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Flash Gordon, Moshiach of the Universe

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Nathan Abrams tells the hidden Jewish history of a childhood favourite, Flash Gordon, which is 40 years old today.

Imagine if the creators of Superman had read Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’ and the result is Flash Gordon which celebrates the fortieth anniversary of its release today.

In a nutshell, scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov, football star Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden travel to the Planet Mongo, where the tyrant Emperor Ming the Merciless has attacked Earth out of pure boredom. Flash and his gang must unite the indigenous warring factions of Hawkmen and Arborians to defeat Ming and free the planet from his despotism.

Like its namesake, Flash Gordon is full of tough, goyische square-cut heroes. Flash is the all-American football star. As director Mike Hodges (not Jewish) recounted, ‘Flash had to have a chiselled jaw, the all-American boy. …He’s genuinely innocent and you can believe he’s a football player.’ His companion is called Dale Arden.

The film was envisaged in part as a Saturday morning action movie for children (when really, they should be in shul) and what is less Jewish than that?

But maybe there is more to it than meets the eye?

Firstly, science fiction is a very Jewish genre. Consider Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the films of Robert Wise — The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Andromeda Strain (1971), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Like many of those films, Flash Gordon is full of androids, which are obviously golems.

On the Kubrick theme, Philip Stone who plays Zogi, the High Priest, appeared as Lloyd the barman in The Shining that same year. Ming and his henchman refer to Earth as ‘an obscure body in the SK system’ (thanks to Ian Roscow for pointing this out).

Flash and Dale are certainly the sort of bland names that Jews chose to hide their Jewishness. Gordon itself has been chosen by Jews as a surname, possibly because it is a corruption of the toponymic Grodno.

Flash plays for the New York Jets, home to many Jews and only one consonant away. Hodges describes Dale as ‘the perky, New York girl.’

Zarkov is played by Topol and is explicitly portrayed as Jewish. Born in Eastern Europe, his family fled the Holocaust to the United States. In flashbacks, we see a Jewish funeral (in the credits, Frances Baker is listed as ‘Jewish Woman at Funeral in Flashback’). Zarkov is presented as crazy, a deranged visionary, playing into the stereotype of the mad Jewish scientist such as Rotwang in Metropolis or the eponymous character of Dr. Strangelove (1964). One of the ways that Zarkov prevents the wiping of his memory is by reciting pages of the Talmud he has learned.

Ming is a fascistic and totalitarian leader of a police state and expressly compared to the Nazis. When Zarkov’s memory is beong erased, we see flashbacks to his earlier life. This includes and images of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. When General Klytus, the commander of Ming’s secret police sees him, he mutters admiringly, ‘Now he showed promise’. Ming’s palace is gaudy, dripping with gold, the sort of presidential palace one might find in a tinpot dictatorship of the type lampooned by Sasha Baron Cohen in The Dictator.

General Klytus

When Flash leads the resistance against Ming, he unites the various warring tribes and leads them to victory. In this he is engaged in tikkum olam, repairing or healing the world of Mongo. Flash, according to the Queen lyrics in the theme tune, is the moschiach, or Messiah, the ‘saviour of the universe’ who, like God in the Bible, ‘saves with a mighty hand’.

One might even consider the bearded Hawkmen, led by the bloviating Brian Blessed, as Hassidic (although Hodges admits that did have the then Welsh rugby team in mind). The dominant red and yellow of the logo implies Jewishness in that both colours were used to stigmatise Jews in past centuries.

Flash Gordon was also an influence on early superhero comics characters. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster based Superman’s uniform of tights and a cape on costumes worn by Flash Gordon.

Much more recently, Jewish director Taika Waititi (who portrayed Hitler in his film JoJo Rabbit) is rumoured to be adapting it and might bring this latent Jewishness to the surface.

Art by Sheree Fadil

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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