Adapted by George MacDonald Fraser from his second Flashman novel, Royal Flash is a fairly good example of the kind of period comedy in which both author and director excelled. After his two films with The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), and following a series of semi-experimental films in the late 1960s (How I Won the War, the interesting The Bed-Sitting Room), Lester found a niche reinterpreting literary and historical figures during the '70s, most famously with his rousing pair of Three Musketeers movies (1973-74), but also with the underrated Robin and Marian (1976). Fraser's Flashman novels, of which there were twelve, similarly are interested in blending historically accurate settings and characters while simultaneously tearing apart myths about the upper-most crust of Europe's imperialists. Imagine a slapstick rendition of Stanley Kubrick's similarly opulent Barry Lyndon (also about a cad working his way to the top of European society, 1975) and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Lester's film.
Actor-producer Stanley Baker bought the rights to Flashman, the first Fraser novel, for director Mike Hodges, and even wanted Malcolm McDowell, Royal Flash's leading man, to play the part, but the film was never made. In adapting the second book, Fraser cribs the opening scenes from the first novel, dramatizing how Captain Harry Flashman (who first appeared in literary form as the bully of Tom Brown's School Days) unjustly becomes a celebrity-hero (the "Hector of Afghanistan") during the First Anglo-Afghan War. Though apparently the sole survivor of a losing battle, the British flag wrapped around his bosom, in fact Flashman was desperately trying to surrender: "Here, take the bloody thing!" he says, "I don't want it!"
The bulk of the picture, set in the 1840s, concerns Flashman's relationships with the insatiable courtesan Lola Montez (Florinda Bolkan) and Otto von Bismark (Oliver Reed), and how Flashman becomes embroiled in an elaborate plot of the latter in which Flashman impersonates a Bavarian prince (also McDowell) to unify Germany. (Sergei Hasenecz adds, "You neglect to mention that Royal Flash is inspired by The Prisoner of Zenda. In the novel, Fraser annotates Flashman's memoir with historical notes, and cleverly claims that Anthony Hope took his inspiration from this 'true' story.")
The film is Lester's most broadly humorous since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), though like his Musketeers films, the sight gags are elaborate yet funny because the cutting and direction under-emphasizes them, treating most gags as throwaways. Also as per Lester's style, a good chunk of the humor is derived from the film's eccentric characterizations, most obvious here in the form of steel-handed bald henchman Kraftstein, played without dialog by Lionel Jeffries.
McDowell, in a role not unlike his Alex in A Clockwork Orange, is a devious, cocky and cowardly little S.O.B., a rogue with absolutely no sense of morality. It took a while for the actor to shake this sort of typecasting (1979's Time After Time took him 180-degrees from this part, however), but he's perfectly cast here, and part of the appeal for McDowell is how committed he is making his characters so thoroughly, deliciously reprehensible. Predictably, Oliver Reed is imposing as von Bismark but he does a fine job underplaying his Teutonic menace, while Alan Bates is also quite good as co-conspirator Rudi von Sternberg.
Besides Jeffries, Michael Hordern, and Alastair Sim make "guest star" appearances. (Did Lester have a special fondness for bald actors?) Sim especially is a delight in what would turn out to be one of his last roles, as Montez's legal adviser. Bob Hoskins, then a relative unknown, has a nice little scene early on as a vice cop, while Britt Ekland is amusingly cast against type as the resolutely frigid Duchess Irma.
From its spoof of Patton prologue to Lester's obvious attraction to quaint period contraptions (gargantuan music boxes, trains, bicycles, early scuba gear), Royal Flash's broad strokes will appeal to some (especially fans of the books) while leaving others cold. Looking at it now, the film's historical and political satire, particularly its digs at Victorian era nationalism, is still potent. The acting is faultless, as is the film's exceptional cinematography - by no less a talent than Geoffrey Unsworth - and superb production design by Terence Marsh.
Director Richard Lester, conspicuously, sadly absent from Royal Flash's extra features.
After this and Robin and Marian Lester returned to the genre only once more, in the ill-fated The Return of the Musketeers (1989), during the production of which much-loved character actor Roy Kinnear, in nearly all of Lester's films (his scenes were cut from Royal Flash), died in a tragic equestrian accident. This cast such a pall over the production and so disturbed Lester that he gave up directing and has never returned.
Video & Audio
The big winner of Twilight Time Blu-ray release is Geoffrey Unsworth, whose gorgeous cinematography gets a big boost in 1080p, 1.66:1 widescreen. Fox's DVD version offered Spanish and French mono and Spanish subtitles, where the Blu-ray offers audio (2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio) and subtitles in English only, so native French and Spanish speakers will want to hold onto that DVD version.
Supplements are identical to the DVD release and include two okay featurettes: Inside Royal Flash (seven minutes) suffers from a dearth of original participants, as only producer David Picker and screenwriter Fraser are featured, though the 14-minute Meet Harry Flashman does discuss the novels at some length. That segment is buttressed with more interview subjects, including Marshal Lord Garden (Liberal Democrat Defense Spokesman, House of Lords), writer D.J. Taylor, and musicologist Big George Webley.
A U.S. Trailer is unimpressive and doesn't sell the film well, but the Audio Commentary with Malcolm McDowell and film historian Nick Redman is very entertaining and informative. The aforementioned Isolated Score Track is also included. The only new addition is Julie Kirgo's thoughtful liner notes.
In the featurette, producer David Picker talks about how Royal Flash had been intended as the first film of a franchise that never happened because the picture failed to live up to its commercial expectations. It's easy to see why it failed, but equally understandable that in the years since the picture remains something of a cult item. Recommended.