for an audition or something, and I saw all these other guys, some faces recognisable, up for the same part, I never looked at them as my competition, ever, even to this day. I always felt, hey, if producers want Sam Jones, they’re gonna get Sam Jones, if they don’t want me, they want that other guy.”
And thank goodness they did want Sam Jones, because the other guys, in this case, could have been Jeff Bridges, Kurt Russell, or Arnold Schwarzenegger! Still, Flash was being filmed in London, not Hollywood, but luckily, in a chance moment, Dino De Laurentiis’s mother-in-law happened to be watching a quiz show from American TV, that Sam J. Jones was on, and everyone liked what they saw. They flew Jones out to London, and the film finally had its Flash!
Jones apparently got very into playing Flash on set, and attached to the idea of Flash’s pure-heartedness and strength of character. According to a story from director Mike Hodges, at one point while filming a fight scene, someone suggested that Flash could pick up a metal bar and hit his opponent from behind, to which Jones exclaimed, “Flash would never do that!”
The entire Flash Gordon film even working at all was, like many great films, not clean or easy, but a storm of challenges with unorthodox solutions that coalesced into an unforgettable final experience. Federico Fellini, the legendary Italian director responsible for surrealist works that eventually inspired the likes of Tim Burton and David Lynch, was tapped to direct this film at one point, but unfortunately had to decline, despite being an enormous fan of the comics from his childhood.
The film was then going to be directed by Nick Roeg, who had a radically different, mythical, religious take on the Flash Gordon story. Roeg recommended his friend Mike Hodges, a man with barely any experience directing science fiction and special effects, and absolutely zero knowledge of the original comic, to direct the sequel that De Laurentiis wanted made immediately after. Hodges declined, and that should have been the end, if not for a falling out between De Laurentiis and Nick Roeg, which caused De Laurentiis to ask Hodges once again to direct, and this time, he accepted. This choice proved to be an excellent character judgement.
De Laurentiis also put Italian maximalist Danilo Donati, renowned theatre Production Designer, known for their impossibly extravagant and lavish designs, in charge of costumes and sets… who also couldn’t speak a word of English. As Hodges put it, Donati and his team would come in every day and just improvise, and present something incredibly imaginative that they would just have to figure out what to do with.
“I’m not even sure he ever read the script. [We’d] literally make it up as we went along. We were mixing all the right ingredients in the hope that the soufflé would rise. It did.”
And the soufflé undeniably did rise, because we’re still here celebrating it over 40 years later!
Brisbane and Adelaide fans will finally have a chance to meet the saviour of the universe himself when Supanova plays host to Sam J. Jones, from 5-6 November, and 12-13 November respectively! “Go Flash, go!”