A larkish 1975 burlesque of adventure novels and movies that emanated from the waning days of the British Empire, Royal Flash remains a watchable romp—mildly naughty, superficially subversive—due largely to the wit, sex appeal, and rakish physicality of star Malcolm McDowell. Cavorting through early, expository scenes in gambling parlors and boudoirs, staged by director Richard Lester in an even more slapstick mode than his Three Musketeers adaptation, McDowell imbues the preening Captain Harry Flashman, a debauched coward whom pure luck in warfare has anointed him “the hero of Afghanistan,” with as much charm and spirit as the character will allow. A sneering, magnetic icon made by his boy-rebel roles in If… and A Clockwork Orange, the actor lets Flashie’s disdain and arrogance quickly dissipate as he winces under the fetishistic hairbrush beatings of his lover, Lola Montez (Florinda Bolkan), then panics as he’s ensnared in a plot to destabilize a Bavarian duchy during the revolutions of 1848. Widening his blue, saucer-shaped eyes in fear or leaping on a tabletop to duel with short-lived bravado, McDowell sends up archetypes of derring-do with a confident showman’s energy, the same charisma that provided Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange with a troubling moral landscape.
There’s less at stake in Royal Flash, scripted by George MacDonald Fraser from his second in a series of popular books, which filches its plot from The Prisoner of Zenda and its absurdities from any number of swashbucklers. Crossing a scheming young Otto von Bismarck (an amusingly stolid Oliver Reed) in a chance encounter, Flashman is soon kidnapped by the would-be unifier of German states, who lays out a plan for the soldier to replace a syphilis-stricken prince on the eve of his wedding. (Bismarck fills a wolverine’s carcass with sawdust as he conspires, and officiously carves matching scars into Flashman’s face with his épée before the impersonation begins.) Also in support, Alan Bates gives casually menacing élan to Bismarck’s chief enforcer, the comic heavy Lionel Jeffries milks his metal-handed henchman shtick with remarkable success, and the decorative Britt Ekland is a persuasively stiff duchess for Flashman to thaw out on their wedding night: “Your beauty, so pale…like mist in a cemetery.”
The genre lampooning is funny in a scattershot, painless pattern, shot with sunlit soft focus on the German locations by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, and occasionally recalling what Mel Brooks was doing in Hollywood; the climactic Bates-McDowell swordfight stumbles past a charwoman scrubbing at the castle floor, and features a lowered drawbridge that inconveniently collapses into the moat. That Royal Flash hasn’t a scorching satirical bent is probably for the best (Lester got heavy-handed results with that approach in How I Won the War), but when the comedy flags, Flashie’s railing against “cabbage eaters” and the typically labyrinthine plot begin to wear thin. Lester has a ball choreographing a fight in a castle kitchen in which a sausage sandwich is incidentally prepared by badly aimed slashings, but the worldly feminine presence of Bolkan’s knowing Lola is missed when she disappears for several reels, as her educational kiss-off to Flashman after her return is a pithy “Courage, and shuffle the cards.”
The 1080p transfer in excellent, particularly as seen in deep-focus interior shots showing off the artwork and architecture of Bavarian castles. Though the diffusion lenses used in the era, and by DP Geoffrey Unsworth in many of his other films including Cabaret, now look a bit too gauzy in their effects, the disc seems thoroughly faithful to Royal Flash’s original look. The original mono soundtrack has been remixed for stereo without sounding artificially bumped up, and though the option of the original soundtrack would’ve been nice, Ken Thorne’s score adapted from Strauss, Wagner and other classics is well served.
Replicating those on a 2007 Fox release, the supplements are led by a feature-length commentary conversation between star Malcolm McDowell and film historian Nick Redman. McDowell’s remarks are dominated by kind words for all his collaborators, though there are inevitable tales of Oliver Reed’s drunken exploits, and of his unwise attempts to pummel former heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper in a scene where Bismarck is humiliated by an expert pugilist at a posh party. Co-star Alan Bates’s ego also comes in for some ribbing over his inordinate time in the makeup chair and aversion to looking fat in his white costumes, although McDowell then frets about his own underweight appearance by 21st-century standards: "I spend an awful lot of time in my long johns in this film."
A short featurette provides background on George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books, with analysis from the author (who died in 2008) and fans including a member of the House of Lords; one scholar finds them, despite the satirical bent, a "love letter to the British Empire." Another video piece has producer David Picker describing the adaptation of Royal Flash and his dashed hopes of launching a James Bond-style series with it. Fraser chimes in on his satisfaction with the film and director Richard Lester, whose absence from the extras is keenly felt. An isolated music-and-effects track, the original American trailer, and a booklet essay by Julie Kirgo on the film’s "madcap" style round out the set.
While no classic of anti-establishment comedies, this swashbuckling spoof gets by on star power and perpetual motion.