Fresh from his success with the two-part swashbuckling epic The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), mischievous director Richard Lester turned his attention to an original character created by his Musketeers screenwriter, George MacDonald Fraser. An Englishman whose work often combined history and high adventure, Fraser introduced the character of Sir Harry Paget Flashman in his 1969 novel Flashman. The first in a lengthy series of novels about the character, Flashman presented a 19th-century coward who by ironic circumstance stumbles into a reputation as a hero. A self-serving schemer who berates those beneath his station and swindles everyone above him, Flashman is a uniquely British contrivance whose identity is defined by the English class system. Given Lester’s penchant for insouciance, he was perfectly suited to putting the irreverent character onscreen.
Unfortunately, miscasting proved the movie’s undoing: Lester gambled by hiring Malcolm McDowell, the gifted actor best known for his disturbing turn in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), but McDowell made Flashman’s unbecoming qualities far too believable. As he connives women into his bed, flees danger, tricks others into fighting his battles, and whimpers at the slightest injury, the movie version of Flashman comes across not as a clever survivor but rather as a feckless weasel. Accordingly, it’s difficult to care whether he survives, just like it’s difficult to believe he’ll end up accomplishing anything worthwhile. Had Lester gone whole-hog with the comedic aspects of the picture, casting a funnyman like Peter Sellers, Royal Flash might have worked as a farce, but since the picture includes scenes of genuine danger, the sum effect is middling.
It doesn’t help that the episodic plot, borrowed from Fraser’s second book in the series, Royal Flash (1970), is a tired riff on Anthony Hope’s classic novel The Prisoner of Zenda. As happens to the hero of Hope’s book, Flashman gets recruited to impersonate an endangered monarch in order to flush out assassins, so Flashman spends half the story trying to slip away from his dangerous assignment, and the other half reluctantly joining rebel forces fighting the people who enlisted Flashman in the first place. It’s all way too familiar, and the complicated story causes Royal Flash to sprawl over 102 minutes that feel like three hours.
Still, costar Oliver Reed has a blast playing the German aristocrat who makes Flashman’s life hell, while Alan Bates savors a rare lighthearted role as a European who may or may not be Flashman’s ally. The production design is beautiful, with lots of desolate wintry fields and ornate European castles, and Lester stages action with his signature mix of slapstick and swordplay, an inimitable style no one has ever been able to replicate. Plus, in McDowell’s defense, he’s very funny playing a guttersnipe, and it’s not his fault Lester perversely elected to build the movie around a detestable characterization.
Royal Flash: FUNKY