The Film: 4/5
To the people of England, from the lowest beggars to the richest royalty, Captain Harry Flashman (Malcolm McDowell) is the epitome of bravery, patriotism, and virtue. In truth the man is a bit of a coward as well as a voracious womanizer and a cad. Mistakenly lionized for his ineptitude while serving in Afghanistan, Flashman has been elevated overnight to the status of a hero of the British Empire. His egotistical pursuits of beautiful women - including the insatiable dancer and countess Lola Montez (Florinda Bolkan) - and a higher station in life causes him to become embroiled in a plot formulated by Prussian political strongman Count Otto Von Bismarck (Oliver Reed). Flashman is kidnapped and compelled by Von Bismarck and his fellow conspirator Rudi Von Sternberg (Alan Bates) to impersonate a Danish prince who looks exactly like him and is set to be wed to the duchess of Bavaria (Britt Ekland). Reluctant at first, Flashman comes to accept the forced assignment after several escape attempts fail miserably and enjoys the perks of bedding the beautiful duchess. While out on a boar hunt an attempt is made on his life by one of Von Bismarck’s flunkies and Flashman discovers that he is in fact a pawn in the devious count’s plot to frame him as a British spy and use his fabricated treachery as a pretext for taking control of the Bavarian monarchy. Now the bumbling bounder must use whatever wits he has about him - not mention his considerable skill with a rapier - to rescue the real prince from captivity, expose the count’s plans, and save his own ass.
Royal Flash brought together two of modern British cinema’s greatest talents at a time when both men were in weird transitional phases of their careers. Malcolm McDowell had come from practically nowhere to deliver star-making performances as morally complex individuals in Lindsay Anderson’s If….and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange but had lately seen his acting ambitions hit a comfortable middle ground. Richard Lester, the Philadelphia-born and raised filmmaker who had moved to London in his early 20’s to make some of the most dazzling and innovative films of the 1960’s, was coming off the smashing critical and commercial success of his all-star adaptation of The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Four Musketeers - both of which were filmed simultaneously and released a year apart. Royal Flash was based on the second of twelve novels revolving around the cowardly bully and accidental hero Harry Flashman written by George MacDonald Fraser and was first published in 1970. Lester saw the potential for the Flashman novels to become a new ongoing series of films and purchased the rights to the first in the early 70’s, but when he was unable to secure financing he hired Fraser to pen the screenplays for what would become the Musketeers films, which were originally intended to be a single epic film before producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind decided to split it into two films.
Lester was finally able to get Royal Flash made with Fraser once again serving as screenwriter but the film failed to find an audience and the prospective franchise was forever scuttled. By the end of the decade McDowell was headlining the out-of-control production of Caligula and doing his damndest to hold onto his dignity while a string of box office failures and a war with the Salkinds over unpaid profits from the Musketeers films led to Lester taking on the unwanted task of helming the second and third Superman movie and earning both a huge payday and the enmity of fans who decried the craven dismissal of original director Richard Donner. So while Royal Flash was a one-and-done deal and did not spawn the profitable cash cow that would have ensured Lester’s financial and creative independence earlier in life and made McDowell an international superstar instead of a highly-regarded actor the film audiences received in the bargain is exemplary of both men’s strengths as director and performer. Bolstered by a supporting cast of venerated British acting veteran and world cinema upstarts and sex pots, a handful of wild action sequences, and some lush, wintry cinematography by the legendary (and long passed on) Geoffrey Unsworth of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Cabaret fame, Royal Flash is still a corker of a classy comic adventure nearly four decades after it premiered in the U.S. to a lot of shrugged shoulders and repeated murmurings of “I wonder if Jaws has been re-released yet”.
Although the scrawny and boyish McDowell might not have fit the book’s description of Flashman, he definitely embodies the character’s rakishness and opportunistic heroism whilst adding a dandyish charisma. It is a treat to watch the same actor who transformed Anthony Burgess’ Alex DeLarge into a pop culture icon and later dug deep into the rancid and pitiful soul of the infamous Roman emperor Caligula play such an arrogant but hapless buffoon as Flashman, but McDowell is also able to do so without winking to the audience. Though the character is comical in nature and prone to saving his own skin given the situation at least Flashman has the smarts and gumption to occasionally back up his big balls attitude with grand style, and is a regular Errol Flynn with a sword to boot. Alan Bates (An Unmarried Woman) oozes devilish charm as the duplicitous Von Sternberg, while Oliver Reed savors the role of Otto Von Bismarck like the most delicious of prime rib dinners. Rather than bluster his way through the performance Reed employs the time-honored comedic technique of the slow burn in his frustrated interactions with Flashman and underplays certain scenes when he could have very easily gone over-the-top, cashed his check, and called it a day and night at the local pub. The female side of the cast is represented by hot-blooded Brazilian actress Florinda Bolkan (Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling) and Swedish siren Britt Ekland (The Wicker Man, The Man with the Golden Gun); Bolkan is perfectly flamboyant and sexual as the agenda-driven Montez, but it is Ekland who scores some astonishing laughs as Flashman’s unsuspecting bride, especially in a hilarious wedding night scene where her nerves and frigidity lead to a slight complication in the counterfeit duke’s attempts to seduce the Bavarian beauty. Lionel Jeffries is suitably menacing and slyly amusing (not to mention a wonderful dancing partner) as Von Bismarck’s metal-handed henchman Kraftstein. Joss Ackland (Lethal Weapon 2), Christopher Cazenove (Dynasty), Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday), Bob Peck (Jurassic Park), and real-life English heavyweight boxing champ Henry Cooper all perform above expectations in smaller roles.
Royal Flash was one of the last times Richard Lester would be truly in his element as a filmmaker. Much like his Musketeers films the sword fights have a messy, anarchic energy that feels authentic and the dialogue-driven scenes are carried off with whimsical nuance. Lester continued to make films for the next sixteen years following the release of Flash but only brief swatches of his earlier brilliance with the intoxicating language of cinema could be glimpsed in those later features. The director is still around and will likely go to his grave having never again stepped foot behind a camera, but fortunately he left a lot of classics and a few underappreciated gems in his wake. Royal Flash falls comfortably into the latter category and is surely deserving of a much larger audience.
Twilight Time’s 1080p high-definition transfer of Royal Flash is a mixed bag indeed. The widescreen picture was compressed for an earlier Region 1 DVD release from the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio to 1.66:1, and that ratio was maintained for this Blu-ray. There does not seem to be a great loss in visual detail in the compression and the sumptuous Unsworth cinematography is the sole beneficiary of the upgrade. That having been said, the print quality is very soft in the interior scenes with much fogging, but the grain content has been reduced to an acceptable level and the outdoor footage looks remarkable. Details have been sharpened to fine effect, as has the color scheme. Since the film was released theatrically with mono sound the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track works splendidly for the most part. The music and dialogue components of the sound mix are adequately balanced and only moderate volume adjustment is required during the quieter scenes. English subtitles are also included, but the Spanish subtitles from the DVD release did not make the cut.
Save for a booklet of liner notes written by Julie Kirgo and a catalogue of other titles available (or sold out) from Twilight Time every extra here has been ported over from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s excellent 2007 DVD edition. Malcolm McDowell and moderator Nick Redman team up for a warm and reflective audio commentary. Anyone who has ever heard a McDowell commentary or seen him in person knows the man is a veritable fountain of backstage anecdotes and useful knowledge about the acting process. His remembrances of Royal Flash are gold. Next up are two featurettes: “Meet Harry Flashman” (14 minutes) focuses on the original Fraser novels, and “Inside Royal Flash” (7 minutes) is an unexceptional retrospective documentary with only the author and producer David Picker offering their recollections of the film. Ken Thorne’s playful and magisterial score which employs several recognizable classical pieces is given its very own isolated audio track in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The original - and brief - U.S. theatrical trailer (1 minute) closes out the selection.
A randy, rousing romp through 19th century European history with swashbuckling action, ribald wit, and a cast full of game performances, Royal Flash is pure fun from a master of smart and energetic adventure with a little something for everyone. Whatever your pleasure it, this film is guaranteed to have it in great amounts. Yeah, I really like this one.