A Hard Knight’s Days

In conjunction with the James Bond novels and 1960s movies, which were termed fairy tales for adults, the fictional arrival of the historical exploits of one Harry Paget Flashman tends to play like a Bob Hope adventure penned by Frank Harris.  Indeed, this inspired Victorian account of perhaps literature’s greatest “rotter” came from the fertile mind of George MacDonald Fraser, and Flashman’s future as an eventual screen vehicle seemed destined to happen.  And so it did, in Richard Lester’s way underrated 1975 rollicking comedy ROYAL FLASH, now on limited Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

Flashman actually first made his appearance as the school bully in the Thomas Hughes’s 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days (appropriately portrayed in one of the several film versions by former Dead End Kid Billy Halop).  A relatively minor character, Flashman piqued the interest of author Fraser who pondered whatever became of this scoundrel.  The result was aforementioned novel, simply entitled Flashman, which purported to have been culled by a cache of unearthed Flashman Papers, discovered in 1965.

Almost immediately, movie folk were interested.  Why such a bounder would be considered cinematic fodder is not so surprising after the rousing success of Tom Jones and the more contemporary Alfie; thus, Richard Lester pressed United Artists to let him tackle the notorious cad.  While Lester had done UA proud via two Beatles pics and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, his last effort, How I Won the War, wasn’t the blockbuster the moguls had hoped.  With its lavish period settings, Flashman promised to be an expensive endeavor, so they politely (well, maybe not so politely passed).

In 1973, Lester partnered with the Salkinds, who, in turn, partnered with 20th Century-Fox to film the ultimate version of The Three Musketeers (which extended into The Four Musketeers, and scripted by Fraser).  The all-star movies were wildly successful and with the dream of Flashman still hovering above like a post-nitrate Sword of Damacles, UA magnanimously decided to give the matter another think before, once again, deep-sixing it.  Musketeers’s Fox, however, came to the rescue, and, at last Flashman, now ROYAL FLASH (based on the fourth and not the first novel in the series), was a go.

Making Flashman, the textbook coward, a hero by no fault of his own (a side-splitting early battle sequence) instantly sets the tone.  The cruel bully of Tom Brown is now a more virile version of Bob “Monsieur Beaucaire” Hope, and I wanna tell ya, it’s a some kinda blunderful.  Malcolm McDowell superbly portrays the dubious soldier/reluctant spy/master of the boudoir in this tale of sexual intrigue that nearly rocks two European empires.  Of course, what good is a rake without any hoes, and, to ROYAL FLASH‘s credit, there couldn’t be a better pair than the ravishing Florinda Bolkan and the luscious Britt Ekland.  Bolkan plays the real-life Lola Montes (in a part supposedly originally offered to Brigitte Bardot) and even has a lusty girl-girl duel with a rival femme, refereed by Alastair Sim, no less!  It’s a sight to behold, to say the least.  Ekland portrays a beauteous but tedious princess, and is, shall we say, buoyantly amusing, but it’s the rapacious Bolkan, with more machismo than many of the era’s men, who shines.  Check out her S&M encounter, terrorizing the nevertheless willing victim McDowell with a wire hairbrush.  It’s that kind of a movie – one poster featured a tunic-adorned McDowell, his lower torso wrapped in a Union Jack, and a drunken woman’s thighs peering from the patriotic drapery.  All this under a herald announcing “The Greatest Swordsman of Them All!”

The cast is truly extraordinary, and, in addition to the above, includes Alan Bates, Tom Bell, Christopher Cazenove, Joss Ackland, Lionel Jeffries, Michael Hordern, Leon Greene and Bob Hoskins.  But, for me, the star of ROYAL FLASH is the nefarious impersonation of Otto von Bismarck, enacted with perfection by the great Oliver Reed.  It is Reed who “convinces” the trembling McDowell to cheat his way into history by taking over as his royal double; yes, this is, by Fraser’s fake accounts, the incident that ignited the mind of Anthony Hope to create his 1894 classic The Prisoner of Zenda.  More than the escalating budget, it was this precise plot point that reportedly was the reason UA reneged on the project the second time around (too many goddamn adaptations, or, succinctly, NoEnders to Zendas).  Along with the abundance of bon mots (courtesy of Fraser, who wrote the script), director Lester sprinkles a plethora of riotous trademark visual puns, many that would warm the cockles of Frank Tashlin’s heart.  So pleased were all those creatively concerned during the filming that plans were made to adapt more Flashman adventures (there were, all told, twelve novels).  But the Victorian jackboot was about to drop.

Fox was nonplussed by the rough cut, and removed spools of celluloid (including all the footage with Lester’s beloved stock-company player Roy Kinnear).  Taking the then-remaining 118-minute version, the studio made further cuts of more than a reel to 96 minutes (some since restored, comprising the Twilight Time 102-minute edition).  While hardcore Lester fans still ate it up, the large share of 1975 audiences (and critics) weren’t exactly bowled over, and ROYAL FLASH ended up on the year-end Fox tally-sheets as a resounding flop.  This proved to be quite a dismal time for the director, as Lester’s previous work, 1974’s Juggernaut, a slick, tense sea thriller (sold as a disaster pic), also bellied up…or rather sunk (a shame, as I really like it as well).  Suffice to say, unlike the Musketeers experience, author Fraser wasn’t pleased by Lester’s approach either and, upon viewing the final result, vowed to never again let any of his books be brought before the cameras as long as he lived.

As one might expect, the look of ROYAL FLASH is fantastic.  The set design, art direction, costumes, props, etc. encompass everything one might expect in a super opulent production.  This is superbly realized by the spectacular cinematography of Geoffrey Unsworth, and the excellent jubilant music adaptor (and conductor) Ken Thorne.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray captures all the pomp and pageantry intended by Lester & Co.  Ditto the bawdy, ribald fun.  The cast truly appears to be having a blast, and, I daresay, so will you.  To this day, some of the stunning meticulous imagery haunts my decidedly demented brain, specifically a climactic railway car dotting a desolate picturesque blizzard-framed landscape.  It’s a mythic hybrid of both Zhivago and Trivago.

Twilight Time, in addition to offering the Thorne music as an IST, has further sweetened the pot by including audio commentary with star McDowell and film historian Nick Redman, plus two featurette documentaries and the theatrical trailer.

Harry Flashman is the personification of the adage, “Whoever said life was fair?”  In the novels, the lecher dies titled, rich and respected.  How the undeserving wastrel got that way from disreputable beginnings measuring lower than a worm’s genitalia is partially explained in ROYAL FLASH‘s faux-scholarly witty narrative.  Let the shames begin.

ROYAL FLASH.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition].  2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP:  $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment:  www.screenarchives.com

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