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Ming The Merciless from 'Flash Gordon' deemed 'discriminatory stereotype'

Ben Arnold
·Contributor
·3-min read
Max von Sydow as Emperor Ming the Merciless in 'Flash Gordon', directed by Mike Hodges, 1980 (Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Max von Sydow as Emperor Ming the Merciless in 'Flash Gordon', directed by Mike Hodges, 1980 (Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Max Von Sydow's archly evil Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon has been branded a 'discriminatory stereotype' by the British Board of Film Classification.

In a reclassification of the 1980 sci-fi classic, the BBFC has added a new content warning over the depiction of the character, which is clearly intended to be Asian, but is played by a white actor (Von Sydow).

It has called it 'dubious if not outright offensive', and now among other warnings of 'moderate violence, language, and sex references' is added 'discriminatory stereotypes'.

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“An alien character is coded as 'Asian' due to his hair and make-up, although he is portrayed by a Caucasian actor,” it goes on in the movie's description.

“The character derives from the film's dated source material, but some viewers may find the depiction offensive.”

Speaking on the BBFC's podcast, senior policy officer Matt Tindall 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.

Actors Sam J. Jones and Timothy Dalton in a scene from the film 'Flash Gordon', 1980. (Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)
Actors Sam J. Jones and Timothy Dalton in a scene from the film 'Flash Gordon', 1980. (Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)

“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.”

The film also had its advised rating raised from PG to 12A earlier this year, though when it was originally released it was given the certificate A, for ‘advisory’, predating the current system.

Directed by Mike Hodges, the movie found Sam Jones as the American football star Flash Gordon, transported to the planet Mongo by Topol’s scientists Dr. Hans Zarkov.

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There, with the help of Timothy Dalton’s Prince Barin and Brian Blessed’s Prince Vultan, he does battle with Von Sydow’s Ming, all to an operatic score from Queen.

Tindall went on: “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.”

Swedish actor Von Sydow, who had a 70-year career in movies and TV, including recent roles in Game of Thrones and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, died in March this year at his home in Provence at the age of 90.

Watch: Flash Gordon 4K restoration clip