As the dreaded nineteen eighties loomed large on the horizon, most of the kids my age wanted to be Han Solo. They wanted to fly the Falcon, beat whatever the Kessel Run was in less than twelve parsecs, shoot first and evade the nefarious clutches of the Empire. Me, I didn’t want to do any of that. I wanted to fly rocket cycles over Arboria, feast with Vultan in Cloud City, subvert General Karla and her henchmen and crash through the energy barrier that Ming hid behind. I wanted to be Flash Gordon. When Flash Gordon was released in 1980 it quite literally changed my life. I saw it three times in its first week of release, bought the novelisation and read it until I could recite whole chunks of Arthur Byron Cover’s novel verbatim, almost had my own copy of the film on permanent reserve in my local video store when the film hit the rental market and as soon as movies didn’t cost more than the weekly wage to buy and actually became affordable, it was the first film I ever bought. And yes, I now own it on DVD. I’ve see Flash Gordon more times than I care to remember and I will guarantee you that before I shuffle off this mortal coil, I’ll see it more times than I’ll be able to recall on my death bed.
Flash was like nothing I’d ever seen before, or since. The incomprehensible alien cultures, the vast horizons of a multitude of gorgeous colours, the pulsating driving soundtrack that underpinned and served as perfect accompaniment to the almost non-stop action and the battle between good and evil in which a relatively normal chap from Earth stood up to the forces of tyranny, and with the help of his new friends, fought against impossible odds and won. It was almost more than my eight year old brain could take and whilst my peers were declaring their allegiance to the Rebellion, I dreamt of fighting alongside Flash, Dale and Zarkoff against the armies of Mongo and Ming the Merciless. Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars, always have and always will, but it’s no Flash Gordon. And yes, Flash Gordon is sort of camp and, at times , a little gaudy, but it’s also the definitive encapsulation of the science fantasies of the pulp era, consummately capturing them on the big screen, transferring the adventures of America’s first mainstream post-depression hero into a new age for a new audience while retaining the sensibilities, and beating heroic heart, that had originally made Flash Gordon a cultural icon.
But 1980 was a long time ago and a lot of things have changed in the intervening four decades. Heck, back then I didn’t even know what a New York Jet was, let alone a quarterback, I just knew that they had to be cool because they sounded so mysterious. And they were what Flash did, so how could whatever they were not be fantastic? Twelve years later, as well as having found out what a quarterback was, I got to see Jets doing what they do best on their home turf. Although, as he wasn’t playing prime position for them, I guess Flash and his friends never made it back to Earth. Which, thanks to the lack of a sequel which I would have given anything to have seen appear, made my slightly over active imagination run through a myriad of possible Mongo based fates, all of which involved Flash emerging triumphant from whatever peril he faced. However, I wasn’t the only one who wondered what had happened to Flash Gordon after he defeated Ming, but while my wild scenarios were all set in space, director Lisa Downs had her sights set firmly on Earth and the man who played Alex Raymond’s hero. And so Lisa set out to find out what had happened to Sam J Jones after the movie cameras had stopped rolling and if there really was Life After Flash.
Flash Gordon changed everything for Sam J Jones. Plucked from relative obscurity by Dino De Laurentis to play the title role in the film, his brush with global fame proved to be a bittersweet experience for the then budding actor. The arrogance of youth coupled with an almost endearing naiveté and horrendously bad advice from his representation led to him not only being fired shortly after the last day of filming, before he could return to loop his dialogue, but also to the end of his tenure as a bankable big screen leading man. Of course, they weren’t the only reasons that Sam J Jones and big budget Hollywood parted ways, but they were important factors and Lisa Downs leaves no road unexplored as she charts the making of Flash Gordon through the memories and stories of the film’s cast and crew, Sam’s humble origins and difficult path to adulthood, his path to fame and his Life after Flash.
Interspersing the intriguing history of the film’s development, casting and the seemingly insurmountable difficulties that De Laurentis, Mike Hodges and company faced in order to get Flash Gordon made, with Sam’s story and the recollections of the rest of the cast, Life After Flash is one of those films that demands every ounce of your concentration. And thanks to being one of the most absorbing and emotionally charged cinematic journeys I’ve been on in goodness knows how long, rewards everything that you invest in it, a thousand times over. Whether it’s the funny, warm and intimate anecdotes of the big, “bad” sweary bear, Brian Blessed, the gentle and endearing on set stories of Melody Anderson or Brian May discussing the films iconic music and the Flash theme, the story of how Flash Gordon eventually became one of the BBC’s hundred most popular movies of all time is not just like listening to an old friend gently relating a comforting tale that you thought you knew, but never really did; it also provides a window into the often chaotic and crazy world of movie making. And while that’s worth the price of the admission ticket by itself, the story of Flash Gordon isn’t the reason that you’ll want, and need, to watch this film. The real reason you need to watch Life After Flash is Sam’s story.
Although Lisa Downs film begins as an atypical tale of an alpha male actor trying to make his way in Hollywood, Sam’s rise and fall and rise again soon takes an unexpected turn as the heartbreak of his early family life and his determination to make it as an actor led to him plunging into a long, dark night of the soul that it took him decades to emerge from. Told from both his perspective, and that of his family and friends, Sam’s story is one of self-discovery that while tragic at times, is ultimately one of victory as he discovers that family and faith, and not fame, are what’s really important to him. It’s a portrait composed from a variety of different, but unifying, images of a man who adores his fans as much as they adore him and who has an innate understanding of the relationship between character, actor and fandom. His career outside of the spotlight is also entirely fitting for his persona, and Life After Flash confirms what I’ve always, on some level, known about Sam J Jones. That he really is the embodiment of Flash Gordon. He isn’t defined by being an actor, he’s happy to just be himself and while self-deprecating about his past, he’s also wise enough to embrace it and make it a part of who he is instead of letting it consume him. If we, that is the collective we, could be half the person that Sam is, then the world would be a much brighter, nicer place. Sam J Jones was my childhood hero and thirty eight years later and now that I’m all grown up, he’s still my hero. It’s true you know, there really is Life After Flash… Tim Cundle