“It’s the worst Bond movie ever made.” — Lee Pfeiffer, co-author of The Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007
The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 45th anniversary of the release of The Man with the Golden Gun, the ninth (official) cinematic James Bond adventure and second entry to feature Roger Moore as Agent 007.
In case you missed them or desire a refresher read, this column’s other celebratory 007 articles in this series include The World Is Not Enough, Licence to Kill, Moonraker, Quantum of Solace, From Russia with Love, Never Say Never Again, Live and Let Die, Octopussy, Casino Royale (1967), Tomorrow Never Dies, Die Another Day, Dr. No, The Living Daylights, The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, Casino Royale, For Your Eyes Only, Thunderball, GoldenEye, A View to a Kill, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Goldfinger, and 007… Fifty Years Strong.
The Bits continues the series with this retrospective featuring a Q&A with an esteemed group of film historians and James Bond authorities who discuss the virtues, shortcomings and legacy of 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun. [Read more here...]
The participants for this segment are (in alphabetical order)….
Jon Burlingame is the author of The Music of James Bond (Oxford University Press, 2012). He also authored Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks (Watson-Guptill, 2000) and TV’s Biggest Hits: The Story of Television Themes from Dragnet to Friends (Schirmer, 1996). He writes regularly for the entertainment industry trade Variety and has also been published in The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He started writing about spy music for the 1970s fanzine File Forty and has since produced seven CDs of original music from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for the Film Score Monthly label. His website is JonBurlingame.com.
John Cork is the author (with Maryam d’Abo) of Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond (Abrams, 2003) and (with Collin Stutz) James Bond Encyclopedia (DK, 2007) and (with Bruce Scivally) James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002). He is the president of Cloverland, a multi-media production company. Cork also wrote the screenplay to The Long Walk Home (1990), starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, and wrote and directed the feature documentary You Belong to Me: Sex, Race and Murder on the Suwannee River for producers Jude Hagin and Hillary Saltzman (daughter of original Bond producer, Harry Saltzman). He contributed new introductions for the original Bond novels Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and Goldfinger for new editions published in the UK by Vintage Classics in 2017.
Lee Pfeiffer is the author (with Dave Worrall) of The Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007 (Boxtree, 1998/Harper Collins, 1999) and (with Philip Lisa) The Incredible World of 007: An Authorized Celebration of James Bond (Citadel, 1992) and The Films of Sean Connery (Citadel, 2001). Lee was a producer on the Goldfinger and Thunderball Special Edition LaserDisc sets and is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Cinema Retro magazine, which celebrates films of the 1960s and 1970s and is “the Essential Guide to Cult and Classic Movies.”
The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
And now that the participants have been introduced, might I suggest preparing a martini (shaken, not stirred, of course) and cueing up the soundtrack album to The Man with the Golden Gun, and then enjoy the conversation with this group of James Bond authorities.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is The Man with the Golden Gun worthy of celebration on its 45th anniversary?
Jon Burlingame: The ninth Bond film was also Roger Moore’s second outing as 007; Guy Hamilton’s fourth and final time directing a Bond film; producer Harry Saltzman’s last film in the franchise he helped launch; and the seventh of John Barry’s eleven Bond scores. Those facts alone are worth recounting as we remember this installment. Hamilton had firmly established the Bond style with Goldfinger, but it was his trio of Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and Golden Gun that saw a decisive shift away from serious Bond in the direction of lighthearted Bond, which would continue throughout the 1970s.
John Cork: There is the off-chance on this forty-fifth anniversary, someone will dust off their old 8-Track copy of Alice Cooper’s Muscle of Love album and listen to his rejected title song for The Man with the Golden Gun while joy-riding in a red AMC Hornet wearing a leisure suit, and if they do, I want them to find me and invite me to sit shotgun. The Man with the Golden Gun is not a great film. It is not even a good film. But it is a film to be watched. Why? It is an amazing time capsule every self-righteous Twitter Social Justice Warrior should endure to educate themselves of just how far we’ve come. It was a film whose joints creaked with age when it opened, and it marked the end of an era with Bond, the last 007 hurrah for Harry Saltzman, for Guy Hamilton, for cinematographer Ted Moore, and for their allies in the Bond family. It embraces some of the worst sexist tropes (Britt Ekland’s painful “dumb blonde” Mary Goodnight) and quasi-racist characterizations (how many subservient “funny” Asians can you pack into one Bond film?). It feels small (Scaramanga and his army of one Jesse Jackson look-alike), inelegant (Phuyuck sparkling wine), lacking in the sharp observational humor that made every previous Bond film feel sophisticated (“Mexican screw-off”?). It also — far more than the blaxploitation-inspired Live and Let Die — feels derivative of the success of the B-film kung-fu craze, and, even so, lacks compelling fight scenes.
Yet, The Man with the Golden Gun has aged with some grace well beyond other Bond films. There is Barry’s hit-and-miss score, that in places is as rich and dreamy as his best work from the 1960s. There is the surprising savageness in Roger Moore’s sophomore performance. There is the enduring charm of Hervé Villechaize’s Nick Nack, and the other-worldly beauty of the spires of Phang Nga Bay in Thailand. And there is the imperious grace of Sir Christopher Lee. Celebrate The Man with the Golden Gun for its failures and successes, for all that is right and wrong in the film, but celebrate it most for what it is: a glimpse at the Western values of 1974 through the lens of the Bond filmmakers wrestling with their own sense of relevance.
Lee Pfeiffer: I suppose any Bond movie lingers in movie history and therefore has a special significance. It’s the worst Bond movie ever made, in my opinion, but it was successful enough to prove that the audience that had made Live and Let Die a major success wasn’t just due to curiosity about seeing Roger Moore’s interpretation of the role. If nothing else, it cemented that audiences had accepted him as Sean Connery’s successor.
Coate: What do you remember about the first time you saw The Man with the Golden Gun?
Burlingame: It must have been in early 1975, since it opened in London in December 1974 and my market tended to get new releases a few weeks later. In those days, remember, a new Bond film was an event. And few films could match the exotic locales, the gorgeous women, the diabolical villains and the high-energy action sequences you would always get with a Bond film. So there was automatic excitement — and also something of a letdown for those of us who took our Bond seriously.
The Moore quips (“Phu-yuck,” “She’s just coming, sir,” etc.) diminished the 007 mystique for some of us; now when I go back and watch again I find them almost charmingly nostalgic. The return of hick sheriff J.W. Pepper really irritated me (and frankly still does). I didn’t mind Hervé Villechaize as Scaramanga’s diminutive sidekick Nick Nack. Tom Mankiewicz’s autobiography makes it clear that he wrote most of the script and that Richard Maibaum did the polish (they’re both credited) and so a good deal of the blame — if we should call it that — is really Tom’s.
What links this film most strongly to the 1960s Bond that we grew up with and revered is John Barry’s score. It’s no Goldfinger or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, of course, because jam-packed schedules gave him only about three weeks to write and record it. The title song alone was done very quickly, as I discuss in my Bond music book. It’s nobody’s favorite Bond song, of course, but it’s still Barry & Don Black and that’s always worthwhile. The score is, as always with Barry, mostly classy (except for that awful slide whistle during the car chase, which he later regretted), and has wonderful moments. Get out the soundtrack album and listen to In Search of Scaramanga’s Island, one of the most haunting and effective Barry cues of the 70s Bonds. Similarly, the funhouse sequences are beautifully scored, and the album track that’s not in the movie, the Dixieland jazz version of the title theme, is simply delightful. John Barry always delivered, and Man with the Golden Gun was no exception.
Cork: I was thirteen and gathered a couple of friends on the Wednesday it opened at the Capri Theater in Montgomery, Alabama. We went to the first evening show, which was a big deal on a school night just before Christmas break. I had read all the Bond novels twice by then. There had never been a film that had me more excited. I felt certain I would see it more times in the theater than I had seen The Sting or American Graffiti or Billy Jack. United Artists could not have paid a publicist to have done a better job pre-selling the film at my school. And, of course, I loved it. I recall describing the film scene-by-scene to friends the next day, explaining how great it was to anyone who would listen. But a funny thing: I only saw it that one time on its first run. Something inside me never made the effort to see it that second, third, fourth time in the theater. I was simply too big of a fan at that age to admit that the movie failed to live up to my hopes and dreams, failed to do the most important thing it needed to do: feel like a James Bond film.
Pfeiffer: My friend and I went to see it on opening day. We had very much liked Live and Let Die and were expecting to have an enthusiastic reaction to Golden Gun. We liked the idea of Christopher Lee playing the villain, though there was trepidation over the fact that the Sheriff Pepper character was returning. We enjoyed Clifton James’s performance in the previous film but we couldn’t imagine a scenario in which he could logically be brought back. Our fears proved to be justified but the film had self-destructed long before that. Even the pre-credits scene was unsatisfying due to having Roger Moore pose as a wax figure of himself, which literally never works as a gimmick on screen in any movie. The kung fu school battle starts out well and I liked Bond’s escape but then the teenage girls enter the picture and start bashing the villains. It was cringe-inducing even in 1974. I also realized many years later when I was writing a book about the Bond films just how nasty everyone is in the film, even the lovable regulars. Moneypenny comes across like Cruella de Vil, “M” is so grumpy that I believe at one point he calls “Q” an idiot. Bond slaps around Andrea. It’s as though they are rebelling against the script. There’s also a cheap look to the film, even though we know it cost a lot of money to bring to the screen. Scaramanga’s island HQ never looks very impressive and it’s manned by one innocuous henchman. Shall I go on? John Barry’s score is atmospheric but it’s undercut by the awful lyrics to the title song, the only disappointing song the legendary Don Black ever contributed to. I recall waiting in vain for the film to improve by the climax but when Bond suffers the indignity of getting kicked in the rump by Nick Nack, I knew it was a lost cause.
I hadn’t seen the film in its entirety in probably twenty-five years or more. Recently, it was telecast on Turner Classic Movies so I kept it on thinking I might have a different viewpoint. Alas, it was not to be. I couldn’t get through the entire film. Are there any good aspects? Yes, the locations are exotic and some of the witticisms are quite amusing. Christopher Lee and Maud Adams both give commendable performances but it’s a shame they were not used in a better film. There have been weaknesses in Bond movies before, to be sure. You have to expect that when a series has been going on for almost sixty years. But even the weakest Bonds generally have enough merits to make me find them enjoyable. I guess I’ll never come around with Golden Gun, however.