If you make films that don’t fit into a particular slot, distributors and publicity people just don’t know what to do with them,” muses Mike Hodges from his Dorset farm. It’s the story of his career. Hodges, who turns 88 this month, made two of the best-known British movies ever: definitive gangster thriller Get Carter and sci-fi romp Flash Gordon. But many of his other films, through no fault of his own, barely saw the light of day. His 1974 sci-fi thriller The Terminal Man never got a UK release; he was fired from Damien: Omen II; Mickey Rourke IRA thriller A Prayer for the Dying was re-edited behind his back.
And then there’s supernatural thriller Black Rainbow, that Hodges wrote and directed in 1989. It is one of his best films, but its distributors fell into financial difficulties, so it never got a full cinema release. “By the time I made Black Rainbow I’d got kind of used to it,” Hodges laughs. “I was pretty angry of course, but there we go. One of those things.”
Black Rainbow, which has just been restored and released on Blu-Ray, brings some overriding themes of Hodges’ career into focus. Its central figure is a medium named Martha (Rosanna Arquette) who tours the American Bible belt with her alcoholic father (Jason Robards), offering her audiences a sunny preview of the afterlife and supposedly communing with their dead relatives. One night, she contacts a man on “the other side” whom his wife insists is still alive. Not for much longer, it turns out. The man is murdered in exactly the way Martha predicted. The killing is connected to a scandal at the local chemical plant, to which Martha is now a witness. The plot deftly ties together many strands: worker exploitation, corporate and governmental corruption, environmental destruction, religious fundamentalism. For a story about prophecy, it is uncannily prophetic.
“When I wrote it more than 30 years ago, it seemed to me society was in a very dodgy situation,” says Hodges. “We were building an edifice that was very vulnerable, and people weren’t paying attention.” In the US especially, Black Rainbow’s warnings seem to have come to pass. “The worst aspect of America has been the way Christianity and capitalism are now hand in hand. The reason they’ve got Trump as president is because of the fundamentalist religious people backing him, irrespective of the fact that he’s a totally immoral man. He’s managed to get a cohort of people around him who really are dangerous.”
Hodges was raised a Catholic, but lost his faith at a young age, he says. He claims his boarding school in Bath, run by the Irish Christian Brothers, was a place of corporal punishment and sexual abuse. “I was tampered with, but not in any really serious way,” he says. When his parents discovered what was going on, the school investigated. “But they came back and said, ‘No, this is untrue. This is a childish fantasy.’ And our parents sent us back. It was horrendous.”
After school, he spent two eye-opening years doing national service on the lower deck of a navy minesweeper, visiting “every disgusting fishing port in the UK”. “My parents were conservatives, but what I experienced on the lower deck changed all that for ever. I’d lost my Catholicism and then I lost my conservatism.” Starting at the bottom of television, he graduated to current affairs series World in Action before moving into fiction and cinema.
In retrospect, a similar set of preoccupations runs through many of Hodges’ films: religious zealotry, loneliness, corruption, corporate greed and a certain fatalistic view of progress, especially the American variety. Hodges even suggests Flash Gordon as a stand-in for American foreign policy: a dim-bulb jock stumbling into cultures he doesn’t understand. Compared to Hodges’ usual bad experiences, Flash Gordon was a breeze. Drafted in by Italian mogul Dino De Laurentiis as a replacement for departing director Nicolas Roeg, Hodges essentially made it up as he went along. “I had no idea what I was going to do when I took over,” he laughs. “I think that’s part of the success of the film. It’s like a souffle. We managed to put all the right ingredients in and it sort of rose, in some mysterious way.”
In many respects Flash Gordon, which marks its 40th anniversary this year, was a forerunner of the modern superhero genre. “Except it was a comedy,” Hodges qualifies. “The story was ludicrous! Watching the rushes every day, you could hardly keep a straight face.” De Laurentiis never saw the joke, Hodges says. He had to tell the crew to stifle their laughter when he was in the room. Hodges doesn’t watch modern superhero movies, though. “I never liked them to be honest with you. They’re quite dark, I think, aren’t they?”
One stroke of good fortune in Hodges’ career came with 1998’s Croupier – a taut, typically fatalistic gambling thriller led by Clive Owen. On its UK release it made little impression and Hodges wondered if he’d ever work again. But surprisingly it became a cult hit in the US, which led to a rerelease in Britain and eventual success. Hodges describes it as one of the happiest memories of his career.
He has no intention of returning to film-making, he says. He is quite happy in his vegetable patch and writing noir fiction. But now that most of his output is available (The Terminal Man is due for a Blu-Ray reissue next year), perhaps it is not too late for a career reappraisal. He deserves a slot of his own.