ROYAL FLASH was a humble fizzle in 1975, the first and only run at bringing George MacDonald Fraser’s anti-hero ‘Harry Flashman’ to life on screen. Like many of the battles and wars Fraser’s 9-lives blighter survived in 12 novels, it was a disaster, court-martialed by critics and massacred at the box office. Exhuming the corpse for posterity validates the verdict.
Fraser wrote the screenplay, off the second book in his well-loved series, this story a takeoff on “The Prisoner Of Zenda”, having roguish British Army officer Flashman (Malcolm McDowell) impersonating a Danish prince in Germany, running afoul of Otto von Bismarck (Oliver Reed) while romping with infamous courtesan Lola Montez (Florinda Bolkan).
The Bavarian locations are attractive, and Reed conveys proper iron as Bismarck, but the rest is a dishrag, even with a cast array that includes—and wastes—Alan Bates, Britt Ekland, Alastair Sim, Lionel Jeffries, Michael Hordern and Bob Hoskins. Richard Lester directed, but instead of period piece galivanting like his great version The Three Musketeers, this crawls, with labored slapstick humor and tepid action.
The rascally charm Fraser’s bounder conveyed on the pages of Fraser’s delightful novels is missing in action with McDowell, about as whimsical and endearing as a cobra. He’s all wrong, Bolkan and Bates both bore, and with the exception of Reed, the others are ill-served. Taking it out on the cast isn’t quite cricket, since any script trying to capture the hilarious interior monologues crucial to the books, let alone a production that could adequately mount their scale, was not going to happen, even with the book they selected to film, the most sedate in the series. Conceptual erring aside, the handling Lester unlimbered is tortoise paced. $4,040,000 was spent to mount it, only to have the artificial result wheeze into 125th place in ’75, grossing just $1,600,000. *
With Tom Bell, Joss Ackland, Henry Cooper (famous boxer),Leon Greene and Rula Lenska. 102 minutes seem longer.
* Brits Behaving Badly was a theme that year: The Man Who Would Be King (exciting), Barry Lyndon (stunning), Monty Python And The Holy Grail (twitting) and Conduct Unbecoming (limping).
Fraser was on record that his personal choice for Flashman, had he been alive and young, would’ve been Errol Flynn, or a young David Niven. Either would have worked, even with the fussy, distancing style Lester employed here. One could also see Michael York or Simon Ward, both so good in Lester’s rich Musketeers rouser, ably keeping a disagreeable fink still oddly likable.
Lester: “…that equivocal anti hero wasn’t easy to take. They wanted a real hero, a hero that was a bounder as well as a hero. And Malcolm McDowell was absolutely 100% bounder – the sleaze was coming through to the film.”