Often heralded as the worst James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun definitely has it problems. In this edition ofAcross the Bond we definitely are happy to tell you about them. It’s one of those times where something you love is bad so you dislike it even more. Though I would argue it isn’t the worst of the Bond films neither Xander or I really like it.
I try to play a bit of devil’s advocate here, but fail pretty bad and Xander doesn’t even attempt to. What we can thank the film for is Christopher Lee as Scaramanga. A saving grace of epic proportions.
There’s a long-standing theory that the strength of a Bond movie can be determined by its villain. This is utter bollocks, to put it mildly. Some of the worst Bond movies have some of the best villains, and a few of the good ones – You Only Live Twice, Spy Who Loved Me, Living Daylights – have set Bond against fairly rote opposition.* Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga is a case in point, a charismatic and sinister antagonist stuck in a thoroughly stupid, often tedious movie. Lee, cousin to Bond creator Ian Fleming and once suggested for the series’ lead role, enlivens every scene he’s in, with his cruel wit and debonair manner making an engaging foil for Roger Moore. It’s a shame the contrast between the two isn’t greater, because Bond is mean-spirited throughout, particularly towards the female characters. He slaps Andrea Anders around in her hotel room, then later has sex with her after bundling main squeeze Mary Goodnight into a cupboard. In fact, he’d look even worse were it not for the other ‘friendly’ characters being in similarly lousy moods: one of Bond’s allies inexplicably leaves him for dead, and even Moneypenny is uncharacteristically snappy.
*If any such measure can be applied, judging a movie by its Bond girl is far more accurate, if hardly perfect.
Scaramanga, though, is actually pretty interesting, in addition to being one of the few characters who smiles occasionally. Unlike Bond, who works for Queen and country, Scaramanga’s only allegiance is to himself. He kills for no other reason than his personal enjoyment, and his interest in the solex agitator, the MacGuffin driving a particularly aimless subplot, is not for political or financial gain, but as a practical means of providing power to his island lair. His sexual appetites show a perversity absent in the prolific but vanilla Bond, seemingly deriving pleasure from running the barrel of his signature weapon over Andrea Anders’ naked body, before becoming angry when she responds with neither fear nor arousal. He’s obviously pretty stingy too, with his island power station run by a single hired goon (hired goon?) who doesn’t even have the nous to prevent Mary Goodnight from knocking him out, into one of the vats which will cause the entire lair to self-destruct, natch.
Goodnight, played by former Mrs. Peter Sellers Britt Eckland, is one of the most helpless and inept Bond girls to ever disgrace the silver screen. Her uselessness as an MI6 agent is a running joke throughout, and a tedious one at that. Her contributions to the movie mostly involve getting mistreated by Bond, and bungling every straightforward task she’s set. Near the end of the movie, she even manages to reverse her arse into a button activating a solar laser, which almost takes Bond’s quizzical eyebrows clean off. Britt Eckland tries to be charming, but no-one could salvage such an irredeemable ‘character’: why M apparently sees her as a valuable asset is one of the most inexplicable elements of a movie which barely hangs together at the best of times. Andrea Anders is far and away the better of the two main female characters, with future Octopussy lead Maud Adams creating a tangible sense of her character’s fear of Scaramanga and the lengths she’s willing to go to liberate herself from him. That slither of sympathy makes her death scene one of the movie’s most powerful, doubly so since it precipitates the first face-to-face meeting between Bond and Scaramanga, but even the most forgiving viewers will only rue Goodnight not being the one to take an early bow.
Such misjudgments are a persistent feature of the movie, most notable in the return of Sheriff J.W. Pepper from Live And Let Die. There’s no reason for him to be in the movie, and the writers even resort to having him visit a car showroom WHILE ON HOLIDAY IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY just for the purpose of forcing him into a car chase. (I’d like to think this is a subtle joke about Western holidaygoers doing the same stuff abroad as they do at home, though the movie is far too stupid to deserve such credit). Pepper was an ugly caricature in his first outing, despite a handful of vaguely amusing lines, but his worst attributes are multiplied tenfold here. The famous stunt where Bond’s car pulls off a 360 degree spin in middair whilst jumping between two bridges is astonishing (moreso for having been executed by stunt driver ‘Bumps’ Willard in a single take), but unforgivably ruined by a comedy whistle sound effect and Pepper’s ‘Wowee!’ reaction.
The movie has nothing in common with Fleming’s book, although neither are particularly successful. Fleming died before he could complete a second draft, and apart from a stunning opening chapter where a brainwashed Bond attempts to assassinate M, it’s a slow, dreary affair with little of the originality or experimental flair which the author brought to his best efforts. It’s also home to the baffling notion that gay people can’t whistle, a weirdly idiotic idea even by Fleming’s less than progressive standards. Overall, the novel doesn’t sink to the same depths as the movie, but nor does it share the handful of outlandish concepts which provide a few highlights amid the gloom: midget butler Nick Nack, the funhouse shooting gallery (complete with wax Bond statue, making the movie’s ending predictable even before the titles sequence) or Scaramanga’s DIY golden gun (in the novel, it’s just a gold-plated revolver). The Man With The Golden Gun was a disappointing finale for Fleming’s literary Bond, and even worse as Roger Moore’s sophomore outing in the movie series.
OK, I’m going to do it. I’m going to defend The Man with the Golden Gun. The film is often accused of being the worst Bond film made (that honor belongs to Diamonds in my opinion), and as Xander clearly noted it has many, many, many, many flaws. Unlike Xander, however, I think a great Bond villain can entirely save a Bond film and Scarmanga is a great Bond villain. He almost totally makes up for the film’s lesser parts. Once Bond arrives on Scaramanga’s private island and the interplay is between the two of them it make sup for a lot. Their dinner discussion before their duel with Scaramanga attempting to bait Bond into admitting he enjoys killing is possibly one of the most philosophical and interesting discussion Bond ever has. Moore, in one of most Bondian performances, retorts back with one-liners perfectly despite clearly being upset by Scaramanga’s jabs. It is a great scene that leads into a decently tense show down between the two in Scaramanga’s shooting gallery.
The film also offers up some of Bond’s most memorable locales. Of course the now named James Bond Island as Scaramanga’s home base is beyond gorgeous, but the film hops all over Asia. The use of long-tail boats for a chance sequence is especially cool for a sort of exotic flavor, despite the scene being interrupted multiple times by Pepper and his insanely racial slurs. In fact while much of the settings are gorgeous to look out most of Golden Gun is incredibly insensitive to the cultures they’re shooting. Bond’s time in Japan is littered with cliches like killer sumo wrestlers, which is made even more strange because just a few years earlier the country seemed to be offered a bit more reverence in You Only Live Twice. It’s almost as if one of the screenwriters just took a bad trip to Asia and wanted to seek out revenge by portraying it as poorly as possible.
Xander points out that Bond is exceptionally cruel in this film, and that’s definitely true. There’s just a mean streak running through him throughout the entire movie. This was clearly a move to try to make Roger Moore more like Sean Connery’s grittier Bond (though Connery hadn’t been that gritty by the time he left), and it backfires almost entirely. I say almost, because when he’s dealing with Scaramanga or the man who makes Scaramang’s bullets this cruel side actually works. It hints that the two are more alike than Bond would like to admit, and if the film had been handled a bit better it would have made for a much better contrast. Still, Moore as a human being is almost entirely at odds with the action he takes on the screen and it shows. Instead of the hard edged spy that Connery showed he just seems like an ass when he twists Andrea Ander’s arm. It’s not the only place that the film doesn’t play to Moore’s Bond either. Whomever thought it would be a good idea to put him in the middles of a kung fu fight clearly had missed his fist fights in Live and Let Die. At the time of the film’s creation Bruce Lee was popularizing kung fu throughout America, so it’s understandable why this fight was included (Bond has always either created or adapted to current trends in action), but they shouldn’t have let Moore do any real fighting. What a perfect time for an Indian Jones-esque kill. Thankfully that section is pretty brief and Moore is saved by two kung fu girls at the end of the sequence.
Which brings us to the slide whistle… in a round about way that make sense in my head. If Xander is going to use Britt Eckland as an example of everything that is wrong with this movie then I’m going to use the slide whistle. Here’s an amazing stunt that is pretty much going to make everyone in the theater be amazed and all you have to do is let it happen. But they can’t just let it happen, they put a slide whistle over it and encase it with Bond speaking in a fake southern accent and Pepper going “Wooohoo!” Much like the film could have just let Moore and Christopher Lee work wonders (and they two do when allowed), but it doesn’t. Instead opting to toss in a bunch of gimmicks (kung fu, Pepper, Nick Nack, giant laser, Britt Eckland in a bikini) to attempt to pointlessly ruin something they could have just let worked. Hell, I could even stand Goodnight’s rampant idiocy if they had simply kept out all the other needless crap. What is it with Bond writers and giant laser guns? It’s either that or a nuclear bomb! There are other destructive forces in the world, people. And could the title song be any dumber? It just explains the plot of the movie!
There, I meant to defend Man with the Golden Gun because I think that Lee’s Scaramanga makes up for all the bad stuff and I ended up tearing the movie apart again. That damn slide whistle really pisses me off.