Yesterday I wasted 100 minutes watching for the umpteenth time Richard Lester’s Royal Flash, the 1974 adaptation of the novel by the same title by George MacDonald-Fraser. A movie that on paper should have been HUGE: great director, excellent cast, based on a fun novel and adapted by the author himself… what could ever go wrong?
For the uninitiated, Royal Flash sees our “hero” Harry Flashman (here portrayed by Malcolm McDowell) caught up the plan by Otto Bismark (Oliver Reed) to manipulate the local politics of a minor German state. The plot is basically The Prisoner of Zenda, with Flash Harry forced to take the place of a Danish prince to marry the German Duchess Irma (Britt Ekland). Lola Montez (Florinda Bolkan) has a part in the plot, and Flashy needs to match wits with Bismark’s accomplice, Rudi Von Sternberg (Alan Bates).
Once again, what could ever go wrong?
Well, a lot goes wrong.
The main problem is probably that while the Flashman books are usually pretty funny, they still are adventure stories. Granted, Flashman is often extremely stupid, and end up in all sorts of tight spots, but the humor is always focused. In dictating his memories, Flashman is merciless in pointing out the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of the people around him. Himself a poltroon and a cheat, he has the privilege of being finally honest about what happened.
Sure, we laugh about Harry, but most of all we laugh about such historical figures as the Duke of Wellington, Abraham Lincoln or, indeed, Otto von Bismark.
The movie goes for the farcical from early on – with the silly scenes about the siege of Jallalabad (a flashback from the first novel in the series, Flashman), played almost as an old Mack Sennett comic film.
From there on, the wonderful chemistry between MacDonald-Fraser and Lester that gave us the Musketteers movie is tragically lacking. The story plows on, punctuated by silly vignettes, the action is solid (great swordplay) but nothing to write home about, and in the end only the final scene, with Flash Harry and Von Sternberg playing a game of “Hungarian Roulette” is really great.
The choice of Royal Flash as the novel to adapt is also mysterious and misguided. Granted, filming the series from the beginning, starting with the Afghan war and the mass battles of Flashman would have cost a lot more, while Royal Flash puts on the screen a million-worth in terms of scenes and costumes with a (probably) moderate investment.
But Royal Flash is basically The Prisoner of Zenda with the correct historical and political references, and sadly pales when compared to the Ronald Colman movie – we’ve seen this before, and we’ve seen done better, without the ’70s campy humor getting in the way.
I have also the serious doubt that – given the many production photos I’ve seen through the years from scenes that are not in the movie – that the film was subjected to some heavy re-shoot/rewrite/re-edit, messing up something that might have been quite good.
In the end, Royal Flash is inferior to the sum of its parts – the cast is wonderful (and Florinda Bolkan is beautiful), the action scenes are mostly fine, the wealth of historical sets and props is dazzling, but all in all, we end with a colossal so what?
What could have been a colossal movie is just an OK flick – and really, given the current state of our culture, it’s pretty hard to imagine a reboot or a relaunch of a Flashman series any day soon.