Flash Gordon remains a celebrated cult-classic movie, but one aspect of the film definitely isn't aging well: Flash Gordon villain Ming the Merciless. Ming was an obvious reference to East Asian cultures, although the character was actually played by Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Game of Thrones actor Max Von Sydow - a Swedish man. In light of changing times and attitudes toward the representation of race onscreen, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has now added a warning about "discriminatory stereotypes" to a recent re-release of Flash Gordon. This denotes the start of a BBFC process for 2021, in which the board reviews how to handle similar issues in other old films.
The BBFC also gave Flash Gordon a stricter rating for its re-release, bumping it up to 12A, up from its original "A" rating. BBFC senior policy officer Matt Tindall spoke on the matter, saying:
"Ming the Merciless is coded as an East Asian character due to his hair and make-up, but he's played by a Swedish actor in the film, he's played by Max Von Sydow, which I don't think is something that would happen if this were a modern production, and is something that we're also aware that viewers may find dubious if not outright offensive. The character of Ming of course comes from the Flash Gordon comic strips from the 1930s and the serials, and let's just say attitudes towards the acceptability of discriminatory racial stereotypes have moved on considerably since then, and rightly so of course."
Tindall also spoke on what the BBFC plans to do down the line, regarding looking at older films and examining them for reclassification:
"This is something that we have to bear in mind often when we see older films coming in for reclassification - films that might contain discriminatory depictions or stereotypes that are not acceptable to modern audiences, including films where discrimination wasn't the work's intent, just a reflection of the period in which it was made. This is an issue that we're currently planning to explore more through research next year, speaking to the public to check that they're happy with the way we're classifying such films and the way we classify issues of discrimination more generally."
Flash Gordon is just the latest in a wave of films that have been re-examined in a modern light and deemed offensive. Gone With the Wind, Breakfast At Tiffany's, Disney's Songs of the South, and the 1936 musical Show Boat are similar examples. The Flash Gordon franchise will get a chance to course-correct: an animated reboot is on the way from Thor: Love & Thunder director Taika Waititi.