Why Everyone (Including Ted) Still Roots for 'Flash Gordon'

Topol, Melody Anderson, and Sam J. Jones in ‘Flash Gordon’ (Photo: Everett Collection)

The characters at the heart of Ted and Ted 2 — Boston naïf John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) and his walking, talking childhood teddy bear Ted (voiced by writer/director Seth MacFarlane) — have terrible taste in just about everything, including television, clothes and beer. (Bud Light, dudes? Really?) But there is one area where their taste is impeccable: The cinema of the ’80s — specifically, the 1980 space opera Flash Gordon, which the duo cite as their all-time favorite movie.

Directed by Mike Hodges and backed by Italian mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis, the reportedly $20 million movie was intended to launch a Star Wars-style franchise based on a decades-old comic strip about an ordinary Earthbound athlete who winds up transported to the distant planet Mongo to battle the tyrannical despot, Ming the Merciless.

For the role of the titular hero, De Laurentiis passed on Kurt Russell and Arnold Schwarzenegger in favor of inexperienced leading man Sam J. Jones, who, as legend has it, landed the part after the producer saw him on an episode of The Dating Game. The script was penned by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., one of the driving forces behind the legendarily campy Batman TV series, and Flash Gordon followed that show’s example by surrounding the star with respected dramatic actors—including Timothy Dalton and Max von Sydow—who keep their poker faces on throughout the production. Unfortunately, the movie, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, proved a one-and-done affair, as mixed reviews and mediocre grosses turned it from the next Star Wars into the next Battle Beyond the Stars.

Based on the film’s checkered history, Ted and John’s Flash Gordon love may sound like a joke, but actually they’re deadly serious. As well they should be, because Flash Gordon is, in fact, totally awesome. And MacFarlane is doing his part to give the movie a healthy afterlife, incorporating the former Flash Gordon himself into both Ted adventures. In the first movie, John and Ted meet Jones at a party where they do shots with their beloved screen hero.

Now, in Ted 2, Jones returns to officiate the wedding of Ted and his trash-talking girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), and later turns the toy bear down when he’s looking for a sperm donor so he and his bride can procreate. He also dons Flash’s red tights to take part in the movie’s climax, which unfolds at the New York Comic Con and packs dozens of geek references and in-jokes into every frame.

Max Von Sydow and Ornella Muti (Photo: Everett Collection)

According to Jones, Ted’s obsession with all things Flash Gordon stems directly from the mind of the foul-mouthed bear’s creator. “Seth called me and told me that he was a big fan,” Jones told The Huffington Post in 2012. “When he saw Flash Gordon, he was very young and it inspired him to do what he’s doing now.” And MacFarlane isn’t the only child to the ‘80s-turned-director of the ‘00s to quote Flash. A climactic scene from theSeth Rogen mall cop comedy Observe and Report uses one of the movie’s Queen-recorded tracks, “The Hero,” and Edgar Wright packed Flash Gordon references into his own cult favorite, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Watch a 'Flash Gordon' clip from 'Ted' below (warning: contains language):

So what is it about Flash Gordon that inspires such intense devotion? Maybe it’s because, despite De Laurentiis’s best intentions and efforts, the movie is the anti-Star Wars. George Lucas’s genre-defining blockbuster is suitably mythic and filled with adventure, but it’s also straight-faced to a fault, going out of its way to avoid the slightest hint of camp. In contrast, Flash Gordon is a giant bath in camp; it’s big, broad and goofy, and all in good fun. The tone is set by Jones, who plays every scene without the slightest trace of irony, even when he’s surrounded by winged Hawkmen (led by Brian Blessed, the one actor who does chew the scenery with extra helpings of relish) or piloting a skiff through the painted skies of Mongo. Flash’s love interest Dale (Melody Anderson), not to mention his nemesis Ming (von Sydow), also avoid letting their tongues slip out of their cheeks, which gives everyone equal footing and avoids a Jupiter Ascending situation.

Where Lucas pursued a more grounded, grittier version of a sci-fi universe (at least in the first Star Wars anyway), De Laurentiis typically went lavish, throwing money at giant sets, ornate costumes and “cutting edge” (for 1980, anyway) special effects. He also hired the rock group Queen to record the movie’s soundtrack, including the notorious theme song, which boasts such lyrics as, “Flash! He’s a miracle” and “He’ll save every one of us.”

Perhaps all the grandeur blinded De Laurentiis to what kind of movie was taking shape before the camera. Hodges told the British Film Institute that the producer didn’t understand why crew members would laugh when they saw the rushes from the previous day’s filming. “Dino said, ‘Hey Mike, why they laugh?’ The combination of [his] childlike quality and my total cynicism kind of worked. He kept me on track in terms of [the movie’s] enjoyment for children.” (In the same interview, Hodges ‘fesses to slipping some distinctly grown-up material into the PG-rated film. “I was putting in all sorts of sexual innuendo, partly because when I spoke to my American friends, they said a lot of their sexual fantasies were based on the strip cartoon.” That accounts for the phallic spaceships, the fetishistic costumes and Italian sexpot Ornella Muti’s Princess Aura being whipped while strapped to a table.)

Born in 1973, MacFarlane would have been one of those children who saw Flash Gordon during its original theatrical run, where it inspired reactions that ran the gamut. On the one hand, Roger Ebert awarded it three stars and wrote, “This is space opera…[and] it’s fun to see it done with energy and love and without the pseudo-meaningful apparatus of the Force and Trekkie Power.” At the same time, Variety labeled it “gaudy” and “dumb,” and Jones received a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actor. Technically, it’s an honor he really should have shared with the anonymous guy who dubbed most of his lines in post-production. Jones told Maxim in 2012 that he declined to return for any ADR sessions, so Hodges hired another actor who wound up looping half of Flash’s dialogue.

Timothy Dalton and Jones (Photo: Everett Collection)

Jones would eventually retire from acting and, these days, works as a personal security guard in addition to making regular appearances at sci-fi conventions. He’s also hinted that the renewed attention the Ted movies have brought him might mean a return to Mongo is in the offing. Matthew Vaughn was in talks earlier this year to revive Flash Gordon for 20th Century Fox and Jones told Den of Geek that he’s met with the studio about participating in the reboot. “However they want to use me, I’m very excited. Whatever a younger, leading man can do, I cannot only match him, I can do more! If he does 20 pull-ups, I can do 30 pull-ups. If he can do 100 push-ups, I can do 150 push-ups. Just keep that in mind!” Like the song goes, he’s a miracle.