The Man with the Golden Gun: Despite a solid premise and a spectacular villain, Roger Moore’s second outing as James Bond almost ended up killing the franchise

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) was the second film to feature Roger Moore as James Bond. Despite having a great antagonist in Christopher Lee’s Francisco Scaramanga, the film turned out to be such a critical and commercial dud that it almost became the last film in the Bond film franchise.

Francisco Scaramanga aka “The Man with the Golden Gun” is the world’s greatest assassin; and his fee is US$1 million per kill. He acquired his nickname because he uses only bullets made of gold in a (fictional) 4.2 mm cartridge with a golden handgun (that can be assembled out of a gold cigarette case, gold cigarette lighter and gold fountain pen, with a gold cufflink working as the gun’s trigger). Scaramanga was a British national born in a travelling circus. His father was the ringmaster, a former Cuban national, and his mother was the snake charmer. By age 10, Scaramanga was part of the circus as a trick-shot pistol marksman; while in the Circus, he shot and killed an abusive animal trainer for killing an elephant that he had befriended; that’s when he discovered that, though he has always liked animals, he “enjoyed killing people” more. At age 15, he became an international assassin-for-hire. He was recruited some years later by the KGB while living in Ipanema, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and trained in Eastern Europe where for many years he was basically just another ‘overworked and underpaid assassin’ for the KGB. He quit the KGB in the late 1950s, becoming an independent hitman-for hire. No photographs of him exist, but he has an unusual anatomy: a third nipple. Today, Scaramanga lives very well, thanks mainly to his astronomical million-dollar payday. His home is on his own personal island somewhere off the coast of southeastern China (the lease for the land paid through occasional ‘favors’ that Scaramanga performs for his Chinese landlords). And despite his assertion that “science was never his strong point,” the island utilizes many aspects of modern technology, including its own self-sufficient solar power plant. All of Scaramanga’s assassination contracts are arranged through his midget henchman, Nick Nack, which allows Scaramanga to be anonymous. His specialized ammunition is made by a custom gunsmith in Macau, named Lazar, who provides for its delivery to Scaramanga’s lover, Andrea Anders, at a casino in Hong Kong. Scaramanga’s home also includes a ‘Disneyland’-style funhouse populated by legendary figures from the world of crime and old-West, and where Scaramanga and his foes duel to the death. Nick Nack hires assassins to kill Scaramanga as a challenge to keep him sharp. Scaramanga is well aware of and approves of Nick Nack’s efforts, and wishes him better luck next time when his hired guns fail. In addition, Scaramanga also owns a private junk, on which he travels around.

Though a very proud – to the point of being megalomaniacal – gunslinger, there is one man whom Scaramanga considers his equal: British secret Service agent, 007, James Bond. He even has a life-sized mannequin of Bond in his funhouse. It’s obvious that Scaramanga wishes to test his skills against Bond, his only worthy rival. So, when one of those golden bullets inscribed with “007” is sent to ‘M,’ it looks like Scaramanga has finally decided to challenge Bond for a mano a mano. Believing that Bond is next on Scaramanga’s hit list, ‘M’ relieves Bond from his present assignment – which deals with the hunt for a solar energy expert named Gibson. But Bond decides that the best thing to do is to find Scaramanga before Scaramanga puts the golden bullet inside him. Bond traces Scaramanga to Hong Kong and almost becomes his next victim, but to his surprise, despite having a clear shot at Bond’s back, Scaramanga shoots and kill another man, who turns out to be Gibson. So, Bond was not Scaramanga’s target and, later, when Scaramanga’s woman, Andrea Anders, confesses that it was she who sent the golden bullet to ‘M,’ (because she wanted Bond to kill Scaramanga and save her from his clutches) everything becomes clear. Apart from that, Scaramanga had been working for a Chinese tycoon, Hai Fat, based in Thailand, who wants the ‘Solex agitator’ developed by Gibson that harnesses solar energy. Bond convinces Andrea to steal the Solex that’s in Scaramanga’s possession, but Scaramanga sniffs out his mistress’ betrayal. At the meeting where Bond was supposed to receive the Solex from Andrea, he is met instead by Andrea’s corpse as well as by Scaramanga himself. Scaramanga makes it clear that he has no enmity towards Bond, and that Bond should stop chasing him around. But the inevitable showdown between these two titans cannot be avoided much longer, and events then take a turn where Bond gets lured to Scaramanga’s private island so that the two of them can engage in one final, decisive duel- old-fashioned style: “Pistols at dawn, that sort of thing,” with Bond’s six-bullet .380 Walther PPK pistol against Scaramanga’s one-bullet golden gun; Bond’s superior number of bullets being offset by Scaramanga’s superior gunmanship and advantages of fighting on his own ground. But once the duel reaches the funhouse, Bond gains the advantage: he takes the place of his lookalike mannequin and tricks Scaramanga into revealing his position. Then Bond shoots Scaramanga in the heart, killing him, and sabotages the solar power plant in order to destroy the island.

That pretty much explains the basic premise of “The Man with the Golden Gun,” the ninth film in the James Bond series produced by Eon Productions, and the second to star Roger Moore as the fictional MI6 agent James Bond. The film, released in 1974, is a loose adaptation of Ian Fleming’s posthumously published 1965 novel of the same name. As it is evident, the film’s basic plot is really terrific, and features one of the greatest & most interesting villains in the whole Bond series; Francisco Scaramanga is almost a mirror image of Bond, only he’s on the other side of the legal\moral divide. This ‘clash of the titans’ premise is enough to make this one of the greatest Bond films ever. Add to that the fact that Scaramanga is played by the great Christopher Lee, who was at the time at the peak of his ‘Dracula’ success, then nothing could stop this film from achieving greatness; Roger Moore’s second outing as James Bond would be as great as Sean Connery’s second outing with “From Russia with Love”, which is considered one of the greatest Bond films ever, if not the greatest. But today, “The Man with the Golden Gun” is considered one of the worst Bond films ever; a film, whose critical and commercial failure, almost killed the Bond Franchise. How the hell did this happen?. How could things go so wrong with so much going in favor of the film?. Well, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find an answer to these questions; just one scene from the film will suffice: It’s the famous ‘corkscrew’ car stunt that made the Guinness Book of Records as the first “astro spiral” jump on film; it was first tested as a computer-simulation (the first of its kind) by Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory; and It was then performed as a live-action stunt, by Loren “Bumps” Willert (doubling for Moore’s Bond) driving an AMC Hornet leaping a broken bridge and spinning around 360 degrees in mid-air about the longitudinal axis, doing an “aerial twist”; Willert successfully completed the jump on the first take and pocketed a cool Thirty Thousand Dollars. But this truly dangerous and exciting(and expensive) moment of action is ruined by the addition of a ‘slide whistle’ on the soundtrack. So, what was supposed to be the most thrilling moment in the film was turned into a crass joke. This is exactly the problem with the rest of the film as well: undercutting a very thrilling and suspenseful storyline with crass, slapstick humor throughout the film’s narrative.

Instead of a taut, thrilling, tightly narrated film of a physical and psychological duel between two masters of the game, what we get is a bloated, overlong film packed with far too much in the way of exposition, dialogue and ‘items’\set-pieces (which has no relation to the main body of the film) and far too little in the way of plot development, characterization and even decent action. Another thing that afflicts the film, and this is something that afflicts most of Roger Moore films, is their attempts to incorporate the latest in popular movie trends. In the Sean Connery era, it was the Bond films that set the movie trends, but after that it was always Bond films copying existing trends (remember “Moonraker” that came in the wake of “Star Wars”). In the case of “Live and Let Die,” it was Blaxploitation & horror, while here it’s some terrible kung-fu antics and a martial arts tournament lifted straight out of “Enter the Dragon” that plays spoilsport. These things come out of nowhere in the film, and it was very clear that they were added only to capitalize on the current fad. Add to that a never-ending boat chase, and Clifton James reprising his irritating, unfunny redneck sheriff from Live and Let Die, and the film was totally ruined. The filmmakers has managed to turn a a tightly wound, serious story into a slapstick comedy, or worse, a farce. Even the great John Barry is totally out of form here, providing a lackluster score, with the theme song by Lulu being one of the worst I’ve heard. Even the stuff that’s great on paper, like the ‘funhouse’ scenes comes out terribly on the screen. The Psychedelic effects used in the sequence looks tacky, cheap and confusing, and the audience has to sit through the sequence twice, once at the beginning, and also during the all important climax, where we have this epic showdown between these two titans. The sequence is inspired by the truly trippy climax designed by Orson Welles for “Lady from Shanghai” in 1947; it was later remixed for the climax of the “Enter Dragon” also. And the sequence in this film (made thirty years after Welles’ Noir classic) is not even ten percent effective as the older one. The sequence ruins what should have been the most thrilling, dramatic highpoint of the film. With all the build up of Scaramanga being such a formidable hit-man, the eventual showdown between him and Bond should have been epic, but in the end it comes off as anti-climactic. Scaramanga, the genius assassin, is turned into a total idiot who can’t even distinguish between flesh & blood Bond and his mannequin. 

As for the Bond girls, both Britt Ekland and Maud Adams are stunningly beautiful, but they are also afflicted with the same ‘interesting on paper, but reduced to cartoonish joke on screen’ syndrome that afflicts the rest of the film. It is great to have Ekland play Mary Goodnight, who’s Bond’s associate in the field, but she’s reduced to the worst form of ‘dumb blonde’ cliché that would better suit a “Carry on James” film. As for Adams, who plays the complex, ‘femme fatale’ who instigates the battle between the two macho men to liberate herself, she get slapped around for most of the film and is conveniently killed off (and that too off-screen) before the all important climax. As for the rest of the cast, instead of Felix Leiter, Bond has a Hong Kong police lieutenant, Hip (Soon-Taik Oh) as his aide; and he doesn’t have anything concrete to do. . Bernard Lee as ‘M’ and Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny does their usual bit. Desmond Llewelyn as Q makes a rather strange appearance in the film; he doesn’t supply Bond with any special gadget (except for one kinky item); most of the time he’s seen just standing\sitting around and watching while Bond is conferring with others. As for Roger Moore, well his performance is inconsistent, just as the role is very inconsistently conceived. Most of the time he’s in his trademark suave, smooth, ‘break-no-sweat’ comedic avatar- charming the ladies in full on ‘Cary Grant’ mode and just lazily leaning into his dialogues and actions, but other times he is seen to be really serious, rough & tough; whether it’s slapping Maud Adams around, or threatening Marne Maitland’s Lazar, or even getting into a brutal fistfight with some goons at a cabaret in Beirut (a good fight scene spoiled by the appearance of the camera (shooting the scene) in the mirror). Moore is pretty good in both versions; only problem being that the character\performance never manages to find a consistent tone (a problem that afflicts the film as well). Moore struggles with the athletic\action demands of the character – something he would struggle with all through his portrayal of Bond- and he looks downright silly in those Kung-fu fights. But Moore’s Bond, at its best (in films like “Spy who Loved me”), was never designed to be an action hero; he’s just too cool for that; he’s more interested in the girls, the gadgets, the glamor and globe-trotting; violence is something of a last resort for him. The problem here is that Moore’s Bond hasn’t come into its own, and the filmmakers and Moore himself was testing the waters and trying to do different things with the character.

Moore also fails to match up to the intensity and charisma of Christopher Lee, especially in their confrontation scenes; Lee is so magnetic and interesting that we, the audience, tend to side with the villain rather than the hero throughout the movie. This film definitely needed Sean Connery to square off against Lee; that would have been extraordinary. Upon its release, the film made approximately $98 million at worldwide box office, which was almost fifty percent less than what the previous Bond film had collected. The film was also met with tepid reviews, with critics universally agreeing that the film being completely devoid of anything innovative or inventive or even interesting that maybe James Bond is way past his expiry date. That was an issue that the people associated with the franchise was also pondering. For a moment there, it almost felt like that the James Bond franchise has come to an end, especially since it took about three years for the next Bond film to hit screens. But when James Bond came back with “Spy Who loved me,” it was with one of the best, most spectacular, and most successful films in the series- ensuring that Bond will continue well into the new millennium. Though this film narrowly escaped from becoming the last film in the franchise, it did mark the final turn for a lot of Bond film participants. This was the last Bond film co-produced by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, as soon after the release of this film Saltzman would sell his half of Danjaq, LLC (the parent company of Eon Productions) to United Artists. The film was also the last Bond film for director Guy Hamilton, writer Tom Mankiewicz and cinematographer Ted Moore ( who fell ill in the middle of the shoot and was replaced by Oswald Morris). Maybe that’s why this is not a very good-looking Bond film. The film is also handicapped by the absence of the great production designer, Ken Adam; his replacement Peter Murton has designed some very unimaginative and pedestrian sets for the film (except for the upside down interiors of RMS Queen Elizabeth, it lacks freshness); one definitely miss Adam’s glossy inventiveness, he would have done something great with those funhouse sets at least. The far east locations featured in the film are really beautiful though, especially the Phuket Bay and Scaramanga’s island(now referred to as “James Bond Island” ).

Another striking aspect of the film is its ‘Sexuality’; I think it’s the most brazenly sexual film in the Bond franchise- maybe “Thunderball” or “GoldenEye” comes close. Right from the display of Lee’s third nipple and Adams dressed in a slinky bikini in the opening shots; to Bond swallowing the golden bullet from a cabaret dancer’s navel; to Bond encountering Adams (holding a gun) in the shower; with two full frontally nude women – one in the ‘Bottoms up’ club and one in a swimming pool (named ‘Chew Me’)- their more censor-sensitive parts artfully hidden of course; with Scaramanga’s propensity for having sex just before he goes out for a kill (supposedly it clears the eye, bullfighters do that); and his tendency for poking around Adams body with his golden gun after he returns from the kill; the almost three-way sex scene between Moore, Ekland and Adams; to Ekland running around in a two-piece bikini for the film’s final half hour; and the final love-making session inside the junk between Moore and Ekland rudely interrupted by Nick Nack; of all the Bond films (though we don’t get to see anything explicit), I think this one is the most sexualized. Christopher Lee also looks damn sexy in the film, maybe even sexier than Bond. Lee is, of course, the best thing about the film. The film soars when he’s on screen; his towering physicality and impeccable line readings are a treat to watch (& listen). He plays Scaramanga as someone who’s ‘stoic on the surface’ but deeply volatile underneath; it’s a layered portrayal of a complex assassin, who’s proud & maniacal enough to consider himself an artist (his ultimate masterpiece being the death of 007); and is truly the highlight of the film. His terrific presence\performance makes the film play out like two different films clubbed into one; one (a very good one) featuring all of Lee’s scenes, and everything except that forming a very different (and mediocre) film. Lee’s Scaramanga is not too different from Bond: both have massive egos, want to be the number one, love women & the good life. and are somewhat loners. Scaramanga shares a very interesting relationship with his sidekick Nick Nack, played by Hervé Villechaize. On Scaramanga’s death, Nick Nack will inherit the entire island, so is that what drives him to hire those assassins?, or he just want to keep his master sharp?; this is never made clear, though he does come across as a very loyal servant to his master; and quite an athletic killer himself, as demonstrated in the final scenes. There’s a lot of interesting ambiguity in that Master-servant relationship, but it’s not fully explored. The same goes for the relationship between Scaramanga and his mistress as well. How I wish Scaramanga had gotten a standalone film of his own, with Christopher Lee, Villechaize and Maud Adams getting a chance to explore their complex relationship dynamics to the fullest. I hope that Eon someday remakes “The Man with Golden Gun,” where the potential of the plot and the eponymous villain is exploited to the full.

2 thoughts on “The Man with the Golden Gun: Despite a solid premise and a spectacular villain, Roger Moore’s second outing as James Bond almost ended up killing the franchise

  1. Being a Bond admirer from day one , the thought of doing a remake is absurd.
    For starters the main characters are no longer with us , so it would not be a true remake… The magical two are gone.
    I agree that Golden Gun was two movies in one but you can get passed that and the ” Clash of the Titans ” is still apparent .
    And , yes , unfortunately the Bond character seems to be the target of political correctness and change ….

    Leave it alone , Bond is a white Englishman and should remain so.

    Liked by 1 person

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