“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” (1984) Book Review

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“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” (1984) Book Review

Several years ago, I once posted a list of my top ten favorite historical fiction novels of all time. Susan Howatch’s 1984 novel,“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” made the list. In fact, I would go as far to say that it would have also made the list of my top favorite novels . . . period. I love it that much. 

Back in the 1970s, Howatch wrote several family sagas in which the main characters were based upon members from a certain group from Britain’s Royal Family known as House of Plantagenet, which ruled the country between 1154 and 1485. The characters from 1971’s “PENMARRIC” were based upon the Plantagenet line that began with King Henry II and ended withKing John. 1974’s “CASHELMARA” featured characters based the line that began with Edward I and ended with his grandson,Edward III“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” also featured a character based upon Edward III, but he turned out to be a supporting one. The novel’s main characters were based on his children, two of his grandsons and a great-grandson, starting withEdward, the Black Prince and ending with Henry V“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” followed the fortunes of the Godwins, an Anglo-Welsh upper-class family that lived on an estate called Oxmoon, located near Gower in South Wales. The novel is divided into six major chapters, narrated by the following:

*Robert Godwin – oldest son in the family and a successful barrister who becomes a Member of Parliament
*Ginevra “Ginette” Godwin – Robert’s wife, distant cousin and childhood obsession, who was previously married to an Irishman named Conor Kinsella
*John Godwin – third son in the family and a diplomat with the Foreign Office
*Christopher “Kester” Godwin – Robert and Ginerva’s second son, who becomes master of Oxmoon upon his grandfather’s death
*Henry “Harry” Godwin – John’s oldest living son and Kester’s rival
*Henry “Hal” Godwin – Harry’s oldest son and a musician

“THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” spanned at least fifty to sixty years – from 1913 to the late 1960s or early 1970s, covering at least four generations and two world wars. Although the novel is told from the point of view of six major characters, it also featured other never-to-be-forgotten characters from the Godwin family. The ones that really come to mind are Robert and John’s complicated parents – the emotionally unstable Bobby and his very disciplined wife Margaret; Declan Kinsella, Ginette’s oldest son from her first marriage; Bronwen Morgan, John’s mistress and third wife; Robert and John’s youngest brother, the somewhat coarse and unimaginative Thomas Godwin; and Harry’s first wife, the sexy and not-so-bright Belinda “Bella” Stourham Godwin, who becomes obsessed with conceiving a girl after an aborted teenage pregnancy.

What I found amazing about “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” is that it more or less continued the de Salis family saga from“CASHELMARA”, but with different characters. A family scandal involving Bobby’s mother and a sheep farmer named Owen Bryn-Davies ends up having a major impact upon the Godwin family. Both Bobby and Margaret spend most of their married lives trying to overcome the past with an ideal family life, living up to the twin creeds – “doing the done thing” and “drawing the line”. Unfortunately, Bobby’s ability to project an ideal image also leads him to become an emotional time bomb, with a penchant for womanizing. This penchant also leads to another family scandal – one that not only has an impact on Robert and Ginette’s relationship, but also on the question of Oxmoon’s true master, which culminates into an ugly rivalry between cousins Kester and Harry.

It is a skill to Ms. Howatch’s talents that I found the novel’s first two chapters fascinating. She did an excellent job in creating the novel’s setting and characters, and delving into the fascinating, yet problematic marriage between Robert and Ginette. But the chapters featuring John, Kester and Harry’s narrations prove to be the novel’s highlights. Howatch allows the readers to see how Bobby and Margaret’s efforts to maintain an ideal family fractured John’s personality – almost transforming him into some kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde. The ironic thing is that his “Hyde” persona proved to be a lot more beneficial for him. But John’s fractured personality, along with his twisted efforts to live up to his parents’ (actually, I should say his mother’s) creeds of “doing the done thing” and “drawing the line” seemed to have a negative impact on both his son Harry and nephew Kester.

The last chapter, which featured Hal’s narration, proved to be less fascinating than the previous chapters. This particular chapter featured a murder mystery within the family and Hal’s efforts to revive the family fortunes. Mind you, this story line did not strike me as compelling as the previous chapters, but I had no problems with it. But I did have a problem with two aspects of the novel. One, Howatch had an annoying habit of labeling certain characters via their nationalities. Celtics – especially the Welsh and the Irish – seemed to be described as emotional or almost fey. And the English are described as emotionally stunted, yet rational and clear-minded. I found this penchant rather infantile for a first-rate novelist like Howatch. Nor did I care for some the dialogue she had created for Bronwen. It almost seemed as if Howatch tried to transform John’s Welsh mistress (later third wife) into some kind of Celtic mystic. And I really found it annoying. It is a miracle that Bronwen managed to remain one of my favorite characters.

Although I can honestly say that “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” is not perfect, I can also state that it is also one of my favorite novels of all time. In fact, I became so fascinated with it after my last reading that I found myself re-reading some of of the passages over and over again, until I realized that I need to put it down. It really is one of the best family sagas I have ever read . . . period. And I am amazed that there has been no television adaptation of this novel. A movie adaptation would be out of the question. The time constraints on the latter would make an adaptation out of the question. But as a television adaptation . . . “THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE” could prove to be as exceptional as the novel itself.

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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.

“ROYAL FLASH” (1975) Review

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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.