When Sam J. Jones landed the title role in producer Dino De Laurentiis’s “Flash Gordon” he was on top of world — or perhaps the universe his character would famously save.
Young, handsome and ready to conquer Hollywood, his stardom as the iconic sci-fi hero promised a bright future in the business.
But that’s not quite how things turned out.
Before production on the film had even been completed, Jones was handed his walking papers. A stand-in was used to finish his scenes, and a significant portion of his lines were dubbed over by a professional voice actor. Promised sequels were scrapped (prompting a lawsuit from Jones), and the visually and musically dynamic franchise was over shortly after it had begun.
Still, the film’s legacy lives on, not just for fans with fond childhood memories of watching the loud and colorful spectacle in theaters and acting out the scenes at home, but for Jones himself, who subsequently faced significant personal and professional struggles that lasted for many years.
That’s the premise of “Life After Flash,” an absorbing new indie documentary from director Lisa Downs.
Downs re-introduces us to Jones, now in his 60s, as a health-conscious Christian family man content with his life — a man people are proud to call a friend.
Having turned his military experience (which predates his work as an actor) into a successful but humble career as a high-end security professional, he even manages to still get some acting gigs when he’s not working autograph booths on the ComicCon circuit.
— Life After Flash ⚡️⚡️ (@lifeafterflash) November 2, 2018
It’s far cry from where Jones stood nearly four decades earlier, as his personal ego and professional naivety contributed to unmanageable friction with De Laurentiis and the “Flash Gordon” film crew. Jones has many regrets from those days, including drug abuse and countless acts of infidelity that led to the collapse of his first marriage.
Sadly, this was just one of multiple eras of deep lows for Jones, beginning with a very rough childhood, and moving on to dark battles with depression and even a suicide attempt as he struggled to find his post-Hollywood identity.
FAST FACT: Kurt Russell turned down the title role in “Flash Gordon.” The studio later considered a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his thick accent got in the way.
But in case you’re getting the impression that this documentary is focused solely on one man’s tale of redemption, think again. The film delves deep into every facet of “Flash Gordon,” presenting insightful interviews with numerous co-stars, film crew, contributors and fans. This was not a narrow project by any means, and Downs deserves a lot of credit for the time invested in exploring the topic so thoroughly (and often amusingly).
Brian Blessed in particular is a blast to listen to as he recalls (in his memorable Prince Vultan voice) humorous stories from backstage, including the time he demanded that De Laurentiis leave the set because his presence was intimidating the cast and crew.
Peter Wyngarde provides some comical anecdotes involving his costume difficulties and improvised mannerisms as the masked villain, General Klytus.
Even Brian May of Queen weighs in. Wearing a “Flash Gordon” shirt beside a million-dollar piano, the legendary songwriter and guitarist describes among other things how the band divvied up scenes when working on the film’s adrenalized rock underscore.
And of course there’s the fandom — the “Flash Gordon” enthusiasts who collect artwork and film props from Danilo Donati’s dazzling production design, and show up in costume at various ComicCon events where Jones is a staple.
One would think that Jones would resent the role that typecast him and effectively marked the end of his short tenure as a Hollywood headliner. Any past bitterness seems to have fallen by the wayside.
The gratitude and affection Jones has for Flash fans comes across clearly in the documentary, and as someone who has actually met Jones at one of these gatherings, and listened to him ask my kids questions about their lives, this reviewer can assure you that Jones’s graciousness is authentic.
“Life After Flash” is a fascinating and even fun documentary about a pop-culture phenomenon and the lives that it affected. Fans of the nearly 40 year-old film will love it, but the work’s appeal should also extend to those who merely remember the iconic movie for its visual boldness.
Congratulations to Downs for recognizing an area of cinematic cult interest, and thoughtfully presenting it with the decorum and recognition it deserves. A real achievement.
John A. Daly is a Colo.-based author of three Sean Coleman thrillers. The fourth, “Safeguard,” will be released Oct. 1, 2019.