Strange to think there was a time when Alistair MacLean and Wilbur Smith novels were regularly adapted for the big screen. It would be unfair of me to take swipes at their literary abilities, as I studiously avoided their page-turners as a lad. I have seen a fair few of the movies based on their works, however, and I suspect I’m not missing all that much. In most cases the finished articles have been forgettable, workmanlike productions, indistinct except to all but the fiercest devotees (okay, everyone knows Where Eagles Dare). Gold’s greatest claim to fame is closer to one of infamy; the production made the dubious choice of filming in South Africa under the apartheid regime.
Smith’s plot (he shares the screenplay credit) concerns a dastardly plan to flood a gold mine. The resulting shortages will send the stock price sky high. Since we find this out during the first 10 minutes, there’s still another 90 minutes to trudge through before the plan gets results. Most of that is taken up by Roger Moore’s dalliance with delectable Susannah York (particularly so in tennis whites and pigtails). Moore is Rod Slater, the mine’s general manager. Rod Slater is just the kind of inevitably dull, square-jawed name that heroes in yarn of this ilk always labour under. But Moore plays Slater as he plays all his roles; charm personified, with a smirking wit. Unfortunately, the part as a whole doesn’t play to his strengths. As the straight romantic lead, he’s on the starchy side, even though he and York have a jolly chemistry (does Moore ever not have a smooth rapport with his co-stars?) His bedroom shenanigans leave little time for heroic stuff until the finale (action stylings have never been Rog’s strong point either) so he must make a virtue of cuckolding his boss Bradford Dillman. That’s okay, as Dillman represents the inhuman corporations, ready and willing to sacrifice a few hundred (or thousand) mineworkers in the name of profit.
Moore made this between Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun, and the Bond connections don’t end there; Peter Hunt, former Bond editor and director of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, makes his sophomore feature while the Bond helmer throughout the ’80s, John Glen, is the editor and second unit director. It’s clear that a sense of 007 adventuring is intended; this is a widescreen affair, introduced by a Don Black-penned theme song with Maurice Binder titles and featuring a Machiavellian plan not very far removed from the ones seen in Goldfinger and the later A View to a Kill. It also shares a feature with fellow Bond Connery’s ex-007 one-word movie titles from the period (Cuba, Meteor); it’s a bit crap. Any commentary on the status quo in South Africa is oblique, personified rather than posed as a political challenge. Not really all that surprising that they refrained from insulting their hosts.
So Slater is nominally positioned as the good (white, British) slave master, considerate of workers’ rights and butting heads with hateful racist (white, South African) Kowalski. This isn’t a film for subtle shadings, and Bernard Horsfall (who also appeared in Hunt’s solo Bond feature) manifests his intolerance through savage beatings rather than abusive language (the film is free of racist slurs, as far as I recall, so there’s no danger that will be on the side of realism; Moore even speaks of its apolitical qualities, as if it should be a badge of pride, which is very strange).
Predictably then, black South Africans get short shrift. The one significant supporting role goes to Simon Sabela as Big King, a noble fellow who receives a gold mining helmet for bravery and gets involved in staging traditional dance numbers for the white masters (it’s very nearly that stereotypical; presumably the producers thought they needed to advertise that they’d shot on the continent by including some Zulu garb, as that’s the first thing everyone equates with Africa?) Being noble, he is also consigned to noble self-sacrifice. Moore obviously felt he was making a positive statement by shooting pictures under apartheid, as he would return to South Africa for several more features. His autobiography is equivocal over the issue, but you wouldn’t expect Rog to present a discerning examination of the moral and ethical issues involved. He appears to consider his greatest Gold achievement to be a financial one. He forwent part of his salary in order to cover the costs of a remount of the mine flooding sequences at Pinewood. When he received no royalties as recompense, the legal wrangles that ensued resulted in his ownership of the picture. When his character claims to hate lousy gold, you can be certain it’s a sentiment Moore doesn’t share.
Hunt stages the climactic action with some aplomb; it may be set-bound, but there is a visceral quality that even Moore’s man of inaction can’t neuter. Both in the opening cave-in scenes and the finale, Hunt doesn’t stint on the ketchup. Moore’s arm is mashed into a bloody mess, there are amputations and a miner’s head looks as if it has been pulped (just the sort of thing to show during a Saturday afternoon on Channel 5, then). He less sure of himself during the protracted romance, clearly kicking his heels and trying to find some way to remain alert. Hence Moore and York at diner, shot through a wine glass. Or York’s leaving Moore’s house signalled by the removal of her foregrounded hat. And York’s left nipple (well, it distracted me).
The supporting cast are mostly a bunch of rotters, and their strong showing belies that they aren’t too well-served by the script. Bradford Dillman has a slight Anthony Perkins vibe, and does good work showing Steyner’s masked insecurities. He’s the reluctant underling to boss man Ray Milland (the “good” corporate, cigar-chewing and ignorant to price-rigging plan), but it’s the shot of him sitting in his car outside the hotel where Moore and York are canoodling that speaks loudest of his weaknesses. Still, he’s quite willing to let the affair continue if it means more greenbacks. The magnificent Tony Beckley (Camp Freddie in The Italian Job) plays Dillman’s Number Two, Marais. He gets the best line, “Just run along and get Santa Claus, and I’ll give him his instructions about going down the chimney”. John Gielgud picks up the cheque for a couple of days work as the ringleader. Also on the conspiratorial board is an Arab sheikh, complete with sunglasses.
The movie (which was released in December) takes place at Christmas, although it is thoroughly unfestive. The most striking scene takes place at the home a syndicate member who gets cold feet. A parcel arrives and the children gather round to discover what the present is. Then it explodes. Gold could have done with more of that sort of ballsiness and fewer longueurs. But, to an extent, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s exactly the sort of non-Bond movie you expect to see Roger Moore in during the ’70s.