December 18, 2008

BARBARELLA (1968) the Ultimate Guide - Part 1: Review and Overview

Barbarella is definitely a cult film. It wasn't designed to be a cult, like some films, it was made to make money. But like Blade Runner it was rejected by the critics. who were especially harsh, and the film continues not to be taken seriously as sci-fi, or even a comedy! But despite being ignored, it still finds a following - a cult film. It's at the top of my top films, not because it's an underdog, but because I genuinely love it and haven't tired of it in thirty years. I first saw Barbarella at midnight on TV in a double-bill with This Island Earth. I love the look, the story, the characters, the cast and the intent.

A recent announcement that Barbarella would be remade by Robert Rodriguez was good news, even if it would only inspire a DVD special edition of the original. Most cult movies get special editions, right? The project is still alive, but nothing has been announced as yet.

(1968, France/Italy)

"The Universe has been pacified for centuries..."

Barbarella started life as a French comic strip, written and drawn by Jean Claude Forest. Barbarella had similar adventures to another comic strip hero, Flash Gordon, travelling around the galaxy and meeting new futuristic species while fighting a common foe. But unlike Flash, she could sleep around - Barb was often naked and used sex to save the Universe, all very 1960s, and very much the age of 'free love'.

The comic strips first appeared in French magazines and were very popular, soon reprinted as books of complete adventures - early 'graphic novels' before the phrase had been coined. The first volume became the basis of producer Dino de Laurentiis' 1968 movie.

Creator Jean Claude Forest was brought in as an adviser, helping make it a faithful adaption. For whatever reason, there are also a raft of scriptwriters credited in the movie's titles, though the end result is remarkably smooth. The original trailer lists only one writer, the celebrated counter-culture author Terry Southern, who had co-written the screenplay for Kubrick's Dr Strangelove. Southern later worked on the script for Easy Rider, and his novel The Magic Christian was adapted as a Peter Sellers comedy.

It's easy to see elements of Southern's titular character Candy (also filmed in 1968) in Barbarella, but there's nothing that wasn't already in Forest's original comics. Both stories are variations on Alice in Wonderland with added sexuality and recreational drug use. My guess is that Southern provided much of the witty dialogue and added many of the double-entendres, like Barbarella's translator device, the 'tongue box'. References to the World President selfishly hanging onto his defence forces in times of interplanetary peril, and to the continuing existence of the poor, both hint at his subversive wit at work.

The story is set ridiculously far into the future, around 40,000 A.D. War no longer exists, the Universe is unified and all about love - again, very 1960s. The Earth President asks Barbarella to pursue a mad scientist, Durand Durand, the inventor of a doomsday weapon.

She sets off in her spaceship, Alpha 7, and heads for Planet 16 orbiting Tau Ceti. She crashed during a magnetic storm, and accidentally discovers Durand's wrecked ship, Alpha 1. There she assesses the lay of the land, trading sex for information that could lead to the scientist. The trail leads to a place of evil and depravity, the sinful city of Sogo (a pun on Sodom and Gomorrah). She encounters evil children, killer dolls, leather robots, a maze full of disintegrating outcasts and finally, the voracious consorts in the palace of the Black Queen.

The winding, cliffhanger plot, places the heroine in constant peril. A running gag is that Barbarella keeps losing her clothes, necessitating a string of outlandish outfits. Indeed, the opening credits are a zero gravity strip-tease, where she loses her spacesuit. She falls into sexual encounters with every unusual character she meets - whether male or female, friend or enemy. Though there's no explicit coupling (excepting the bizarre hand-to-hand future-sex), there is occasional nudity, enough to warrant an 'X' certificate in the UK.

The film was also trimmed down to get an 'R' in the US, when a (mild) lesbian love scene was excised. I assume these cuts weren't necessary in the more liberal European countries, but have found no evidence that there were longer, alternate versions that included this scene. The only existing variation I've seen, is the brief full-frontal nudity in the opening striptease - older TV prints showed the words of the opening credits differently animated over Jane Fonda's nudity.

It's both space adventure and satirical comedy. Fonda plays it straight-faced, though much of the dialogue is ridiculous and tongue-in-cheek. It's a companion piece to the style of Batman (1966), where comic strip hero ethics were also sent up, in the sense of no-one could be that virtuous. The debt to the original 1930s Flash Gordon comic strip was repaid when Barbarella heavily influenced De Laurentiis' later movie adaption. Though Flash Gordon (1980) lacks the nudity, psychedelia and drug references that put Barbarella into a relatively small genre of adults-only fantasy.

The special effects have dated, though the use of front-projection originally allowed for a startling new look, where shifting colourful patterns expand bare sets into looking huge and unworldly. The name of the liquid monster living under the city, has even been used as the name of UK lava lamp manufacturer, Mathmos.

The projections were used extensively in the flying scenes, the aerial battle, the Chamber of Dreams and the journey through space. It looks obvious, but is at least imaginative and fascinating. The modelwork is bizarre - from Barbarella's triple-throbbing spaceship to the spidery city of Sogo. The sky-ships of the Black Guard look like they've been built by breast-obsessed fashion-designers, rather than aviation engineers. The fantastic streets of Sogo look more like modern art than anything recognisably functional.

Unusually, the entire film was shot on a sound stage - not many other movies have been made like this so consistently. Everything had to be designed and built from scratch, giving the whole movie a pure fantasy feel. The sets and costumes are far-out, sexy and stylish, and the influence of the film has been huge but largely unrecognised. Some of the only acknowledgements that Barbarella has received were from the makers of The Fifth Element and Demolition Man (the latter also had a hand-to-hand sex scene, and was set in a future where weapons were history).

Barbarella was one of the first VHS tapes that I bought. Home video releases have always called it Barbarella - Queen of the Galaxy for no logical reason. I waited for a 2.35 widescreen version for many years and it finally appeared on laserdisc. I was asked to write
the sleeve notes for the UK release and these were later reprinted as a DVD insert. I've also managed to see it in a cinema. The wider aspect ratio revealed many new details, like the large blue rabbits and other live animals used to populate the corners of the sets.

Paramount have yet to add any extra DVD material besides the (pretty poor) original US trailer (see YouTube clip below). Jane Fonda should at least be grabbed for a commentary session, especially now that many of the cast have passed away - most recently
John Phillip Law. There was a great behind-the-scenes featurette that has some great behind-the-scenes footage, even showing Fonda at home cooking for husband Roger Vadim, the director of Barbarella. The DVD has been mastered from fairly scratchy film elements, and the colour isn't as vivid as it could be.

With an international cast, many have quite thick European accents, and even Fonda's voice is occasionally lost in the mix. Only by looking at the comic book, the script, or the very useful DVD subtitles, can you appreciate every line of dialogue.

In the future I want to talk more about the cast, characters, costumes, missing scenes, publicity posters, magazines... so stay tuned.

And remember... LOVE!

The Ultimate Guide continues with...

Part 2: The movie's cast and characters

Part 3: Barbarella's many costumes

Part 4: Missing footage from the movie

Part 5: Set designs

Part 6: Movie posters

Most other Barbarella fansites are either very small or out of date. But this Italian site
has great photos, and is the only one I can recommend.


  1. Yes Barbarella is a beautiful movie to watch. Sure the story is shaky and not to be taken seriously I feel, but the visuals were so lush and memorable. Great post.

  2. hola, thanks for following. i like your movie review page too (very interesting stuff,nice!) and i will be checking it out for tips on all my next stay home and watch alot of videos nights!
    for sure it's time to see barbarella once more :)
    all the best

  3. Been thinking about who might have done the voice for Alphie, Barbarella's ship's computer. It could be Michael Ward, a rather fey old actor active in the 1960s, notably in the Carry On movies. He was Archimedes, answering the door to Julius Caesar in Carry On Cleo . He was also the gentleman's outfitter given the job of dressing Sgt. Slobotham as a woman in Carry On Screaming .

  4. Great suggestion, Mark. Especially since Fenella Fielding was also involved. I'll have a listen...

  5. Well, I always thought of Fenella Fielding was the voice of the Great Tyrant. Apparently it was Joan Greenwood, but I'd like to see some proof...