Archive for Alan Bates

Flash Harry

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by dcairns

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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?

flash

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…

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“Nothing is ever a lady’s fault.”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2008 by dcairns

Our Losey Cluesies were from THE GO-BETWEEN.

Me Julie

(For some reason, Optimum Releasing’s DVD is in the old “postage-stamp ratio”. Not what *I* call Optimum.)

After wallowing a bit in some of Losey’s lesser works, it felt good to plunge into one of his most celebrated. THE GO-BETWEEN, his 1971 Palme D’Or winner, scripted by Harold Pinter, starring young Dominic Guard as a boy charged with delivering elicit messages from Julie Christie to her lover Alan Bates, under the nose of her mother, Margaret Leighton, and fiancé, Edward Fox.

I’m told that L.P. Hartley’s novel is even finer than Losey’s film, and has nothing to do with flash-forwards. Losey and Pinter’s contemporary scenes, with Michael Redgrave (returning to the Losey camp after TIME WITHOUT PITY) playing the protagonist as an older man, have always been a bit controversial. I liked the way they mixed things up, fracturing the narrative and injecting an otherness into the film whenever there’s a risk of Merchant-Ivoryitis setting in, but maybe they don’t pay off strongly enough. Some object to the spectacle of Julie Christie slathered in old age makeup like David Bowie in THE HUNGER, with an older woman’s voice (sounds like Leighton again) dubbed in. I thought that was GREAT. I can’t explain why, exactly, but I suppose the bizarreness of it worked for me. Losey hated naturalism, which seems the default mode for British period cinema (if we define naturalism as style-less, life-less and flat, which seems to be what’s generally aimed for) and an odd sight like Julie C with latex all over her boat is as good a way as any of rupturing that “aesthetic”.

Old Boiler

(Alexander Korda initially optioned the novel, but later the author discovered that Korda “never intended to make a film of the book … I was so annoyed when I discovered this that I put a curse on him, and he died, almost the next morning.” I love that “almost”. There is much talk of magical cursing in the movie, also.)

Curse of the Demon

But the film is pretty cinematically exciting even without that. The development of the story is slow but assured, and has the authentic feel of endless childhood summers. Stuff is happening but our hero isn’t aware of its significance, and sometimes neither are we, so there’s a sense of drifting aimlessly like a Pooh-stick along the story’s banks, occasionally grazing a knee on a sharp surface. All his helped hugely by Gerry Fisher’s sun-drenched photography and a marvellous score by Michel Legrand. Pinter says the book made him cry numerous times, and the music made me feel like I was going to, constantly. But being a Scotsman, I kept it in.

There’s a very enjoyable weirdness to the talk in this film, which goes well beyond Pinter’s usual elliptical doubletalk. The younger actors are quite strange, and the manners and customs of these Norfolk gentry are alien to modern viewers (I’ve never seen a film set in the relatively recent past that’s so clipped and foreign in its characters’ manners). Michael Gough is great value, sly and enigmatic (how come he never got typecast in all those horror movies he did, unlike Cushing and Lee and, to some extent, Pleasence?) and Leighton is frighteningly good. You don’t initially understand why an actress is playing the role at all, she has so little to do, but the part builds, from the odd highly significant glance, to a central role in the climax of the story. How different it might have been if Deborah Kerr had agreed to do it. I think Leighton is probably more worrying that Debs would have been.

After the Fox

Thrillingly, we also get the extraterrestrial Edward Fox, who gives my favourite performance in this film (though his best work is in THE CAT AND THE CANARY, where he invents an entirely new species of acting). We’re never certain how much he knows or suspects about what’s going on, or quite how he feels about it. There are plenty of hints of some kind of knowledge, but also the possibility that they’re imagined by the boy.

Rather than being a stiff piece of heritage cinema, THE GO-BETWEEN is an authentic “art film”, wrenched out of the British cinema with the greatest of difficulty. American finance had deserted the UK at the end of the ’60s, and Losey was fighting all sorts of entrenched attitudes. There were objections to the non-chronological structure from his editor and producers, objections to the score (too loud, insufficiently “period”) and insistence on casting stars regardless of whether they were appropriate, all of which Losey was able to work around to get the results he wanted. If his behaviour was often abrasive, I find that understandable. I’m just glad he was able to do what he did.

THE GO-BETWEEN got made, after many delays, in part thanks to the support of Bryan Forbes, who was in charge of production at ABC, the biggest film distributor in Britain. Forbes’ tenure is often written off as a disaster, but he commissioned THE RAILWAY CHILDREN and this, so I’m inclined to hand him some credit. He was certainly more of a risk-taker than John Davis, and is a fine film-maker himself. Losey complained that British cinema was full of people who didn’t care about films, but Forbes certainly wasn’t one of them.

Red, grave

Only fair to acknowledge that 90% of my Losey facts and figures come from David Caute’s fine biography Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life.