Max Von Sydow – Five Farewells: Flash Gordon

So I’ve referenced the fact that, to me at least, Max Von Sydow was an actor who was for the longest time one of those faces that very recognisable, but just never registered in the way that Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise or Sam Jones did. Whether or not this is shared by anyone else, I long had the impression that Uncle Max was no simply a “face”, but he had always been and “old face”. I recognised him as an old man (or at least older) in the films that I remembered him from – and this is a point we’ll come back to in a later post.

The truth is, however, that he was not perpetually “70 or so” – he was once a young, strong man with a young, strong face, and the first time I realized this was when I finally saw

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Oh Son…that is the cover from a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

Flash Gordon

Year: 1980
Director: Mike Hodges
Writers: Lorenzo Semple, Jr. & Michael Allin
Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, Mariangela Melato, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Topol and…Max Von Sydow.
Based on characters created by Alex Raymond.

If you are unfamiliar with the 1980 film that defines “campy schlock”, you are most certainly familiar with it’s magnificent theme song by the legendary band Queen. It’s the one that goes *bu bu bu bu bu bom bom bom bom Bom Bom BOm BOm BOM BOM BOM* FLASH…AA-AAAAAAA, Saviour of the Un-I-Verse!”

I lack the necessary words to convey just how important it is that you go out and watch this movie immediately. Whatever the stories behind the making of this beautiful mess, watching it has felt a little like watching a massive prank being pulled on one man by his college-mates, plus a few professors. So many British thespians (plus Topol!) appear in this flick, and every one of them has stepped straight out of the River of Ham, and are having a marvelous time. The only guy “playing it straight” is the films lead, Sam J. Jones as Flash Gordon. The result is hilariously entertaining, as the titular hero rockets to the planet Mongo to prevent galactic tyrant Ming the Merciless (Sydow) from destroying the earth.

Sydow effortlessly dominates this movie, establishing as magnetic presence that fixes the audience to the screen every time he shows up. I mentioned that in his great career, Sydow showed up in a fair bit of sci-fi or horror schlock, but in most roles he’s playing with sense of serious grace, raising the standard of the film he’s in. Flash Gordon is that rare occasion when he gets in on the over-the-top glory with his performance.

Flash Gordon has more than earned its place in the cult classic vault, and Max Von Sydow is a big part of that.

Oh go on then…I’ll leave you with the song.

Max Von Sydow – Five Farewells: Judge Dredd

The world has said a fond farewell this week to one of the acting professions true legends – the inimitable Max Von Sydow. At 91 years old, Sydows list of film credits is epic and impressive, having worked with no small number of master film craftsmen.

He also appeared in his fair share of schlock.

There was nothing pretentious about Max. Like his fellows who have achieve the rank of Legend (Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins and Christopher Plummer to name a few) he was happy to lend his own brand of gravitas to ridiculously budgeted sci-fi or horror B-movies in Tentpole makeup. He was never overshadowed by these appearances, instead somehow elevating the movies to something that would not be so easily disposable. His legacy embraces the most critically acclaimed Biblical Epic ever made, what was once considered the most terrifying film of all time, and one of the hands down greatest films of all time.

I came to know him, however, because he was not too proud to appear in schlock, such as…

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Judge Dredd

Year: 1995
Director: Danny Cannon
Writers: John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Michael De Luca, William Wisher, Steven E. de Souza
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Armand Assante, Diane Lane, Jurgen Prochnow, Rob Schneider who never once speaks to…Max Von Sydow
Judge Dredd created by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra and Pat Mills.

1995 was a strange era. Established properties were considered gold by studios, and there were no greater hopes for a global smash hit than those hung upon comics. Comic book properties were hot commodities, thanks to the insanely profitable Batman from 1989. These were far from the days of the meticulously crafted MCU – where the Character is King (except, perhaps, for Robert Downey Jr.) – but a time when the consideration was how a well known funny book character could benefit a movie star looking to up their profile.
Judge Dredd; the most recognised character from Britain’s longest running anthology comic series, 2000 A.D.
Sylvester Stallone; at one time in the running for the Biggest Movie Star In The World, or
at least Biggest Action Star.

2000 A.D. wasn’t particularly well known beyond comic book circles, and Stallone – while still undeniably huge – had not seen stellar returns from his early 90’s efforts. He wanted a hit, and a simple, action-packed story with an iconic look for a character was a good
bet. This was not a film done on the cheap either. Sets were lavish and well designed, special effects were well-polished for the era, and someone convinced Gianni Versace to do costumes. Comedy duties would be handled by Saturday Night Live alumn Rob Schneider – part of the same lineup as Adam Sandler and Mike Myers, who had become insanely popular. With a true international cast and crew to raise the global profile, by number alone, this must have seemed a great idea.

So, we’re all clear that the movie’s trash, right?

I have never been a fan of the “Guilty Pleasure” concept. My motto for film has always been “like what you like”, and no one should ever be able to tell you what you can feel about a movie. None of that is a reflection on any concept of objective quality, so I want to be perfectly clear: Judge Dredd is not a good movie…but I enjoy it a whole lot. Part of it is just the basic cognitive enjoyment that comes from seeing something I already enjoy in one medium become visible in another. The film looks like it came out of the comic, I don’t think anyone could argue that point. Additionally, it’s just fun when to watch actors having fun on screen…and Armand Assante looks like he’s having the time of his life. Seriously, that man is the Manifest River of Ham.

And then there’s Chief Justice Fargo – Max Von Sydow.

There’s a particular type of role I’ve begun to notice, whereby an elder-statesman actor is brought in for one unenviable purpose. Exposition.
Like Patrick Stewart in X-Men and Anthony Hopkins in Thor, Max secures his place among the greats because of his capacity to explain the most ridiculous parts of the story, or the world around him, and be completely believable. The character of Fargo is tasked with providing the audience with context for the film’s environments, motivations for various characters, and back story that factors into the film very little…but it’s totally engaging storytelling because it’s Max Von Sydow. There was something about the man that conveyed a sense of experience and authority. I  buy into these worlds, these characters and this ridiculous series of events largely because he tells me to.

This is a quality that is seen in a fair few of his film and television appearances, even the brief ones such as Star Wars and Game of Thrones. He reminded me so much of a grandfather involved with whatever games the kids are playing. He’s taking it every bit as seriously as they do, and that makes the immersion all the more complete. It’s like his presence gives permission for everyone else to go all in.

It’s also important to note that every single emotional beat of the film involves his character. Every one. Understanding the horror that Judge Dredd himself has been proven guilty of a crime is sold by the expression on Fargo’s face. The drama of Dredd’s sentence is only effective because it is intercut with Fargo’s exile. We are drawn into the tale of Dredd’s birth because Fargo is telling the story, and it may be the last thing we hear from him. In contrast a later scene in which Dredd shows vulnerability to love-interest Judge Hershey is simply not believable, even though it is played as an emotional moment for both characters.

Put simply, Max Von Sydow is the only reason I care about what’s happening in Judge Dredd. That is perhaps the more lasting impact he has had on me as a fan of movies, and I suspect others would have a similar experience. It’s part of the reason why I am finding that his particular passing moves me so much. He was the reason I cared in quite a few movies. It’s like he was a bridge for people to connect with stories, and I think that may be the best legacy he could leave behind.
It’s the reason why a brief testimonial, or even a list of favourite appearances didn’t seem enough of a farewell. That’s why I introduce this new feature “Five Of…”, to celebrate Max Von Sydow through five of his feature roles that had an impact on me.

Vale Max.

 

Esoterica – Metropolis

Here, at the commencement of a New Year, is a time when so much new stuff lay ahead to look forward to. For many people, it is inevitably a time when we look back at what has been…if only to figure out exactly where it was in the past it all went so wrong.

Thus the New Year is simultaneously a time of reflection & anticipation – and if you’re the unfortunate soul who has little to anticipate, then it is the time make the Old things New again.

And so with that tenuous philosophical tether, allow me to take a New look at an Old film – something that perhaps you have anticipated watching at some point in your life; something that the title of “esoterica” was, quite simply, made for. Continue reading