Flash Gordon's Ming the Merciless is a 'discriminatory stereotype', says UK film censor

Max von Sydow with Sam Jones in Flash Gordon - Universal Pictures
Max von Sydow with Sam Jones in Flash Gordon - Universal Pictures

To the generation that grew up watching Flash Gordon, Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless was one of the great screen villains.

He was also a “discriminatory stereotype”, according to the British Board of Film Classification. The censor has added the warning to its rating for Flash Gordon, saying the casting of a white actor in the role could be considered “dubious if not outright offensive”.

Ming hailed from the Planet Mongo but, the BBFC said, was clearly of East Asian origin.

The organisation will conduct research in the New Year to establish if other old films contain racial stereotypes that need to be caveated for modern audiences.

In a newly-released podcast, the BBFC explained why the stereotype warning had been added.

Matt Tindall, senior policy officer, said: “Flash’s arch-nemesis, Ming the Merciless, is coded as an East Asian character due to his hair and make-up but he’s played by the Swedish actor, Max von Sydow, which I don’t think is something that would happen if this were a modern production and is something we’re also aware that viewers may find dubious, if not outright offensive.

“The character of Ming himself comes from the Flash Gordon comic strips of the 1930s and let’s just say that attitudes towards the acceptability of discriminatory racial stereotypes have moved on considerably since then, and rightly so, of course.

“While the presentation of Ming in Flash Gordon, the 1980s film, isn’t what we would consider a category-defining issue, we’re sensitive to the potential it has to cause offence. So we’ve highlighted it [to ensure] audiences are aware it’s there, and can make an informed decision about whether to watch the film themselves or to show it to their children.”

Films that fell out of favour
Films that fell out of favour

He added: “This is something we have bear in mind often when we see older films coming in for re-classification: 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 ways that we’re classifying such films and the way that we classify each use of discrimination more generally.”

The film, originally released in 1980, was re-classified earlier this year. It was originally A-rated, a classification which does not exist today but which equated to a PG.

The BBFC has raised the film’s rating to a 12A on account of its violent scenes, sex references and language. It includes the memorable line of dialogue from Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin: “Freeze, you bloody b------s!”

Tindall said: “Things have moved on some way since 1980 and we had to look at Flash Gordon with fresh eyes, and in doing so we came to the conclusion that for modern audiences it is much more appropriately rated 12A than PG.”

Von Sydow died in March, aged 90, after a career that included playing a medieval knight in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and the Messiah in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Flash Gordon’s director, Mike Hodges, said of von Sydow’s role as the evil emperor: “He loved doing it. He was charming and funny, and just relished the whole thing. I think it was a kind of relief for him, because all those other heavy roles he’d been playing must weigh upon you as an actor.”

The film also starred Sam Jones as Flash, Topol as a scientist and Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan.

Blessed has claimed that the film’s fans include The Queen. “It’s her favourite film. She watches it with her grandchildren every Christmas,” he once said, insisting that she had one asked him to bellow his famous line from the film: “Gordon’s alive?!”