Flash Harry

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I’ve been reading the Flashman books by George McDonald Fraser. I read the first on the train down to meet Richard Lester, who tried to film it around ’79/’70, only to have it collapse when the studio panicked at the sight of their recent box office takings and pulled the plug on FLASHMAN and Kubrick’s NAPOLEON.

For those not in the know: Fraser plucked the cowardly bully character from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and made him the anti-hero of a series of historical adventures in which the ruthless and unscrupulous braggart takes part in every major military campaign and a few other historical imbroglios from 1845 to 1900. These adventures were presented in the guise of true-life memoirs discovered in a tea-chest in a midlands auction house and edited for publication by Fraser — The New York Times was fooled.

To give you a clue to Flashman’s horrific bigotry (breaking you in gently), here he is on the Irish question, as he bumps into Gladstone, who’s about to retire, in the men’s room (from Flashman and the Tiger).

“Hollo, old ‘un,” says I, “Marching orders at last, hey? Ne’er mind, it happens to all of us. It’s this damned Irish business, I suppose -” for as you know, he was always fussing over Ireland; no one knew what to do about it, and while the Paddies seemed be in favour of leaving the place and going to America, Gladstone was trying to make ’em keep it; something like that.
“Where you went wrong,” I told him, “was in not giving the place back to the Pope long ago, and apologising for the condition it’s in. Fact.”
He stood glaring at me with a face like a door-knocker.

It’s probably best to start with something like this rather than the dicier Flash for Freedom, which would take a whole blog post to unpick. The somewhat reactionary Fraser writes in the voice of the viciously bigoted Flashman with no apologies, trusting the reader to separate author from narrator. Here’s a bit from Flashman and the Dragon ~

…the coolies could be seen engaged in the only two occupations known to the Chinese peasant: to wit, standing stock-still up to the knees in paddy-water holding a bullock on a rope, or shifting mud very slowly from one point to another. Deny them these employments, and they would simply lie down and die, which a good many of them seemed to do anyway, I’m told that Napoleon once said that China was a sleeping giant, and when she awoke the world would be sorry, He didn’t say who was going to get the bastards out of bed.

Appalling stuff, of course, and only funny in a guilt-inducing, worrisome way. We know GMF disapproves of Flashman, but is it possible to disapprove enough and keep writing?

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I’d read Royal Flash and Flashman at the Charge and Flashman in the Great Game long ago, but somehow never got around to the first in the series, possibly the best. Dealing as it does with Britain’s first, disastrous Afghanistan campaign, it would have been a rather timely film to have around if Lester had made it when he intended. Part of what leads the Brits into destruction in the book (as in history, Victorian and recent) is their failure to understand the people they are dealing with / killing / civilizing / oppressing.

Lester particularly wanted to show the army, on its flight from Kabul, camping in a valley for the night. In the morning, a snow-fall has covered everything. A hand holding a trumpet emerges from the snow and blows reveille, and a few frostbitten survivors stagger from the whiteness…

The abortive attempts at this film occurred after THE BED-SITTING ROOM, when Lester’s career was in the doldrums (“Film-making has become a kind of hysterical pregnancy”) and before THE THREE MUSKETEERS, scripted by Fraser, put him back on the map. This led to ROYAL FLASH, which posits Flashman in the midst of a Ruritanian romance based on The Prisoner of Zenda (but cheekily claiming that Flashman’s exploits inspired Anthony Hope’s popular novel). Lester had aimed to cast John Alderton in the first film, but ended up with Malcolm McDowell in this one. Oddly enough, near the end of Flashman, our villanous hero is laid up in a hospital bed being praised by politicians in a scene which is uncannily close to CLOCKWORK ORANGE if you imagine McDowell in the role.

Some have suggested that Harry Paget Flashman is uncastable. Others proposed that Lester should have slide McDowell into the role of mercenary Rudi Von Starnberg and extracted Alan Bates from that part to cast as Flashman, but Lester disagrees. I think that idea came about because Bates is ideal in his role and McDowell not quite perfectly suited to his (though very funny). To me, the difficulty would seem to be that Flashman is only attractive to readers because he’s so honest with us about his manifold failings and vices, as well as the lunacy or idiocy of others. He has the appearance of a hero — think Errol Flynn, and it’s not so much that he’s particularly cowardly as that where fear makes other men fight for what they believe, Flashman is motivated only by self-interest, so terror pushes him into fleeing, fighting dirty or blubbing and begging — whatever he thinks will work.

What makes this funny is the contrast between the heroic expectations engendered by Flashman’s appearance, rank, and the situations he’s in, and what’s going on in his mind (plotting survival, lusting after women) — deprived of access to the character’s thoughts, Lester has to create comedy by letting McDowell play Flashman’s weakness more on the surface. Since he’s not an imposing figure next to Bates and Oliver Reed, you don’t get the same shock effect from seeing McDowell crumble into craven hysterics that you might if Tyrone Power were in the part. McDowell instead brings a light comedy flare, and though he can evoke strutting arrogance well it’s peacock-like rather than leonine.

(Who would I cast? Jon Finch, the greatest if-only star in British film history. But Edward Fox is also a possibility, and Timothy Dalton would have been excellent, but wasn’t a big enough star yet.)

Fraser’s lively prose, punctuated with period slang, can be suggested in the dialogue, but otherwise Lester is forced to create comedy out of slapstick accidents, which disrupt the romantic spectacle as in his MUSKETEERS films, but are slightly less suited to the purposes of Fraser’s world. Reading Flashman it’s intriguing to imagine what Lester’s film would have been like, since the story is nastier and darker than anything in Royal Flash, and the horrific elements that surface in most of Fraser’s books with his protagonists encounters the dark side of history play a much smaller role in both film and book of ROYAL FLASH.

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It’s still a better film than its reputation suggests, I think. The true miscasting is probably Florinda Bolkan and not McDowell — she lacks comic flare and despite being more authentically “dago” (Flashman is a master of every racial epithet) than the real Lola Montes, she can’t muster a wholly convincing fiery temperament.

What lets it down is the protracted ending. Fraser tends to let his books ramble on for the last several chapters, long after the climax is over, and this isn’t particularly problematic on the page since the deplorable Flashman is such infernal good company. In the movie, we get a very long and exhausting comic duel with Bates, which I enjoy a lot — Lester used very slight, undetectable undercranking for the swordplay, along with a device that allowed him to adjust the pitch of the soundtrack to prevent the leads from sounding like Chip ‘n’ Dale. With Ken Thorne’s mock-Wagnerian score going full blast, this rather batters into submission, but fails to actually conclude the film, with the chief villain escaping for a sequel that will never come. By now we’re ready for a long rest, but instead of closing credits we have a series of several fully-developed scenes rounding up the storylines of Bates, Reed, Bolkan and Britt Ekland. Most of these are necessary, but they’re cumulatively too long.

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Still, overlook that and there’s much to cherish. Ben Aris performs one of my favourite ever pratfalls after he’s hit with a champagne bottle at the christening of a locomotive — a tall man in a tall hat wavering, stunned, like an undulating soundwave, before cascading to the ground. Flashman’s scarring at the hands of Otto Bismarck and his cronies is authentically nasty and shows an ability to handle the darker aspects of the story — as in CLOCKWORK ORANGE the repugnant hero is treated so appallingly at times that we become horrified by our own sympathy for him. The knockabout kitchen duel between McDowell, Tom Bell, Lionel Jeffries and Alan Bates is spectacular. Geoffrey Unsworth’s filming of Bavarian palaces is ravishing, as is Terence Marsh’s production design, full of Victorian splendid gadgetry like the foot-pedal-powered shower at Flashman’s club (where he meets Alastair Sim in one of his last roles).

Flashman ought to return, really, but I can’t see it happening in the present climate. Not because of “political correctness” — I just described him to a television executive, and immediately the thing that came up was “sympathy”. I should write a three-thousand word attack on the concept of “sympathy” and “relatability” in drama, but it wouldn’t do any good…

13 Responses to “Flash Harry”

  1. thefanwithnoname Says:

    …as always David interesting and very insightful observations!!! Since I was so massively enthralled when the MUSKETEERS films came out I went into ROYAL FLASH expecting it (obviously of course!?!) to be greater – Lester and Fraser together again and not only that but adapting Fraser’s own created character and book (which like the Dumas’ Musketeers book had fanciful characters playing in and out around real historical people and events!)!!! Well I recall being letdown upon my intial viewing but now I tend to like it better and better each time I revisit it!!! I had always though that McDowell’s casting as Harry was spot on but you make a good case otherwise and also some very interesting alternative casting choices. I can only begin to imagine what Lester’s earlier Flashman film would have been like – by chance is there a completed script for it floating out there somewhere?!??

  2. The Flashman script, with all Lester’s other paperwork, is somewhere in the bowels of the BFI. I’m hoping to have a trawl through the archive someday. Lester hadn’t met Fraser at that point, so he had various writers working on it including the great Charles Wood.

    Sitcom star John Alderton was set to play Flashman in that version, but an MGM exec objected to the shape of his face.

  3. Dare I say it , but might the best home for Flash Harry be on TV? The Sopranos , Breaking Bad et al gave us sympathetic , but morally repugnant heroes. I tend to think that Harry has to be able to break the 4th wall, so we get the full range of his duplicity, mendacity and charm. Episode recaps would be an ideal opportunity for that kind of internal monologue too.
    Deam casting – Hugh Jackman ( we know he looks good in whiskers )

  4. Jackman could work. But can he do posh? I imagine so. But Harry is 19 in the first book…

    TV makes a lot of sense — you could do each book as a serial. The first one doesn’t do too much globe-trotting — London, Paisley, India and Afghanistan. I’m thinking Paisley would be the difficult one.

    Agree that letting Flashman confide in the audience would be nice.

  5. He’s an Aussie, so he can do posh pom in his sleep ( also he’s actually born english I believe ).
    Still too old though.
    “A young Hugh Jackman type.”

  6. I believe that Frasier has mentioned that he was thinking of Errol Flynn when coming up with the character, which is also inspired by a short story by Mark Twain, about an old, highly decorated general who is really a fraud. But for dream casting, check out Douglas Fairbanks Jr in The Prisoner of Zenda’ from 1937, he is Flashy.
    Speaking of ‘Zenda’, I noticed a curious thing while watching the 1952 version with Steward Granger and James Mason, soon after watch the 1937 version, the entire supporting cast of the butlers, towns people and the rest appear to be the exact same actors and background people that were in the earlier version!

  7. Must see those. One could spend a week watching various Zendas, one per night, but that might be overdoing it. Both those versions have rather full cast lists on the IMDb, however, and I can’t see any names in common — now I have to watch them to see for myself.

  8. I do see that Lewis Stone was the lead in the 20s version and came back as a character man in 52.

  9. Flashman isn’t so much reactionary as unapologetically self-centered, and if there’s any message it’s that intelligent cowardice and selfishness are golden in a world stupid enough to think otherwise. This sets Flashy square against idealists, patriots, fanatics, politicians, rationalists, and anybody who trusts in anything . . . including anybody who trusts Flashman.

    He’s not cynical in the understood sense; he’s perfectly happy with the horrific state of human history so long as he can procure a nice bed with a pretty girl in it.

    The “Sharpe” series came close to Flashman, even though it wasn’t comic. It was about ugly war in pretty uniforms, fought by men who understood the realities. The main difference being they chose to keep fighting and be loyal to each other at least, while Flashy would find a way to be billeted far from the shooting. In one episode an American serving as a British officer — a mercenary? — warns a teenager not to attach himself to Sharpe, the rising hero. Heroics get you killed a lot faster. The American wasn’t a coward or slacker; he was just dispensing some reality. Flashman wouldn’t offer that advice; he’d just act on it himself.

    An elderly Flashman makes a cameo appearance in “Mr. American,” upper-class England on the brink of WWI through the eyes of a yankee bandit restarting his life there. More soap than adventure, but a good read.

    I’d advise reading in published order, and not try to edit them chronologically.

  10. Yes, Flashman’s references to other adventures work well as teasers if you read in published sequence. But then, the recaps of previous novels work as teasers if you read OUT of sequence.

    Sharpe was an OK series, and rather more than OK when Charles Wood was writing it — nobody seemed to notice when it suddenly acquired a richness of period dialogue.

  11. I happened to come across your blog. Looks very cool and engaging with a wide audience.

    Please let me intro. myself. We are very fortunate that Malcolm has attached himself to our upcoming film BEREAVE and he loves it so much that we are doing a #Kickstarter campaign where he is personally involved in awesome perk fulfillment. So far we have sold some great perks like dinner w/ Malcolm, premiere & party, download of completed film, roles in the film, days on set and more! We are at $38,000 with 16 days to go, but need to reach $100,000. It’s doable! But we need to get the word out, let the world know it is happening; reach his fans. Press is brutal and very stingy. So we’re going grass roots with it. Do you think you could post a little something on your blog if you like what you see? Please let us know. We would be extremely grateful to you! Here is a link to our campaign: http://kck.st/15oAyoa

    As you may or may not know, Kickstarter is an all or nothing platform for crowd funding. If the campaign does not hit its goal, the backer is not charged anything. If we do hit our goal, the backers make history and produce our wonderful drama/romance starring Malcolm McDowell, Neve Campbell & JJ Feild.

    Thanks!
    Evangelos Giovanis
    vagoproductions@yahoo.com

  12. I’ll Tweet and Facebook your link, gladly!

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