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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Day That Flash Gordon Opened

(…and Also the Music Died)

“Keep your foot on that red pedal or the g-forces will kill us all!”
Dr. Hans Zarkov

In 1980, I was 13 years old. I fancied myself quite the sci-fi aficionado, poring over each new edition of “Starlog” magazine, devouring (and discussing at length during junior high lunch period) the detailed production information on timeless films such as:

“Laserblast” (starring a cut-rate Mark Hamill look-alike wearing zombie contact lenses, tagline: “Billy was a kid who got pushed around, but then he found THE POWER…”)

laserblast

“Yor, the Hunter from the Future” (I can’t help but notice that “Yor” is just “Roy” spelled backwards… not sure if that’s significant or not)

“Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann” (starring the ubiquitous Fred Ward, tagline: “Lyle Swann is a champion off-road racer. But to the people of 1877, he’s something very, very different…”)

…and the sublime:

“Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn” (tagline: “It’s High Noon at the End of the Universe”)

I saw that last one at the fabled Aurora Cinema, where you can now eat FOOD while watching a movie, which is kinda neat the first time, until the people next to you are trying to order a second basket of chicken stix for their damn kids during the legendary “nunchaku sequence” of “Iron Monkey.” But I digress.

“Put down your weapons! Nobody — but nobody — dies in the palace without a command from the emperor!”
Klytus

In 1980, we were stoked to read about the upcoming release of a new “Flash Gordon” film. The print ad in Starlog looked super-cool, with Flash riding this sort of baroque rocket-powered… uh, bike/sled deal, and Dale Arden clinging to his manly shoulders. The women in the ad were foxes, the rocket sled thing was boss, the music was by Queen (I knew they played “hard rock” music, but definitely not “acid rock,” at least I didn’t think so, because they had that one song that even my mom liked), the guy they hired to play Ming (somebody named “Max Von Sydow”) looked perfect… but best of all, it stood a good chance of passing the Pat Toews Censorship Board.

Pat Toews is my dad, and he was always a bit of a killjoy when it came to contemporary popular culture. According to Pat Toews, The Who were, and I quote: “building the Eiffel Tower out of human feces” which… now, I’m not even sure what he MEANT by that. But I think you get the idea. He made us walk out in the middle of “Grease” because the Pink Ladies were “too horny.” Once, he made me throw out all 10 of my Rush LPs (they were only up to “Exit… Stage Left” at that point) because they were “trafficking in Satanism” (or something). (I later pointed out to my dad that the very same “pentagram” image that he found worrisome on a Rush album cover was present all over the house; for example, the pattern of holes in the top of the Lawry’s Seasoned Salt shaker was in the shape of a star, bounded by the circle of the cylindrical container itself. A-HA! However, in response to my triumphant brandishing of the Lawry’s Seasoned Salt container, he merely shook his head sadly and walked away. I don’t know why; I thought I had a pretty good point.) In recent years – I am not making this up – he meticulously ERASED the few seconds of Kate Winslet’s breasts from our VHS copy of “Titanic,” which made his mania a little clearer to me. But all of these indignities heaped upon me were as nothing, as mere trifles when compared to the coup de grace:

I WAS NOT ALLOWED TO SEE “STAR WARS.”

I’ll just let that sink in for a moment. “Star Wars.” The most influential cultural event of my fucking generation. The absolutely crucial reference point/touchstone for decades of schoolyard games, t-shirt slogans, internet chat room conversations, vehement letters to the editor of Starlog magazine, Halloween costumes… oh, did I mention we weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween? Anyway… “Star Wars”… epochal, zeitgeist-defining, mythos-distilling moment when all 10-year-old boys were momentarily united… I wasn’t allowed. Too violent. As an elder in our church, he even gave a sermon wherein he sternly rebuked the audience, “Why would you even CONSIDER taking your children to a film that has the word ‘WAR’ in its very TITLE??” Actually, it was “Wars” plural, I pointed out, but now I’m not sure why I thought that was a point in my favor.

Not being allowed to see “Star Wars” is like… I can’t even think of a metaphor that captures the social crippling this entails for a 10-year-old boy. Okay – imagine if you were the only person in the world not allowed to use NOUNS. That’s close.

But “Flash Gordon” – that was from my dad’s generation! He might just allow us to see it… (rubs hands together eagerly).

Then there was an ad for the movie on the back of that magazine that came with the Scholastic Book Club thing at school… was it “Dynamite!”? Or maybe that was earlier. In any case: It looked CHOICE.

Our excitement reached its peak when the local paper ran a Flash Gordon contest; it was a series of film trivia questions. Thanks to my dad’s tutelage in classic (American) films, I knew the answer to every question except one: “What was the name of the actor who played ‘Signor Ferrari’ in the film ‘Casablanca’?”

At the time, I was taking “Library Assistant” as one of my junior high electives (The librarian was a tall, somewhat regal woman with the unlikely name of Garrel Sperling; I have a vivid memory of sitting on the floor of the library with her, watching the Challenger Shuttle disaster on the AV Room television and noticing that she was crying. This memory, however, is impossible, because the Challenger blew up in 1986, many years after I left junior high. I cannot adequately explain how I constructed this memory. This part is true, though: Some years after graduating from high school, I saw a wedding announcement in the paper; there was a picture of Garrell next to her intended, and she was wearing a large floppy hat that did not suit her.) and I easily found the answer (Sydney Greenstreet) in a film history book, submitted my neatly pencil-marked answer sheet, and was promptly awarded a “Flash Gordon” t-shirt! RADICAL!

Of course I realize now that the questions were embarrassingly easy, that I was only one of many winners, and that they likely had 1000 t-shirts to dispose of one way or another. (“Hey, instead of just tossin’ these shirts in the dumpster, what if we had some sorta contest?”) Come to think of it, it’s possible that I didn’t even get all of the answers right; maybe they just sent a shirt to every sucker who entered the “contest” – but none of this diminishes my pride. I WON! Who else (among my five close friends) won a shirt? NOBODY, THAT’S WHO. It was an awesome shirt, too, with the nice movie logo on the front, and lightning bolts and planets on the sleeves. Of course, being the old-style rubber-ish iron-on decals, actually wearing the shirt or – God forbid – WASHING IT – was out of the question, so I flattened it carefully, mounted it on an attractive piece of corrugated cardboard and hung it in my room, alongside my treasured “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” t-shirt. Where did those shirts go? I WANT THOSE SHIRTS BACK!

“Pathetic Earthlings! Hurling your bodies out into the void without the slighest inkling of who or what is out here. If you knew anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would have hidden from it in terror.”
Ming the Merciless (of Planet Mongo)

In the end, we were allowed to see “Flash Gordon” – on opening night, even – at a theater downtown which no longer exists. Our excitement was difficult to contain; we had seen all the trailers, read the special features in Starlog, and learned that this Max Von Sydow fellow had made some other films before starring in the coolest fucking movie ever made. Sweetest of all, for once we did not have to conceal our glee from Pat Toews.

On the way to the theater, probably in our Volkswagen Bus, we listened to the radio. What songs did we hear that night? “Do That To Me One More Time” by Captain & Tennille, probably. Maybe “Escape (The Pinã Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes or “Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer” by Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes. But we could barely focus our attention on the non-stop soft-rock hits of 1980, our minds preoccupied with the upcoming movie. “I heard that the costumes alone cost 80 million dollars!” “No way!” “Yes way! And the special effects are the most technologically advanced EVER! People worked fourteen hours a day for, like, five YEARS to make the spaceship models!” We were buzzed out of our freaking gourds.

Then they interrupted “Daydream Believer” by Anne Murray with a special news announcement: John Lennon had been shot. My dad turned up the radio, and we abandoned our “Dirk Benedict vs. Richard Hatch” debate, trying to understand… he was…shot? It seemed ludicrous. The mood in the VW Bus was no longer conducive to our Battlestar Galactica yammering. We knew this was a big deal by the tone of the radio announcer, and, of course, we all knew who John Lennon was. Sort of. By which I mean… we loved the Beatles, and we especially loved the Beatles’ movies. But I couldn’t have told you the name of one song by John Lennon solo (okay, maybe “Imagine” though, for obvious reasons, this was not a song that was played in our household), or anything about his politics, or Yoko, or anything else.

We made it to the movie, feeling subdued and slightly annoyed that our big evening had been so effectively spoiled. Some of the people in line hadn’t heard the news yet, and were talking and laughing just like any other day, and I knew they would be embarrassed later when they found out. Stupid people.

“No, not the bore worms!”
Princess Aura

Once the movie started, however, I forgot all about John Whatsisname. “Flash Gordon” had the aforementioned rocket bike/sleds; tree beasts that would bite your hand off; whip and sword fights on a tilting, spike-laden floating platform; a robot guy’s EYES fall out in one part; Ming gets stabbed with a spaceship and bleeds green blood; lizard people; “bore worms” (just think about it); rad “hard rock” soundtrack by QUEEN… and SEX, SEX, SEX. To wit:

Ming hypnotizes and “seduces” Dale Arden with his magical ring; she responds by closing her eyes, biting her lip and groaning with pleasure.

Timothy Dalton, who plays the Prince of Arbor (you know – Arbor the TREE PLANET?) says something to Princess Aura like, “I didn’t realize your perversions extended to necrophilia!”

Ming tells his minions to “prepare” Dale Arden “for our pleasure” – whaa…?

Plus you could CLEARLY see nipples through the spandex clothing worn by all the female characters. I mean they were RIGHT THERE!

In fact, it’s pretty much a non-stop parade of double entendres, sexy costumes, campy macho posturing, and naughty insinuation. To which my dad seemed oblivious. Or maybe he just assumed WE were oblivious, and didn’t say anything because he assumed if we didn’t get it, no harm was done. I honestly don’t know. I do know that he still watches “Flash Gordon” once every year or so.

As often happens, parent’s fears become self-fulfilling prophecies. When I bought the “Flash Gordon” soundtrack, I found that it included some sections of dialogue from the film. Imagine my 13-year-old delight upon finding that one of the sections included was the “Ming seduces Dale with his magical ring” sequence. I painstakingly recorded that 30-second track over and over again onto a cassette tape, always pressing the “pause” button just before Flash declares “Forget it Ming! Dale’s with me!” (entirely avoiding the abrupt segue into the techno-rocking “Football Fight”). I would then lift the needle back to the beginning of the magical ring seduction sequence, unpause the recorder, and start again. After several hours of tape manipulation, I had created a five minute loop of Dale Arden’s erotic groaning. The only distraction was the creepy high-pitched tone of Ming’s magical ring in the background, but I managed to mentally tune that out when I listened to it.

“I don’t wanna go to any moon! I’ve gotta rescue my friends and save the Earth!”
Flash Gordon (Quarterback, New York Jets)

One Comment

  1. Best movie ever! Great story. I was the same age. Enjoyed the read.

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