It’s noteworthy that Richard Lester’s Royal Flash and Ken Russell’s Lisztomania were released on the same day, Oct. 10, in 1975. Both films—though very different in most respects—represented the last gasp of the British Invasion film era that more or less began with Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night in 1964. (The roots were very much in American silent film, the comedies of the 1930s and the French New Wave, and had already been in evidence in Lester’s first feature, It’s Trad, Dad, in 1962, and in Russell’s first feature, French Dressing, in 1963—but A Hard Day’s Night placed the style on the world stage.) Lester and Russell’s films were the end of a rich era of filmmaking. In Russell’s case, that era ended with a bang—with a film that’s still ahead of its time 32 years later. Lester’s Royal Flash, on the other hand, wasn’t especially adventurous. It was, in fact, a clear attempt to recreate the success of his The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). However, it was—and is—a good attempt, his final outburst of the style of filmmaking he was largely responsible for creating.
Filled with terrific British actors—Malcolm McDowell, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed, Michael Hordern, Lionel Jeffries, Alastair Sim—the film is essentially a good-natured spoof on swashbucklers, especially the oft filmed Anthony Hope classic, The Prisoner of Zenda. The difference here is that the hero of the piece, Captain Harry Flashman (McDowell), is an unprincipled coward with a knack for accidental heroism. Lester treats it all with his signature playfulness, placing it firmly in the realm of his world of damnable machines (if a mechanical device in a Lester film can go wrong, it will) and a kind of casual slapstick. Clever visuals abound (catch the shot of Oliver Reed apparently riding past what turns out to be mural being carried past him). It’s all cheerful and fun and as nice a farewell to the era as could be hoped for.