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I seem to be virtually alone in liking this relatively unknown effort from director Richard Lester. Made on the heels of the successful Three and Four Musketeers, it continues in the same mode of slapstick period adventure. A semi-parodic swashbuckler written by George Macdonald Fraser, based on one of his Flashman novels, it is very much a product of its time, with a cynical wit and frenzied energy that I always find entertaining.

Centered on a n’er-do-well character from Tom Brown’s School Days, the Flashman novels are the epitome of anti-heroic fiction. In Royal Flash, Harry Flashman, who is short on smarts, but long on braggadocio, collides with Lola Montes and Otto von Bismarck, while moving through a story suspiciously similar to Anthony Hope’s Ruritanian adventure The Prisoner of Zenda.

The interweaving of truth and fiction produces some smiles, but as with the Musketeers films, most of the humor in Royal Flash results from the differences between the way heroes are supposed to act and the way they actually do. In the Musketeers films, however, Dumas’s novel is still underneath. So no matter how dirty the fighting, no matter how nasty the tricks performed by D’Artganan and his friends, you can still root for the “heroes” as they struggle against their antagonists.

In Royal Flash, however, heroism itself is a joke. Anyone who has seen A Clockwork Orange can anticipate Malcolm McDowell’s ability to make a loathsome character winning. He’s run a close second by Alan Bates as Rudi von Sternberg, roughly equivalent to Rupert von Hentzau in Zenda. Both are charming, in an out-only-for-themselves kind of way, but there’s little other than their slippery selfishness to engage the viewer. There are no good guys, and the stakes (the fate of the fictional German duchy “Strakencz”) are not only remote but also effectively gratuitous, since we know that Bismarck’s machinations will eventually win in the end.

So why do I enjoy the movie? Aside from the rich period recreation, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s characteristically smoky, textured images and the pleasure at recognizing the references to Zenda, it is the movie’s thorough deflation of heroism that gets my vote. Flashman and von Sternberg are self-serving curs, but at least they’re honest about it. When Rudi suggests a plot to Harry that would screw everybody else in the story, Flashman doesn’t refuse for any moral reason. No—he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it because he won’t risk his skin.

With the “superhero” now the standard protagonist of expensive Hollywood epics, the naked self-interest and slapstick antics of a Harry Flashman help to expose the solemn pomposity of such comic-book flatulence. His cowardice, avarice and determination to stay alive at all costs are a refreshingly honest alternative to the humorless fantasies that dominate current notions of the “heroic.” If, as Bertolt Brecht once observed, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” then an age that requires superheroes must be very unhappy indeed.