Richard Lester’s Royal Flash (1975) typifies the ribald English farce; a gaudy, bawdy spectacle following the exploits of our iniquitous anti-hero, plucked from the pages of George MacDonald Fraser’s second ‘Flashman’ novel. Initially, Lester sought to begin at the beginning; the rights to Fraser’s first book proving inaccessible. Incidents from that inauspicious elementary start to Flashman’s life and career are briefly referenced in the movie’s derisory prologue as our gangly and celebrated military man, Captain Harry Flashman (Malcolm McDowell) is seen addressing a gaggle of impressionable adolescents on what it means to be an English gentleman – something ‘Flashie’ knows absolutely nothing about; his expert tutelage distilled to “take a cold shower every day.”
We regress to that decisive moment in Flashman’s Afghanistan military campaign, the soldier turned chicken denouncing the Union Jack, King and country to save his own skin, only to be saved by the cruel and twisted hand of fate at the last possible moment. A supporting wall inside his bunker collapses, knocking Harry unconscious but also killing his enemies. Now a decorated war hero, we see Harry in full regalia, framed by this nationalized emblem – the flag; the academic setting that surrounds him a perfect foil for his rather clinical musings on bravery to this quizzical lot of empty heads full of mush. In these introductory moments we are reminded of a credo gleaned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, Flashman proving the lie over and over again as the rule rather than the exception.
Fraser’s inspiration for what ultimately evolved into a series of twelve novels collectively referenced as ‘The Flashman Papers’ (his character first gleaned from Thomas Hughes 1857 novel, Tom Brown’s School Days) details the exploits of a rather repugnant rogue. Royal Flash - the movie somewhat waters down Captain Harry’s caustic wit and razorback defiance of authority while maintaining his exceptional cowardice. It’s a gutsy move; taking this gross pig of a human being footnoted in one author’s work of 19th century fiction and intellectualizing him through a 20th century sort of English music hall rubric as the illegitimate interloper/instigator and protagonist of history’s ever-unraveling and quixotic tapestry. The ruse works, more so in Fraser’s novel – but also in the movie – because our anti-hero is, at his core, a loveably self-centered entrepreneur of earthy pursuits; clumsily boozing and balling his way into adventures while accidentally stumbling upon the finer points of human bing-bang collectively lumped together as ‘historical fact’.
The trick for the movie lays in Malcolm McDowell’s queerly endearing performance. After all, the novel’s Harry Flashman really is a slutty scamp; unrepentantly self-indulgent, dishonorable in every way that a man can be, and quite shamelessly immoral in his social/sexual proclivities. McDowell’s incarnation isn’t less so, per say, just somehow more understandable in all his flawed nature and rampant thirst for deliberate debauching – an altogether decidedly more bumbling rather than brooding fish out of water; unable to believe his good fortune, though not above taking advantage of it while hiding behind its grotesque parody.
Our appreciation for the magnitude of Flashman’s ineptitude is compounded by Oliver Reed’s demonic, steely-eyed and utterly terrifying presence, herein cast as Otto von Bizmarck. Reed is an actor tailor-made for the part of the villain, I suspect, because in real life his bellicose nature lent itself to bar room scrapping and scrapes with the law that helped foster the general public impression of him as a very loose cannon not to be messed with. The movie needs such obvious villainy in order for Flashman’s temerity to come across as empathic spinelessness and Reed delivers this in spades.
Royal Flash is also a rather impressive showcase for Alan Bates as Rudi von Sternberg; the suave counter foil to Oliver Reed’s flourishing brute. Bates, who remained married to one woman throughout his lifetime but carried on many hetero and homosexual affairs to supplement that enduring relationship, plays Sternberg as a manipulative mahatma. Whereas Reed’s glowering demigod makes no apology or even attempt to mask his truly vial intensions, Bates’ cool customer is almost the antithesis of this seething masculine rage, though not ambition; a male equipoise of the sleek little minx, herein played to perfection by Florinda Bolkan as kinky superspy, Lola Montez, the latter reveling as she beats her suitors’ buttocks with a wire hairbrush. Bolkan’s bewitching trollop is offset by Britt Ekland’s Duchess Irma; a rigid ice princess melting under Flashman’s sexual tutelage.
Royal Flash is padded out with an exemplary roster of supporting characters: Christopher Cazenove (in his first movie) as Eric Hansen, the suspecting best friend of a Prussian prince held captive by Bizmarck and whom Flashman – despite his uncanny physical resemblance – is unable to make convincing through his masquerade. Michael Hordern’s gregarious headmaster, Alistair Simms’ wily advisor, Mr. Grieg, Lionel Jeffries’ assassin, Kraftstein, and, Bob Hoskins’ flighty police constable all contribute their moments. There’s ballast to each of these performances even though most barely last more than a few minutes on the screen. Finally, there are the movie’s production values to consider; Alan Tomkin’s art direction and Peter Howitt’s set decoration a sumptuous visual feast. Royal Flash is a regally mounted sham-comedy, exquisitely photographed against some spectacularly recreated sets and stunning Bavarian backdrops lensed by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth using his archetypal soft diffusion technique.
When first we meet our disreputable English bastard, Capt. Harry Flashman, he is expounding upon the virtues of being one of the noble gentry to a packed auditorium of aspiring Rugby schoolboys. We regress into a not so distant porthole from Flashman’s past, exemplifying his cowardice in the face of insurmountable odds on the battlefield. As fate would have it, Harry’s not for the sword…not just yet, surviving his Afghan ordeal quite by accident and subsequently decorated despite his obvious lack of heroism. The die is cast. The legend takes hold. There’s no going back. That evening Harry attends a house of ill-repute raided by the police. In his subsequent escape from authorities he ducks into a nearby waiting carriage, discovered by Lola Montez and her suitor, Otto von Bizmarck. Lola finds Harry rather foppishly charming; Bizmarck decidedly less so. In fact, Bizmarck makes an honest attempt to have Harry arrested by the constable. Instead, the constable acknowledges Harry as a celebrated soldier and threatens to have Bizmarck deported for being a foreigner.
A short while later, Harry incurs Bizmarck’s wrath yet again during a demonstration pugilist’s match. Bizmarck suggests that boxing is a crude sport unfit for gentlemen. So Harry goads him into accepting a challenge from noted champion, John Gully (Henry Cooper), who manages to illustrate the finer points of fisticuffs while senselessly pummeling the disgraced Bizmarck, forced to begrudgingly acknowledge his humiliating defeat in front of Lola Montez. Bizmarck makes Harry a threatening promise: that if ever he should come to Bavaria, the point of a sword shall prove his undoing. Not long thereafter Harry is tricked by Lola and forcibly dragged to Bavaria. There, he is introduced to the smooth schemer, Rudi von Sternberg who further complicates matters by returning Harry into Bizmarck’s clutches.
George MacDonald Fraser’s screenplay now kicks into some rather high-gear plagiarism of Anthony Hope’s celebrated novel, The Prisoner of Zenda. Harry is commanded by Bizmarck to impersonate a Prussian prince betrothed to the icy cool Duchess Irma, but suffering from an outbreak of gonorrhea, thereby preventing a consummation of their pending marriage. Bizmarck delights in his ‘training’ of Harry to take the prince’s place; blackening his hair and even going so far as to scar his face with a sword to mimic the prince’s own facial wounds incurred during his early years of military sparring. Harry makes several madcap attempts to escape this transformation, before discovering that Irma is quite an attractive creature; albeit one utterly inexperienced in the ways of the flesh. Harry breaks Irma of these sexual hang ups and thereafter finds her a most willing partner in bed.
Eventually, Harry latches onto the idea to steal the crown jewels locked in the palace clock tower and free the real prince from his dungeon beneath the castle, thereby exposing Bizmarck’s master plan. It all goes awry, however. After all, how could it not. Bizmarck is unmoved by this reversal in their deceptions. Harry escapes with the jewels and his legacy as a tawdry adventurer intact, only to be cheated by Lola out of his pirate’s booty, awakening in her coach after their in flagrante delicto with Rudi at his side; the pair indulging in a game of Russian roulette that ends with a mysteriously unseen shot ringing out.
Royal Flash was not a success when it debuted. Had it been otherwise, we might have seen the entire Flashman Papers find its way onto the big screen. Perhaps the movie’s fractured perspective on history went over the heads of most sitting in the audience. After all, you have to know something of history in order to admire George MacDonald Fraser’s wickedly aberrant take on it. But Royal Flash is an exquisitely sublime circus rather faithfully grounded in the historical record, deriving its humor in these truth-based absurdities rather than a complete fabrication or revision made for art’s sake.
The audacity of history is one thing. Tweaking its misfires to expose a shambles of human folly is quite another. Having any genuine appreciation for the latter requires a capacity to recognize this distinction. The sophistication in Fraser’s screenplay is admirably abetted by the exemplary cast doing their utmost to blur the dissimilarities further still. In the end we’re left with a fairly accurate tale of considerable text book merit; but one retold from a rapscallion outsider’s perspective. Captain Harry Flashman is the proverbial fly on the wall – more often than not, with his wings clipped – as he finds himself stuck in the ointment of this grand narrative. Surviving the ordeal is the real challenge.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a fairly welcome affair. Geoffrey Unsworth’s heavily diffused cinematography still appears marginally problematic at the start of the movie; the blown out whites tending to impact overall contrast levels and color saturation. Flesh tones veer ever so slightly on the unnatural pink side. Film grain has been accurately reproduced throughout. But there are a few obvious instances where age-related artifacts intrude, mostly under the main title and end credits. The 2.0 DTS is faithful to the limitations of its vintage audio. Twilight Time pads out the extras with a very comprehensive audio commentary from Nick Redman, sitting down with star, Malcolm McDowell – the two reminiscing in great detail about the making of the film. We also get a pair of fascinating featurettes; Inside Royal Flash and Meet Harry Flashman with insightful sound bytes from historians and crew, plus Twilight Time’s usual commitment to providing an isolated score in stereo, this one featuring Ken Thorne’s marvelous re-orchestrations. Finally, Julie Kirgo offers her usually stellar intuition and opinions in some handsomely reproduced liner notes. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)