Sunday, July 28, 2013
Portraying HARRY FLASHMAN
PORTRAYING HARRY FLASHMAN
Are there any fans of The Flashman Papers, a series of novels about a 19th century British Army officer, written by the late George MacDonald Fraser?
The origins of Fraser’s fictional series began with another British author, namely the 19th century lawyer and author, Thomas Hughes. It was Hughes who first introduced the character of Flashman in his 1857 semi-autobiographical novel,"Tom Brown’s School Days". The novel told the story of Hughes’ years at the famous public school for boys, Rugby. Among the characters featured in the novel turned out to be an older student named "Flashman", who bullied both Tom Brown and another student named Harry "Scud" East. Flashman’s appearance in the novel ended when Headmaster Dr. Thomas Arnold kicked him for drunken behavior.
Over a century later, a Glasgow journalist named George MacDonald Fraser took the character of Flashman, gave him a full name – Harry Paget Flashman – and wrote a novel about his early years as a British Army office in Great Britain, India and Afghanistan, following his expulsion from Rugby. The novel also featured Flashman’s experiences during the First Afghan War. The results turned out to be "FLASHMAN", which was published in 1969. Fraser followed up"FLASHMAN" with three short stories published under the title, "FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER" and eleven more novels. The last novel, "FLASHMAN ON THE MARCH" was published three years before Fraser’s death.
Fraser had written Flashman’s tales from the character’s point-of-view. The interesting thing about Harry Flashman was that despite being a war hero – he had been decorated for his actions in the First Afghan War, the Sepoy Rebellion (aka the Indian Mutiny) and the American Civil War, and possibly other military actions – his character had not changed much from his portrayal in Hughes’ novel. Flashman’s character could be described as cowardly, cynical, unfaithful (although his wife Elspeth was equally so), spiteful, greedy, racist, sexist, and lustful. In short, he was completely amoral. However, Fraser also portrayed Flashman as a hilarious and very witty man with a pragmatic view of the world and society in the nineteenth century.
For a series of novels that have been very popular for the past forty years, only one novel has been adapted for the screen. In 1975, Dennis O'Dell and David V. Picker produced and released an adaption of Fraser’s 1970 novel, "ROYAL FLASH". Based loosely upon Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA", "ROYAL FLASH" told of Flashman’s experiences during the Revolutions of 1848 in Bavaria and the fictional Duchy of Strackenz, when he is coerced by German statesman Otto von Bismarck to impersonate a Danish prince set to marry a German princess. Bismarck fears that the marriage would tilt the balance on the Schleswig-Holstein Question and interfere with his plans for a united Germany. The producers hired Richard Lester ("A HARD DAY’S NIGHT", "THE THREE MUSKETEERS" and ”THE FOUR MUSKETEERS”) to direct the film. Fraser wrote the screenplay and Malcolm McDowell was cast as Harry Flashman. Being a talented actor, McDowell had Harry Flashman’s personality traits down pat. However, the actor looked nothing like the literary Flashman. McDowell possessed blond hair and stood under six feet tall. The literary Flashman stood at least six-feet-two and possessed dark hair and eyes. In fact, he was swarthy enough to pass for a native of the Indian sub-continent in at least two or three novels or a light-skinned African-American slave in "FLASH FOR FREEDOM!". Although the movie did receive some moderate acclaim from film critics, the majority of Flashman fans hated it. In fact, they refuse to acknowledge or watch the film. In their eyes, not only did McDowell bore no physical resemblance to the literary Flashman, director Lester had chosen to infuse the film with bawdy buffoonery and slapstick (as he had done with the MUSKETEERS films) and ignore both the story’s historical context and the novels’ cynically irreverent tone.
When "ROYAL FLASH" failed to generate any real heat at the box office, the movie industries on both sides of the Atlantic ignored Fraser’s novels for several decades. Also, Fraser’s experience with the 1975 movie had made him reluctant to hand over control of any screenplay adaptation of his novels. The author also complained about a lack of a suitable British actor to portray Flashman – which seemed to come off as a backhanded slap at McDowell’s performance. Fraser has always favored the Australian-born Hollywood icon, Errol Flynn, to portray Flashman. The actor had not only possessed a similar physique with the literary Flashman (both stood at 6'2"), but he also – according to Fraser – had the looks, style and rakish personality for the role. Unfortunately, Flynn had died in 1959, ten years before Fraser’s"FLASHMAN" was published. The author also suggested that Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis might be right for the role, claiming that "He's probably getting on a bit," he "might make a Flashman . . . He's big, he's got presence and he's got style." In 2007, Celtic Films indicated on their website that they had a series of FLASHMAN TV films in development. Picture Palace have announced they are developing "FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE" for TV and that the script has been prepared by George Macdonald Fraser himself. Both companies took an extensive role in developing Bernard Cornwell's "SHARPE" (TV series). However, no further news has been forthcoming since this time and the project has been removed from both companies' websites.
Hmmm . . . Daniel Day-Lewis. Granted Day-Lewis might have the height and dark looks of the literary Flashy, and he has the talent to carry the role. But he seems a bit too lean for me. And he lacks the cowardly protagonist’s wide shoulders that made the latter look so impressive in a cavalryman’s uniform. More importantly, Fraser was right about Day-Lewis. He is a bit too old for the role, considering that he is 56 years old. He could portray Flashman in the second half of an adaptation of "FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS" or one of the three stories from"FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER". Unfortunately, that is it.
But aside from Day-Lewis, who among today’s actors would be great for the role? I had once considered Australian actor Hugh Jackman over a decade ago, when he first became famous thanks to "X-MEN". He stands at 6’2” tall and possess Flashman’s dark looks. But Jackman is now over two months shy of his 45th birthday. Perhaps he could still portray Flashman between the ages of 35-50, but that would make him unavailable for movie adaptations of the FLASHMAN stories set in the 1840s – when Flashman was in his 20s. And if I must be frank, Jackman seem incapable of portraying rakes. He can portray violent/aggressive types like Wolverine. But a rake? I once saw him portray a well-born rake in a movie with Ewan McGregor called "DECEPTION". For some reason, he did not seem like the right man for the role . . . at least to me. If there is one Australian who could possibly portray Harry Flashman, I would say it was Julian McMahon. Mind you, McMahon never had the same success in the movies that he had on television. But . . . like Jackman, he stands at 6’2” and possesses the same dark good looks. More importantly, he has the style and air to successfully portray a well-born rake. Hell, he could do it, standing on one foot and singing at the top of his lungs. However, McMahon just recently turned 45 and like Jackman, would be unable to portray Flashman in the adaptation of certain novels. His voice is a bit light and for some reason, I have great difficulty imagining him in a period piece.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers might be a good choice. Granted, he does not have Day-Lewis, Jackman or McMahon’s height and build. But he has their dark looks. He is also talented and he has the style to portray a rake. More importantly, Rhys-Meyers is still at a decent age to star in the adaptations of nearly all of the novel, being 36 years old. Another good choice would be Henry Cavill, Rhys-Meyer’s co-star in "THE TUDORS" and the new cinematic Superman. He has the dark looks and talent to portray the 19th century rogue. And he has the height – 6’1” tall. And being 30 years old, he could portray Flashy in his 20s and 30s, which would make him available in the adaptation of most of the novels.
But there have been no plays to adapt any of the FLASHMAN novels. Not since Celtic Films had indicated an interest in adapting "FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE", two years ago. But if Hollywood or the British film industry ever decide to adapt another story about Harry Flashman, I hope they will do right by the novels' fans and pick the right actor . . . and director for the films.