Sir Harry Flashman (1822-1915) (VC, KCB, KCIE; Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur; U.S. Medal of Honor; San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th Class), is one of the most heroic figures imaginable, ending his career in the army with the rank of general. But this is how he describes himself in The Flashman Papers: “A scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh yes, a toady.” And those are his better qualities. He managed to get himself involved in every British military disaster of the Victorian Age of Empire, to acquit himself shamefully, and to somehow come out of it all smelling like a rose. Along the way he was involved with pirates in the East Indies, the slave trade, and the underground railroad. He was there at Harpers Ferry with John Brown, was the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and fought on both the Union and the Confederate sides in the Civil War—against his will, in most cases. He is, of course, fictional (though when the first book, Flashman, was published, a lot of reviewers thought it was an important historical document), the bully from Tom Brown’s School Days borrowed by George MacDonald Fraser for twelve novels that I find irresistible. It’s hard to explain the appeal of Flashman to someone who doesn’t get it. I suspect it’s a case of you just do, or you don’t. I find it refreshing to read the account of someone who was there at all these events and takes a jaundiced view of many of the “heroes” of the age, who differ from him mainly because they think they are good people, and Flashman knows he is not, and revels in it. He pulls no punches, and never tries to make himself look good. Another attraction is that the books are meticulously researched and even provided with extensive footnotes where Fraser points out where Sir Harry’s memory might have failed him, then gives the real story. You will learn a lot from these books, if you want to, and I’m pretty sure that some of it will be stuff you didn’t know. I’d never heard of the bizarre Taiping Rebellion in China in 1860. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, around 20 million dead, and it was never mentioned in my history classes.
The makers of this film were hoping to turn it into a franchise like James Bond. Obviously, this didn’t happen, and it’s too bad. Richard Lester was a good choice to direct. Malcolm McDowell was good as Flashman, and Oliver Reed was terrific as Otto von Bismarck. The film is funny … but it’s missing something. The best I can say is I had a good time, but if you want to see swashbuckling adventure, which this movie too often degenerated into, you’d be better off with Lester’s The Three/Four Musketeers. This one is full of Lester’s little touches, his trademarks, which include lots of period games, pastimes, and gadgets. Another thing he does is refuse to have extras playing menials be silent, like furniture. This is good for a lot of laughs. In The Three Musketeers, for instance, four sedan chair bearers set down their burden and one of them complains “She’s put on weight.” In this one, when Flashman alights from a carriage he steps on a footman’s finger. The man howls! You can also see an 1848 steam locomotive, a foot-propelled shower, a magic lantern show, and a 19th century stereo system. They all have the look of authenticity.