• U.S.

Cinema: Comics into Film: Bam! Pow! Eek!

5 minute read
Richard Schickel

FLASH GORDON Directed by Mike Hodges; Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. POPEYE Directed by Robert Altman; Screenplay by Jules Feiffer

Biff! Bam! Pow! Also Ugh! Yargh! Ptui! Not to mention Eek! Awwk! and Aggrrraa!

The beloved onomatopoetics of yesteryear, redolent of childhood’s long, rainy Sunday afternoons, cannot help recalling that the comics were the popular art that most radically stylized experience. Sometimes artfully, more often not, they reduced it to its basic components of violence, disgust, fear, heroics and sometimes laughter. From their beginnings, the comics and the movies have lived together symbolically; there is scarcely a major comic-page figure who has not been reincarnated on the screen, or a comic strip that has not been influenced by the way movie directors frame and compose scenes. Yet the transitions from one medium to the other have not been very successful. Most of the cartoon characters who originated in print ended up in serials and B pictures, which had, at least, a sleaziness that nicely matched the tackiness of newsprint. But the realistic air of nonanimated movies, with their illusion of three-dimensionality, worked against the divine simplifications of the comics’ conventions.

Still, the movies keep trying—especially after the success of the Star Wars saga, which has comic-adventure roots. Two big-budget Christmas releases illustrate the perils and pleasures of going to popular culture’s sub-basement in search of material. Flash Gordon, which expensive but unpretentious, works; Popeye, which reflects the critical and sociological chat about comics in recent years, does not. Indeed, it is one of the most grievously miscalculated movies in recent memory, claustrophobic in manner, mean in spirit, downright grotesque to look at.

This is not to imply that Flash is an art film. Its adapters had an easier task than Popeye’s did, since the comic’s creator, Alex Raymond, was the most movieish of illustrators. His space fantasies are replicable on a sound stage, because they consisted largely of art deco architecture, primitive emotions and sexy states of undress. One gets a sense that Production Designer Danilo Donati had fun recreating Raymond’s visions, that Writer Semple’s script was lettered into balloons, and Director Hodges kept a pile of old comic books on hand to suggest setups.

The actors, one imagines, needed very little help at all, beyond the occasional suggestion to play broadly. As usual, Ming the Merciless, Emperor of Mongo, is bent on destroying the earth and, failing that, making life as unpleasant as possible for Flash (Sam J. Jones), his girlfriend Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and his pal Dr. Zarkov (Topol). The results of this obsession are colorful: large and small battles, peril to Dale’s virtue (“Prepare her for my pleasure,” intones Ming at one point), sundry bondage fantasies. The high points are a whip fight staged on a wildly tilting platform and a concluding conflict that features an attack by the Hawkmen, hearty barbarians who flap about on giant wings. Max Von Sydow has a good time as Ming, and Ornella Muti, as his daughter, is simply gorgeous. All in all, Flash Gordon is as good an approximation of the hard-edged, gaudy comic-book style as one is likely to see.

In contrast, Popeye seems to be less an adaptation of Elzie Segar’s great creation than of one of those over-Freudianized analyses of popular art that used to appear in the little magazines. Some of the fault may lie in Jules Feiffer’s script, which has Popeye searching for his lost father.

That line is all right, within limits. If memory serves, the comic-strip Popeye spent some time in just that way.

The real trouble is Altman’s direction, at once spacy and junked up. He caused an entire small town, Sweethaven, to be constructed on Malta, and it is as jumbled as Segar’s Thimble Theatre was clean-lined. Worse, the sound track is constantly amutter with asides, off-screen voices, half-overheards—Altman trademarks at odds with the spare, sharp verbal play that was one of the delights in the comic.

Shelley Duvall makes a fine Olive Oyl lookalike, but Popeye, as played by Robin Williams, appears to be undergoing an identity crisis far beyond the powers of spinach cure. As a result, his moral force —and he was once one of the great comic-strip exemplars of righteousness tied to a short fuse—appears sicklied o’er with the pale cast of self-absorption. The rest of the characters—excepting Swee’Pea (played by Altman’s grandchild, Wesley Ivan Hurt)—are blurs of lost innocence.

Where, in its preparation, the film became mushy misanthropy one cannot tell. It can certainly be said that Popeye will bore children and offend adults who fondly remember the original. It is a travesty to hear Williams warble the classic “I yam what I yam” line in one of Harry Nilsson’s many witless songs. “I’m not the man I was” would be a more appropriate lyric. Or maybe, “What have they done to me?”

—By Richard Schickel

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com