The Man With the Golden Gun: Great Villain, Lousy Bond Movie

Roger Moore comes up against the excellent Christopher Lee in our look back at The Man With The Golden Gun...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The Film: Lousy, quite frankly. Throws away a brilliant premise and the best villain of the James Bond series. A decent if uninspiring first act slides into an utterly shambolic second. Clarity is left by the wayside, dignity jettisoned swiftly after. The Solex Agitator must be the dullest MacGuffin in cinema, the villain’s lair is a solar power plant operated by a single henchman (who looks highly unqualified in thermal energy). Potentially strong scenes are sabotaged by nonsensical additions: Goodnight in the wardrobe, the ‘whoop’ noise as the car corkscrews over the river.

The Villain: Destroys the received wisdom that a Bond film is measured by its antagonist. Were that the case, The Man With the Golden Gun would be a stone cold classic. Francisco Scaramanga is the baddie benchmark. He is far more compelling than Bond and certainly the one I’m rooting for during the final duel. Christopher Lee deserved better. He elevates a terrible film into something vaguely watchable but a wonderful actor is totally squandered. Arguably the biggest crime perpetuated in a Bond flick.

The Girl: Despite lucking out on the villain, the film gets the heroine it deserves. Mary Goodnight is the kind of Bond girl who gives the others a bad name. Blonde, incompetent, besotted with Bond and shoved aside at every opportunity, she exists only as eye-candy and unfunny comic relief. That Goodnight supersedes the far superior Andrea Anders doesn’t help her cause. Were Britt Ekland not an actress of genuine charm, Goodnight would be utterly unbearable. Instead she is highly irritating. Progress!

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Some Bond films I love, some I tolerate, some I actively dislike. But this is the only Bond that makes me angry. Granted, it is a relative anger: my nights are not paced away, the moon is left unhowled at. Perhaps “bitterness” is a more apt word; or maybe “despair” fits snuggest. Semantics aside, the key point is The Man With the Golden Gun stirs dark feelings within, feelings best left unstirred.

What riles me so? The waste! Such a waste of a brilliant premise and a brilliant performance by Christopher Lee. Bond and his dark mirror-image locked in a fatal struggle for supremacy. Scaramanga – the most Bond-villain name imaginable – a hitman who requires only one shot, obsessed with the only man he sees as his equal. The seemingly invincible 007, finally outmatched…? How. Could. You. Mess. That. Up?

The answers include Mary Goodnight, fighting schoolgirls, Sheriff Pepper, Bond being a dick to everyone, and a plot involving an energy crisis that occurred in 1973.

The first 45 minutes isn’t good but is certainly tolerable. And compared to the following one-hour-15 it’s Casablanca. The pre-credits scene is actually very strong. We experience the Funhouse through the eyes of the befuddled gangster whose assassination mission just got seriously weird. Obviously Scaramanga must win, but his lack of weapon and the madness of the Funhouse create a highly engaging scene – far more engaging than the climatic duel itself.

This is partly unavoidable: once we know what’s coming – Al Capone et al – the Funhouse loses its mystery and the inevitably successful Bond is a less effective companion than the doomed gangster. The logic of horror films applies: the real thrills come when the monster strikes.

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Bond tracking down the bullet supplies a brief sense of purpose (how incredibly fortunate the belly dancer decided to stick it in her navel rather than bin or flog it).

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The soft-spoken gunsmith Lazar is a wonderfully creepy figure: one of those memorable minor roles Bond does so well. You can view Bond threatening Lazar with his own weaponry as either refreshingly tough or needlessly spiteful. I err towards the former but concede Bond plays a risky game by firing a bullet through Lazar’s legs. Shooting your only lead in the groin is rarely a wise move.

It seems strange to laud a scene as unpleasant as Bond’s interrogation of Andrea in her hotel room. He bullies and threatens her into supplying information. Physical violence occurs: Andrea’s arm is twisted and her face slapped. I completely understand dislike toward this scene and agree a line is crossed. But there is also an edge present so patently lacking from the rest of the film – and indeed Moore’s entire output. He is cold, vicious and entirely single-minded. When he snarls of Scaramanga, “I want him there,” he sounds like the killer of Connery and Craig.

“There” is the Bottoms Up club. In one of the few remaining scenes of tension, Bond waits fruitlessly outside for Scaramanga to appear. Instead Gibson, creator of the utterly underwhelming Solex Agitator, is shot by Scaramanga from a window. Serves you right, Gibson! Why didn’t you create a shark bomb or a Death Star?

Might as well tackle the Solex. The plot derives from the 1973 energy crisis because in no way would that date the film. And gee, you don’t get more exciting than renewable energy! At one point M helpfully recounts the problems with alternative energy forms: “Coal and oil will soon be depleted, uranium is too dangerous, geothermal tidal control too expensive…” Can you feel the stakes rising?

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Hence the importance of the Agitator, described by Q as “the essential unit to convert radiation from the sun into electricity on an industrial basis!” As quotes go it isn’t exactly “No Mr Bond I expect you to die!” but I guess it makes Greenpeace happy. Although anybody whose attention strays during this monumentally dull scene is doomed to spend the remainder of the film wondering why Bond and Scaramanga are fighting over a Game Boy.

From Russia With Love also involves a MacGuffin (the Lektor) and the planned death of Bond as its plot. But From Russia had the sense to treat the Lektor solely as a plot device. Instead the film focused on Bond’s fight for survival against SPECTRE; a simple and effective narrative.

Golden Gun is obsessed with the Solex. It turns up again and again, passed from one character to another, lost and recaptured. Unforgivably, after Scaramanga’s death, we endure five minutes of Bond attempting to pry the Solex from some random machine, unwittingly at risk of getting lasered because Goodnight sat on a button. It would be hilarious if he actually died that way. Accidentally executed by Goodnight’s straying arse.

Poor Goodnight. Britt Ekland is charming in the role but she fights a losing battle with the script. Indignity upon indignity is poured upon Goodnight’s pretty blonde head. She’s infatuated with Bond, while he treats her like a woodlouse in a burger. She’s meant to be a work colleague for crying out loud!

Although incompetent doesn’t do Goodnight justice. She is a greater threat to Western civilisation than Scaramanga and SPECTRE combined. How desperate is MI6 for agents in Hong Kong? The qualification process must have involved basic weapons training and a Word Search.

The dojo bit is just weird. Understandably, villains – here Hai Fat, an identical role to Osato in You Only Live Twice – will opt for an excessively unpleasant, eminently escapable execution when Bond is at their mercy. This is only natural. Being arrogant psychopaths means simply shooting Bond would be unsatisfactory for them and problematic for the franchise as a whole. But death by kung fu school? Really? Why not just get one of the sumos to sit on him?

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But as many astute commentators have noted (hi guys!), the franchise, especially in the Moore years, wasn’t afraid of appropriating popular trends. And martial arts films were big in the ’70s. So off to the dojo we go! Fortunately Bond is better at kung fu than people who’ve spent their lifetime practising it. He beats up two of them and jumps through a window just as Lieutenant Hip and his nieces arrive.

Oh yeah – Hip. Hip is a police officer who collars Bond after Gibson’s murder and takes him to M. Only for some reason Hip neglects to share this information, offering sinisterly vague answers to Bond’s inquiries. So Bond shoots him. Nah, he actually just escapes for two seconds – but my version is funnier. Hip resurfaces several times over the film and steadfastly refuses to say or do anything interesting. Thus Hip.

Unfortunately Hip brings his teenage nieces on a rescue mission. Because, why not? The two schoolgirls then beat up the entire kung fu class in a scene that mortally wounds the film’s credibility and is among the most ludicrous of the series. If it appeared in Austin Powers it would look heavy-handed.

The family Hip then contrive to leave Bond behind, rendering the entire sequence narratively pointless. Fortunately there’s a boat. Because after Live And Let Die we could all do with another boat chase.

Indeed, the crossovers from the previous film are just bizarre. Did Broccoli and Saltzman want out?HS: ‘What was the worst bit of Live And Let Die?’AB: ‘Sheriff Pepper, obviously.’HS: ‘Right. What about the second worst bit?’AB: ‘Well that boat chase didn’t half go on…’HS: ‘Gotcha. The next film shall feature Sheriff Pepper and a boat chase. I’m sick of this goddamn franchise.’

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Well, Harry went and Albert stayed. This was the last Bond film Saltzman produced. Although Broccoli(s) remain the totem of the franchise, and Michael G. Wilson long surpassed Saltzman for longevity, all Bond fans owe Harry a debt of gratitude. Vodka martinis raised!

Tonally the film is a mess. Does it want to be a hardboiled tale of rival assassins, a kung fu rip off homage, a silly romp, a complex exploration of Bond and his evil mirror-image, a bedroom farce…? Now not all of the above need be mutually exclusive, but any film that juxtaposes Bond coldly threatening to break a woman’s arm with two schoolgirls beating up a dojo is clearly suffering from an identity crisis so severe it’s on the verge of quitting its high-powered job in the city and going to live in a yurt.

Occasionally these separate identities converge within the same scene, like separate cars converging on the same roundabout. The consequences aren’t pretty. A particularly gory example is Andrea unexpectedly arriving in Bond’s hotel room for a nocturnal rendezvous. Their exchange should be powerful: she pleads Bond to kill her hated boyfriend Scaramanga, he demands she recover the Solex Agitator first. The only detraction from the gravitas of the scene is that Mary Goodnight is hiding under the bedsheets.

You see Mary, having rebuffed Bond over dinner, promptly changes her mind and trundles to Bond’s room in a nightdress. Why the initial rebuff then? Well it means their tryst is not a partnership of equals but something Bond has ‘won.’ “I’m weak!” sighs Goodnight like a cheerleader on prom night, yielding to a particularly caddish jock. The notion Bond might be the weak one for sleeping with such a useless airhead whom he patently can’t stand is never touched upon.

Only then Andrea turns up. So Bond pulls a sheet over his fellow agent and hopes Andrea won’t notice it breathing. Then, once Andrea has retired to the bathroom, Bond quickly hurries Goodnight out of the room. Oh, no he doesn’t. He bundles her into a wardrobe. Despite the wardrobe and the bedroom door being literally right next to each other. Presumably we’re meant to chuckle at Goodnight’s attempt to get some kip while her unrequited crush ravishes another woman three metres away. Ha. Ha. Ha.

For Andrea offers herself to Bond: “I’m not unattractive.” Now the business-like Bond of earlier surely rejects the advance and stresses the importance of the Agitator. Andrea herself is a sweetener Bond doesn’t require. Plus, logistically, the presence of Goodnight makes this a bad time. But rather than brush off the hardly enthusiastic offer, Bond smirks like a cat overdosed on Jersey Double while listening to Eric Clapton. “At last you’re beginning to tell the truth,” he purrs. It is a horrible misstep but sadly consistent for the film.

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(Nearly as horrible is Bond saying to Mary Goodnight, as he realises her from the wardrobe: “Your turn will come, I promise.” Not the line itself but the fact she doesn’t fly kick his nuts immediately afterwards.)

Typically, the worst scene of the film is followed by its best. The long-awaited meeting of Bond and Scaramanga,with a suitably macabre backdrop provided by Andrea’s clothed corpse (would a dead body sit up like that?).

Anyway, let me indulge in some Lee love. Scaramanga is sexy, sophisticated, sinister and suave – a lot of ‘S’ words except the one that describes the film (although Bond claims otherwise). The idea of an ‘Evil Bond’ was introduced in From Russia – Red Grant – and would be explored further with GoldenEye and Alec Trevelyan, but Scaramanga is the most compelling of the trio.

His silent, post-kill gun stroking of Andrea is deliciously creepy; the gleam as he describes his first kill more eloquent than any mad cackle or subordinate execution. Scaramanga clearly derives sexual satisfaction from the act of killing – but then sex and death are the twin hearts of Bond, both franchise and character. Bond’s first cinematic kill (Professor Dent) occurs after an extended liaison with Miss Taro. Of all villains, Scaramanga remains the one in whom Bond is most visible.

Why does Scaramanga want the Solex though? He clearly doesn’t need the money. And is cornering the renewable energy market really the way disenchanted multimillionaire hitmen get their kicks? Far too much of Bond and Scaramanga’s island confrontation involves exposition on how the solar power plant works. “Thermoelectric generators to convert solar energy into electricity…” intones Bond. “Superconductivity coils cooled by liquid helium…” We get about five minutes of this. What should be the high point of tension turns into a GCSE science class.

The relationship between Scaramanga and Nick Nack is intriguing but undeveloped. The idea of a henchman hiring assassins to keep his boss sharp is truly innovative. And Nick Nack is a wonderful character: amusing, vicious yet strangely loveable, and highly competent until his final appearance where a lot of well-avoided indignities are regrettably unleashed. (Not the suitcase!)

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Quite why Scaramanga employs a midget as his one manservant is never explained. But multiple questions surround the duo. How did they meet? Do they socialise ever? Does Nick Nack really want Scaramanga dead – presumably not judging by his anguished attack on the boat. Some backstory would have been nice but then we’d miss out on Sheriff Pepper.

Let us not speculate why the good sheriff holidays in Thailand, nor muse on his presence in the showroom car Bond promptly hijacks. I’m sure countless Louisianan lawmen flocked to the Far East in the 1970s, and once arrived they naturally purchased motor vehicles. Shipping costs be damned!

Strangely, I find Pepper less objectionable than in Live And Let Die despite his appearance being more gratuitous and gurning than previously. Quality is the crux. Whereas in Live and Let Die Pepper blights an otherwise fine outing, here he is just another poop in the toilet bowl. Subtract Pepper from Live And Let Die and the film rises a notch. Subtract Pepper from Golden Gun and the smell remains.

It is remarkable Scaramanga and Pepper share the same series, let alone the same film. The mind boggles at a meeting between the pair. Yet if I could remove one, it would be Scaramanga. Christopher Lee deserved a thousand times better.

Apparently the earlier screenplay focused much more on Scaramanga’s psychological duel with Bond, but this theme was sidelined during rewrites. Fools. Earlier I referred to a useful ‘S’ word that neatly summarised the film. And watching Lee goad Bond at the dinner table, and musing on the vast potential utterly squandered, I can’t hold back any longer. It makes me kind of sad.

Best Bit: Scaramanga sharing his life story at the kickboxing.

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Worst Bit: Never has so great a villain suffered so crap a death.

Final Thought: How come M has a direct line to Scaramanga’s boat? Surely this is information worth sharing with Bond. “Nobody knows what Scaramanga looks like – but I do have his phone number, if that helps?” A final illogicality that shows how little anybody cared.

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