Director: Richard Lester
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Britt Ekland, Florinda Bolkan, Tom Bell, Joss Ackland, Lionel Jeffries
Written by: (based on his book) George MacDonald Fraser
Running Time: 102 mins
Original UK Cert: A
Original UK Release: October 1975
Royal Flash is a curious failure. Directed by Richard Lester, best known for his films with the Beatles and the hugely popular Musketeer films of the 70s, this attempted to capture that same sense of fun with a character who was born from the pages of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the bully Harry Flashman and using George MacDonald Fraser‘s source material (he also wrote the series of books), this was a perfect successor to the swordplay Three and Four Musketeers. Yet having the same qualities and a very starry cast, it comes across as a mess that still has plenty of redeeming factors.
Captain Harry Flashman is regarded as a national hero, yet he is nothing of the sort. A huge coward, gambler and womaniser, he always manages to land on his feet even when he really shouldn’t. After stealing Otto von Bismark’s lady, Flashman is coerced into impersonating a crowned prince because of the similarities in looks, in order for Von Bismark to stop Princess Irma from marrying a Dane but to marry the prince instead. Underneath is a much more sinister plot.
Royal Flash was a production with plenty of history. Richard Lester had been a fan of the books and had wanted to film them as a series but the rights to the first book were elsewhere, so he had to start in the second book, thus we get an introduction to a character in a rather rushed manner (the first book is reduced to a five-minute sequence at the beginning). Once there we then get into the complex plot that is never fully explained properly, mainly because of Lester’s erratic style of film making, where sound and detail plays far more important than foreground antics.
The film also suffered from poor box office in the States. At just under two hours, the film was hastily cut by 20 minutes, so it does feel incredibly disjointed and very famous faces pop up with no explanation whatsoever, then disappear again.
On the plus side, it is brimming with invention and ideas that you’d only expect from a Richard Lester film. The sword fights are frantic and full of energy while the slapstick, which is a little infantile in places, still manages to raise a smile or three. The production looks magnificent with a sense of period surrounding the whole film.
Having a dream cast to work with also helps. One of the plus with a Lester film is that he has lots of famous faces willing to make fools of themselves and there is no exception. Malcolm McDowell is perfectly oily and cowardly as Flashman, excelling in broad comedy. Alan Bates puts on the laid-back approach while Oliver Reed is always good value and here, as Otto, is no exception.
There is one moment where the hand went straight to the head and scratched away. Former boxing champ and national treasure, Henry Cooper with a badly dubbed voice sounding like a ropy Michael Caine! And look out for a brief appearance from the late, great Bob Hoskins.
While it never hits the mark of The Three Musketeers or its sequel, it a film that would never be made today (far too cheeky) as well as being far too expensive, yet it reminds us of a far simpler time when madcap comedies like this were genuinely funny thanks to some creative styling of a filmmaker with his own way of working.
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