Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this autumn, the Bond Reloaded series takes a weekly look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. This week, masculinity and duelling butt heads with renewable energy and an iconic villain in The Man with the Golden Gun.
During the Connery era, it always felt like Ernst Stavro Blofeld was being built as Bond’s equal. Unfortunately, though, the films never quite delivered on the promise of a physical and mental challenge for Ian Fleming’s superspy. In fact, Bond’s true equal didn’t arise until he locked horns with Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun.
The film is handed even more poignancy with the recent passing of Christopher Lee, who was immediately one of Bond’s more unforgettable villains. There are plenty of issues with The Man with the Golden Gun, but they certainly do not come from its masterfully Machiavellian antagonist.
Adapted from Fleming’s final Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun cemented Moore’s take on 007 as a more light-hearted, quip-happy character who could still kick arse when necessary.
Girls and gold
Originally, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli wanted to make The Man with the Golden Gun after You Only Live Twice. However, the planned filming location of Cambodia was being rocked by an uprising at the time, so the team made On Her Majesty’s Secret Service instead. With the novel’s Jamaican location moved to the Far East, The Man with the Golden Gun got moving as the second film to feature Roger Moore as James Bond.
Guy Hamilton, who had helmed the last two Bond films, returned to the director’s chair for what would be the last time. Saltzman, too, ended his Bond involvement when filming wrapped on this film.
The film follows Bond’s pursuit of renowned assassin Scaramanga, sparked when a golden bullet bearing the number 007 arrives at MI6. With the help of agent Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), Bond investigates Scaramanga’s potential involvement in the smuggling of a device that could help to provide reliable, efficient solar power, solving the energy crisis.
"I like a girl in a bikini. No concealed weapons."
Roger Moore was already an assured Bond in Live and Let Die, but he is nothing short of buoyant in The Man with the Golden Gun. The script, which went through iterations from seasoned Bond writers Tom Mankiewicz and Richard Maibaum, is packed with the kind of quips that would come to define Moore’s tenure at the end of the Walther PPK. Moore also manages some more aggressive moments, including a bruising fight scene at a karate school.
When we first meet Britt Ekland as Goodnight, she seems like more than the average Bond girl. The script skirts intriguingly around the history that seems to exist between the two and paints Goodnight as a prickly character capable of avoiding Bond’s charm. Unfortunately, this aspect of the character soon disappears in favour of having her run around in a bikini waiting for Bond to rescue her. Straight after Rosie Carver in Live and Let Die, it seems intelligence services are incapable of hiring women who can do their job.
The Man with the Golden Gun does benefit from some of the Bond series’ best action to date. The karate scenes are excellent, aided by some bruising work by Moore and his stunt doubles, and the car somersault jump is rightly iconic, despite its overly kooky sound effect and the incredibly questionable return of redneck cop JW Pepper. It’s the final funhouse duel, however, that is the best sequence in the entire film. Speaking of which…
Moore meets his match
Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga is not the kind of cardboard cut-out villain that has so often populated Bond films. He is a well-developed character who is desperate to finally have the chance to spar with the man he knows will present his greatest challenge. In Scaramanga, Bond meets a man who can trade wit and weaponry with him.
This also plays into The Man with the Golden Gun’s central story strand of Bond’s fallibility. There are several moments in the film in which Bond is openly scolded by M for mistakes he makes. It’s a rare instance in that it portrays Bond as a more human character, crucial to create intrigue around the final showdown between Bond and Scaramanga.
Something as simple as a Wild West shootout would usually be out of character for Bond, but in this case, it’s as if Bond needs to prove something to himself. He is doubting his own abilities and so needs to strip away all of the bravado to reaffirm his own abilities. It’s no coincidence that Scaramanga’s fun house is full of mirrors; Bond is being forced to take a look at himself.
"You’re that secret agent. That English secret agent. From England!"
It’s a shame that Lee’s performance as Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun didn’t set a blueprint for more mentally elaborate Bond villains. Bond would get many intelligent adversaries in his future, but few were as much of a physical and intellectual match for him as Scaramanga.
Much more in keeping with the Bond villain archetypes is Scaramanga’s henchman Nick Nack. The lion’s share of Nick Nack’s screen time is devoted to the film laughing at dwarf actor Hervé Villechaize’s size rather than providing him with anything approaching actual menace. The final scene, in which Bond stuffs him into a suitcase, is the prime example of something that might’ve been funny in the 1970s, but just feels in bad taste now.
A golden legacy?
Released just before Christmas in 1974, The Man with the Golden Gun managed to scoop just less than $100m at the worldwide box office. This makes it the fourth lowest grossing film in the Bond franchise to date, which is a shame given the terrific work of the film’s two lead actors. In The Essential Bond, the advertising campaign for the film is called “anaemic”, suggesting that it was marketing that might have let the film down at the box office.
The Man with the Golden Gun struggled to impress critics on its initial release. Derek Malcolm wrote, in a savage Guardian review, that “maybe enough’s enough” for the franchise, not knowing what the subsequent forty years would hold for the superspy. Nora Sayre in the New York Times was even more damning, citing a “poverty of invention and excitement” at the heart of the film.
There hasn’t been much of a mellowing of critical opinion over time either, with modern reviewers equally sure that The Man with the Golden Gun is a bit of a turkey. In 2006, IGN called it the worst Bond film ever, citing “sloppy and silly” execution and the inexplicable side effect that trashes the otherwise excellent car stunt.
"You get as much pleasure out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?"
Whatever its flaws, The Man with the Golden Gun is one of the best films of the Roger Moore era and deserves praise for its attempt to turn Bond into a more interesting character than the archetype of a flawless hero. If nothing else, this film should be remembered as a showcase for the quite incredible ability of Christopher Lee to convey remarkable evil and charming charisma at exactly the same time.
Next week, Bond travels underwater in a Lotus and meets a henchman with real bite in The Spy Who Loved Me.
What do you think of The Man with the Golden Gun? How does Christopher Lee shape up as a Bond villain? Let me know in the comments section and keep your eyes peeled for more Bond Reloaded next Monday.