Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The comedy action adventure Royal Flash was a disappointment for the directing career of Richard Lester. That George MacDonald Fraser's handsome adaptation of his own Captain Harry Flashman book doesn't quite work is perhaps not the director's doing, as Lester's slapstick antics certainly keep the movie alive and humming on a narrative level. But Lester's particular style and the casting of Malcolm McDowell go against Fraser's cynically irreverent tone, flattening the jolly dastard Flashman character into something less original. Just the same, Royal Flash has its own following of devoted fans.
The 1840s. An absolute coward and turncoat, young Captain Harry Flashman (Malcolm McDowell) inadvertently becomes a national hero on an Afghan battlefield. Back in London, Harry uses his fame to bully others, claim unearned rewards, and woo exciting women like the promiscuous Lola Montes (Florinda Bolkan). After making an enemy of the young German nobleman Otto von Bismarck (Oliver Reed), Flashman ventures to a small European kingdom and is tricked into aiding a royal conspiracy by Rudi von Sternberg (Alan Bates) and his henchmen De Gautet and Kraftstein (Tom Bell and Lionel Jeffries). Flashman just happens to resemble a nobleman they want out of the way, and since part of the impersonation plan includes spending a wedding night with the beautiful Duchess Irma (Britt Ekland), Flashman agrees. At least, until he finds out that Bismarck is going to give him two nasty saber scars, so as to better resemble the man he's replacing!
George MacDonald Fraser's Harry Flashman is a character borrowed from Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days, where he serves as the gallant Tom Brown's classroom nemesis, a school villain. The amiable conceit of Fraser's books is that the 'hero' of School Days has grown up and found his deceitful place in the King's officer corps. In an inversion of the heroic epic, the more cowardly and dishonorable Flashman behaves, the more success comes his way. Fraser's numerous Flashman books insert the character into every military event of the 19th century, from the Crimea to the Zulu Wars to the American Civil War. In each case Flashman behaves abominably, directing all of his efforts to seducing the closest desirable female. Royal Flash is an adaptation of the second book in the series.
Fraser's screenplay maintains the notion of involving Captain Harry with real personalities of the age. Notorious lover Lola Montes is just the kind of woman Flashman seeks, and Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan supplies the appropriate dark allure. Also scoring well is Oliver Reed as the humorless Bismarck. In a cute bit Flashman treats the glowering Otto abominably, with some help from London policeman Bob Hoskins. But once in the heart of Bavaria Harry becomes a pawn in Bismarck's plan to expand German territory with a re-run of the plot from The Prisoner of Zenda. Harry is sucked into the scheme for less than honorable reasons.
Royal Flash is a pleasant diversion, but it does almost nothing with the amusing idea that a celebrated hero might be an unapologetic 'cad and bounder'. The main problem is that the impish Malcolm McDowell is simply too nice. This Harry Flashman would be Tom Brown's mischievous friend, not the bully boy who infuriates because he comes out on top, no matter how badly he behaves. The emphasis is instead on Richard Lester's slapstick set pieces, which had worked so well in his Musketeers movies. Flashman avoids being skewered by sabers in elaborate comedy stunts that include flying dishes, falling masonry and swinging on chandeliers. Many of these gags are quite funny, but they don't necessarily fit in with Fraser's comic-cynical concept of the Flashman character. Like Harold Lloyd, things just miraculously work out in Harry's favor. He just isn't selfish or shallow enough in his mock villainy.
Curiously, Lester's insistence on repetitive slapstick comedy at the expense of character would mar his later Superman II and Superman III. As he did with Harry Flashman, Lester ignored Superman's core traits, making him the straight man for a lot of irrelevant low-comedy hi-jinks.
Without a darker-edged main character, many of Lester's pratfall antics aren't all that different from the comedy in groaners like Start the Revolution without Me. Elaborate scenes, such as the inauguration of the region's first steam locomotive, are used for feeble bits of inconsequential humor. The wholesale borrowing of the Zenda plot turns Flashman into a standard matinee hero and only adds to the feeling that we've seen it all before. Britt Ekland has one priceless gag as a frigid bride on her wedding night, but otherwise is used only a a momentary decoration. Second-billed Alan Bates charms his way through a number of good moments, but despite his efforts Royal Flash just doesn't take on a spirit of its own.
The production makes excellent use of beautiful English and Bavarian locations, including a number of breathtaking castles and palace interiors filmed by camera artist Geoffrey Unsworth. Costumes and décor are the equal of any period recreation, but again point up the film's inability to establish a consistent tone. Lester resolves every situation with yet another circus-act slapstick scene, leaving Royal Flash an amusing but forgettable show.
Fox's DVD of Royal Flash is presented in a fine, colorful enhanced transfer that improves on old flat cable versions. The clear soundtrack favor's Ken Thorne's period-flavored score. Film historian Nick Redman interviews Malcolm McDowell on the commentary track, which contains several interesting revelations. Five years before, McDowell was approached by Stanley Baker to star in a film based on the first Flashman novel, but the project fell apart. Various personalities including producer David Picker contribute to a making-of featurette, and another amusing short examines the literary world of the Flashman novels, which are still being written. Besides a trailer and a still gallery, the feature comes with an isolated music & sound effects track, the better to appreciate Ken Thorne's music.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Royal Flash rates:
Supplements: Commentary with Nick Redman and Malcolm McDowell,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 12, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson