Another Dash at Flash

Via a friend comes word that George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman series has been taken up by the same producers who turned Bernard Cornwell’s historical novels about Richard Sharpe into a series of successful made-for-TV films.

That’s fine by me, even if the book they’re starting with — Flashman at the Charge — isn’t one of my favorites, though it’s still head and shoulders above the last couple of Fraser titles. It’s been more than thirty years since the last attempt to bring Sir Harry to the screen, Royal Flash, tanked so resoundingly, and the series is definitely worth another try.

The announcement makes no mention of casting, and casting will be everything. Royal Flash should have been a blast: Fraser and director Richard Lester had just done a wonderful job with The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, and some of the same actors (notably Oliver Reed) had come over as well. The fatal error was casting Malcolm McDowell as Flashman. McDowell is certainly a good actor, but he is small, skinny and rather ferrety looking, whereas the joke underlying the glorious career of Sir Harry Flashman is that he’s a big, hearty Brit who outwardly embodies manly Victorian virtue, while inwardly he’s a sniveling cad and womanizer. He’s a fake hero redeemed (partially) by his blunt honesty about his own failings and his readiness to recognize real heroism when he sees it. Maybe it’s the hangover from A Clockwork Orange, but even when he’s playing a nice guy McDowell always seems on the verge of planting a knife in somebody’s back, and casting him as Flashman neutered the character’s impact.

Oddly enough, I think Sean Bean, the hero of the Sharpe films, would make a pretty good Flashman. Bean has made a speciality of playing hearty men of action who have something a little bit . . . off about them: think of Alec in GoldenEye, Spence in Ronin and, of course, Boromir in the three Lord of the Rings films. Playing a cringing poltroon in the middle of the warlike Victorian Age should be no problem for him.

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