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Royal Flash

Well before the historical satire of "Black Adder," there was another scheming, cowardly lout who bumbled his way through alternate versions of notable world events — Harry Flashman, the creation of author George Macdonald Fraser. The first-person narratives chronicled Flashman's 19th-century adventures as a heroic figure in the British Army, and Fraser poured an impressive amount of well-researched historical fact into the twelve racy, comic tales published between 1969 and 2005. Fraser pulled the character from Tom Hughes' famed 1857 novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, imagining the bully who made Brown's life so unbearable as a self-absorbed antihero who reluctantly finds himself a part of every major British campaign of the Victorian era. Flashman betrays his comrades, beds the wrong women, runs away from danger, and behaves in all ways like an utter cad, yet through circumstance ends each story with more honors and medals that add to his reputation as a hero. Fraser described the character as tall, dark, and irresistibly handsome — as far as putting Flashman on film was concerned, the author is on record as saying that his personal choice for the role, had he been alive, would have been Errol Flynn, or a (much) younger David Niven. A screenwriter as well as a novelist, when Fraser wrote the script for Red Sonja (1985) he received an interesting casting suggestion from director Richard Fleischer: "It sounds bizarre but when you think about it, it's not so bad — John Cleese."

The one film to date based on Fraser's series, Royal Flash (1975) is yet another picture based on The Prisoner of Zenda. Sir Harry Flashman (Malcolm MacDowell), in a scene parodying Patton (1970) stands before an enormous Union Jack as he talks to the boys at Britain's famed Rugby School about his heroic deeds in Afghanistan — deeds which we see, in flashback, were less courageous than they were lucky, as he was desperately trying to surrender when his Afghan captors were all struck down by falling rubble. Afterwards, he begins a liaison with actress/courtesan Lola Montez (Florinda Bolkan) and gets on the bad side of the ambitious Count Otto Von Bismarck (Oliver Reed), who kidnaps Flashman and forces him to take the place of a Danish prince whose unfortunate bout with gonorrhea could keep him from marrying a beautiful duchess (Britt Ecklund). With the Schleswig-Holstein Question in the balance — the 19th century political machinations that decided the fate of two Elbe duchies — Bismarck and his henchman, Rudi von Sternberg (Alan Bates) connive to keep the lily-livered twit from screwing up their plan.

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Fans of Fraser's novel — and there are many — were unhappy with the choice of Malcolm MacDowell in the lead role. In fact, it's difficult to watch the film and not wonder if Oliver Reed might have been a better choice, although he's delicious as the slippery German Bismarck. Fraser liked MacDowell, though, noting that while the actor didn't shared the swarthy physicality of the book's hero, he "had that shifty quality" that exemplified Flashman. The direction by Richard Lester, who'd recently put Fraser's screenplays for The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) on film, attempts swashbuckling slapstick with mixed results. In some ways, it feels as if Lester was utterly off his game in the first half hour of the picture, when scenes meant to be comically zany are directed and edited with a sluggish lack of enthusiasm. But as the film's plot licks into gear, the entire picture becomes sharper, funnier and more assured. Some sequences call to mind Blake Edwards' own Zenda homage, The Great Race (1965), and the cast is absolutely top-notch. Alistair Sim and Lionel Jeffries make appearances, Christopher Cazenove pops up in a small role, and, if you pay attention, you can spot a young (ish) Bob Hoskins early in the film, playing a police sergeant. The Royal Flash is an uneven film, but when it works, it works brilliantly — ribald, clever, and irreverent, taking jabs at classic swashbuckling heroes with unabashed glee.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's DVD release of Royal Flash presents a very nice anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) that's very clean and as crisp, as can be expected — like many films of the mid-'70s, there's a soft, grainy quality to the picture that's the result of lens choices and film-stock quality. The monaural DD audio (English, French or Spanish with optional English or Spanish subtitles) is adequate, although very uneven. A commentary track with MacDowell and (seemingly omnipresent) film historian Nick Redman brings the star back to view the film for the first time in decades — he has a lot of background information to offer, starting with the tidbit that he'd been offered the role back in 1969 for a film that was to be directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter), as well as amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes, including one about Oliver Reed freaking out the Austrian locals by pretending that he was eating the live fish from the tank in their hotel's lobby. Also included are an isolated score and sound-effects track; two featurettes, "Inside Royal Flash" (8 min.) with Fraser and producer David Picker, and "Meet Harry Flashman" (14 min.) with a bizarre mix of talking heads — a writer, a music expert, a member of the House of Lords — about the popularity of the books; a stills gallery; and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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