Flash Gordon: Time’s gone by in a flash for Sam J Jones

The saviour of the universe looks back with us as the cult classic film turns 40 and returns to cinemas

Toying with the Earth in the opening sequence of Flash Gordon, interplanetary tyrant Ming the Merciless creates carnage from his spaceship, using a console that very clearly labels various options for inflicting annihilation.

EARTHQUAKE is first, with scenes of destruction accompanied by the maniacal laughter of the late, great Max von Sydow who played Ming. DROUGHT, HURRICANE, HOT HAIL, TYPHOON, METEOR STORM, TORNADO and VOLCANO ERUPTION follow.

You could easily imagine GLOBAL PANDEMIC being the next button along. And it certainly feels like someone’s been hitting it hard recently.

If only what happens next in the film could happen in real life; the beat kicks in: Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun…

“FLASH-AH-AAAH, saviour of the universe!”

The world is in need of a hero – step forward Sam J Jones. The marine-turned-model-turned-actor’s career shone briefly but brightly; his lead role as the clean-cut, all-American star football player charged with saving humanity has taken over his life. Speaking to him from his home in San Diego, it feels like he channels Flash Gordon, having absorbed the never-say-die attitude, indomitable spirit and righteousness of the character he played 40 years ago.

Has that time gone by in a… what’s the word…?

“My grandmother used to tell me that the days, weeks and months go by very slow, but the years go by in a flash,” Jones says.

“This is when Flash Gordon thrives,” Jones continues, referring to the maelstrom of madness that we call everyday existence. “In any conflict or uncertainty where people don’t know which side to choose, they can look at Flash Gordon and say, wait a minute, there is no great mystery to figure out. This character inspires me to be a better human being.”

This sentiment may sound as fanciful as a winged Brian Blessed bellowing “GORDON’S ALIIIIVEEE!”, but it has historical precedent. Before Superman had pulled on his first pair of tights or Bruce Wayne had developed a bat fetish, Flash Gordon was already saving the galaxy.

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Sam J. Jones shared the screen with future Bond Timothy Dalton in Flash Gordon more hopeful take on sci-fi. (Credit: Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)

The original comic book hero burst on to the scene in 1934, bringing much-needed escapism to Americans deep in Depression and international readers hurtling towards a whole heap of trouble.

The comic and live-action TV adaptations kept Flash fresh and alive through the 1940s and ’50s and in the 1970s one long-term fan, movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, bought the film rights for another, his frequent collaborator Federico Fellini.

Back in the 1970s Fellini said: “It is very hard to explain just how much Flash Gordon meant to boys of my generation. When we began to read about the astounding adventures of this galactic hero, fascism was at its height, its gloomy, dreary rhetoric in full flood.”

Another lifelong fan, George Lucas, tried to purchase the rights for himself but failing to do so launched his own Flash Gordon-inspired space saga, and it was the phenomenal success of Star Wars that spurred De Laurentiis to accelerate his own project.

Directed in the end by Mike Hodges, nobody, including the film’s star, knew quite what to make of it.

Jones remembers: “The first time I saw it I said to myself, Sam, you need to go in there and you need to be objective. That’s hard to do when you’re the lead actor. So I’m sitting back and I’m thinking, are we supposed to laugh? Is this serious? The special effects and dialogue are kind of corny. You learn over the years to just sit back and enjoy the adventure.”

DID YOU KNOW…

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Like a fairytale filmed in a kaleidoscope, Flash Gordon is by no stretch of the imagination a great film. It makes Star Wars look like Citizen Kane but therein lies the secret of its enduring appeal. While Star Wars – and the world at large – leaned into its dark side in later years, Flash Gordon remains a beacon of gaudy fantasy. Good battles evil, but does it wearing spangly pants and soundtracked by Queen. The end of the world may be nigh, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.

Not that Jones had a lot of fun making the film. Overwhelmed by the experience, and maybe a little full of himself, the Flash Gordon actor frequently clashed with others on and off set. At Christmas, the production flew him home and didn’t bother flying him back afterwards, finishing filming with doubles and dubbing his lines with another actor.

Looking back now, Jones is grateful for learning an important lesson at an early age. “No matter what we do in life we need to eliminate things that are distracting us from what we’re supposed to be doing at that very moment. Usually the first voice that comes into our mind is the voice of fear telling us, oh, you can’t do that. Well, you need to tell that voice to shut up.

“I’m proud of what I did in Flash Gordon. Could I have made other choices? Yes, I could have, but by golly, this is the best I did at the time. And here’s the closer on that. Even if we make wrong choices, that wrong choice had better be real.”

Flash Gordon brings a purity and a simplicity. What did he do, did he break people down or did he build them up?

What makes Flash Gordon a hero for our times is that in our increasingly complex lives, we need to get back to basics. The charm of the character is that despite his radiant name he’s a little bit dim – but has a genuineness and unflagging determination to do the right thing. When straight-to- the-point thinking is required, who better to be inspired by than a man who wears a T-shirt with his name emblazoned on the front?

Jones/Flash has his own philosophy – and maybe it could save every one of us. “What we’re dealing with right now around the world, it’s about a condition of the heart, only that – nothing else,” Jones says. “Everybody has a heart condition. You’ve got a heart condition. I’ve got a heart condition, but it’s got nothing to do with a medical issue. It’s all about choice in our lives.

“Flash Gordon brings a purity and a simplicity. What did he do, did he break people down or did he build them up? Are we speaking good things and building people up with good loving things to say or are we speaking hateful things and breaking people down? It’s just that simple. Did he break down the nemesis, the enemy? Well, yeah, but he still gave him a chance to make the right decision and do better. It was up to them.

“Everybody’s searching for goodness and that’s what Flash Gordon has to offer. He eliminates a lot of nonsense in today’s thinking where good can be bad and bad can be good. Nowadays, I can see Flash Gordon saying: ‘Wait a minute, time out. I asked you a simple question and you’re not giving me a simple answer. I just need to know who this person is, what are they doing and what do they want. I don’t want to hear opinions.’

“He simplifies the confusion in any situation. That’s it. And that’s what we need. Oh god, isn’t that what we need in the world right now? Why are we making things so difficult for us and for those around us?

“I mean, there’s no great message, but I think that’s the right answer for what the world is going through.”

I want to play Flash Gordon, whether I’m the dad or whatever

Sam J Jones is not just another actor with the urge to pontificate on politics, however. As acting jobs became less frequent, Jones drew on his military background and based himself at one of the world’s flashpoints – the US/Mexico border, where he works in security.

“That’s a good thing about this movie business,” he says. “When it’s slow, I get to run security operations. There’s no downtime. Nowadays security is becoming a necessity. The way the world is going it’s going to be like food, water and clothing.”

From saving every man, every woman, every child in Flash Gordon, Jones chaperones VIPs back and forth between southern California and Tijuana and beyond, but is understandably secretive about some aspects of the job.

“You never give your principal’s or protectee’s name. But, you know, it’s diplomats, private-sector people, senior level leadership of major corporations, stuff like that who travel to what we define as high-risk environments. Mexico happens to be defined as a high-risk environment.

“It’s mandatory in the corporate world that any executives travelling to a high-risk environment have a professional security team. They have to, that’s just the way it is.”

It turns out that hiring the real Flash Gordon to protect you is much cheaper than the potential costs to a business of a trip going wrong.

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Comic Excitement Convention in Los Angeles
Sam J Jones can still climb a rope so there's nothing stopping him from taking up the Flash Gordon mantle once again (Credit: Aydin Palabiyikoglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“What if the CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation, let’s say, Flash Gordon Enterprises, is kidnapped in a certain country?” Jones continues. “I know it sounds crazy, but they have to do an assessment on how much money is being lost daily. How much money is at stake if the CEO of Flash Gordon Enterprises is gone and kidnapped for a week, two weeks, a month? Are they losing $10m a day? $100m at the end of a couple of weeks? How much is the ransom?

“That’s where we come in. They have to be assigned a professional security team, some driven in armoured vehicles. Most of our clients, they enter Mexico in the morning then we bring them back in the evening.

“For me, it’s easy. It’s just like making a movie, there’s really no difference. Seriously, it’s all preparation. Ninety per cent of the movie work and 90 per cent the security work is done before you roll the camera or start your operation. The similarities are uncanny.”

Jones is ready for a return to fictional life-saving too though. The rights currently belong to Disney, who are exploring either a live-action or animated reincarnation of Flash Gordon.

“It’s much needed right now, I’m all for it,” Jones, who turns 66 on August 12, says. “I want to play Flash Gordon, whether I’m the dad or whatever.

“Obviously, for every project you still need the good-looking younger man and the good-looking younger female. But I’d be more than happy to play Flash Gordon. I can still climb a rope so I’m good to go.”

Flash Gordon is back in cinemas now, then the 40th anniversary DVD and Blu-ray is released on August 10

Images: Getty