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The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Roger Moore, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Maud Adams, Herve Villechaize, Richard Loo

Written By: Richard Maibaum, Tom Mankiewicz Directed By: Guy Hamilton

The Short Version

Roger Moore’s second turn as 007 is not nearly as good as his first.

There is a great half hour in this movie… which is over two hours long.

The creative team didn’t quite know what they wanted here, and it shows.

But hey, at least they cast Christopher Lee, who is beyond reproach.

The Man with the Golden Gun is one of the weakest James Bond movies.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


I’m not even sure that the people who make it know what’s really in it, or why.

Pairs Well With...


Bond is served this fictitious wine that lives up to its name… and I think the audience gets a major swig, too.

“You're that secret agent!  That English secret agent!  From England!  Let's go get 'em!  I'm with you all the way!”

Stepping back, The Man with the Golden Gun is really two movies that got mashed together in the shotgun wedding from hell.

The first movie is a duel between titans.  It pits the world’s greatest secret agent, James Bond, 007 (Roger Moore, The Quest), against the world’s greatest professional killer, Francisco Scaramanga, aka The Man with the Golden Gun (Christopher Lee, The Face of Fu Manchu).  A bit of subterfuge on the part of a lovely lady (Maud Adams, Rollerball) brings Bond to the private island of Scaramanga, who has secretly idolized the master spy for years and who considers Bond to be the only opponent who might prove to be a true test of his talents as an assassin.  After a few brief moments of conversation, the two men enter into a contest of skill that only one of them can survive.  It is a taut, exciting story that is absolutely riveting to watch from start to finish.

Let’s talk about that one first, shall we?

It is, of course, entirely driven by the title character, who is indeed an outstanding opponent for 007 and whose skills provide an exceptionally worthy challenge for our constant hero.  He is played with marvelous conviction by Ian Fleming’s own cousin, Christopher Lee, whose screen presence automatically lends weight to the character’s described reputation and who ought to stand as one of the most memorable Bond villains of all time.  A veteran of playing characters who dwell on the dark side of the tracks – Dracula, anyone? – Lee knows how to portray a villain who takes on just enough of a hero’s qualities that audiences find themselves subconsciously rooting for him even as they cheer for his downfall.  It’s a neat trick if you can play it, and Lee plays it very, very well indeed. 

Because of this, Scaramanga comes across as every bit James Bond’s equal, making their duel and all of the small discussions that lead up to it that much more gratifying to witness.  It is indeed a satisfaction one doesn’t always get from a Bond film, since so many series villains can’t actually face up to 007 in a fight, thus denying viewers a real “showdown” at the finish.  Even occasional smatterings of early-mid 70s cheese can’t take away from the power that is the mano-a-mano “clash of the titans” that marks what should be the central focus of The Man with the Golden Gun as a whole rather than existing as a film-wthin-a-film.

Alas, the tale of Scaramanga vs. Bond is only about a half hour long, give or take, and keeps getting interrupted by snippets of a much longer, often incoherent, and utterly inferior movie that the audience is supposed to believe is somehow related to the first one.  (This feat is perhaps best accomplished by ingesting vast quantities of cheap alcohol, but ultimately, I leave that decision with you, the film’s potential audience.)  The first movie I mentioned may be good, but it’s not good enough to save the second one.  Good enough to keep the film as a whole watchable – barely – but not enough to make it worth recommending.  Cue the sommelier to bring out the Phuyuck ’74; it’s time to watch The Man with the Golden Gun fall apart.

Stories abound regarding “creative differences” behind the scenes of The Man with the Golden Gun, and they are all too easy to believe.  Since the creative team wasn’t really following Ian Fleming’s lead anymore (they take only the smallest of elements from Fleming’s novel of the same title, which is generally regarded as one of his worst), they had to come up with more material from whole cloth than they’d done for any previous film in the series, and they don’t seem to have been able to decide exactly what kind of movie they wanted to make.  Sure, there’s the taut duel mentioned above… but that seems to be more of an accident than a deliberate masterstroke given everything else that surrounds it: a hodgepodge of random popular culture and conflicting views on just what sort of atmosphere was being reached for.

The Energy Crisis was big news in the 1970s, so that became the catalyst behind the “larger plot” that swallows up the one the movie gets its title from, said “larger plot” being a chase to get the one and only prototype of a device that can solve all of the world’s energy problems by supercharging solar power generators.  (Look, it’s no bigger than a deck of cards!  How convenient!)  And hey, martial arts were becoming popular, so an entire nonsensical sequence involving Bond breaking out of a karate school (complete with bad guy Bruce Lee lookalike) was tossed in at the last minute.  And since none of the action was taking place in the United States, it was decided that the best way to fill the “pandering to America” quota that started being a “thing” with Diamonds Are Forever would be to have an extended reappearance of the one character nobody liked from Live and Let Die, the racist blowhard who loves to announce himself as Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James, Superman II)!

With that said, the large infusions of pop culture aren’t the problem (see the films that come immediately before and after this one in the 007 franchise for proof); the randomness of them is.  It’s as though the script, like the book from which it gets its name was rumored to be, was never actually finished before being put in front of the public.  Nothing ties together in a coherent fashion, and the resulting jumble makes absolutely no sense at all.  If the British Secret Service asked its agents to either resign or go on leave every time a nasty person made a threat, how would they ever get anything done?  Why should a single-minded professional like Scaramanga even want to take over a solar energy scheme?  Why would a bigot like Pepper even want to vacation in Asia?  And isn’t it damn convenient that after Bond is forced off active duty to either hide from or deal with Scaramanga, the person Scaramanga just happens to kill right in front of 007 just happens to be the very man he’d been looking for on his last assignment as 007?  This isn’t a plot; it’s a lot of disjointed elements held together by nothing more than the writers’ wishful thinking.

And if all of that wasn’t silly enough…

Imagine you have one of the most incredible automotive stunts ever performed, much less filmed.  A car jumps over a river while doing a complete barrel roll and lands successfully on the other side… on the first take.  No tricks, no wires, no computer fakery; a real stunt of the sort that is unlikely to ever be filmed again.  This should be one of the greatest Bond action sequences of all time… except that some jackass decided to ruin it with carnival sound effects.  Why?!

Infuriating as that may be, however, it is wholly insignificant when set against the character atrocity known as Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland, Get Carter), easily one of the worst Bond girls of all time and indeed one of the most annoying characters of any kind in the entire series.  There’s no other way to say it: she is the magnified stereotype of the airheaded blonde, minus the exaggerated endowments.  This woman is so stupid that you won’t even believe that she’s capable of dressing herself, much less serving as an agent for Her Majesty’s Government.  Her idiocy is so overblown as to be a distraction, and what’s worse, the writers have the audacity to play it up as a significant plot device.  (Seriously; this movie could have ended at the hour and twenty minute mark.  Done; all problems solved.  Except for the dipstick locking herself in the bad guy’s trunk, MacGuffin in hand.)  Even thinking about this character makes me want to drink.

Meanwhile, not even James Bond himself can escape the botched execution of The Man with the Golden Gun unscathed.  Despite having found a successful formula for Moore-as-Bond in the previous film, the writers this time decided to have a go at making the character more like Fleming’s literary Bond: a character who is cold and cruel at the best of times and who occasionally treads into the realm of the sadistic.  It’s a pitfall that the folks at Eon had deftly avoided from the very beginning by creating a more personable Bond for the screen in Dr. No, but here, for no apparent reason, they chose to mess with things and turn him into an asshole who prefers to threaten defenseless women with limb breakage and shove children into the water.  Especially given the circus atmosphere of the film as a whole – not to mention the fact that this was being released to the very same public that had championed the yellow smiley face button as a fashion accessory – this was a gross miscalculation, and it was not received well even at the time.  Indeed, that combined with everything else noted above helped to make The Man with the Golden Gun a critical failure and a box office disappointment, and led some to question the continued viability of the franchise just after it had finished getting over its first major identity crisis.

Twenty years too early, that little experiment.

Stepping back, I’m still vexed that the very same people who wrote and filmed the Scaramanga vs. Bond parts of this film could have looked at the rest of it and pronounced the collected mass a good, coherent whole.  Thanks to that one angle, an outstanding performance by Christopher Lee, and the general mystique that comes with being a 007 film, The Man with the Golden Gun is still watchable… but just barely so.  I’m certainly not going to suggest it as one of the first few movies that someone unfamiliar with the series should see; indeed, I instead consider it to be one of the worst films in the entire series.

Bottom line, The Man with the Golden Gun is a film in desperate need of a rewrite and a little bit of crew shuffling.  If you’re a fan of Christopher Lee, go for it without reservations, but for everyone else… there are at least twenty other Bond flicks that are better than this one.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, June, 2013

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