Ranking of THE FLASHMAN PAPERS

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Below is my ranking of THE FLASHMAN PAPERS, the series of novels and short stories written by the late George MacDonald Fraser about a 19th century British Army officer named Harry Flashman. The novels and stories were published between 1969 and 2005: 

 

RANKING OF THE FLASHMAN PAPERS

1-flashman and the redskins

1. “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) – Serving as an immediate follow-up to “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”, this 1982 novel depicted Harry Flashman’s experiences in the Old West when he joined a wagon train in 1849 and became an unwilling witness to the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Probably my favorite in the series.

2-flashman and the dragon

2. “FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON” (1985) – Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) and Lord Elgin’s March to Peking during the Second Opium War in 1860 are depicted in this 1985 novel.

3-flashman in the great game

3. “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975) – Serving as a follow-up to “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, this 1975 novel depicted Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion (1857-1858) in India and a reunion with a deadly former enemy.

4-flashman at the charge

4. “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) – Harry Flashman’s experiences during the first year of the Crimean War (1854-1856) and with Kokand freedom fighters in Central Asia between 1854 and 1855 are depicted in this novel.

5-flash for freedom

5. “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” (1971) – Fleeing the country from a scandal not of his making, Harry Flashman finds himself aboard a slave ship and receives a first hand look at the trans-Atlantic slave trade and American slavery in the late 1840s.

6-flashmans lady

6. “FLASHMAN’S LADY” (1977) – When a former pirate-turned-businessman from the East Indies become obsessed with Flashman’s wife, Elspeth, and kidnaps her during a trip to Singapore; the cowardly hero’s pursuit leads to him fighting Borneo pirates with the legendary James Brooke and becoming a slave of the notorious Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar during the early 1840s.

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7. “FLASHMAN” (1969) – This 1969 novel served as an introduction to Fraser’s literary series and his infamous main character, Harry Flashman. After being expelled from Rugby School, Flashman joins the British Army and eventually participates in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842).

8-royal flash

8. “ROYAL FLASH” (1970) – This 1970 novel turned out to be a spoof of the famous Anthony Hope novel, “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”. Set during the Revolutions of 1848, Flashman finds himself “recruited” by the Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck to impersonate a Danish prince set to marry the ruler of a German duchy.

9-flashman and the mountain of light

9. “FLASHMAN AND THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT” (1990) – Flashman’s experiences during the First Sikh War in the Punjab is depicted in this 1990 novel.

10-flashman and the angel of the lord

10. “FLASHMAN AND THE ANGEL OF THE LORD” (1994) – After being shanghaied by an old enemy in South Africa, Flashman finds himself back in the United States, where he unwillingly gets caught up in the John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

11-flashman and the tiger

11. “FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” (1999) – Instead of a novel, this 1999 book is a collection of three stories that depicted Flashman’s experiences in aborting an assassination attempt on Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria; his and wife Elspeth’s participation in the infamous Tranby Croft Affair; and his troubling encounter with a former acquaintance from the Zulu War.

12-flashman on the march

12. “FLASHMAN ON THE MARCH” (2005) – In this final novel written by Fraser, Flashman finds himself caught up in Great Britain’s 1868 military expedition against King Tewodros II of Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

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“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

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“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

I realize that many film critics and fans would agree with my suspicion that the 1930s saw a great deal of action films released to theaters. In fact, I believe there were as high number of actions films released back then as they are now. Among the type of action films that flourished during that era were swashbucklers. 

One of the most famous Hollywood swashbucklers released during the 1930s was “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, producer David O. Selznick’s 1937 adaptation of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel. This tale of middle European political intrigue and identity theft has been either remade or spoofed countless of times over the years. One of the most famous spoofs included George MacDonald Fraser’s 1970 Flashman novel called “Royal Flash”. But if one asked many moviegoers which adaptation comes to mind, I believe many would point out Selznick’s 1937 movie.

Directed by John Cromwell, the movie began with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll’s arrival in the kingdom of Ruritania in time for the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. The English visitor’s looks attract a great deal of attention from some of the country’s populace and eventually from the new king and the latter’s two aides. The reason behind this attention is due to the fact that not only are the Briton and the Ruritanian monarch are distant cousins, they can also pass for identical twins. King Rudolf invites Rassendyll to the royal hunting lodge for dinner with him and his aides – Colonel Sapt and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. They celebrate their acquaintance by drinking late into the night. Rudolf is particularly delighted with the bottle of wine sent to him by his half-brother, Duke Michael, and drinks it all himself. The next morning brings disastrous discoveries – the wine was drugged and King Rudolf cannot be awakened in time to attend his coronation. Fearing that Duke Michael will try to usurp the throne, Colonel Zapt convinces a reluctant Rassendyll to impersonate Rudolf for the ceremony.

While watching “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, it became easy for me to see why it has become regarded as one of the best swashbucklers of the 1930s. Selznick, its array of credited and uncredited screenwriters, and director John Cromwell did an excellent job of transferring Anthony Hope’s tale to the screen. This certainly seemed to be the case from a technical point-of-view. Selznick managed to gather a talented cast that more than did justice to Hope’s literary characters. The movie also benefited from Alfred Newman’s stirring score, which received a well deserved Academy Award nomination. Lyle R. Wheeler received the first of his 24 Academy Award nominations for the movie’s art designs, which exquisitely re-created Central Europe of the late 19th century. His works was enhanced by Jack Cosgrove’s special effects and the photography of both James Wong Howe and an uncredited Bert Glennon. And I was very impressed by Ernest Dryden’s re-creation of 1890s European fashion in his costume designs.

The performances featured in “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” struck me as outstanding. Not only was Mary Astor charming as Duke Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, she also did an excellent job in conveying Mademoiselle de Mauban’s love for Michael and her desperation to do anything to keep him safe for herself. C. Aubrey Smith gave one of his better performances as the weary and level-headed royal aide, Colonel Sapt, whose love for his country and the throne outweighed his common sense and disappointment in his new king. David Niven gave the film its funniest performance as junior royal aide, Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. Not only did I find his comedy style memorable, but also subtle. Raymond Massey’s performance as King Rudolf’s illegitimate half-brother, Duke Michael, struck me as very interesting. On one hand, Massey smoldered with his usual air of menace. Yet, he also did an excellent job of conveying Michael’s resentment of his illegitimate status and disgust over his half-brother’s dissolute personality.

However, I feel that the best performances came from Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I read that the latter originally wanted the dual roles of Rassendyll and King Rudolf . . . and was disappointed when Colman won the roles. But he received advice from C. Aubrey Smith to accept the Rupert of Hentzau role, considered the best by many. Smith proved to be right. Fairbanks gave the best performance in the movie as the charming and witty villain, who served as Duke Michael’s main henchman, while attempting to seduce the latter’s mistress. Madeleine Carroll could have easily portrayed Princess Flavia as a dull, yet virtuous beauty. Instead, the actress superbly portrayed the princess as an emotionally starved woman, who harbored resentment toward her royal cousin Rudolf for years of his contemptuous treatment toward her; and who blossomed from Rassendyll’s love. Although I believe that Fairbanks Jr. gave the movie’s best performance, I cannot deny that Ronald Colman served as the movie’s backbone in his excellent portrayals of both Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll and Ruritania King Rudolf V. Without resorting to any theatrical tricks or makeup, Colman effortlessly portrayed two distant cousins with different personalities. “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” marked the third movie I have seen starring Colman. I believe I am finally beginning to realize what a superb actor he truly was.

Before my raptures over “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” get the best of me, I feel I have to point out a few aspects of the movie that I found troubling. Selznick International released three movies in 1937. Two of them had been filmed in Technicolor and one, in black-and-white. I do not understand why Selznick had decided that “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” would be the only one filmed in black-and-white. This movie practically begged for Technicolor. Surely he could have allowed either “A STAR IS BORN” or “NOTHING SACRED” in black-and-white. For a movie that is supposed to be a swashbuckler, it seemed to lack a balanced mixture of dramatic narrative and action. During my viewing of the movie, I noticed that aside from Colonel Sapt forcing the royal lodge’s cook, Frau Holf, into drinking the rest of the drugged wine; there was no real action until past the movie’s mid-point. And speaking of the action, I found it . . . somewhat tolerable. The minor sequence featuring Rupert’s first attempt at killing Rassendyll, the latter’s efforts to save King Rudolf from assassination at Duke Michael’s castle near Zenda, and the charge led by Sapt at the castle struck me as solid. But I found the sword duel between Rassendyll and Rupert rather disappointing. Both Colman and Fairbanks spent more time talking than fighting. I found myself wondering if the constant conversation was a means used by Cromwell to hide the poor choreography featured in the sword fight.

I do not think I would ever view “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” as one of my favorite swashbucklers of all time. But despite some of the disappointing action sequences, I still believe that its drama and suspense, along with a superb cast led by Ronald Colman, made it a first-rate movie and one of the best produced by David O. Selznick.

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” (1999) Book Review

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” (1999) Book Review

Out of all the books featured in George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers, only one featured more than one tale. This turned out to be “FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER”, first published in 1999. Instead of one novel, the book contained three novellas featuring an aging Harry Flashman between the ages of 56 and 72. 

As I had stated earlier, “FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” featured three novellas – “The Road to Charing Cross”“The Subtleties of Baccarat”, and “Flashman and the Tiger”. The first story deals with Flashman involved in a plot to thwart the assassination of Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef. The second involves the infamous Tranby Croft Scandal, which involved the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and someone close to Flashman. And the third story featured Flashman’s encounters with the villainous Tiger Jack Moran during the Anglo-Zulu War, and later in London of the 1890s. Let us begin . . . shall we?

“The Road to Charing Cross”

The longest novella in the book, “The Road to Charing Cross” begins in 1878, when Flashman is invited by the famous journalist,Henri Blowitz, to help get a copy of the Treaty of Berlin. During his trip to Germany, Flashman will a beautiful member of the French Secret Service named Caprice. Five years later in 1883, Flashy is invited by Blowitz to journey on the inaugural trip of theOrient Express. Flashman accepts the invitation as an excuse to avoid being sent to the Sudan. During the train journey, he is introduced to Princess Kralta of Germany, who has expressed interest in him of the romantic nature. As it turns out, Kralta’s interest in Flashman is nothing more than a ruse devised by his old nemesis from , Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in order to get the British Army officer to help prevent Emperor Franz Josef from being assassinated and prevent a major European war. One of Flashman’s colleagues in this plot turns out to be Willem von Starnberg, the son of Rudi von Starnberg, another former nemesis from the 1970 novel. In the end, it turns out that von Starnberg has other plans of his own.

For me, “The Road to Charing Cross” turned out to be the best of three novellas. Regardless of its length, I thought it was a well-written adventure set during the political upheavals of Central Europe. Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating the first rail journey of the Orient Express. He must have did his homework in researching this piece of history. And the sequence featuring Flashman’s efforts to save the Austrian emperor and his own hide were truly outstanding. His characterizations of Princess Kralta, Henri Blowitz, and Emperor Franz Josef were first-rate. Fraser’s pièce de résistance turned out to be Willem von Starnberg, the son of Flashman’s old nemesis, Rudi von Starnberg. Dear old Willy turned out to be a chip off the old block . . . and a lot more. He possessed Rudi’s wit, joie de vivre and ruthlessness.

Did “The Road to Charing Cross” have any flaws? Well . . . it had one. And that flaw had a lot to do with the character of Willem von Starnberg. Although Willem was well written by Fraser, the latter described him as being half-German (Prussian) and half-Hungarian. Which meant that according to this story, Rudi von Starnberg was Austrian. Apparently, George MacDonald Fraser seemed incapable of determining Rudi’s nationality. Fraser described him as an Austrian in “Royal Flash”, as a Hungarian in the 1975 movie adaptation of the novel, and as a German in this story. Whatever. Despite this major flaw, “The Road to Charing Cross” is still an excellent story.

“The Subtleties of Baccarat”

This novella finds Sir Harry Flashman and his wife, Elspeth, Lady Flashman; visiting Tranby Croft, the estate of one Sir Arthur Wilson in early September 1890. Sir Arthur is hosting a house party in honor of his royal visitor, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. During the house party, both Flashman and Elspeth witness a baccarat game, which was considered illegal in Britain. The legalities were brushed aside, due to the Prince of Wales’ love of the game. During the days between September 8 and 9, several guests claimed that one of the players, Sir William Gordon-Cumming, cheating. Guests informed the Prince of Wales, who confronted Gordon-Cumming. To the very end, the latter claimed that he was innocent and even sued the Prince of Wales and a few others for defamation of character. Alas, the label of cheat stuck and Gordon-Cummings became a social pariah. But “The Subtleties of Baccarat” did not end with Gordon-Cumming’s downfall. Instead, it ended with a surprising revelation that left Flashman in total shock.

“The Subtleties of Baccarat” was an interesting little tale. But I cannot say that I would ever love it. At least most of the story. The problem is that I am not a card player. And I found it difficult to follow the card games, while the scandal unfolded. It was not until Flashman learned the truth about the scandal from the surprising figure of Elspeth that the story truly became interesting to me. If I must be honest, Elspeth’s revelations on what really happened during the baccarat games not only shocked me, but made me become an even bigger fan of Lady Flashman. The novella had a surprising, yet satisfying finale to an otherwise bearable story.

“Flashman and the Tiger”

The book derived its title from its third novella set in both 1879 and 1894. “Flashman and the Tiger” is mainly about Flashman’s encounters with a character named Tiger Jack Moran, who had been originally created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for hisSHERLOCK HOLMES stories. Flashman first meets Moran during the Zulu War, when both experience the retreat from the Battle of Isandlwana and the defense of Rorke’s Drift. The pair does not meet again until fifteen years later, when Flashman discovers that Moran is blackmailing his granddaughter, Selina, in order to sleep with her. Moran turns out to be a cabin boy (who had propositioned Flashy) on Captain John Charity Spring’s ship, the Balliol College, who had been traded to King Gezo as a white slave in the 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. Moran spent years seeking revenge against the surviving crewmen. He found his opportunity to seek revenge against Flashman, when he learned that the latter’s engaged granddaughter was a mistress of the Prince of Wales. The story ended with Moran’s arrest and Flashman’s brief, yet humorous encounter with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

This novella was a problem for me. One, I found the addition of Flashman’s experiences during the Zulu War unnecessary. Fraser could have used the Zulu War as a major novel, instead of adding this useless scene that really had little to do with the main narrative. What made the use of this topic even more unnecessary was that Flashman’s first encounter with Moran occurred in 1848, aboard Captain Charity Spring’s ship. It was this encounter that a much bigger impact on the story. I have the deep suspicion that Fraser used this story as an excuse to indulge in a little Imperial flag waving. After all, “Flashman and the Tiger” did not focus on the Battle of Isandlwana, in which the British suffered one of their worst defeats at the hands of the Zulu. Instead, it focused on the following battle at Rorke’s Drift, in which the British managed to repel several attacks by the enemy.

My second problem with this novella was the fact that Fraser used Tiger Jack Moran, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson as supporting characters. I found that rather cheap. I found it bad enough that Fraser used Sir Anthony Hope’s novel, “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” as a premise for his 1970 novel, “ROYAL FLASH” and a historical character as Flashman’s love child in“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. But using literary characters created by another author as supporting characters in one’s own story? Hmmm . . . cheap.

Finally, Fraser must have done a piss poor job in researching the love life of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. The latter’s mistresses were usually sexually experienced women who were either married society women, actresses or prostitutes. I do not recall the Prince of Wales ever taking the virginity of a 19 year-old debutante . . . especially one who was engaged. Yet, we are supposed to believe that Flashman’s unmarried granddaughter was one of Bertie the Bounder’s mistresses. The only redeeming trait of this story was Fraser’s description of the Isandlwana retreat and the Defense of Rorke’s Drift. Apparently, he saved all of his top-notch research for this particular sequence.

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” was not a bad piece of literature from George MacDonald Fraser’s pen. It possessed a first-rate novella, “The Road to Charing Cross”, and a mildly entertaining story with a juicy, surprise ending in “The Subtleties of Baccarat”. The book’s only misstep . . . at least for me . . . proved to be the last story, “Flashman and Tiger”.

“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” (2011) Review

“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” (2011) Review

Following the success of his 2009 movie, “SHERLOCK HOLMES”, Guy Ritchie returned to helm a sequel about 19th century detective Sherlock Holmes’ battle with his famous arch nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. Both Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles of Holmes and Dr. John Watson. 

Loosely adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 short story called, “The Final Problem”“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” picks up sometime after the end of the 2009 movie. Thanks to Irene Adler’s disclosure of the master criminal, Sherlock Holmes has been investigating Moriarty’s activities. The latter brings him to the attention of Irene, who is still working as an agent for the professor. He follows Irene to an auction, where she delivers a package to a Dr. Hoffmanstahl as payment for a letter he was to deliver to Moriarty. The package holds not only money, but a bomb that would have killed Hoffmanstahl, if Holmes had not intervened. Unfortunately, Hoffmanstahl is assassinated upon leaving the auction house. And when Irene meets with Professor Moriarty to explain the events, he poisons her, deeming her compromised by her love for Holmes.

Holmes reveals to his friend and colleague, Dr. Watson, that Moriarty might be connected to a series of murders, terrorist attacks and business acquisitions. During Watson’s bachelor party, Holmes meets with the Gypsy fortune-teller Simza, the intended recipient of the letter he had taken from Adler. It was sent by Simza’s brother Rene, who has been working for Moriarty. Holmes defeats an assassin who had been sent to kill her. Later, Holmes meets with Moriarty after Watson’s wedding to Mary Morstan. Moriarty informs Holmes that he murdered Adler and will kill Watson and Mary if Holmes’ interference continues. After Holmes help Watson and Mary fight off attack by Moriarty’s men aboard a train during their honeymoon, the two men travel to Paris to find Simza. Their journey to Paris, Germany and Switzerland lead them to uncover a plot by Moriarty to instigate a world war and profit from it. This plot will be set off by an assassination at a peace conference in Switzerland.

Although the movie was a hit at the box office, it received mixed reviews from the critics. A good number of them and moviegoers claimed that although it was entertaining, it was not as good as the first movie. In my review of“SHERLOCK HOLMES”, I made it clear that I enjoyed it very much. And I still do. But after watching“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS”, I realized that the villain’s plot featured in the first movie struck me as a little . . . illogical. Using the illusion of sorcery to assume control of the British Empire? James Moriarty’s plot to assume control of the arms market in Europe and instigate a world war for profit strikes me as a lot more logical. And James Moriarty made a scarier villain than Lord Blackwood.

Another advantage that this sequel has over the first film, was the change of location in the second half – from Paris to Germany and later, Switzerland. I loved it. The color, squalor and grandeur that production designer Sarah Greenwood, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and the visual effects team created for Victorian London in“SHERLOCK HOLMES”, were not only re-created for the same setting in this new movie, but for also late 19th century Paris, Germany and Switzerland. My only quibble about the movie’s German setting is that Kieran and Michele Mulroney’s script failed to inform moviegoers the name of the German town where Holmes, Watson and Simza found themselves.

One outstanding sequence featured a gunfight between Holmes, Watson and Mary and Moriarty’s men, disguised as British Army troops. Not only did I find it very exciting, I especially enjoyed that last shot of a half-destroyed train racing forward, with Holmes and Watson staring ahead. But the real outstanding sequence featured the heroes’ flight from Moriarty’s German arsenal through heavy woods. Yes, Rousselot used slow motion photography during this sequence. A good number of people did complain about it. But you know what? Not only did it fail to bother me, I actually enjoyed it. And watching this sequence made me realize that I would love to see a war movie directed by Ritchie.

As in the first movie, the cast was outstanding. Rachel McAdams returned to give a beguiling, yet brief performance as the doomed Irene Adler. As much as I love this movie, I am PISSED OFF that Ritchie had her character killed. Paul Anderson was very effective as Moriarty’s henchman, villainous marksman Colonel Sebastian Moran. By the way, this same character was used by late author George MacDonald Fraser in two of his books, the 1971 novel “Flash For Freedom!” and the 1999 novella “Flashman and the Tiger”. Geraldine James made an amusingly brief appearance as Holmes’ beleaguered landlady, Mrs. Hudson. Stephen Fry gave a hilarious performance as Holmes’ equally brilliant and arrogant older brother, Mycroft. His scenes with Kelly Reilly especially had me in stitches. I was happy to see that Reilly had more to do in this movie, first as one of Moriarty’s intended victims, and later as an assistant to Mycroft, as they help Holmes and Watson stop the master criminal. I am a little mystified that Eddie Marsan maanged to receive such a high billing as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade in the end credits by only speaking one line.

Noomie Rapace was passionate in her portrayal of the Gypsy Simza, who is determined to prevent her brother from makingt the mistake of getting caught up in Moriarty’s plot. Jared Harris made a subtle and scary villain in his portrayal of Professor James Moriarty. At first, he did not seem that threatening – almost mild mannered. I supposed this was due to Ritchie and the Mulroneys’ decision to give the character a position in society as a reputable scholar within Europe’s diplomatic community. Bit by bit, Harris revealed Moriarty’s greed and penchant for sadism.

I am trying to find the words about Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s portrayals of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. I really am. But what can I say? I know . . . they were perfect. They really were. I am not claiming that they were the best to ever portray the two characters. Frankly, I cannot name any one screen team as the best to portray Holmes and Watson. Some might claim Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Others might claim Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, or the recent television pairing of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. I refuse to claim that Downey Jr. and Law were better than the other three teams. But I do not believe any of them were better than Downey Jr. and Law. What was their best scene together? Hmmm . . . I find I cannot name one particular scene. Every time they were together, they were magic.

Do I have any complaints about the movie? Well, I did not care for Irene Adler’s death, considering the character was a favorite of mine. I found the fight scene between Holmes and Irene’s bodyguards a bit confusing and contrived. I wish that Ritchie and the Mulrooney had clarified the name of the German town where Moriarty’s arsenal was located. And I finally wish that after the mental strategies of their upcoming fight on one of the balconies at Reichenbach Castle, Holmes and Moriarty’s actual fight had lasted a lot longer before the detective pulled his surprise move.

I believe I have said all I could about “SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS”. Even though I had a few complaints, I ended up enjoying the movie anyway. Hell, I loved it. The movie became my favorite 2011 movie. Although I had slight doubts, once again, Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law managed to create magic for another Sherlock Holmes adventure.

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

Forty-one years ago, an old literary character was re-introduced to many readers, thanks to a former Scottish journalist named George MacDonald Fraser. The author took a character from a famous Victorian novel and created a series of novels that placed said character in a series of historical events throughout the middle and second half of the 19th century.

The 1857 novel, ”TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS”, told the story of a young English boy named Tom Brown and his experiences at the famous school, Rugby, during the 1830s. One of Tom’s travails focused on his abuse at the hands of an older student – a bully – named Flashman. However, Flashman got drunk at a local tavern and in the following morning was expelled by Rugby’s famous headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold. Fraser took the Flashman character, gave him a first name – Harry – and continued his story following the expulsion from Rugby in the 1969 novel, ”FLASHMAN”.

The beginning of the novel saw the seventeen year-old Harry Flashman trying to find a new profession following his expulsion from Rugby. Due to his father’s wealth and his maternal Uncle Bindley Paget’s social connections, Flashman found a position as a junior officer in one of Britain’s most elite Army regiments, the 11th Hussars aka the Cherrypickers. And thanks to his talent for toadying and projecting a sense of style (inherited from his aristocratic late mother), Flashman managed to win the support and favor of the regimental commander, the haughty James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Unfortunately, Flashman’s ideal life as a leisurely Army officer came to an end. His involvement with the French mistress of a fellow officer kicked off a series of events that led to Flashman being swept into the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). One of those events included seducing one Elspeth Morrison, the sixteen year-old daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant. After being forced to marry her by her relations, Flashman was kicked out of the 11th Hussars and sent to India by Lord Cardigan, who regarded the marriage as a step down the social ladder for the usually favored young Army officer.

It was in Afghanistan that Flashman earned the nickname, “Bloody Lance” by taking credit for his servant’s killing of four Afghan attackers. There, he also met one Ilderim Khan, the son of a pro-British Afghan nobleman and became the latter’s lifelong friend and blood brother. This friendship would end up saving Flashman’s life during the Sepoy Rebellion in”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Flashman also managed to earn two deadly enemies – an Afghan warlord named Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife), a dancer named Narreeman. The source of the pair’s enmity toward Flashman originated with his rape of Narreeman.

More importantly, ”FLASHMAN” allowed readers to view many important events of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Not only did Flashman meet many historical figues such as Lord Cardigan, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, but also Alexander Burnes, Akbar Khan, William Macnaghten, Thomas Arnold, and the incompetent commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, General William Elphinstone.

I must admit that my opinion of the novel has changed a great deal over the years. Originally, I held a low opinion of”FLASHMAN” for years, comparing it to the more epic-like sagas such as ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973),”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975)”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) and ”FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON” (1985). I still regard these four novels in a higher regard than ”FLASHMAN”. But I must admit that perhaps I had been a little unfair in my regard for the 1969 novel. It is actually a solid adventure story filled with historical interest, witty humor, sharp action and excellent pacing. Some fans of The Flashman Papers have expressed disgust or disenchantment with the Harry Flashman character portrayed in this novel. I suspect that a great deal of these negative opinions may have stemmed from Flashman’s rape of Narreeman. And I understand. However, many of these fans also complained about the young British officer’s crass style and manner – especially toward his father’s mistress, Judy. One has to remember that Harry Flashman aged from 17 to 20 years old in this story. He did convey some semblance of the style, common sense and instinct that would fool many people and serve him for years. But as an adolescent on the threshold of twenty, he had yet to learn some of the hard facts of life. As for his rough treatment and negative opinion of Judy, I suspect that his ego suffered a massive blow, when she rejected him, following a one-time bout under the sheets. A blow that he obviously had failed to recover from after six decades, while ”writing” his memoirs.

”FLASHMAN” also had its share of interesting fictional characters. I have already mentioned the villainous Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife) Narreeman. I have also mentioned the young Afghan who became a close friend of Flashy’s, Ilderim Khan. But he had an even larger role in ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And as I had mentioned, Elspeth also appeared in the novel. However, her presence in the novel would not be truly felt, until the last chapter that featured Harry’s homecoming. Fraser barely explored her personality in the novel, but he did allow a peek into her promiscuous and self-absorbed nature in that last chapter. One particular character, Sergeant Hudson, proved to be a reliable source of defense for Flashman during the retreat from Kabul. During this event, Flashman experienced one of the most bizarre moments of his life, while being rejected by the young wife of an Army officer named Mrs. Betty Parker, whom he was trying to seduce:

“‘What the devil’ says I. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Oh, you brute!’ she hissed – for she had the sense to keep her voice down – ‘you filthy, beastly brute! Get out of my tent at once! At once, d’you her?’

I could make nothing of this, and said so. ‘What have I done? I was only being friendly. What are you acting so damned missish for?’

‘Oh base!’ says she. ‘You . . . you . . .’

‘Oh, come now,’ says I. ‘You’re in very high ropes, to be sure. You weren’t so proper when I squeezed you the other night.’

‘Squeezed me?’ says she, as though I had uttered some unmentionable word.

‘Aye, squeezed. Like this.’ And I reached over and, with a quick fumble in the dark, caught one of her breasts. To my amazement, she didn’t seem to mind.

‘Oh, that!’ she says. ‘What an evil creature you are! You know that is nothing; all gentlemen do that, in affection. But you, you monstrous beast, presume on my friendship to try to . . . Oh, oh, I could die of shame!’

If I had not heard her I shouldn’t have believed it. God knows I have learned enough since of the inadequacies of education given to young Englishwomen, but this was incredible.”

This last encounter with Mrs. Betty Parker struck me as a hilarious metaphor for the blindingly naïve morality that had began to encroach early Victorian society.

”FLASHMAN” also provided some interesting historical vignettes from the First Anglo-Afghan War. And young Flashman managed to witness or participate in a good number of them. The novel allowed him to be the sole surviving British witness to the murder of political officer, Sir Alexander Burnes and his younger brother, Charles. He also witnessed the murder of another political officer named Sir William Macnaghten, along with Last Stand at Gandamak and the Siege of Jalalabad. But Fraser’s pièce de résistance in ”FLASHMAN” proved to be the disasterous Kabul retreat in which the British contingent under General Elphinstone were forced to march from Afghanistan to India in cold weather and dire circumstances:

“From other accounts of that frightful march that I have read – mostly Mackenzie’s and Lawrence’s and Lady Sale’s – I can fit a few of my recollections into their chronicle, but in the main it is just a terrible, bloody nightmare even now, more than sixty years after. Ice and blood and groans and death and despair, and the shrieks of dying men and women and the howling of the Ghazis and Gilzais. They rushed and struck, and rushed and struck again, mostly at the camp-followers, until it seemed there was a slashed brown body every yard of the way. The only place of safety was in the heart of Shelton’s main body, where the sepoys still kept some sort of order; I suggested to Elphy when we set off that I and my lancers should ride guard on the womenfolk, and he agreed at once. It was a wise move on my part, for the attacks on the flanks were now so frequent that the work we had been doing yesterday was become fatally dangerous. Mackenzie’s jezzailchis were cut to ribbons stemming the sorties.”

Reading the above passage made me wonder about the wisdom of the current Western presence in Afghanistan. And there is nothing like a British military disaster to bring out the best of Fraser’s writing skulls. It proved to be the first of such passages in novels like ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” and ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”.

In the end, Fraser did a solid job in initiating what would proved to be The Flashman Papers in his first novel,”FLASHMAN”. Granted, the novel’s first part set in England struck me as slightly rushed. And the Harry Flashman character seemed a bit crude in compare to his characterizations in the novels that followed. Like many other readers, I found his rape of the Narreeman character hard to stomach. But Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating early Victorian Britain, British India, Afghanistan and the First Anglo-Afghan War. In short, ”FLASHMAN” turned out to be a solid start to an excellent series of historical novels.

“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) Book Review

Below is my review of “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”, author George MacDonald Fraser’s seventh novel in theFlashman Papers series: 

“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) Book Review

Set during the Old West of 1849-50 and the mid 1870s, “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” has the distinction of being the first novel in the Flashman Papers series to begin outside of Great Britain. It will not be the last, but it certainly was the first. Penned by George MacDonald Fraser and published in 1982, the novel also happens to be my favorite in the series.

Since this particular novel happened to be an immediate follow-up to Fraser’s third novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”,“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” began where the 1971 novel had ended – on the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana in the early spring of 1849. British Army officer Harry Flashman had just testified at Captain John Charity Spring’s trial, enabling the psychotic sea captain to avoid being convicted for slave trading in U.S. waters. In return, Spring agreed to provide Flashman passage back to England. Unfortunately for both men, Fate had a different path in mind when they encountered one of Flashman’s old nemesis at a local saloon – a slave trader/planter named Peter Omohundro, whom young Flashy had encountered on a northbound Mississippi River steamboat several months ago. After Spring killed the aggressively suspicious Omohundro during a brutal saloon fight, he and Flashman ended up seeking refuge with another one of Flashy’s past acquaintances from “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” – the red-haired Cockney-born madam named Susie Wilnick. Flashman’s reunion with Susie proved to be just as sensuous as their last encounter. After a few bouts of sex, Susie asked him to marry. Lacking in any morals, yet providing a great deal of practicality, Flashman accepted her proposal. And being a steel-minded businesswoman, Susie dealt with the insane Captain Spring in the following manner, during supper:

“But by and by he (Spring) said less and less, and that none too clearly; I was just beginning to wonder if the drink had got to him for once when he suddenly gave a great sigh, and a staring yawn, caught at his chair arms as though to rise, and then fell face foremost into the blancmange.

Susie glanced at me, lifting a warning finger. Then she got up, pulled his face out of the mess, and pushed up one eyelid. He was slumped like a sawdust doll, his face purple.

“That’s all right,” says she. “Brutus!” And before my astonished eyes the butler went out, and presently in came two likely big coves in reefer jackets. At a nod from Susie, they hefted Spring out of his chair, and without a word bore him from the room. Susie sauntered back to her place, took a sip of wine, and smiled at my amazement.

 

“Well,” says she, “we wouldn’t ‘ave wanted ‘im along on our ‘oneymoon, would we?””

With Spring gone, Flashman no longer has a speedy means to reach England. Another chance to leave the Mississippi Valley and prosecution for slave stealing appeared when Susie announced her decision to close down her New Orleans whorehouse and take her retinue of slaves – prostitutes and servants – to San Francisco in California. The departure could not have come sooner for Flashman, as he had discovered during a stopover in St. Louis, Missouri:

“It wasn’t only the plague that worried me, either; St. Louis was the town where a few weeks earlier they’d been posting rewards of a hundred dollars for my apprehension, describing me to a T and warning the citizenry that I had Genteel Manners and spoke with a Foreign Accent, damn their impudence.”

I have been a fan of the Flashman novels for many years. But there are a few of them I would describe as truly epic. In my opinion, one of those epic novels happened to be “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. Fraser did a superb job in capturing the breath and scope of the American West in both the late 1840s and mid 1870s. His description of Flashman’s wagon train journey from Independence to Santa Fe that included a hair-raising interlude at Bent’s Fort was a masterpiece. I can also say the same for the sequence that featured Flashman’s harrowing escape from the Mimbreno Apaches across the New Mexico desert, featured in the last chapters of Part One.

Fraser wrote this particular saga in two parts. Part One, entitled “The Forty-Niner”, covered Flashman’s experiences in the United States and the Far West between 1849 and 1850. In this section, Flashman’s “marriage” to Susie Wilnick (he already had his wife Elspeth waiting for him back home in England) led to him becoming a wagon train emigrant and de facto captain during the period known as the California Gold Rush; the lover of Cleonie, one of Susie’s slave whores; manger of Susie’s Santa Fe whorehouse; a scalp hunter under the leadership of one John Joel Glanton (known to Flashman as “Gallantin”) in New Mexico’s Del Norte Valley; and eventually the son-in-law of the Mimbreno Apache chief, Mangas Colorado; and husband of the latter’s precious daughter, Sonsee-Array aka Takes Away Cloud Woman. After six months with his bride and her Apache relatives, which included the famous Geronimo, Flashman finally makes his escape and head northeast. While being chased by Apache warriors through the grueling Jornada Del Muerto desert, he is rescued by the famous Western tracker and guide, Kit Carson.

Part Two – called “The Seventy-Sixer” – was set between 1875 and 1876. It centered on Flashman and his wife Elspeth’s visit to the United for the Centennial celebration. The journey not only led to a series of reunions with acquaintances from the American Civil War, but also with those Flashman had met during his first visit to the West. Flashman’s reunion with a Sioux leader named Spotted Tail led directly to one with an old lover out for revenge and his minor participation in the Battle of Little Bighorn with Custer and the Seventh Calvary. Flashman’s visit also led to his acquaintance of a young man who managed to – not quite break his heart – but tweak it a bit.

In my review of “FLASH FOR FREEDOM”, I had complained of Fraser’s uneven portrayal of antebellum United States. I have no such complaints for this novel. Fraser did a much superior job in describing the antebellum United States and especially the West. In fact, I cannot recall finding any evidence of uneven pacing or historical inaccuracies, as I had done in the 1971 novel. What I really enjoyed about this novel was Fraser’s feel for both the novel’s period and landscape. One of his best passages featured his description of Kanzas Landing, Independence, and Westport (now Kansas City) in Missouri during the spring of 1849:

“They tell me that Kansas City nowadays covers the whole section, but in those days the landing and Westport and Independence were separated by woodland and meadow. And I wonder if today’s city contains more people than were crowded along the ten miles from Independence to the river when I first saw it in ’49: there were thousands of them, in tents and lean-tos and houses and log shacks and under the trees and in the few taverns and lodging-places; they were in the stables and sheds and shops and storehouses, a great swarming hive of humanity of every kind you can imagine – well, I remember the Singapore river in the earlies, and it was nothing to Westport-Independence. The whole stretch was jammed with wagons and carts and carriages, churning the spaces between the buildings into a sea of mud after the recent rain, and through it went the mules and oxen and horses, with the steam rising from them and the stench of hides and dung and smoke filling the air – but even that was nothing to the noise.

 

Every other building seemed to be a forge or a stable or a warehouse, a-clang with hundreds of hammers and the rasp of saws and the crack of axes and the creak of wheels and the thump and scrape of boxes and bales being loaded or unloaded; teamsters snapped their whips with a “Way-hay, whoa!”, foremen bellowed, children shrilled, the voices of thousands of men and women blended with it all in a great eager busy din that echoed among the buildings and floated off to be lost in the surrounding forest.”

Flashman’s first meeting Sonsee-Array – Mangas Colorado’s youngest daughter – struck an interesting note with me. It made me realize how much Flashman’s character had matured in the eight to nine years since his adventures in Afghanistan. In the first novel, 1969’s “FLASHMAN”, the 19 year-old British officer had an encounter with an Afghan dancer named Narameen that led to her being raped by him. Narameen also happened to be the lover of one of his enemies. Eight years later, while in the company of John Joel Glanton and his scalphunters, Flashman met the Apache chief’s daughter. First, he managed to save her from being raped by an Irishman he disliked named Grattan Nugent-Hare. When offered to “take her” himself, Flashman handled the situation with a lot more delicacy than he did with Narameen:

“You must understand the effect of this, of Flashy imposing his winning ways on that fortunate native wench. There she was, a helpless prisoner in the hands of the most abominable ruffians in North America, who had butchered her menfold before her eyes and were about to subject her to repeated rape, possible torture, and certain death. Up jumps this strapping chap with splendid whiskers, who not only kills out of hand the cad who is molesting her, but thereafter treats her kindly, pets her patiently, and absolutely asks permission to squeeze her boobies. She is astonished, nay gratified, and, since she’s a randy little minx at bottom, ready to succumb with pleasure. All thanks to style, as inculcated by Dr. Arnold, though I wouldn’t expect him to claim credit for it.

 

And mark the sequel. When other of her tribesmen, having got wind of the massacre, attack the scalp-hunters by night, she is alarmed for her protector. If he joins in the scrap – the last thing I’d have done, but she wasn’t to know that – harm may come to him, so being a lass of spirit she ensures his neutrality by clouting him behind the ear with a rock. Then, when her tribesmen have wiped out or captured most of the marauders (Gallantin and a few others alone escaped) she is at pains to preserve her savior from the general vengeance. Had he been a man without style, she’d have been the first to set about him with a red-hot knife.”

I found it ironic that his actions in “FLASHMAN” nearly cost Flashman his life on two separate occasions. Yet, in“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”, his actions ended up saving him and leading him to becoming husband to another, namely Sonsee-Array and son-in-law to Mangas Colorado. One of the novel’s funniest passages featured Flashman’s conversation with the Apache chief. I would include the conversation if I could, but it is rather long and would be better appreciated in its full glory. But Flashman had this to say about him:

“Sonsee-array was beside me, her hand slipping into mine, the sullen faces round us were indifferent rather than hostile, the Yawner (Geronimo) shrugged – and Mangas Colorado gave us a final curt nod and stalked away. Just the same, I couldn’t help thinking that old Morrison hadn’t been such a bad father-in-law.”

Before one starts thinking that Harry Flashman had learned to treat women with more respect by the age of 27, consider his earlier behavior toward Cleonie – one of Susie Wilnick’s mulatto prostitutes. The two had begun an affair during the wagon train journey along the Santa Fe Trail and continued it in Santa Fe. Cleonie, who had the bad luck (and stupidity) to fall in love with Flashy; proposed that they abandon Susie and head for El Paso, Texas. He agreed. Being the complete black-hearted villain, Flashman sold Cleonie to a priest acting as an agent for a Navaho chieftain on the night of their departure for two thousand dollars:

“I picked up my gear from the summer-house when he’d gone, and went quickly down through the crowded Plaza to the livery stable, where I slung my few traps over the mule, rode out on the Albuquerque trail. I won’t say I didn’t regret Cleonie’s absence – clever lass, fine mount, charming conversationalist, but too saucy by half, and she’d never have earned us two thousand dollars between Santa Fe and El Paso, not in a month of Sundays.”

It took Cleonie nearly twenty-seven years to seek revenge for his betrayal in Part Two of the novel.

The novel’s second half featured some interesting aspects in the story. One of the novel’s funnier moments dealt with Flashman’s reunions with Army officers he had met during the American Civil War – including some humorous descriptions of William Sherman and Philip Sheridan:

“So now you see Flashy in his splendid prime at fifty-three, distinguished foreign visitor, old comrade and respected military man, with just a touch of grey in the whiskers but no belly to speak of, straight as a lance and a picture of cavalier gallantry as I stoop to salute the blushing cheek of the new Mrs. Sheridan at the wedding reception in her father’s garden. Little Phil, grinning all over and still looking as though he’d fallen in the river and let his uniform dry on him, led me off to talk to Sherman, whom I’d known for a competent savage, and the buffoon Pope, whose career had consisted of losing battles and claiming he’d won.”

But nothing quite beat Flashman’s reunion with the infamous George Armstrong Custer. Fraser best described the American Army officer’s over-the-top personality with the Flashmans’ visit to a New York theater with Custer and his family:

“So we five dined frequently, and visited the theater, of which Custer was a great patron; he was a friend of Barrett the actor, who was butchering Shakespeare at Booth’s, and would sit with his eyes glued to the stage muttering “Friends, Romans, countrymen” under his breath.

 

That should have made me leery; I’m all for a decent play myself, but when you see someone transported from reality by them, watch out. I shan’t easily forget the night we saw some sentimental abomination about a soldier going off to the wars; when the moment came when his wife buckled on his sword for him, I heard sniffing and supposed it was Libby or Elspeth piping her eye. Then the sniff became a baritone groan, and when I looked, so help me it was Custer himself, with his hand to his brow, bedewing his britches with manly tears.”

In fact, during the Flashmans’ first dinner with the Custers, the emotional George Armstrong got on Flashy’s nerves with his constant complaints about his superiors in Washington and warbling about the Englishman’s own military service. Flashman responded by having a little sport with Custer’s ego in this hilarious scene at a New York restaurant:

“”Luck of the service,” says I, and because I was bored with his croaking I added: “Anyway, I’ve never been a general, and I’ve only one American Medal of Honor, you know.”

 

This was Flashy at his most artistic, you’ll agree, when I tell you that I knew perfectly well that Custer had no Medal of Honour, but his brother Tom had two. I guessed nothing would gall him more than having to correct my apparent mistake, which he did, stiffly, while Tom studied the cutlery and I was all apologies, feigning embarrassment.”

Although Part Two seemed to lack the epic scope of Part One, it did feature some memorable passages. In Part One, Flashman met several Sioux warriors on the journey west, through trail guide Dick Wootton. One of them was a future leader named Spotted Tail. Part Two featured a series of events that began with Flashman’s reunion with the Sioux leader Spotted Tail in Chicago, Illinois and one of his braves, Standing Bear. Thanks to that particular reunion, our fearful hero attracted the attention of a businesswoman named Mrs. Arthur B. Candy. She wanted to use Flashman’s fame in a land scheme in the Dakota Territories and invited to join her in an excursion to the area. Flashman and Mrs. Candy’s journey to the Dakota Territory was not very interesting, despite accompanying George Custer and the Seventh Calvary. But it did feature a colorful description of cavalry troopers boarding a Powder River steamboat in order to continue their journey to the Greasy Grass country:

“It was about ten days out of Bismarck that we came to the Powder mouth, where a great military camp was taking shape. With the arrival of Terry’s advance guard, and Gibbon only a few days’ march away, there was tremendous work and bustle; the Far West was back and forth ferrying troops and stores and equipment; her steerage was a bedlam of men and gear, while our deck was invaded by all manner of staff-wallopers in search of comfort; Terry held his meetings in the saloon; messengers went galloping pell-mell along the banks; a forest of tents and lean-tos sprang up in the meadows; the woods rang and hummed with the noise of men and horses, rumours of Indian movement far to the south were discussed and as quickly discounted; no one knew what the blazes was happening – indeed, it was like the beginning of any campaign I’d ever seen.”

More importantly, Flashman discovered that he had become a target of revenge. Mrs. Candy turned out to be none other than Cleonie, the former lover he had sold to the Navaho. Through her, he ended up becoming a captive of the Sioux on the eve of the Little Bighorn Battle at Greasy Grass. How Fraser’s “intrepid” hero ended up escaping the Sioux and participating in the infamous battle featured an interesting little scene involving him and a real life Sioux woman named Walking Blanket Woman:

“I looked at her now, giving her the full benefit, the sweet little soul – and like all the rest, she succumbed. As I say, it’s true, and here I am, and I can’t explain it – perhaps it’s the whiskers, or the six feet two and broad shoulders, or just my style. But she looked at me, and her lids lowered, and she glanced across the river where the troopers were riding down the coulee, and then back at me – this girl whose brother had been killed by my people only a few days back. I can’t describe the look in her eyes – frowning, reluctant hesitant, almost resigned; she couldn’t help herself, you see, the dear child. Then she sighed, lifted the knife – and cut the thongs securing my hands to the yoke.

“Go on, then,” says she. “You poor old man.”

 

Well, I couldn’t reply with my mouth full of gag, and by the time I’d torn it out she had gone, running off to the right with her hatchet and knife, God bless her.”

Although Flashman managed to survive the battle, he ended up as a prisoner of one Frank Grouard, who was known to the Sioux as Standing Bear. According to Fraser’s novel, Grouard turned out to be Harry and Cleonie’s son, who has spent most of his years being raised by the Navaho and later, the Sioux. What Fraser did was take the historical figure of Frank Grouard – the son of a Tahitian woman and an American missionary – and incorporated him into Flashy and Cleonie’s illegitimate son. However, Cleonie’s revenge plot fell to pieces, due to her son. Due to his dislike of her (and I do not blame him), Frank decided to spare his black-hearted father. And both father and son not only discovered that they shared similar traits, they also took a shining to each other. “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” featured that rare occasion in which Flashy had ever expressed any kind of emotion or regard for one of his offspring. When Frank decided to reject his offer to be officially recognized as his son, the two parted in one of the most touching scenes written by Fraser:

“”Frank!” I roared.

He checked at the crest and looked back. I felt such a desolation, then, but I couldn’t move after him, or say what I wanted to say, with all the sudden pain and regret for lost years, and what had come of them. I called up to him.

“I’m sorry, son, about it all.”

 

“Well, I’m not!” he called back, and laughed, and suddenly lifted his arms wide, either side. “Look, Papa!” He laughed again, and then he had ridden over the skyline and was gone.”

Although the novel featured a vast array of historical figures that included Dick Wootton, Spotted Tail John Joel Glanton, Mangas Colorado, Geromino, Kit Carson, Ulysses S. Grant, Frank Grouard, Crazy Horse and most memorably, George Armstrong Custer; Fraser did not fail his readers in providing some interesting fictional characters. Since the novel had picked up where “FLASHY FOR FREEDOM!” left off, Fraser allowed his readers to briefly reacquaint themselves with one of his best creations, the infamous Captain John Charity Springs. Another veteran from “FLASHY FOR FREEDOM!” turned out to be the Cockney-born New Orleans madam, Susie Wilnick, who had a larger role in this novel as Flash Harry’s 3rd or 4th wife (I lost count). I adored Susie. She was a sentimental, sensual and hard-headed businesswoman. She knew Harry for the rogue he truly was, but did not care. Even when she suspected him of sleeping around her stable of whores, she managed to pay him back by sleeping with the head of their teamsters – an Irish-born former Army officer named Grattan Nugent-Hare. Nugent-Hare turned out to be another interesting character created by Fraser. Although soft-spoken and practical, he turned out to be another rogue (who had left Santa Fe with some of Susie’s money) – only he lacked Harry’s sense of style. Flashman’s second bride in the novel turned out to be the Apache princess, Sonsee-Array aka Takes Away Clouds Woman – Mangas Colorado fictional daughter. She was an interesting, yet haughty and demanding thing who fully appreciated Harry’s sexual prowess. The real Mrs. Harry Flashman (namely Elspeth) had a major role in the novel’s second half. And she was just as charming, sexy and simple-minded as ever – even in her early fifties. There are times when I suspect that Elspeth might not be as stupid as she appears to be. I really enjoyed reading Harry’s suspicions that she may have had a tumble in the grass with Spotted Tail during a conference between the U.S. government and the Sioux and Cheyenne nations.

One last fictional character that played a major role in “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” was Cleonie Grouard, one of Susie’s prostitute slaves. She first caught Flashman’s attention during the wagon journey from Independence to Santa Fe. Once their affair had caught hold, Flashman ignored Susie’s other whores and focused his attention upon her, impressed by her style and looks. It did not take Cleonie very long to put down Flashy’s one time tumble with another slave named Aphrodite:

“”We all know – that is, if Aphrodite is to be believed.” She gave me an inquiring look, still with that tiny smile. “I, myself, would have thought she was rather . . . black . . . and heavy, for Master’s taste. But some men prefer it, I know.” She gave a little shrug. “Others . . .” She left it there, waiting.”

While their affair continued in Santa Fe, Cleonie also exposed Flashman’s lack of any real love for Susie:

“You do not love Miz Susie. And soon you will be leaving her, will you not?”

I found it interesting that Cleonie was shrewd and clever enough to spot Flashman’s true feelings regarding the other prostitutes he had slept with and Susie . . . and yet, she failed to sense his lack of any love toward her. Had love on her part truly blinded her? Perhaps. I also suspect that Cleonie’s own ego and pride made it difficult for her to even consider that Flashy felt the same about her, as he did about Susie, Aphrodite or any of the other whores in Susie’s stable. I am not saying that she deserved the fate that Flashman had dished out to her – being sold to the Navahos and enduring five years of captivity. She did not. And Flashman certainly deserved the fright that he had endured from of her vengeance, some 27 years later. But . . . I have never liked Cleonie. Not really. My dislike has nothing to do with some belief that she was a poorly created character. On the contrary. I believe that Fraser did an exceptional job in creating her character. But after reading “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” for the umpteenth time, I cannot help but feel that she was one egotistical bitch.

Do I have any quibbles about “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”? Well . . . yes. Although well written and with a strong finish, the novel’s second half is not as strong or epic as the first half. Flashman’s adventures at Bent’s Fort in the novel’s first half led to the fort’s destruction and his meeting with a group of mountain men:

“I dug in my finger-nails and pulled, and pulled, until I could no more. I rested my face on one side, and above the scrubby grass in my line of sight there were the legs of a pony, and I hardly had time to think, oh, dear Jesus, the Indians . . . when a hand took me by the shoulder and rolled me over, and I was blinking up into a monstrously-bearded face under a fur cap, and I pawed feebly at a fringed buckskin shirt that was slick with wear, and then the beard split into a huge grin of white teeth, and a voice said:

 

“Waal, ole hoss, what fettle? How your symptoms segashooatin’? Say, ifn thar wuz jest a spoonful o’ gravy to go with ye, I rackon yore baked just ’bout good enough to eat!””

And here is where Fraser nearly grounded the novel to a halt by devoting a page-and-a-half to the mountain men’s dialect, which the author described as “plug-a-plew”. I would give more samples of their dialect, but frankly Fraser had provided too much of it, by allowing the mountain men to reminisce about Bent’s Fort in a conversation that nearly lasted two pages. Honestly, I really could have done without it. Also, was it really necessary to use a historical figure like Frank Grouard as the love child of Flashman and Cleonie – two fictional characters? I realize that Fraser must have found his character fascinating, but . . . he could have easily created another fictional character to serve as their son. I also had a problem with the route Fraser had chosen for Flashman and Susie to take to California. Early in the novel, Susie made it clear that she planned to relocate her establishment to Sacramento, California:

”It sounded reasonable, I said, but a bit wild to establish a place like hers, and she chuckled confidently.

 

“I’m goin’ ready-made, don’t you fret. I’ve got a place marked down in Sacramento, through an agent, an’ I’m movin’ the whole kit caboodle up the river to West next Monday – furnishin’s, crockery, my cellar an’ silver . . . an’ the livestock, which is the main thing.””

And how did Susie plan to move her establishment from New Orleans to Sacramento?

“Why, up to Westport an’ across by carriage to – where is it? – Santa Fe, an’ then to San Diego.”

All I can ask is . . . why? Why did Fraser have Flashman and Susie attempt that convoluted trail from New Orleans to Sacramento? They could have easily traveled by steamboat from New Orleans to the Red River and later, to Texas. From Texas, they could have traveled to Santa Fe in New Mexico. And from Santa Fe, they could have traveled along the Gila River Trail to San Diego, California. All they had to do was travel up the coast to San Francisco and later, Sacramento. Or . . . . a less convoluted route could have taken them upriver to St. Louis, Missouri. From there, they could have taken another steamboat across Missouri River to Westport. From there, all they had to do was following the Oregon Trail to Fort Hall in present-day Idaho and take the California Trail all the way to Sutter’s Fort. From there, they would have an easy journey from Sutter’s Fort to Sacramento. Instead, Fraser laid out a more convoluted route. And I suspect that he did so in order for Flashman to be captured by the Mimbreno Apaches and spend six months with them.

I could easily consider “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” as my favorite novel in the Flashman Papers series, due to its setting. After all, I have always been a big aficionado of the history of the American West. And I will admit that the novel’s setting is one of the reasons why I have enjoyed it so much. The novel does have its share of small problems. I believe that Fraser got carried away in his description of mountain men following the scene that featured the destruction of Bent’s Fort. If I must be honest, I believe that the author went a bit too far in using a historical figure like Frank Grouard as the son of Flashman and Cleonie – two fictional characters. I thought it was unnecessary. Susie’s planned route from New Orleans to Sacramento, via Santa Fe and San Diego, seemed convoluted. And the second half is not as interesting as the first half (a common flaw in many Flashman novels). But “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” is a delicious and well-written saga filled with fascinating historical figures like Mangas Colorado and George Armstrong Custer; as well as interesting and well-written fictional characters such as Susie Wilnick, Grattan Nugent-Hare and Cleonie Grouard. The novel also offered a well-documented look at the United States – especially the American West – before and after the Civil War. Quite frankly, I consider it to be one of George MacDonald Fraser’s finest works.

“ROYAL FLASH” (1975) Review


Below is a review I had written of the 1975 adaptation of George MacDonald Fraser’s novel, “ROYAL FLASH”:

 

“ROYAL FLASH” (1975) Review

Directed by Richard Lester, “ROYAL FLASH” is a 1975 adaptation of George MacDonald Fraser’s 1970 novel of the same title, the second in a series of twelve (or thirteen) novels and stories about a cowardly British Army officer during the Victorian Era. Both the novel and the movie are comedic spoofs of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, ”The Prisoner of Zenda”, about an Englishman assuming the identity of a look-a-like European prince.

This movie does not seemed to be well-liked by many fans of THE FLASHMAN SERIES. One, it was adapted from one of Fraser’s least popular Flashman novels. Two, many of those fans balked at the idea of the medium-height blond Malcolm McDowell portraying the tall, dark-haired Harry Flashman. And three, many did not care how Richard Lester had included the same slapstick comedy that he had used in his two”MUSKETEERS” movies. It is not surprising that “ROYAL FLASH” not only failed to make an impact upon the box office in 1975, it remained unpopular for many years.

I must admit that Fraser’s 1970 novel never became a favorite of mine. Because it was a send-up of ”The Prisoner of Zenda”, it struck me as being somewhat unoriginal. And while I managed to tolerate Lester’s slapstick humor in the “MUSKETEERS” movies, there were times when it seemed a bit too much in “ROYAL FLASH”. Well . . . except in a few scenes in which I will comment upon later. As for Malcom McDowell being cast in the title role . . . I had no problems with his performance. In fact, I found it more than satisfying.

In a nutshell, “ROYAL FLASH” began with Captain Harry Flashman being feted in 1843 London for his heroic exploits during the disastrous First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). Actually, Flashman’s actions were less than heroic. Being the coward he was, he surrendered to the enemy . . . before British artillery saved him from captivity via a barrage. British troopers came upon his unconscious body – with him clinging to a Union Jack flag – and mistook him as a brave military fighter who was not only the last survivor of Piper’s Fort, but as someone who had fought until the bitter end. Following Flashman’s return to England, the British officer met two people who would endanger his life on the European continent four years later – future chancellor and creator of modern day Germany, Otto von Bismarck; and the Irish-born actress/dancer (if you can call her one) and courtesan, Rosanna James aka Lola Montez. He had met the pair while fleeing from a whorehouse being raided by the police. Being a lustful ladies’ man, Flashy managed to charm Rosanna (or Lola) into a tumultuous affair. And being a vindictive scoundrel, he made an enemy out of Bismarck by manipulating the latter into a boxing demonstration with the famous boxer John Tully. Eventually, Flashman grew weary of Lola’s penchant for using a hairbrush on his backside during sex and ended the affair on a bad note. Four years later, Flashman received a letter from Lola, now mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, asking him for a favor. Upon his arrival in Bavaria, Flashman is framed for the attempted rape of Bavarian countess by Lola and ended up in the clutches of Bismarck and his top henchmen, Rudi Von Sternberg. The pair coerced him into impersonating a Danish prince named Carl Gustaf, set to marry the Duchess Irma of Strackenz. According to Bismarck, the real Prince Carl had contacted a sexually transmitted disease, making it impossible for him to marry the Duchess. As Flashman will eventually discover, Bismarck’s reasons behind this deception are a lot more devious. The German politician did not wish for the Duchess to marry a Dane, since the marriage might tilt the balance on the Schleswig-Holstein Question and interfere with his plans for a united Germany.

Many years have passed since I last saw “ROYAL FLASH”. Many years. And after reading several articles about its shortcomings, I really did not expect to enjoy it as I had done in the past. And yet . . . I did. Very much. Yes, I found some of the slapstick humor rather annoying. I can definitely say this about the sequence that featured the police raid on the London brothel, Flashman’s rather silly attempt to prove his marksmanship to the Bavarian military officers, and his duel against Rudi Von Sternberg inside the dungeon that held the real Carl Gustaf. But there were some slapstick moments that struck me as hilarious. One scene involved Flashman (in disguise as Prince Carl) accidentally smashing a bottle against the head of some poor chump during the christening of Strackenz’s new rail train. Another hilarious scene involved Flashman’s “honeymoon” night with the frigid Duchess Irma; along with Flashman’s attempts to escape from Bismarck and his thugs during his indoctrination as the fake Prince Carl. Also, the movie ended with a witty and rather funny duel of “Hungarian” roulette between Flashy and Von Sternberg, after the latter managed to interrupt Flashy’s flight from Germany.

Hardcore fans of THE FLASHMAN SERIES have condemned the choice of Malcolm McDowell for the role of Harry Flashman. It is quite apparent that the actor bore no physical resemblance to the fictional Flashman. But as far as I am concerned, McDowell more than made this up with his superb performance as the amoral and cowardly British officer. Personality wise, McDowell captured Flashman’s personality to a T. For me, he was Flashman personified.

There were other actors who struck me as perfectly cast in their roles – Oliver Reed as the manipulative and vindictive Otto von Bismarck, Britt Ekland as the beautifully cold Duchess Irma, Joss Ackland as the intimidating Danish patriot Sapten, and an unknown Bob Hoskins as the persistent London police officer who led the raid on the whorehouse. I also enjoyed Lionel Jeffries and Tom Bell as two of Bismarck’s thugs – Kraftstein and DeGautet. I must admit that it took me a while to warm up to Alan Bates’ performance as Bismarck’s top henchman, the Hungarian-born Rudi Von Sternberg. His Rudi seemed cooler, more mature and less jovial than Fraser’s literary version. But in time, I learned to appreciate Bates’ slightly different take on the role. However, the one performance that failed to impress me belonged to Brazilian-born actress, Florinda Bolkan, who portrayed the fiery Lola Montez. The filmmakers not only made the mistake of casting a Latin actress in the role, Lester allowed her to portray Lola as a Continental European. After all, the character was originally the Irish-born Rosanna Gilbert James before becoming the famous dancer, Lola Montez. Either Ms. Bolkan should have portrayed Lola as Irish, or Lester and the other filmmakers should have cast an Irish actress or one from the British Isles in the role.

Thankfully, there is a great deal more to enjoy in “ROYAL FLASH”. George MacDonald Fraser did a first-rate job of adapting his novel into a screenplay. In fact, I found it a little more enjoyable than his novel. Anyone who has seen the “MUSKETEER” movies must know that Lester had incorporated more realistic style fencing in the movies’ fight scenes. In other words, the sword fights featured a great deal of more bashing and kicking than any elegant swordplay. Thankfully, “ROYAL FLASH” provided more elegance in its sword fights. I especially enjoyed McDowell’s skills during the kitchen fight sequence that turned out to be a fake rescue perpetrated by Von Sternberg. The legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth did an excellent job of capturing the beauty of German locations featured in the film. However, I could have done without that soft focus look that seemed to scream ”period piece”. Utilizing Unsworth’s photography, Alan Barrett’s costume designs and Terence Marsh’s production designs; Lester managed to effectively recapture England and Germany during the 1840s.

I realize there are hardcore fans of THE FLASHMAN SERIES who will never accept “ROYAL FLASH” as a worthy adaptation of Fraser’s 1970 novel. But you know what? Who cares? Seeing it again after so many years, made me realize that it had not lost its touch. At least not for me. In fact, I believe that the movie deserves a better reputation than the one it has possessed for the past three decades.