Saturday, December 31, 2011

Royal Flash

Before I can begin rereading and reviewing the second of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels; Royal Flash, I need to talk about the 1975 film of the same name.

I don't think you can really discuss the book without also mentioning the film. In addition to being a journalist and novelist George MacDonald Fraser was also a screenwriter. The Three Musketeers (the 1973 version starring Michael York and Richard Chamberlain), it's sequel The Four Musketeers and James Bond's Indian odyssey Octopussy are among his credits. The Flashman's tend to have a cinematic quality about them, and there were even moves to make Flashman into a film starring John Alderton (Please Sir and The Upchat Line), overtures were made to the actor, and he even mentions this in his autobiography, but curiously enough it is the second adventure that did actually make it to the screen.

I've long held the theory that Royal Flash was written specifically to be adapted into a film. There's a few reasons for this. It's rather unusual for a Flashman in a number of ways. It's the only book to be set entirely in Europe, it's the only one that features a completely fictional country as part of it's backdrop. The map in the front of Royal Flash of the duchy of Strackenz is actually an inversion of the Isle of Man, which is where Fraser was living at the time the book was published. Occasionally in the books Fraser adapts scenes from famous novels of the time when the book is set and then claims that Harry Flashman's experiences were actually the basis for the fictional scene, however most of the storyline of Royal Flash is in fact a pastiche of Anthony Hope's 1894 swashbuckler The Prisoner of Zenda. I believe this decision was made by the author because filming the books had been discussed and the best way to do that was to use a plot line that had already been successfully filmed. The Prisoner of Zenda had already been adapted to the screen five times by the time Royal Flash was written (a sixth version was made in 1979 starring Peter Sellers and Lynne Frederick), being successful in both the silent and talking eras as well as in black and white and colour.

The man behind the film version of Royal Flash was director Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser wrote the screenplay. This should have worked. Lester and Fraser had also worked together on the Musketeer films. Unfortunately it didn't on this occasion. Fraser felt that Lester concentrated too much on 'bawdy buffoonery' rather than the historical facts that formed the basis of the story. No other Flashman's were filmed after Royal Flash because the author said that he would not let anyone else have control of the script and that simply doesn't happen in Hollywood. He could also never find an actor he thought could play the role properly. He modelled Flashman to an extent on the Australian born Hollywood star Erroll Flynn, and the idea of Daniel Day-Lewis struck a chord with him, but it never happened.

Royal Flash the film was actually my introduction to the character. I can remember seeing a trailer for the film when it first came out and being intrigued by the swashbuckling clips, but the rating meant that my parents wouldn't take me to see it (I was only a kid at the time), by the time I saw the film on TV one night I'd already seen Thomas Hughes version of Flashman, and the film version was far more preferable. It was after seeing the film that I sought out the books.

I can kind of see why Richard Lester chose to go the route he did with the film version. This was at the end of the Carry On film era and audiences did still like the 'nudge nudge wink wink' style of film, which is what Royal Flash did, but it did not marry well with the rest of the content and created an uneasy mix, which didn't really work as either a historical satire or a broad double entendre laden sexual farce.

One of the problems for me was the casting. They did well with Swedish model and actress Britt Ekland as the ice maiden Duchess Irma of Strackenz. The role which didn't require her to do much other than look pretty and bounce around in bed for a scene or so was perfect for the Swedish beauty. Ekland was always more famous for who she was dating or married to than any actual role she ever secured, and she remains one of the worst Bond girls ever as Mary Goodnight in The Man with the Golden Gun (also a very naff Bond film, possibly the worst one of the entire franchise). Oliver Reed, who when sober, was a pretty decent actor, was also well cast as empire builder Otto von Bismarck. Unfortunately where they fell down was with the casting of Flashman himself. That role went to Malcolm McDowell. At the time McDowell was popular, best known for his work in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Malcolm McDowell is a fine actor, but he was physically wrong to play Flashman. Flashman is described as being tall (6'2" or 3"), broad shouldered, with dark hair and features. McDowell may have had the height, but he's not particularly powerful looking and he's a ginger. Malcolm McDowell could never pass as an Afghani or an Indian as Flashman has successfully on a number of occasions. Then there was the way he played Harry, he came across as rather weaselly, which considering what a coward Flashman is makes sense, but a big part of why Flashman gets away with what he does is because despite the reality of the situation he actually looks like a hero and can always bluff his way out of things. It was hard to buy this from McDowell's portrayal.

In terms of success I think the film did moderately at the box office, although curiously it's never been released to DVD in the UK. The upshot of it was that George MacDonald Fraser was not happy with it, and he's the author and holds the property. They make further attempts to make the books into films or TV shows now that the author has passed away, it does depend on what the holder of his literary estate allows. I personally think that cast right and made by someone who respected the source material the books would make excellent TV shows, rather like Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series.

Now, I've covered the film and the book briefly and given you my thoughts on them I'll get into the reread next time.

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