When learning of the British Empire Blogathon graciously hosted by Phantom Empires and The Stalking Moon I immediately thought of Royal Flash for a variety of reasons. First off is the fact that it pokes fun at the stiff upper lip British type that puts on a “jolly good show” for God and Queen. Secondly, I have always taken great pleasure from Malcolm McDowell’s hell raising yet cowardly performance in the title role. Now throw in a rather brutish Oliver Reed reteaming with his nude wrestling pal Alan Bates and we have an underrated gem from the seventies that is begging to be rediscovered for both it’s comedy and adventurous spirit.
Novelist George MacDonald Fraser adapted the second novel in his Flashman series and along with spirited director Richard Lester have given us this chapter in the life of Captain Harry Flashman. A military hero by default for his acts during the Empires campaign in Afghanistan, McDowell as our leading man finds himself a well known name throughout England and high society. Greatly respected he is called upon to present a rather Patton(esque) speech to a group of young men heading out into the world. Join me in standing up for a round of applause as McDowell delivers the goods in the film’s opening scene.
Now it’s time to get in a little gambling and whoring. You see Flashman is no gentleman at all. He’s a cad. A bully. A backstabber. A thief. Most of all a coward. And so on.
While fleeing a police raid led by Bob Hoskins, McDowell runs squarely into the broad shoulders of Oliver Reed who plays our main adversary Otto Von Bismarck. Using a little bit of street smarts, he embarrasses Reed and takes off with his lady Florinda Balkan. It’s going to be a love/hate relationship that sees the two tangle repeatedly from the start to finish.
He’s a womanizer and she’s a social climbing nymphomaniac. They’ll make a fine pair.
When their love affair falls apart and Reed leaves England for Germany the narrative moves ahead four years. It seems Balkan has reached out to Malcolm from Bavaria. With the promise of money he’s off to the continent.
This is where our film takes a turn towards espionage and a dash of the Prince of Zenda. Reed is behind the reason for McDowell’s being brought to Bavaria. He’s hungry for power and politics. McDowell is a dead ringer for a Crown Prince that is indisposed. Reed’s plans include scarring McDowell’s face and marrying him off to Queen Britt Ekland. The latter half doesn’t sound to bad. After all gentlemen let’s not forget that just two years prior to this she was the Goddess of Love in The Wickerman.
Alan Bates is Reed’s right hand who is always one step behind McDowell to keep him in line. That doesn’t stop Malcolm from letting loose with crude comments at any given time and continually pushing Reed’s anger to the limit.
Just when Malcolm thinks life isn’t too bad he realizes that the real Prince won’t be coming back and Reed has no further use for him either.
Cowardice will only take him so far and when Bates implores him to “Come down and fight like a man.” McDowell cries out “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Much like Richard Lester’s Musketeer films, this effort has it’s tongue firmly planted in it’s cheek. From it’s opening scene to it’s closing McDowell is hardly ever off the screen. He delivers an energetic performance that is both comedic and raunchy. He gets to play Errol Flynn in a lengthy duel with Bates despite doing his best to flee the situation. Once again he’ll find himself a hero by circumstance.
Reed is best at being Reed. Brutish and imposing. Not a man to tangle with. Alan Bates shines here and develops a cautious friendship with McDowell despite their often being at odds. Florinda Balkan as the woman who comes and goes in McDowell’s life plays it deliciously with a hint of nastiness that only a wooden brush against the buttocks can define.
The cast is sprinkled with a who’s who of British cinema. Along with a pre-stardom Bob Hoskins we have Alistair Sim, Lionel Jeffries and Joss Ackland dropping in for added flavor.
The location filming adds an immense beauty to the backdrop for McDowell’s adventures including the Castle Linderhof in Bavaria. A place I know well from jigsaw puzzles my Mother worked on over the years.
Looking back it’s unfortunate that there wasn’t a follow up to the Flashman adventures as it’s clearly a role that suits McDowell’s cheeky take on the character.
So if you’re looking for a different view on the British Empire, look no further than the wild adventures of Malcolm McDowell in the only film version from the series of Flashman novels.