Long before the likes of Horrible Histories, Blackadder or Monty Python, one series of novels gave British history a royal roasting, specifically, the imperial era. George MacDonald Fraser, the man behind the 70s Musketeer films and Octopussy, wrote a series of period farce novels about Harry Flashman, a character from Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Here, his life beyond school is explored, showing how this cad, bully and coward, through sheer dumb luck, became a war hero of the Empire. Tongue firmly in cheek, these grand jabs at the romanticised image of colonialism made for thoroughly enjoyable romps throughout major episodes of 19th-century history, beginning in 1969 and spanning from the Crimea, African jungles, the old West and the South Seas.
Based on the second novel, Flashman’s heroics in Afghanistan (i.e. almost surrendering Piper’s Fort until the British rally and drive the Afghans away) brings him to the attention of Otto Von Bismarck, who decides to bring the pompous Englishman into his own schemes for German unification. From there, it becomes a riff on The Prisoner of Zenda, with Flashy becoming a double of Prince Rudy, a Danish prince set to take over the critical Duchy of Strackenz.
Malcolm McDowell leads the charge, displaying both comic as well as action chops in the lead role as the womanising scoundrel who can go from stout English hero to blubbering creep in an instant. Floridan Bolkan as femme fatale Lola Montez combines sensuality with a great sense of haughtiness that works well off McDowell’s scheming Flashman, while Britt Ekland gets a few chuckles as the super icy Duchess that Rudy/Flashy is to marry. Reed, another name from Fraser’s Musketeers, is in a small but clearly fun role as the menacing but supremely devoted Bismarck. Other familiar faces crop up in brief but enjoyable roles, including Alistair Sim, Bob Hoskins, David Jason and even Henry Cooper as Victorian boxer John Gully, who gets a few good punches in on Reed’s Bismarck.
Director Richard Lester, another hand from the Musketeer films, brings the goods, with great production values (by Gene Wilder regular Terence Marsh) that recreate the appropriate feel of a Victorian swashbuckler, spanning from ritzy gentleman’s clubs to the mountains and castles of Germany. He also throws in some solid swordfights, including a rather inspired one in a kitchen that mixes in some good slapstick to boot. Ken Thorne’s music, likewise, creates the needed bombast and pompousness befitting a film about the Empire, even meshing in some classic pieces for comic effect.
It’s an often amusing film that just tears to shreds a lot of Imperialistic iconography through Flashman’s self-serving behaviour and the misconstruing of his deeds by other characters. The pseudo thrilling-slapstick setpieces and maverick wit that defines Fraser’s novels and film work are on full display as Fraser and Lester subvert the stuffiness of period pieces. Of course, the film does lose some of the charm of the books as Flashman’s arrogant yet also bluntly honest narration was a huge source of the comedy, and it does leave the film version feeling a little more conventional with more of an emphasis on slapstick.
Still, more Flashman is never a bad thing, and if you’ve ever wondered what Downton Abbey by way of South Park would be like, well, this should give you some idea. It’s an often funny and exciting action comedy, armed with a solid cast, that may even teach you a thing or two about British history. Laughing and learning? What’s not to love?