There’s a strange story behind Flash Gordon, The Greatest Adventure of All – the movie I watched last week to counter the desert of Christmas-time TV.
Originally conceived in 1977 as a live-action adaptation of the classic Flash Gordon strips1, the project was deemed too expensive, and reworked as a feature-length animated movie, produced by Filmation (the same guys who did the Star Trek animated series, and …e hm, He-Man).
While working on the movie, the gentlemen at Filmation brought in Dino De Laurentiis as a financer – and he jumped at the opportunity of striking a deal that would allow him to make the “too expensive” live action flick, which duly premiered in 1980.
As a result, the movie being on its way, Filmation decided to rework yet again the animated feature, turning it into a Saturday Morning cartoon series, airing in 1979 and paving the way for the live action movie.
Finally, in 1982, the original Flash Gordon animated movie was released – but it did not get a wide circulation.
And that’s a pity.
Now, I’m no fan of the De Laurentiis Flash Gordon – I find its comedic elements to be too heavy-handed, and I never was a fan of Ornella Muti (more about that later).
The 1982 animated movie was therefore a refreshing discovery – I was familiar with the animated series, but I found the film much more adult and satisfactory than I expected.
The fact that it never made it to my country added an extra level of interest for this lost movie.
Set in 1939, the story follows Flash Gordon, a former athlete now working for the US State Department, as he and ace reporter Dale Arden join forces with Dr Zarkov to stop emperor Ming‘s attack on Earth.
In a neat plot twist, Ming is a devious slithery villain (but we knew that, of course) that’s actually providing support to the Nazis.
Stranded on the planet Mongo, a world filled with strange creatures and technological wonders, Flash and Co. join forces with the bickering factions that so far have been unable to face the tyrant, and finally bring down Ming – but lose any hope of going back to Earth.
Good pulpy fun in the tradition of the Alex Raymond strips – and a nicely done “adult” feature.
There’s stuff in this movie that would probably not be considered “for kids”.
And it’s not just Princess Aura, doing an excellent job of being sexy and amoral (she was just as sexy and amoral in the animated series – and much sexier and amoral than Ornella Muti will ever be).
No, there’s more – there’s more violence and more extended fights, there’s a modicum of titillation (lots of scantly clad dancing girls attending Mongo parties), the lizard-women serving Ming are cannibals and we are told explicitly that they feed on the prisoner (go and talk about man-eaters).
Flash comes across as a two-fisted good guy, but he’s not a goody-two-shoes. His companions are well drawn (pun intended) and nicely presented.
In the end, the Filmation adaptation of the original strips is effective because – for all its drawbacks – the animated feature takes itself and its subject matter seriously. Much more seriously, in fact, of the movie that at some times feels like a parody of the cartoon.
Granted, it’s a 35 years old animation, and it pales in comparison to today’s animated productions, but the script is so good, technical peeves become meaningless.
The plot is episodic – just like the original comic was episodic – but that’s all right, and it certainly helped when the movie was metamorphosed into a TV series.
And if the TV series was not up to par, this was chiefly due to decisions taken later in the development
Apart from the cuts (that are not that crippling), the first season was a very good entertainment for older kids.
It was the addition of a pink baby dragon in the second season, among other things, that sort of derailed the scripts and dragged the series into silly-land.
All things considered, therefore, The Greatest Adventure of All is probably the absolute best in terms of filmic adaptation of Raymond’s masterpiece – it’s not as wooden as the old serials (that remain a classic, but can be somewhat daunting for the modern viewer), it’s not as silly as the De Laurentiis production, it blows away the recent TV series (that is Flash Gordon but in name) and the latest cartoon adaptation, and it remains one notch better than the first season of the 1979 cartoon.
You can find the complete movie on Youtube – but right here and now I’d rather link this interesting short documentary about Filmation and its history.
- because Star Wars had just happened, and space opera was hot stuff ↩