Captain Harry Flashman (Malcolm McDowell) is addressing a hall packed with public schoolboys and their masters, there to represent the British Army because of his heroism in Afghanistan. But as he pontificates about doing his duty, he doesn't let on that his sum total of combat in the region amounted to running away from danger and being in the right place at the right time when some soldiers found him passed out with fear gripping the fort's British flag. Flashman is a blowhard and a poltroon, but he is about to get into a scrape which even his quick wits may not allow him to escape from...
Royal Flash had a pretty awful reception when it was first released back in 1975, not only by critics but by the legions of fans who had enjoyed George MacDonald Fraser's original Flashman novels as well. It was felt Fraser, adapting his own material, and Richard Lester, the director, has broadened the approach far too much and turned the anti-hero into a figure of fun unnecessarily. Indeed, the film is still regarded as a disappointment today, yet if you're not as familiar with the source then you may become one of those who appreciate what Fraser and Lester were aiming for.
That was, more of a comic romp through eighteenth century history than an all out adventure film, although there are parts that are undeniably gripping. Royal Flash deserves to be better thought of, if only for its sumptuous look with some beautiful scenery and Terence Marsh's brilliant production design ensuring that you're never bored while looking at the superb visuals. As the lead, McDowell is very well cast, fully aware of the notes he is supposed to be hitting, mainly the humorous ones as his Flashman is more buffoonish than anything else.
If you want a dashing hero acting in what turns into a Prisoner of Zenda-style spoof, then it's no wonder you're let down here, but nevertheless if you come to this as a comedy then there are many pleasures to be had. McDowell garners some good laughs from his lines, as well as indulging in some pretty impressive slapstick, including the odd swordfight that, though they must have been difficult to pull off for giggles, look effortlessly staged. The cast includes some starry actors and solid support, with Oliver Reed standing out as Otto von Bismark who Flashman makes a lifelong enemy of when their paths cross.
Also in that cast are Florinda Bolkan as Lola Montez, running rings around Flashman and even fighting her own duel, UK boxing hero Henry Cooper as John Gully who Bismark is goaded into fighting by Harry, and in a breezy turn Alan Bates as the gentlemanly but dangerous Rudi von Sternberg who Flashman finds himself the victim of more often than not. The trick to enjoying this is to recognise that the protagonist has enough bad luck to get himself into these sticky situations such as posing as a Prince so that Bismark and Sternberg can take over a duchy by foul means, while also seeing that he has the good luck to be able to escape with his life, usually by an unlikely twist of fate. It could be that Royal Flash's detractors were right and this is far too jokey, but it has wit and style to spare for all that, with its satirically biting look at English patriotism most refreshing. Music, including bits and pieces of the classics, by Ken Thorne.
Efforts like Royal Flash, Robin and Marian, gay bathhouse comedy The Ritz and Cuba made less impact, but in the eighties Lester was called in to salvage the Superman series after Richard Donner walked off Superman II; Lester also directed Superman III. Finders Keepers was a flop comedy, and Return of the Musketeers had a tragic development when one of his regular cast, Roy Kinnear, died while filming. Lester then decided to give up directing, with Paul McCartney concert Get Back his last film.