Turning 86 today, Philadelphia-born Richard Lester has sadly not directed a theatrical feature in decades, but he still commands regard for the ground covered in the 20 narrative movies he helmed between 1963 and 1989 with consistent touches of irreverent humor and sharply developed senses of pace, place and style. With A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), he not only gave audiences an up-close look at the separate and indelible personalities of each of The Beatles but also helped form the template for the burgeoning art form of the music video. As a background for a jaded and jagged – but no less devastating emotional – romance, Petulia (1968) is a spectacular time capsule of San Francisco in its Flower Power prime. Though the trappings of our modern superhero movies were there along well as then-state-of-the-art special effects, his Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983) were stripped of all ponderousness that plagued later and more numerous genre entries. The freewheeling and inventive swashbuckling and skullduggery of The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) proved invigorating, with beautifully applied, egalitarian slapstick touches that made these costume pictures rare gems of fun and adventurous brio. And who’d have thought an autumnal, revisionist Robin and Marian (1976) could move an audience as much if not more than previous versions of the Sherwood Forest legends that preceded it? Lester – and the top-flight casts and production personnel he assembled – would be game for anything, from military mockery (1967’s How I Won the War) and geopolitical commentary (1969’s The Bed-Sitting Room) to ticking-clock disaster heroics (1974’s Juggernaut) and historical romance in revolutionary eras (1979’s Cuba).
Somewhat overshadowed but still a noteworthy entry in this fabulous filmography is Royal Flash (1975), the only big-screen incarnation of Scottish soldier/journalist/author George MacDonald Fraser’s series of cheeky historical novels centered on the fictional exploits of the cowardly blighter/lothario/accidental army hero Harry Flashman, whose specialty seems to be failing upward in the pursuit of his selfish interests against a deliciously detailed backdrop of real events and figures from history. Lester saw a winking kindred spirit in Fraser, and after optioning the rights to the Flashman books, engaged Fraser to write the screenplay adaptations of the two Musketeers movies prior to committing Harry’s exploits to celluloid. For cost reasons, The Man Who “Framed” The Beatles: A Biography of Richard Lester author Andrew Yule reports, Lester bypassed the first novel Flashman (1969) and “decided instead to go for the second in Fraser’s series, Royal Flash (1970), in which the antihero was involved in a Prisoner of Zenda-type plot, called upon to impersonate an aristocrat. Aware of the danger that the movie might look like another Musketeers episode, Lester deliberately sought a fresh production design from Juggernaut’s Terence Marsh [the two-time Academy Award® winner for Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Oliver! (1968) who died last week at age 86], as well as different camerawork in the shape of veteran Geoffrey Unsworth [Cabaret, Superman, Tess],” filming on beautifully appointed locations in England and Germany. Yule continues: “Although the role of Flashman was considered by many to be virtually uncastable, Malcolm McDowell seemed to Lester to come closest. Fresh from the futuristic violence of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the picaresque adventures of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, the actor was attracted to the project by the idea of sending up historical romance with the social commentary that he saw as typifying Lester’s work. ‘In a way Flashman resembles what we would all like to be. It’s to do with what we remember reading in our history books about Victorian England. But we can’t do anything anymore, we’re a great nation in decline. And I wanted to bring a feeling of that into Flashman’s character. Of course he’s deplorable at the same time, a complete and utterly ruthless shit. And the way I chose to do it, he’s knowingly so.’ With Alan Bates cast as Rudi von Starnberg and Oliver Reed as Otto Von Bismarck, the cast of top British talent was completed by Tom Bell, Joss Ackland, Christopher Cazenove, Lionel Jeffries and Bob Hoskins, with the two leading female roles awarded to Britt Ekland (Duchess Irma) and Florinda Bolkan (Lola Montez).” In the view of The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, “Mr. Lester throws away more gags in Royal Flash than some comedy directors think up in an entire career. Now and then you wish he'd take time to develop a routine a little more, to give it a classic beginning, a middle and an end, instead of rushing on to the next sequence. He is profligate with his talents, which is, of course, very much a part of the method of any Lester comedy. One typical Lester sequence: Lola Montez (Miss Bolkan) dances before Ludwig of Bavaria, who is enchanted with her, though not as history has told us, because of her shape or her beauty. Giggling with pleasure, he asks, ‘Are they real?’ Being mad, Ludwig means the cardboard spiders that she uses as props in her dance. It’s low-comedy and almost nonstop.” Though he has ceased making movies, the originality and invention that birthday honoree gifts to Royal Flash continues to generate unceasing delight, all for the savoring on a lively and lovingly crafted Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, available for the plundering here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26423/ROYAL-FLASH-1975/.