As explained by the film’s producer David B. Picker in one of the Blu-ray’s bonus featurettes, Royal Flash was meant to be the first of many films. It wasn’t a hit and remains the only Flashman adaptation to date. Set is Victorian England, we learn via flashback that Flashman became a war hero quite by accident. After cowardly hiding during a battle in Afghanistan, Flashman was discovered by his military superiors to be the last man standing (apparently the subject of the first Flashman novel). Celebrated as a brave soldier, he has been living a life of privilege that he did not earn.
As we come to find, bad blood exists between Flashman and Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (Oliver Reed, delivering a crowd-pleasing, outsized performance). Flashman is apprehended by Bismarck and forced to stand in for an ailing Danish prince he strongly resembles (so much so that McDowell plays both roles). They need a healthy prince to marry Duchess Irma (Britt Eckland). Bismarck has something of a far grander scale in mind, however, and a grasp of 19th century German history is highly beneficial in order to appreciate the finer points.
Though Richard Lester has an admirably eclectic filmography, Royal Flash has perhaps too ambitious of a plot for its own good. As funny as much of the more slapstick-influenced gags are (Flashman getting his longjohns shredded by a player piano, for instance), the satirical elements were possibly a bit too sophisticated for general tastes. That’s not to say the picture should’ve been dumbed down, but unfortunately the plotting leans a bit toward the confusing, muddled side. Although he penned the well-received The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) for Lester, perhaps someone less close to the material than source author MacDonald should’ve handled the adaptation. Royal Flash is an interesting highbrow farce that is, in the end, more admirable than entertaining.
Also admirable is the 1080p transfer found on Royal Flash’s first-ever Blu-ray release. Portions of the film were photographed with a great deal of intentional diffusion. Right off the bat, as Flashman delivers a rousing inspirational speech to a rugby school, we get an example of this. The heavy grain structure is intact. Most of the film, in contrast, is quite sharp and the difference makes Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography visually interesting. Less interesting, but basically flawless in its simplicity, is the DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack.
The main special feature here is an engaging commentary track by film historian Nick Redman and actor Malcolm McDowell. Their chat added considerably to my appreciation of Royal Flash, something that can’t be said of many commentaries. Despite nearly 40 years having passed, McDowell commands a very good memory of the production. Redman knows just the right questions to keep his recollections flowing. There are a pair of featurettes, “Meet Harry Flashman” and “Inside Royal Flash”, and an isolated score track (presenting Ken Thorne’s music in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0).
From his best-known works (A Hard Day’s Night, Superman II) to lesser-known gems (such as Juggernaut and Robin and Marian), Richard Lester is a consistently intriguing filmmaker. Royal Flash is certainly a quirky entry in his catalogue and one that many will likely find rewarding. Interested parties should head over to Screen Archives and grab the Blu-ray while supplies last.