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Non-Review Review: The Man With The Golden Gun

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

The Man With The Golden Gun is frequently derided as the worst film of the Roger Moore era, guilty of taking all the excesses of the period and turning them up to eleven. Being honest, I’m not entirely convinced. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a bad film – one of the worst Bond films – but I’m not entirely convinced that it is as universally disappointing as Moonraker or as ridiculously underwhelming as Octopussy. There is, I’d argue, very possibly one tiny little gem buried amid this trainwreck of a Bond film – the man with the golden gun himself, as played by Christopher Lee.

This foe is going to put Bond through his paces…

Did you ever get the sense that writers and directors wasted a perfectly good character on a completely pointless film? There’s that strange sensation that – if you took the character and the actor out of the mess that they are in – you could almost make them work? I get that feeling with the villain of this film, Scaramanga. The idea of a villain deciding to track down and hunt James Bond for sport is an interesting one, and perhaps one that deserves to be revisited, in this era of “darker and edgier” Bond films. Imagine Daniel Craig pitted against a man hired to track him down and kill him, his twisted mirror image? A man with whom he has “so much in common.”

The problem here is that Scaramanga is the mirror image of the wrong Bond. Christopher Lee manages to do a lot of good with his material – for example, this is one of the better relationships between Bond and villain, despite the fact that the scenes and the dialogue are fairly paint-by-numbers. Lee finds a way to make sharing his evil plans with the British secret agent seem like more than something that happens because the audience needs exposition, but something that the hitman needs to do.

Is Bond gunning for his rival?

“You get as much pleasure out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?” Scaramanga goads Bond at one point – the moment that it becomes clear to the audience that this Bond villain has arrived at least two movies too late (or five movies too early). Roger Moore’s Bond never seems to enjoy killing, rather treating it as that awkward act he does between sleeping with a beautiful woman and delivering a pithy one-liner. He’s being entirely honest when he explains that he only kills on government orders – indeed, Bond’s bodycount in this film is (uncharacteristically) in the low single digits (it’s quite possible he only kills Scaramanga).

It feels like a bit of a cheat to put Scaramanga against this Bond, who is whiter than white. Bond is made to appear an unblemished angel, when the audience knows that he’s capable of incredible brutality if the occasional calls for it. Bond is portrayed as a bit of a jerk in this film (more on that later), but it’s clear that Scaramanga just doesn’t understand the secret agent – when he has a perfect read on most other iterations.

Well, at least he has bling…

Of course, Scaramanga mirrors Bond in other ways – and ways which do, I suppose, apply to Roger Moore’s version of the character as much as they do to any other. There’s that disturbing hint of chauvinism in his dialogue. “A mistress cannot serve two masters,” he remarks of his recently deceased lover, clearly considering her little more than a decoration on his arm (and, in death, she still serves as little more than a prop). “Forget the girl,” he advises Bond, “she’s replaceable.” Just like virtually every Bond girl, whether she lives until the end of the movie or not. Much like Bond, to Scaramanga eros and thanos are linked – his sexual arousal is associated with mortal peril. He makes love “only before he kills.”

More specifically linked to Bond, Scaramanga also has a clear taste for ridiculous gadgets. Not only does he have the eponymous Golden Gun, which can be assembled from a variety of unassuming items, he also manages to evade Bond, at one point, “in a car that sprouted wings.” Clearly, the character has little sense of modesty.

Bond has a Nack for making enemies…

And, yet, he shares much of the same hypocritical attitudes towards “honour” and “high society” that Bond himself has shown over the years – Bond wears the evening wear of a gentleman, but is a jackal underneath. Although Bond describes “pistols at dawn” as “a little old-fashioned”, it’s clear that Scaramanga considers it “the only true test for gentlemen.” However, he cheats – in a duel at twenty paces, he runs and hides, luring Bond into a rigged target gallery that he designed – there’s no sense that he’s really playing fair, like a gentleman.

By the way, I don’t know if the film is parodying the whole “deformed villains” schtick, but really? A third nipple? I know that most Bond villains have a physical abnormality to reflect their twisted souls (Julius No, for example, has no hands; Blofeld has a scar, and later no earlobes; Largo is missing an eye; and so on), but this really seems a bit ridiculous. From what I remember, the third nipple was not a plot point in the book, so it’s obviously something added to the film – which makes it a rather odd addition, to be honest. And one which makes no sense unless it’s a self-aware jab at the rest of the series – but, if it is, it feels strangely out of place.

That’s not phallic at all…

However, as interesting as Scaramanga is, the rest of the movie is incredibly disappointing. The movie’s hook – appropriately enough given it was made in 1973 – is energy. “The energy crisis is still with us, sir,” Bond states at one point, a reference that could have dated the movie were the crisis not still on-going when the movie released. In many ways, The Man With The Golden Gun begins the theme of eco-friendly science being evil. You’ll notice a theme developing over the course of the series: Scaramanga’s clean and efficient means of solar power? Evil! Hugo Drax’s interest in plant biology? Evil! Stromberg’s fascination with marine biology? Evil! Colonel Moon’s solar-powered laser beam? Evil! Dominic Greene’s water conservation? Evil!

In the midst of all this, Bond is targeted for assassination by Scaramanga, the man with the golden gun – an assassin so skilled that he can charge $1,000,000 per solid-gold bullet. You’d think the stage would be set for a fun adventure, pitting two of the best gunmen in the world against each other. However, the problem is that the movie is essentially a really poor action comedy. The film’s humour takes a lot of the blame, but I can’t help but get the feeling it’s really the inconsistency which hurts the film. I get the sense that the movie might have been better playing it straight as an action comedy – instead it fluctuates between a straight action movie and flat-out (but quite unfunny) comedy.

Play the hand you’re dealt…

For example, the movie begins with a look instead novelty gun culture, as Bond investigates the assassin he believes has set his mark against him. There’s a scene in Beirut which almost feels like it was taken from a CSI episode investigating gun subculture, as Bond wanders into an underground gun shop. It feels like the kind of thing that the team would do, as they discover all the strange quirks of the subculture. Bond finds a man developing a gun for a person missing his fingers, and the informant even offers a defence of gun culture – “bullets don’t kill people,” he observes, like a member of the NRA.

It’s worth noting here how downright thuggish Bond over the course of the movie. He threatens the gun-maker for information, warning him that the gun “directly at your groin” – even Mulder in The X-Files has a more sophisticated way of making that particular threat (“As an employee of the National Security Agency, you should know that a gunshot wound to the stomach is probably the most painful and the slowest way to die… but I’m not a very good shot and when I miss… I tend to miss low…”). Similarly, Moore’s Bond is incredibly brutal in interrogating Scaramanga’s lady friend, pinning her by her arm and pressing her for information. “I’ll break it unless you tell me where those bullets go,” he warns her, before smacking her around a bit. Then walks in with champagne and two glasses… there’s a classy fellow. During the movie’s big boat chase, he tosses a kid off his boat – after the kid had fixed the engine for him.

“No, Mr. Bond! I expect you to dine!”

And that says nothing about how incredibly rude and condescending Bond is to Goodnight, referring to her car as an “inverted bedpan” when she first arrives and then spending the rest of the movie toying with her obvious attraction to him. “I’ll buy you dinner tonight,” he promises Goodnight at one point, like it’s an obligation. Nevermind that she’s one of the most incompetent Bond girls in the entire franchise, it still makes Bond look like a dick. Maybe the point is to contrast Bond against Scaramanga. However, I’d argue the more apt comparison between the two would be “they’re both killers” rather than “they’re both complete jerks” – it’s not like being a jerk equates to being a sociopathic killer.

Britt Ekland makes for one of Moore’s incredibly pointless Bond girls. I mean, at least characters like Pussy Galore and Domino were tied to the plot in some vaguely important way. Goodnight just serves to be a ridiculous and incompetent spy who proves more of a threat to Bond’s mission than the eponymous assassin. She inadvertently (and completely unnecessarily) destroys the bad guy’s lair and nearly kills Bond (repeatedly). Still, Britt Ekland manages to mildly less annoying than Jill St. John in Diamonds Are Forever, even if only marginally so.

Car-ry on, indeed…

And then there’s the movie’s comedy. A lot of it is painfully unfunny, but some of the gags do work. However, I’d be slightly more forgiving if the movie wore its comedy on its sleeve. Instead, the movie expects you to take it seriously one moment, and indulge the ridiculousness the next moment. Bond’s disguise (Scaramanga’s third nipple) is played for laughs – “really, 007?” Q asks. M’s headquarters is inside a slanted ship (and the Chinese don’t suspect anything?). During a fight for his life, Bond defeats a villain with a wedgie. A slide whistle undermines and ruins what’s actually a wonderfully impressive car stunt. That’s the problem – in any other Bond film, that stunt would be incredible, but here it just can’t be taken seriously.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of what is wrong with this movie is that Clifton James gets an “as” credit, turning up again as Sheriff J.W. Pepper. He appeared in Live And Let Die, almost singlehandedly ruining a chase sequence, and he does even more here. However racial insensitive Roger Moore’s first outing might have been, somehow I doubt that residents of Louisiana were flattered by the stereotypical hick who just keeps stating that he’s a Louisiana sheriff. Here he uses the wonderfully politically correct phrases “little brown water hog” and “pointy head” to refer to the locals. It’s hard not to get the sense that Bond was speaking for the audience when he silently mouths “shut up” to the character at the climax of a chase sequence.

Everybody was kung-fu fighting!

Another aspect which really dates the film is that mid-seventies fascination with kung-fu, much like the late-seventies fascination with space shown in Moonraker. The combat sequences don’t really fit particularly well with the rest of the film, and the plan to kill Bond by sending him to karate school seems an especially ridiculous manner of dispatching the secret agent – it’s almost as silly as building him into an oil pipeline. Seriously – the guy’s unconscious, so just drive out into a field and shoot him in the head (repeatedly, to be sure).

Although the oriental fetishism isn’t quite as strong here as it was in You Only Live Twice – what with the multiple subservient Japanese girls bathing Bond and all that – there is still a rather seedy feeling to the way that the East is portrayed here. There are even a pair of young Asian schoolgirls on display, for all your pervy needs. One gets the sense that the series couldn’t get away with the sleazy topless bar – the “Bottoms Up” club (which opened three years before the film was released) – if the film were set anywhere but Asia. I can’t see “Bond visits London topless bar” seeming exotic rather than sleazy, but here he gets a pass because it’s located in Beirut.

Unfortunately, all that glitters…

And, because I’ve nowhere else to put it, continuing the theme of the production crew’s difficulty with reflective surfaces (you could see them reflected in a window at the finale of Live And Let Die), here you can see them reflected in a mirror during a dressing room fight. A falling goon knocks over the table, and there the crew is, just staring at the action. I can’t believe nobody in post-production spotted that.

The Man With The Golden Gun is a waste of a perfectly good concept, instead simply treading water and not getting up to anything exciting. To be honest, I’d suggest that the novel deserves another shot – give Daniel Craig a chance to make a proper “Bond against his shadow” thriller which is meant to be intense and suspenseful rather than ridiculous and campy. As it stands, it’s a rather disappointing little film – just about the only good thing that came from the mess is the fact that it led the production team to put together The Spy Who Loved Me, much as Moonraker would prompt For Your Eyes Only.

We have complete reviews of all of the Roger Moore films available, if you are interested:

The following bloggers have written reviews of this film as part of James Bond January:

11 Responses

  1. Loving your idea of Bond 23 being this book again, or Bond evading another hitman for the duration. Did you see “the trip” on BBC lately? Coogan and Brydon repeated the “You enjoy killing…” line about 20 times in one scene, had me in hysterics.

    The forward-thinking villain / “Evil!” rant also made me laugh out loud. Good work. And the shitty whistle in the car chase – absolutely unforgivable!!! Almost like it’d been lifted straight out of a Carry On film.

    If the ‘James Bond is one single agent” theory is correct I guess Scaramanga could have reason to believe Bond is (or was in previous adventures) a ruthless cold-blooded killer when he needs to be.

    Good review, although I’m not as harsh on this film.

    • Thanks. Maybe I was harsh, but it is a bad film. Not as bad as Octopussy, which even my nostalgia filter can’t bring me to love – but still bad.

      Haven’t seen the Trip, though I must. Did like your Alan Partridge Spy Who Loved Me clip, though.

      • about 1/2 way through the Bond Impressions kick in. Worth watching the whole lot though. And yes, Partridge clip is great too. Coogan’s definitely a massive Bond fan.

  2. who cares about the film? great song.

    • I’m not too keen on it, but that’s possibly because it’s surrounded on one side by Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die and, on the other, Nobody Does It Better. Any Bond theme in that position would need to be certified awesome in order to even appear on the radar.

  3. Christopher Lee certainly steals the show with this one. A bad movie, though? Perhaps. As you stated, “Octopussy” and “Moonraker” are probably the worst of the Moore outings. I’d argue that “A View to a Kill” is also lower on the totem than “Golden Gun.” I’d even venture to leapfrog this picture over “The Spy Who Loved Me” or “Live and Let Die” for a snug third place among the Moore pictures.

    J.W. does get on my nerves quite fiercely, though, I’ll admit. I go back and forth by quite a large margin on how well I like the Moore films at all: it mostly depends on how serious I’m feeling.

    • So your top two are For Your Eyes Only and…?

      Nah, I have a soft spot for A View to a Kill. It has no pretensions about being a good film and just goes with whatever takes its fancy.

  4. Good review. You’re right. This film would have been way better if Connery or Dalton did it.

    This is probably my least favorite Moore film. Yes, it had a great concept (of dueling assassins) and a memorable performance by Christopher Lee but the movie was so confused.

    It was muddled, unfocused between the maudlin dark scenes and the meandering stupid gags. But overall, I can’t say it did anything ambitious or creative either.

  5. I can’t for the life of me understand the hating on this movie. It truly depends on what s person finds entertaining. This one, Diamonds are forever, in fact all the Connery movies do it for me. I agree JW Pepper wad odd in this movie, but he is funny. I like Moore’s brutish style in this one. He almost pulled off a Connery. I also love the song by Lulu.
    Hey, anyone else want to defend this movie ?

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