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Trying to Make a Case for Royal Flash

There’s no film I can remember trying to like more than Royal Flash (1975). I tried hard when I first saw it in the 1990s. And again a decade ago. And then last week. No doubt I will make another attempt in a few years time. 

Because I really want to enjoy this movie.

And I don’t.

The only author I ever sent a fan letter to was George MacDonald Fraser, who wrote the screenplay (and original novel). It was in the mid-1990s when fan letters were still a thing; I can’t remember what prompted me to put pen to paper (and include a stamped self-addressed envelope – manners are manners) but I’d been an admirer of his for years. My gateway was an unusual one – his Hollywood History of the World, a chatty, irreverent look at historical pictures; the blurb on the back announced Fraser as “the author of the Flashman novels” as if I was supposed to know them – since I enjoyed Hollywood I sought them out and was delighted.

For those who don’t know, like the young me, the Flashman novels are (were) a series of comic historical adventures which center around Harry Flashman, a fictional character who first appeared in Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes (1857). Fraser felt an instinctive pull towards the character – Flashman was its villain, a bully and a coward, hearty and sly, but easily full of more life than anyone else in the story. In the mid-1960s, Fraser, then a journalist eager to move into novel writing, decided to make Harry F. the star of his own  novel: Flashman (1969) begins with him being expelled from Rugby School and subsequently joining the British Army; he goes on to serve in the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842, where he narrowly escapes with his life due to a combination of quick-thinking, cunning and cowardice, and is incorrectly branded a hero.

Fraser says it took him two years to find a publisher, which in hindsight seems odd – the novel is a marvel of pace, humour and inventiveness, with a hugely clever central conceit, exciting action sequences, and superb historical background. Fraser wrote it as if it were an authentic memoir, stuffing Flashman’s adventures full of real incidents and people (including the Duke of Wellington, Lord Cardigan and Queen Victoria), and adding a fake introductory cover note explaining the book had been “discovered” in 1965 during a sale of household furniture in Ashby, Leicestershire. The author was so convincing that several academics assumed the book was real.

The novel sold well, and several Flashman adventures followed, each dealing with a different, exotic period of nineteenth-century history – Royal Flash (published 1970, set in revolutionary Europe), Flash for Freedom (1971, slave-owning USA), Flashman at the Charge (1973, the Crimean War and southern Russia), Flashman and the Great Game (1975, the Indian Mutiny), Flashman’s Lady (1977, Borneo and Madagascar), Flashman and the Redskins (1982, the Gold Rush and Battle of Little Big Horn), Flashman and the Dragon (1985, the Second Opium War), Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1990, the First Anglo-Sikh War), Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (1994, John Brown’s Raid), Flashman and the Tiger (1999, Austria, the Tranby Croft Affair, the Anglo-Zulu War), and Flashman on the March (2005, the Abyssinian Campaign).

Fraser also wrote other works, notably a non-fiction history of the English-Scottish Borderers (The Steel Bonnets), a series of short stories based on Fraser’s time as an officer in the Gordon Highlanders in Libya after World War Two (broadly known as the McAuslan Stories), some more serious historical novels (Mr American, Black Ajax, The Candlemass Road) and comic ones  (The Pyrates, The Reivers) plus two memoirs (Quartered Safe Out Here, Light’s On at Signpost) and a lucrative side career as a screenwriter.

There was movie interest in Flashman from the beginning – indeed, Fraser says it was the  sale of the film rights in 1969 which enabled him to give up journalism and become a full-time writer . 

The director of the Flashman movie was to be Richard Lester, who admired the book greatly, calling it “a marvellously interesting premise… There were lots of things in it that made sense to me—about soldiering, about the military, about the economics of military politics.” He succeeded in setting up the project at United Artists, who had financed most of Lester’s sixties features, including A Hard Days’ Night (1964) and The Knack (1965). Frank Muir worked on the script and John Alderton, best known for his TV work, particularly Please Sir (1968-72), was cast as Harry Flashman.  Locations were being scouted in Spain when a change in management at the studio led to the project being cancelled. It’s not hard to see why – Hollywood was pulling out of the British film industry at the time, Flashman would have been expensive (it’s hard to film the retreat from Kabul on the cheap),  and Lester’s most recent movie, The Bed Sitting Room (1969) had been a box office flop; indeed, the director did not make a feature for the next four years, paying the rent by making TV commercials.

Lester did not forget the novel, however, and when Alexander Salkind approached him to make an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, the director hired George MacDonald Fraser to write the script. The resulting movie was turned into two films – part two was called The Four Musketeers (1974) – and proved to be an enormous critical and commercial success, re-establishing Lester as a bankable director and launching Fraser as a screenwriter (his later credits included Octopussy (1983), Red Sonja (1985) and Casanova (1987)). It also enabled Lester to reactivate a Flashman project.

Instead of adapting the first novel, he decided to film the second in the series, Royal Flash. There were two very good reasons for this – firstly, it was a far more self-contained story than Flashman, involving no epic battle scenes in Afghanistan, but rather intrigue around English manors and European castles; secondly, the plot was more road-tested, being based on Anthony Hope’s classic novel, The Prisoner of Zenda which had been successfully filmed a number of times, notably in 1937 with Ronald Colman.

Lester surrounded himself with friendly collaborators. Fraser himself wrote the script, and the producers were Dennis O’Dell, who had helped make several of Lester’s earlier movies, and David Picker, the former head of production at United Artists, who had just turned producer and recently hired Lester to direct Juggernaut (1974).

Royal Flash was filmed in Europe and England with a cast including Malcolm McDowell as Flashman, Alan Bates, Florinda Bolkan and Oliver Reed. It was released through 20th Century Fox in October 1975 to underwhelming critical and commercial response.

No one seemed to pay too much attention to the film at the time and it has been little remembered since. It’s not regarded as a fiasco though presumably it lost a great deal of money (the budget was reportedly $4 million). Few people seem to talk about movie now outside Lester cultists, and even their enthusiasm feels muted; Fraser gives it only a brief mention in his memoirs, focusing on accounts of working with Oliver Reed. Lester later admitted the film was “generally ignored and considered to be a substandard version of The Three Musketeers,” adding “It was perhaps a poor choice of mine to pursue because it was a period film, a comic romp with some serious overtones and a lot of swordplay and it did come after Musketeers which was a well-loved piece of subject matter.”

I’ve seen the movie a few times over the years – most recently just last week. I wish I could say it’s a personal favourite and/or undiscovered gem, the way you can with a cult that originally flopped at the box office – like, say, Streets of Fire (1984) or Somewhere in Time (1980) or other Lester films such as The Bed Sitting Room I1969) or How I Won the War (1967). I love Fraser’s writing – his memoir of World War Two, Quartered Safe Out Here, is a masterpiece, the McAuslan stories are a delight, the first seven Flashman novels are classics. I enjoy some Lester movies and Oliver Reed is always worth watching.

And the movie has some splendid things about it – handsome production design, superb performances from Britt Ekland (perhaps her best screen work), Oliver Reed and Joss Ackland, as well as memorable turns from Bob Hoskins, David Jason and Bob Peck. The sheer fact that it is a $4 million Flashman movie that exists makes it inherently fascinating.

But it’s a mess. 

It just doesn’t work. 

I wish it did but it doesn’t. 

It has none of the novel’s charm, or excitement. It’s not funny or thrilling. There doesn’t seem to be any point to it.

Yet Fraser did the adaptation. And he could not have asked for a more sympathetic collaborator than Lester.

What happened?

First of all – and I stress this is all opinion, and nothing more – I think they chose the wrong novel to adapt. It’s a shame they couldn’t have started with Flashman which set up the central conceit so beautifully – emphasising the character’s cowardice and bluster in a world of hypocrisy, adventure and lies. I get the cost involved but it’s simply hard to access the joys of the character of Harry Flashman as well via  Royal Flash

Part of Flashman’s appeal in the novels is that for all his many many faults, he is constantly coming up against people who are far worse – religious maniacs, despotic rulers, idiotic aristocrats, torture-happy dancing girls. Flashman’s humor, wry observations and greed is constantly used to skewer the hypocrisy of the era, shining a light on the underbelly of the derring-do propagated by Victorian-era writers. Fraser’s superb gift as a novelist – and off the top of my head I can’t think of any other writer who can do it as well- was that he could do all that while still delivering genuinely exciting adventure and a richly-researched historical background.

Royal Flash is a perfectly decent Flashman novel – it’s penned with energy and verve, and the exploitation of the Schleswig-Holstein Question is very clever. There are some fun characterisations and exhilarating action, Rudi Von Sternberg is an excellent villain with an engaging bunch of henchmen, and Lola Motenz and Otto Bismark are colourful characters culled from history.

However, it does feel different to other novels in the series. Royal Flash mostly takes place in the fictional Duchy of Strackenz, making it the only Flashman story to be set in a fictitious location. And the whole plot is taken from The Prisoner of Zenda – now, Fraser has some fun with this, with Harry Flashman telling “a young lawyer” (Hope) his story and claiming Hope plagiarised him, and the author adds plenty of original touches – but it does not change the fact he still used another novel’s storyline wholesale, which he never did again. It’s an exciting story, don’t get me wrong, I love reading it, but it makes Royal Flash seem like “The Prisoner of Zenda starring Harry Flashman” rather than something more original. It’s definitely not as “on theme” as, well, the first Flashman, where our hero had to deal with the upper class idiocy of Lord Elphinstone and Lord Cardigan, the assassination of Sekundar Burnes, the terror of Afghan attacks, the horror and incompetence of the retreat, the Blimp-ish-ness of Brigadier Shelton, the cyclical manipulation of British defeat – the first novel was simply funnier, more exciting and had a greater satirical point. 

I am completely sympathetic to the cost issue involved – there was no way of filming the first Flashman cheaply. A more appropriate novel to adapt might have actually been the third in the series: Flash for Freedom, a thrilling account of the 1840s slave trade, with Harry caught between slavers and abolitionists in the slave-owning states of America. Any film of this would have involved scenes set on the Ivory Coast of Africa and a slave ship, so it would not have been cheap either – but there would be no epic battles, and that novel had a better feel for Flashman. It also had stronger characters (slaver John Charity Spring, Cassie the slave girl, slave owner Manderville and his kinky wife) and more recognisable historical characters (Abraham Lincoln). Plus, the American setting would (presumably) have helped its box office chances there. 

If I was ever approached to adapt a Flashman – and I should be so lucky – I’d push for Flash for Freedom first… unless budget was no problem in case I’d go for Flashman . (Having said that I feel the masterpieces in the series are Charge, Great Game, Lady and Redskins – but the first and third novels are better introductions to the character).

Having decided to do Royal Flash – and to be honest, if I was an executive at Fox in 1974, I would’ve supported that decision – I don’t think the script does justice to the book, despite the fact Fraser wrote it himself. The story is there, the characters are there, with necessary condensation (for instance, the removal of Flashman’s wife Elspeth, which I think was wise)… but it doesn’t capture the flavour of the novel. 

Admittedly It’s hard to recreate at script level all the historical detail which makes the books such a joy but they should have at least had a voice-over. Flashman’s jaundiced comments about the world and the people he meets are one of the chief strengths of the novel and this is lacking from the film. I realise the question of whether to use voice-over in movies is a vexed one but in the right hands it can be marvellously effective way of getting inside the head of the protagonist. It could also have helped sped up exposition and made the film move faster – as it is, it takes thirty minutes for the impersonation plot to kick in. (In Fraser’s defence, voice over may have been proposed and even tried but not worked out.)

A more serious problem is that the three lead roles in Royal Flash all feel miscast. I asked Fraser who his ideal screen Flashman was and he replied, “the late Errol Flynn, by a mile”. Fraser told me he thought “Malcolm did  a wonderful job” adding they felt the actor was “the only real option” for the role at the time except “for maybe Alan [Bates]”, who played Rudi. 

Critical response to McDowell’s performance was not overly effusive on release, and time has not seen that change. Lester himself thought this casting hurt the movie, saying “McDowell was absolutely 100% bounder – the sleaze was coming through to the film.” Malcolm McDowell is an excellent actor, a strong presence, who can be superb in the right role, and he plays the part as written. But he seems too cruel, too vicious, too lecherous, too sleazy.  Harry Flashman in the novels is wonderful company – witty, fun, entertainingly honest. McDowell’s Flashman is not.

I think for any Flashman film to work you need the lead role to be played by someone who was believably cowardly but likeable about it. I’m aware saying “characters should be likeable” is triggering for some observers, but when you need audiences to follow a character who does what Flashman does – snivels, hides and whines while people die around him – for over ninety minutes surely he has to be engaging? 

In fairness, what other seventies British film industry leading man could have done better that McDowell? I’m not sure Alan Bates was the answer. Michael Caine? Sean Connery? Richard Harris? Michael York? Roger Moore? Robert Powell? Personally, I think York was the best option from stars  at the time – he played with a lighter touch; I wonder if he was ever in the running.

Fraser told me that one producer proposed Burt Reynolds – and while Reynolds would have been very American and contemporary, perhaps too much so, that star had the combination of charm, insecurity and swagger that would have been perfect for Harry Flashman. A comic – like Graham Chapman from Monty Python, or Peter Cook- could have worked.  On a non-film star level, I think John Alderton, based on what I’ve seen of him in other things, could have been marvellous.

The other leads are not well cast either. Alan Bates was an excellent actor but the part of Rudi Von Sternberg needed personality and flair as much as acting ability. It’s a gift role – think of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr in the 1937 Zenda – but required a performed with more life and/or flamboyance. Someone like (to give it a Richard Lester connection) Robert Shaw in Robin and Marian (1976) or Richard Harris from Juggernaut (1974).

Flamboyance is what’s needed in Lola Montez too but Florinda Bolkan doesn’t provide it. She was a Brazilian actor best known at the time for appearances in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) and various giallos. It’s a terrific part and you long (or at least I did) for someone who would nail it – imagine, say, Faye Dunaway or even Raquel Welch in the part (both had been in Musketeers) – but Bolkan does not.

Maybe audiences would never go for a Flashman. Lester felt “that equivocal anti-hero wasn’t easy to take. They wanted a real hero, a hero that was a bounder as well as a hero.” But I don’t think Royal Flash gave the character the best shot.

There have been attempts to film the novels since then. Colin Firth (an ideal Flashman) was attached at one stage, and Ridley Scott at another. It’s never happened – they would be expensive to do, and tricky to get the tone right. But like most fans of the novels, I can’t help wishing that there will be another attempt bringing Flashman to the screen because Royal Flash does not do Harry true justice.

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About Stephen Vagg

Stephen Vagg is the author of "Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood" the first biography of Australian actor Rod Taylor which subsequently adapted into the documentary feature, "Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches". He has written extensively on film and theatre history, including groundbreaking pieces on Alec Coppel, Frank Harvey and Alfred Rolfe. He is also an AFI-nominated and AWGIE-winning screenwriter, whose credits include "Neighbours" and "Home and Away" as well as two feature films, "All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane" and "Jucy"; he was head writer on "Neighbours" for over three years. His plays have been performed around the world, including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and London.

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