“LIFE AFTER FLASH”— Taking Stock of a Film and a Life

“Life After Flash”

Taking Stock of a Life and a Film

Amos Lassen

It is only vaguely mentioned in the film (most likely out of respect to Jones’ Evangelical faith), but his first claim to fame was a nude pictorial in “Playgirl” Magazine. This brought him to the attention of larger-than-life producer Dino De Laurentiis, who eventually cast him as the lead in his ambitious “Flash Gordon” reboot but their relationship was not good. Jones very definitely wanted to continue playing Flash.

There are a lot of behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the film, with extended reminiscences from Melody Anderson, Brian Blessed (who really came to play), Topol, Peter Wyngarde, Richard “Rocky Horror” O’Brien, and Brian May from Queen. Timothy Dalton and Max von Sydow are missing but that was a real mistake on their part. In fact, the participating cast-members and other assorted talking heads make a great case for the film, especially Blessed, who argues: that it is not camp, it is a cartoon strip.”

The real surprise is how interesting Jones’ life after “Flash Gordon” has been. He has done plenty of low budget movies and guest appearances on episodic television, but viewers will really want to hear more about his second career as a personal security specialist (bodyguard), specializing in escorting VIPs across the Mexican border.

Jones also talks quite a bit about his family and his Christian faith. He always sounds sincere, and transgressions. Frankly, given his military background, Jones definitely sounds like he is out of step with most of his Hollywood friends.

All things considered, Jones’ survival story is downright inspiring. It isn’t just him. Anderson and Topol have also gone on to contribute to society in ways beyond their acting careers. Yet we get a lot of nostalgia for fans of late 1970s and early 1980s science fiction.  There is a lot of fun in this documentary that combines the making of story of how legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis brought the disparate elements of “Flash Gordon” together to make the adaptation of one of the first comic book superheroes and the story of what happened after the movie. Naturally, much of what we see is classic talking head documentary filmmaking. The key difference is that the heads doing the talking are really interesting. 

Leading the way, of course, is Flash Gordon himself, actor Sam Jones. While Jones has had something of a pop culture resurrection in recent years with his delightful cameos in “Ted” and “Ted 2”, the former Flash Gordon wandered for many years after his 1980 screen debut was widely panned and his behind the scenes clash with the legendary producer left him blackballed from Hollywood. 

Today, Sam Jones is a family man and a man of deep faith who is enjoying a bit resurgence and the seeming reevaluation of “Flash Gordon” as a cult classic. Sam was loved by his fellow cast members but struggled with demons that separated him from his family and led to the end of more than one marriage. Now, he’s found a stable new love and reconnected with his family and friends in ways that are inspiring. 

There is a sequence in the documentary that juxtaposes Sam’s remarkable workout regimen, for a man of his age, and a recounting of the kind of delusional behavior that led to him being replaced with a stand-in near the end of filming. The sequence is not intended to make Sam look bad; it plays with the image of the Sam Jones who struggled with overwhelming fame and fortune, and the healthy, happy, and wise man he is today. 

Jones isn’t the only great thing about “Life After Flash”. The highlight of the documentary is longtime character actor Brian Blessed, whose anecdotes on the behind the scenes goings on are funny and naughty. Blessed’s voice is as booming and exciting as it was when he portrayed Prince Vultan, and his recounting of the story of how fellow character actor Peter Wyngarde, who played the metal-masked baddie, Klytus, delayed filming because he desperately did not want his character to die at the end is very funny. 

We meet the “Flash Gordon” fans who are an earnest group who truly believe in the quality of the movie. While comedian Rich Fulcher appears to recognize the camp appeal of  it, fans such as writer Jason Lenzi, director Robert Rodriguez, and actor Sean Gunn appear to legitimately love the movie. The film features a pair of memorabilia collectors as well whose collections of paraphernalia are remarkable. 

Holding all of this together is director Lisa Downs. Directing at a brisk pace and featuring a very colorful talking head cast, she tells a terrifically entertaining story and while I really don’t believe the movie is any kind of forgotten classic, I appreciate attempting to rehab the movie into a lost classic. Of course, the truly most memorable thing about “Flash Gordon” is the Queen soundtrack. Queen guitarist Brian May is featured in the film and offers a couple of fun stories about how the band came to be part of the movie, going almost as far as scoring the entire movie. The music of Queen became iconic, even as the movie faded from memory. 

There are lots of entertaining moments in “Life After Flash” including a series of impressions of legendary film producer Dino De Laurentis.

Sam J Jones was Flash Gordon, in 1980. It’s a film whose influence is still felt, one that featured a frankly ludicrous cast, and Queen’s second best set of contributions to a soundtrack. Sam was new to acting though, to the whirl of Hollywood, and though unnamed and unseen advisers are credited with the decision he takes ownership for picking a fight with Dino. He lost, to the extent that it’s not his voice on the screen. However, he’s had a later career that sees him attending fan conventions on a regular basis and he’s also made money from helping people cross the Mexican border as s a bodyguard for VIPs travelling south from the US.

Lisa Down’s film is a lot of fun with a variety of locations and she had to go through  hours of interviews, Downs manages to assemble a fun collection of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and fascinating stories about the making of one of the greatest moments in eighties cinema. Highlights include Queen’s Brian May dishing about which members of the band came up with which parts for the iconic score, Melody Anderson discussing the physical transformation that she went through for her role as Dale Arden, and actor Peter Wyngarde confessing how he tried to talk producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Mike Hodges into not killing off his Klytus character so that he could be in the inevitable sequel (which, despite what the film’s cliffhanger ending insinuated, never materialized).

Most entertaining is how just about everyone agrees that Flash Gordon is one of the campiest movies ever made, yet they also acknowledge with a sly wink that De Laurentiis thought he was making a serious science fiction epic. Even though most of “Life After Flash” is pretty much about “Flash Gordon”, it is also about Sam J. Jones. The two are basically intertwined, and while most actors might resent being pigeonholed, Jones seems to love that his character that has become such a beloved cultural icon, something which many of his contemporaries will never get to experience. Instead of trying to outrun his past, Jones leans into it. And that’s why this documentary is just as much about the character as it is about the man.

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