Thursday, September 30, 2010

Royal Flash (1975)

The Movie: Captain Harry Flashman (the prolific Malcolm McDowell, last seen on this blog in Class of 1999) is a great war hero of the Afghan Campaign and the darling of the Victorian social scene. Unknown to his admirers, Flashman is really a deceitful, lecherous bully and, above all, a coward. Flashman’s troubles begin when he escapes a police raid on the club he’s in and makes two fateful encounters.

The first is the ambitious Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck (Oliver Reed), who Flashman immediately makes an enemy of. Secondly is the tempestuous dancer Lola Montez (Florinda Bolkan), who Flashman winds up having a torrid affair with. It doesn’t end well. Four years later, the ramifications of both are going to bite him on the ass.

Lola, now the queen of Bavaria in everything but official title, lures Flashman to Munich. Once there, she sets him up so that Bismarck’s agents can kidnap him. Bismarck, in his plans for a united Germany, needs Flashman’s help with the small country of Strackenz. The popular Duchess Irma (Britt Ekland, from the original Wicker Man) is about to marry the Danish prince Karl Magnus. Unfortunately, the prince will not be able to attend his wedding, but Bismarck insists that the event must go on. Fortunately for Bismarck, his old enemy Flashman is an almost identical twin to the absent prince.

But there is much more to Bismarck’s plans than he lets on; and other political factions are in play as well. The reluctant impostor finds himself thrown in the middle of a web of intrigue, deceit and rebellion. How’s Flashy going to get himself out of this one?

The Review:

“You call yourself a man!”
-Lola Montez
“I never did.”
-Harry Flashman

One of my all-time favorite series of books is the Flashman Papers by George MacDonald Frasier. They are delightful works of historical fiction written as the memoirs of one Harry Flashman, one of the most celebrated figures and greatest heroes of the Victorian age. However, as Flashman freely admits, his reputation is entirely undeserved. He is very much a total bastard in almost every way; and above all he is a coward. Flashman is more than happy to enjoy all the accolades and rewards that his reputation brings him, but he goes out of his way to try and avoid the actual situations that earn him that rep.

Unfortunately for Flashy, in that second one he always fails. Whether due to his ever growing reputation; or, more often, as the consequences of one his misdeeds; Flashman always winds up smack in the middle of the very situations he tries to avoid. Somehow Flashman keeps winding up a pivotal figure in most of the major events of his time period; the failed Afghan Campaign, the India Mutiny, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Little Bighorn, to name a few. And yet somehow, Flashman not only survives them all, but more often than not comes out perceived as the hero of the venture.

One of the Flashman Papers’ greatest strengths is that Frasier was obviously very familiar with the material he worked with. While the historical annotations are what turn a lot of people off the series, I find they add to the atmosphere, and it’s possible to enjoy the books without reading them. What’s more, Frasier had a great talent with character, and was adapt at placing historical individuals (Otto von Bismarck, Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln) alongside fictional ones (Holmes and Watson make a brief appearance in one of the books, Flashman himself was the villain of the novel Tom Brown’s School Days), and make it seem like things actually happened exactly like in the books. I actually find Frasier’s Queen Victoria much more convincing than how I usually see her represented in various movies.

But the greatest part about the Flashman Papers is the tone. Essentially, they are classical heroic adventure, but with a very un-heroic protagonist. As a result they come across as familiar, and yet the paradigm is skewed. Instead of the hero boldly setting off to do what needs to be done, you have Flashman trying to weasel his way out of it, yet somehow he gets shanghaied into doing what must be done anyway. Instead of boldly and valiantly facing the adventures head on, Flashman cheats, lies, seduces and backstabs his way through. All of this is told in a very cynical yet ironically truthful voice that makes the books so much fun to read.

So, considering all the difficulties that come with translating literature to cinema, how did the movie turn out? Amazingly well, actually. One of the very first things they did right was to get Frasier himself to write the screenplay. Although Royal Flash was modified from its source novel by necessity, it kept everything that made it fun. Frasier and the director present us with a world that’s very engaging and convincing. For one thing, the period sets and costumes look great. For another, there’s something happening in the background and foreground of almost every scene, creating the impression of a living, breathing world.

Best of all, Royal Flash keeps the tone of its source material. Royal Flash is, on its surface, your typical period swashbuckling picture. All of the expected tropes are there; daring swordfights, clever dialogue, swinging from the chandelier and crashing through windows. However, once again the nature of our “hero,” and the fact that he’s no better than his enemies, turns the paradigm on its head. The end result is something that is both familiar, and yet surprising. The climactic battle, especially, plays out like an Errol Flynn movie gone very, very wrong.

Of course, all of this wouldn’t be anything without a good cast. Fortunately, that’s not an issue here. The Royal Flash cast is packed with well knowns and up and comers, all of whom do a fantastic job. However, there are two actors in particular I would like the address. The first is Malcolm McDowell.

I will confess when I first heard there was a Flashman movie, McDowell was not the first actor to come to mind for the lead. However, after having seen him I have trouble picturing anyone else in the role. In appearance and personality and mannerism, McDowell is Flashman almost exactly as I imagine him from the books. Admittedly, movie being a different medium, the part had to be a bit more visually blatant about Flashman’s personality than the books. However, the script and McDowell strike the perfect balance; it is obvious to us, the audience, what Flashman truly is, yet it is also easy to see why so few others have caught on.

The other individual I would like to address is Alan Bates as Rudi von Sternberg, Bismarck’s right hand man on the Strackenz project. Rudi is fully Flashman’s equal in everything but courage (Rudi actually has some), and is the main foil for Flashman. The two actors bounce off each other wonderfully. Also, Rudi is given some of the movie’s best lines, which he delivers perfectly.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Royal Flash works as both a portrayal of the original book and as a fun (although perverse and subversive) stand alone period swashbuckler movie. After seeing how this movie turned out, I'm rather disappointed that they never made any more. If you are a fan of the books, you should definitely see this movie. If you aren’t familiar with the books, but you enjoy swashbuckler movies; or you’d like to see what a classic Errol Flynn movie would look like if Flynn played a total bastard, see Royal Flash.

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