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?
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.
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.
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…