The Man with the Golden Gun
Roger Moore’s second outing as Bond has been regularly maligned over the years, pegged as formulaic and uninspired. While I’d defend it on a number of fronts (the cast and locations in particular), I can’t deny that it’s somewhat lacking on the story front (symptomatically, Tom Mankiewicz resigned his spurs after the first draft of the screenplay saying he wasn’t giving it his best; Richard Maibaum took over). What could have been a resonant story of Bond meeting his mirror image, as is implied in some of the dialogue, is only vaguely touched upon. The plotting doesn’t require many problems for Bond to solve either; he seems to pass fairly effortlessly from scene to scene, not so much following a trail of breadcrumbs as huge signposts laying it all out for him. Nevertheless, it’s a Bond that still has much to enjoy, and is far more vital than at least a couple of the mid-‘60s Connery affairs.
Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name was his final (12th), published posthumously. It opened with the interesting idea of Bond brainwashed to assassinate M (if only they’d returned to this with Judi Dench!) Scaramanga was much less remarkable than in Christopher Lee’s elegant personification, and the oft-used Jamaica was the main locale rather than Thailand. The grand villainy involved, amongst other plans, a scheme to increase the value of the Cuban sugar crop by destabilising the Caribbean’s crop. The film came up with both a more topical (the energy crisis) and more extravagant (the theft of the Solex agitator, a key component in a new method of solar power production) plot trigger.
Guy Hamilton was enlisted to return, his third in a row as director, in what would mark the end of an era for Bond. It was to be last film that Harry Saltzman co-produced with Cubby Broccoli (he was forced to sell his interest due to financial problems) and concurrent problems in getting The Spy Who Love Me together resulted in the longest gap yet between Bond films; two and a half years (TMWTGG was released in December 1974, TSWLM in July 1977). It’s probably fair to say that neither of Hamilton’s Moore films match his Connery ones. I don’t think this is really down to the director, who was a consistently safe pair of hands both in terms of affinity with the action and overall sensibility towards the series. TMWTGG, in particular, has the a next installment in a comic book vibe; the necessary elements and set pieces are ticked off without any great impulse towards originality (ironic, as Hamilton and Mankiewicz had achieved just that only three years earlier). It’s perhaps surprising that the subsequent film, under the tutelage of the considerably less-proficient Lewis Gilbert, would usher in the fully-formed Moore Bond. At this stage there were still designs to making his Bond as lethal as Connery, even if his demeanour did not support such a view.
The plots of Bond films don’t tend to be particularly intricate, but it helps to have a few tricks up your sleeve to keep the viewer engaged. If the plot is just filler between set pieces, the strain starts to show as the narrative’s inner tension begins to collapse. And from thence, boredom ensues.
There’s a solid twist to what we think is the premise of TMWTGG; Scaramanga sends Bond a golden bullet with his number etched on it; an announcement that 007 is to be a target for assassination. As a result, M takes Bond off active duty. Which just happens to mean he is no longer surveilling Gibson, the scientist considered crucial to solving the energy crisis. But this is just a ruse; with Bond out of the picture, Scaramanga is free to perform a hit on Gibson and the Solex agitator is stolen.
Following this, it’s basically chasing and fighting before the showdown on Scarmanaga’s island. We do see the assassin attain control of Hai Fat’s (Richard Loo) business empire, the latter having enlisted Scaramanga to purloin the agitator, but the bones of plot are skeleton thin. With Bond it’s all about how well the flesh is filled out, as there is rarely a truly clever construction to ensnare the viewer. TMWTGG does better in establishing iconic images and moments than revealing itself as a truly satisfying Bond film.
I’ll admit that, if I had in mind all the different pre-credits sequences prior to revisiting the series, I wouldn’t have remarked on Bond-less, Bond-centric ones as exceptions. Clearly, it’s something of a running theme to have a villain “kill” Bond in the teaser. We saw it with From Russia with Love, then again in You Only Live Twice. Here, Scaramanga keeps a model of Bond in the hall of mirrors of his fairground funhouse (his assassination training ground). I was slightly distracted by whether this was Moore himself, keeping very still. The scene features Diamonds are Forever’s Marc Lawrence as an unlucky hood enlisted to take out Scaramanga. During this we are introduced to Nick Nack, the assassin’s diminutive henchman (further evidence that the series is ever-more fixated upon cartoonish caricatures).
It’s a memorable sequence for a number of reasons; debonair Christopher Lee makes an instant impression, and brings with him an iconic status unmatched by previous villains of the series (as opposed to a status assumed with the passing of years following the film’s release). This is fortunate, as Francisco Scaramanga proves to be quite underwritten and is reliant on the charm and wit that Lee inserts into the dialogue. Scaramanga sees a return to disfigurement as a sign of evil; this time it’s a third nipple (“He must have found me quite titillating”, notes Bond after impersonating the assassin).
We are also witness to the charms of Maud Adams as the ill-fated Andrea. Adams would return in the penultimate Moore escapade, as the titular Octopussy. Andrea’s an unfortunate Bond girl, established as Scaramanga’s unwilling sex object who, when she transfers her attentions to Bond, dispenses with her via a bullet in the chest. If this were a Connery adventure, one suspects that the poor representation of the female characters would seem even less positive (as there would be an undercurrent of sadism lost in Moore’s affable incarnation). We will see that the other Bond girl is also something of a standout in the series to date, in this case for being fairly useless.
The other feature of the opening is the location filming on the islands of Ko Khao Phing Kan and Ko Tapu; the former is the location of Scaramanga’s hideout and the latter is now referred to as James Bond Island by the tourist industry; something pretty much kick-started by this film if heresay is to be believed. It’s easy to see why, as the location is gorgeous and idyllic; a fantasy island. While the locations in some Bond films are merely a backdrop, in TMWTGG they inform its identity and it is the villain’s hideout that leaves the most indelible impression.
Since it’s the next thing we see, or rather hear, this seems the right moment to mention the Bond song. A cacophony the like of which had previously not been heard in the series, Lulu’s vocals and, on a rare off-day, John Barry’s accompaniment are a train wreck of discordancy. Don Black’s lyrics are highly amusing (“He’s got a powerful weapon” indeed!) but otherwise it stinks (Barry himself had a low opinion of his work here). Alice Cooper’s unused track isn’t quite there, but it’s a far superior starting point to the chosen song.
As he’ll tell anyone who rejoins him into anecdotalising, Christopher Lee was Ian Fleming’s cousin. He readily admits, however, that the screen Scaramanga is more interesting and engaging that the one in the novel. Lee gives him a genuine desire for friendship with Bond and an almost disarming geniality at times (“Delighted to see you again!” he greets 007 upon the latter’s arrival at the island).
Scaramanga: Ours is the loneliest profession, Mr. Bond.
So much so, that Bond’s discourtesy in response to his overtures seems plain rude, rather than deserving. Maybe it’s just because Scaramanga has hit on a sore point.
Scaramanga: You get as much pleasure out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?
Bond: I admit killing you would be a pleasure.
Scaramanga: Then you should have done that when you first saw me. On the other hand, the English don’t consider it sporting to kill in cold blood, do they?
Bond: Don’t count on that.
Partly this may be because Bond’s dialogue is so unrefined.
Bond: Pistols at dawn; it’s a little old-fashioned, isn’t it?
Scaramanga: That it is. But it remains the only true test for gentlemen.
Bond: On that score, I doubt you qualify. However, I accept.
Bond: You live well, Scaramanga.
Scaramanga: At a million dollars a contract I can afford to, Mr Bond. You work for peanuts, a hearty well done from her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension. Apart from that we are the same. To us, Mr Bond, we are the best.
Bond: There’s a useful four-letter word, and you’re full of it.
Rather coarse, isn’t he?
At other times, Scaramanga’s is furnished with a derisive wit. It’s just that we don’t hear enough of it. After Bond’s escape from Hai Fat’s karate school he observes, “What do they teach at that academy? Ballet dancing?”
As I mentioned, the other main Bond girl of TMWTGG is noteworthy more for her ability to mess things up than for her skillset. We saw a little of this at the climax to Diamonds are Forever, with the generally much more resourceful Tiffany Case. M assigns Mary Goodnight as Bond’s assistant as she is “an efficient liaison officer”. We see precious little efficiency, as Goodnight obsesses over a previous “liaison” with Bond and makes a hash of any attempt to assist (culminating in her being unceremoniously deposited in Scaramanga’s car boot, providing the villain with the Solex agitator that Bond just repossessed). Later, she overcomes a villain only to trigger the destruction of the solar power plant. Then she manages to nearly kill Bond with her misplaced buttocks. But, and this is a big but (not butt), Goodnight is played by Britt Ekland (who had just teamed with Lee on The Wicker Man). During the later stages of the film she runs around Scarmanga’s island clad only in a beguiling bikini; it’s not difficult to see why I rated TMWTGG so highly as a youngster
She also sports a micro-nighty at one point. This scene is the most overtly Carry On… the series has yet been, as it gleefully plunges headlong into bedroom farce. Bond has Goodnight in bed, when Andrea comes knocking. Goodnight initially hides under the covers but is then consigned to a wardrobe while Bond and Andrea bump uglies. I find it difficult to imagine another Bond girl resigning herself to such ignominy (she is employed by the British Government though, so has to make sacrifices).
It should be again stressed that, while Bond girls have been generally dismissed as silly totty who need Bond to rescue them, Goodnight is distinguished from previous rivals by being just that. In spite of her ineptness, I sort of adore Goodnight. Ekland and Moore have a great rapport, and her inefficiency gives Roger some of his most amusingly Moore-ish moments. She also provides my favourite silly sign-off of the series (anyone would think she was named just with the final line in mind!)
M: [over the phone] Bond? Bond, are you there? Goodnight?
[Bond picks up phone]
Bond: She’s just coming, sir.
[Bond sets phone back down]
M: Goodnight? Goodnight? Goodnight!
[Bond pick up phone again]
Bond: Good night, sir.
[Bond hangs up phone]
If Goodnight is useless, the reverse is true of Hip’s (Soon-Tek Oh) nieces, who dispatch Bond’s pursuers (students at the karate school) with hilarious ease. It’s a great visual punchline that pays-off; Bond steels himself for battle then hardly needs to do anything. They are much more memorable than Hip, who has far greater screen time. Bond’s earlier encounter, with belly dancer Saida (Carmen Du Sautoy) elicits a classic Moore groaner when Bond steals the shrapnel momento from her belly button (the remains of one of Scaramanga’s golden bullets).
Saida: Ah! I’ve lost my charm!
Bond: Not from where I’m standing.
We’ve reached the point where a suggestively named Bond girl barely requires an innuendo from 007 in response. A look is all that is needed. On arriving at Hai Fat’s estate he discovers a girl swimming naked (Hamilton makes a feature of her bare buttocks; the series would gradually retreat from it’s shy, early ‘70s exposure of slightly more female flesh after this point).
Bond: Good morning. How’s the water?
Chew Mee: Why don’t you come in and find out?
Bond: Sounds very tempting, Miss…?
Chew Mee: Chew Mee.
Bond: Really? Well, there’s only one small problem. I have no swimming trunks.
Chew Mee: Neither have I.
The returning cast includes Desmond Llewellyn this time. Rather than showing off a gadget, the highlight of his appearance is his comparing notes on the analysis of Scaramanga’s bullet with a colleague. Moneypenney scrapes a minute or so of screen time, but it’s mostly M we see. Previously M has come across as disapprovingly withering and no-nonsense towards Bond, but on this occasion there’s a worrying indication that he relishes the chance of Bond coming to harm. As if he’s the bane of M’s life now. It’s played for comedy value, but it does jar slightly (“I almost wish Scaramanga had a contract out on you”). Still, he is given possibly the wittiest M response of the entire canon.
Bond: Who’d want to put a contract on me?
M: Jealous husbands! Outraged chefs! Humiliated tailors! The list is endless!
He gets exasperated with Q too, so maybe he’s just generally pissed off (“Of all the fouled-up, half-witted operations… “).
The return of Sheriff J W Pepper is less welcome. If the joke is frequently on him (pitched into a river by an elephant), giving the character vent to his racist, xenophobic disposition by depositing him in Thailand is not particularly endearing (“Little brown pointy-heads!”, is his repeated refrain). In a sense you can’t blame the producers for recalling a perceived crowd-pleaser, but it’s a cheap and witless decision. As for his ability to bump into Bond repeatedly, well at least there’s no pretence that this isn’t all just a big lark.
Hervé Villechaize is as memorable a henchman as Goldfinger’s Odd Job for equal and opposite reasons. Villechaize was also the source of many an anecdote amongst the rest of the cast and crew; he made a big impression for his alleged sexual proclivities. Small of frame and vocally distinct (“Meester Bohnd”) Nick Nack first appears to be little more than Scaramanga’s man servant (bringing champagne on a tray and fetching Tabasco sauce) but in the ensuing funhouse manhunt we see that Scaramanga employs him to test the assassin’s skill and reflexes. He even announces that he has designs on Scaramanga’s island empire (“I’ll get you yet. And I’ll enjoy everything you leave me”) to Francisco’s relaxed amusement (“You’ll be the death of me yet, Nick Nack”). He urges Bond to kill Scarmanga to that end, leading to a typically Moore comment.
Bond: I’ve never killed a midget before, but there can always be a first time.
Nick Nack: Oh, Meester Bohnd!
Since Bond destroys the object of Nick Nack’s desire, it’s no wonder he is so irate during the required “henchman resurfaces for a final flurry” climax. Bond deposits him in a suitcase and from whence to the crow’s nest atop Scaramanga’s junk.
Nick Nack: I may be small but I never forget!
The action of TMWTGG is variable. The stand-out stunt may be the series’ all-time greatest, so incredible that Guy Hamilton was right to suggest it looked too perfect and therefore people would assume it had somehow been faked. Bond not only leaps a wrecked bridge in his appropriated AMC Hornet; he turns the vehicle 180 degrees, making a perfect landing on the other side. It is unfortunate that someone needed to puncture this awe-inspiring moment with a “The Clangers” whistle effect.
Elsewhere a khlong river chase is convincingly fast-paced but perhaps a second boat pursuit sequence directly following Live and Let Die wasn’t the best decision. The river leap is part of a chase of Scaramanga that culminates in his AMC Matador transforming into a flying car. The producers’ borrowings from topical inventions rarely stand the test of time. Previously, we saw a one-man jetpack and then a one-man helicopter. This time, the flying car was based on an idea by a man who died crashing his converted vehicle before filming started. Models were used to achieve the effect, and it only ever looks like a gimmick (there’s no virtuosity to the design).
This may be the last time for a considerable while that Bond engages in convincing fisticuffs. Early on, when Bond visits Beirut (only seen in interiors) his interaction with Saida is interrupted by the arrival of a quartet of heavies. The staging is impressive; you couldn’t exactly call Moore a bruiser but neither does he look a complete idiot. Later, at the dojo, there is another decent fight where 007 appears to be coming off worst (hence his hasty exit at the first opportunity); amusingly the first opponent he encounters is eliminated through a very improper kick to he head when he is bowing.
Prior to this, Bond is captured at Hai Fat’s estate when Nick Nack hits him on the head. The encounter is the closest TMWTGG gets to a surreal moment. Bond discovers that the figures he assumed were statues (sumo wrestlers) are anything but. The sight of Nick Nack, made up as an impish sprite, next to two sumo wrestlers suggests some bizarre bacchanalian rite is in progress.
The finale returns to the funhouse of the opening and it’s a strong, if obvious, twist to have Bond best Scaramanga by posing as his own statue (clearly a repeated theme). The subsequent explosive finale has its moments (the mistaken conclusion that the laser has been turned off when the sun goes behind a cloud) amid the routine.
Impressive as the design of Scaramanga’s hideout is, the award for best set – and most original idea – goes to the MI6 HQ inside the wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong Harbour. The resulting off-kilter sets are a delight, although inevitably M is to be found in a room with a newly added flat surface.
Thematically, TMWTGG doesn’t have a whole lot going on. As noted, it rather fluffs its potential as a commentary on Bond’s penchant for killing (in that respect, the assassin versus assassin plot might have been better played out with Connery, although something not far off was seen with Red Grant). There is a whisper of cynicism in the film’s treatment of alternative energy, however, and one wonders if this came from Mankiewicz. He, after all, dropped in the surprising references to faked Moon landings in Diamonds are Forever. When Bond learns that Scaramanga acquired the Solex agitator in order to offer a monopoly on solar power to the highest bidder, Bond intones the thrust of a thousand conspiracy theories.
Bond: The oil sheikhs will pay you just to keep solar energy off the market.
Scaramanga: The thought had occurred to me.
Presumably, having re-acquired Solex agitator at the end, the British Government used it to end the energy crisis. Or perhaps they decided there was more to be gained in keeping it under wraps.
The Man with the Golden Gun certainly wasn’t a peak moment for the series, but it doesn’t deserve the dismissal it often receives. It was a solid – if formulaic – entry, with charismatic villainy (Lee), becoming eye candy (Ekland) and awesome scenery. The next Bond film would be a much more pronounced success, however, with both the public and the critics. It would also see the series pitch into a level of self-parody that would provoke a severe dressing-down when Moonraker embraced it even more pervasively (again, not with the public at large; it was an enormous success).