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Although it has a solid core of dedicated fans, 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 completely come together 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. But lovers of Royal Flash don't worry about such minor issues. Lester gets his unlikely hero off to a great start, making a Patton- like jingoistic speech before a giant Union Jack: "Now lads, I'm just a simple soldier..."
The 1840s are great times for an unprincipled rogue to get ahead. 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 Montés (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 conspiracy plotted 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. Because 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 intends 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 bully villain of School Days has grown up and found his deceitful place in the King's officer corps. In this 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 the seduction of 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 Montés 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 cold and calculating Bismarck. In one 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 behaves too nicely. This Harry Flashman would be Tom Brown's mischievous friend, not the bully boy who infuriates because he comes out on top, against all notions of fair play and justice. McDowell was fine playing a rebellious schoolboy (If....) or a green pilgrim making his way in a corrupt world (O Lucky Man!), but he lacks the particular brand of charisma and charm that allows other stars to play total heels, yet retain audience allegiance. This Harry Flashman isn't really in charge. He seems overpowered by the array of slapstick set pieces arrayed against him. 1
Director Lester emphasizes the physical comedy that had worked so well in his earlier 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. As if he were Harold Lloyd, things just miraculously work out in Harry's favor. Critics were too hard on Royal Flash, but the non-stop Keystone Kops ethic eventually bogs it down.
Curiously, Lester's insistence on repetitive slapstick comedy at the expense of character would also 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.
Much 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 contributes one priceless gag as a frigid bride on her wedding night, but otherwise is used only as a momentary decoration. Second-billed Alan Bates does charm his way through a number of good moments, and Oliver Reed makes a glowering, humorless Bismarck.
One good reason to see the movie is that it is a beautiful production. It makes excellent use of impressive 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 as a sparkling entertainment for the confirmed Flashman fan.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Royal Flash is presented in a stunning, colorful enhanced transfer. HD's ability to accurately interpret shots using fog filters allows this encoding to far surpass the DVD release from seven years ago. It looks as if the earlier disc was also produced by Twilight Time's Nick Redman, as it has the same extras including an Isolated Score Track. On the Blu-ray, of course, the audio and Ken Thorne's period-flavored score is uncompressed. Nick Redman guides a friendly and candid interview with Malcolm McDowell on the commentary track, which contains several interesting revelations. McDowell was approached by Stanley Baker five years before 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 (Inside Royal Flash), and another amusing short (Meet Harry Flashman) examines the literary world of the Flashman novels. A trailer is included as well.
Julie Kirgo's welcome insert liner notes delve deep into Harry Flashman arcana, every story of which seems to have a funny angle. As if imitating his fictional "hero's" style, author George MacDonald Fraser excuses his borrowing of the plot of The Prisoner of Zenda by having Harry complain that Zenda's author Anthony Hope based his tale on Harry's own exploits!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Royal Flash Blu-ray rates:
Hi Glenn, I read the first Flashman book and at first found it hard to follow the adventures of a cad, but I slowly got used to the idea and liked the book. But author George MacDonald Fraser quickly lost his nerve and in each succeeding book Flashman became less and less immoral, more and more amoral, and finally, totally and boringly moral. He became a regular hero with naughty inclinations.
Since a film has to bring in a lot more people to justify its cost, it seems the poor old Flashy of the cinema was doomed from the beginning to be a kinda good guy.
The Brits are usually better at this than we are, creating (semi) mean-spirited characters with bite and spunk. Then we take one of the unlikable yet hilarious, sit-com characters from a Brit TV show and make him or her a pussycat... and then proclaim that Limey humor doesn't play in the colonies! -- Ken
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T'was Ever Thus.