14 June 2009 | Igenlode Wordsmith
Rattling good fun
This was billed as a rip-roaring "Boys' Own" drama of sacrifice and stiff upper lips; it is, but there is also a surprisingly strong romantic streak and even hints of a romantic comedy element in the plot. This picture clearly aimed at catching a wider audience than merely that with military/patriotic appeal.
The good news is that the combination turns out to be extremely successful. "The Flag Lieutenant" is at various points entertaining, moving, exciting and/or charmingly funny, and Henry Edwards portrays the titular hero with the requisite quicksilver (if somewhat beetle-browed) appeal: he makes 'Lucky' Dicky Lascelles convincing as a flippant naval type with a quip for every occasion who simply cannot be serious, more suited for a musical comedy stage than a theatre of war, as a reluctant Scottish ally complains. Of course he is also unassumingly heroic as soon as action beckons and unwaveringly loyal when he sees the chance to transfer a little of his own glory to a friend... even when the opportunity backfires and turns out to imply rather more serious consequences for himself than anticipated.
Lilian Oldland and Dorothy Seacombe are charming and intelligent as the two love interests, while Fred Raynham endows Dicky's older, steadier friend with the requisite reticence and gloom of a man who has suffered too many professional and romantic disappointments, only to transform as success blossoms him forth. The plot is neatly constructed with the vital clue established well in advance, and the characters are all of them likable without ever becoming too good to be true.
The print we saw ran 86 minutes in length and had apparently received sizeable cuts since its 1926 Royal premiere; the missing material consists of an entire comedy sub-plot featuring two sailors who exist (if I am right as to their identity) in only one brief shot in the surviving material. There is, however, a report that some at least of the missing footage may survive in the vaults of the National Archive. If true, it would be interesting to see whether the cuts constituted an improvement or not! Little evidence as to the scope of the editing is visible in the screened version, which flows smoothly. There is one character apparently set up in the beginning as a romantic rival to our hero, who disappears from the action at a relatively early stage and seems entirely forgotten during the climax, and I did wonder if his role had somehow been trimmed from the plot; the resolution, once all is revealed, seemed a little too easy. But this is probably simply a reflection of the scenario's stage origins.
The film is of course also fascinating as a depiction of the vessels and equipment of the peacetime navy of the 1920s, from its battleships to its seaplanes, its social rituals and dress uniforms and its military concerns. ("Somewhere, in an outpost of Empire" -- but clearly in North Africa judging by the garb of the revolting natives...)
But principally it is simply good uncomplicated fun with some spectacular sets/locations (it's certainly not stage-bound, whatever its origins), sufficient deflating shafts of humour to keep from becoming a parody of its heroic genre and sufficient noble feeling to be nonetheless effective as a contribution to just that genre, and a nostalgic snapshot of its era.