Judge Daryl Loomis always clears the card table by showing his royal flash.
Never kick a man when he's down; he may get back up again.
Captain Harry Flashman may have been a fictional character, but over the course of The Flashman Papers, a series of twelve novels by George MacDonald Fraser, he was one of the most important figures of the second half of the 19th Century. He fought in great wars alongside great generals, bedding historical beauties and coming out on top, despite the cowardice he displays at every turn. Before now, I was unfamiliar with the character or the stories, but given that Fraser published the books over the course of forty years, they must have had some traction in England. Only once, though, has one of these stories come to the big screen and, in 1975, five years after its first publication under the helm of director Richard Lester (Help!), Royal Flash arrived in theaters and now arrives on Blu-ray for the first time in America.
Facts of the Case
Flashman (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange) is on the run from the police after a brothel raid when he sneaks into a carriage to hide. Inside sits Lola Montez (Florinda Bolkan, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), who is instantly taken with the brash young soldier. Her boyfriend, though, is Otto von Bismarck (Oliver Reed, The Brood) and you don't really want him upset with you and, soon, he forces Flashman to impersonate a prince in a plot to create one united Germany.
Royal Flash is a comedy that I liked quite a bit without really finding it particularly funny. It's more me than the movie; I'm just not that big into that style of slapstick farce. George MacDonald Fraser's own adaptation of his 1970 novel is nicely done, with the character woven into history in amusing and inventive ways and the dialog always sharp. Revisionist history like this can be dicey if it's taken too seriously, but the story always remains bawdy and light, while maintaining the historical accuracy of the Schleswig-Holstein Question, a series of policies to unite the splintered Germany (minus the switcheroo, of course). Fraser doesn't make a big deal of it and it always remains the background for the real story, that Flashman is a jackass who keeps on winning.
The character is basically just a cad; somebody you'd have a pint with but wouldn't want in your house. Malcolm McDowell's performance, while apparently more humanized here than the genuine bully of the book, is fantastic, with a childlike innocence that makes him very likeable. Fans of Lindsay Anderson's trilogy of If…, O Lucky Man, and Brittania Hospital will recognize the Mick Travis character in McDowell's performance. Flashman's more of an antihero than Travis, but he carries that same smiling sneer and wide-eyed wonder that made him strong lead.
The movie, though, is chock full of great British actors, both of the past and future. Oliver Reed's as puffy as you would expect and is, as always, a massive presence in the film. Brazilian beauty Florinda Bolkan, who became a mainstay of Italian exploitation, gets in some pretty good licks of her own in on Flashman, as well, and finally being his undoing. Alan Bates (Zorba the Greek) is great as the film's main moustache-twirling villain, while Tom Bell (The Krays), Joss Ackland (The Mighty Ducks), Britt Eckland (The Wicker Man), and Bob Hoskins all make fun appearances throughout.
With Lester's fine direction wrangling it all in and some high production values that give it a very convincing 19th Century vibe, Royal Flash is an excellent film. I just never found myself laughing. I chuckled a few times, for sure, but it just isn't really my kind of thing. People who do enjoy that era of British comedy are in for a treat, though, because it's a very good piece of work.
Royal Flash comes to home video from Twilight Time on a limited edition Blu-ray. Their work is less consistent than some labels and this one isn't one of their strongest titles. Films were often shot soft during this period and the 1.66:1/1080p transfer doesn't do it any favors. It's far too dark and, with the inherent softness, there's a definite lack of detail in the frame. Colors look pretty good considering, though, and there isn't any notable damage to the print, so it's still a big improvement over anything to have come before. The sound is pretty good, though just a simple 2-channel Master Audio mix. Dialog is always crisp and the music generally sounds quite good with no background noise to report.
Extras are a decent little bunch. The disc starts off with an audio commentary with Malcolm McDowell and film historian Nick Redman. It's McDowell's first time seeing it since the premiere and he clearly is amused by the whole thing, giving little tidbits while Redman deals with the technical side of things. An isolated score track is also featured and, while it's welcome and commonplace for the label, the score isn't particularly notable. A couple of short featurettes could have been put together, as both deal with the adaptation of the novel to the screen and feature the same people. Combined, they run about twenty minutes. The original trailer closes out the disc.
The style of comedy isn't so much my thing, but Royal Flash is a solid movie that will appeal greatly to plenty of viewers. With eleven more books, it seems like the perfect thing to mine for more stories about Europe in the mid-19th Century. That might sound like a comedy that's masking a history lesson, but the fun performances and big production values make it a fine time nonetheless.
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