Bond, The World’s First Progressive Superhero
October 12, 2009 3 Comments
When it comes to James Bond movies, The Man With The Golden Gun is usually cited as one of the worst. And that it may be. But it’s also one of the most interesting, and for me it’s circled around into so-bad-it’s-good territory. I’m even digging the theme song:
Here’s the story, such as it is: A British/Western scientist has invented a “Solex”, a small cigarette-box-shaped device that makes widespread solar power economical. Then he defects, or disappears, or something – it’s unclear – but at the beginning of the film, Bond’s assignment seems to be find the scientist. And it’s important because of “the energy crisis”, you see (even Bond shows a rare wussy lefty type conviction about the importance of what he’s doing). The year is 1974, you see, and, as M recites, wholly accurately as we can now see with hindsight, “Coal and oil will soon be depleted. Uranium’s too dangerous. Geothermal and tidal control too expensive.” But the Solex? The Solex will solve everything. So that’s why the British Secret Service needs to…um…well what is it they’re trying to do, exactly? Seems like they’re trying to find and kidnap the missing scientist so as to commandeer back the Solex he’s invented. After all, he had no right to run away from the British, not tell them where he was, and take the thing he invented with him…right?
Well, the scientist evidently had other ideas – he (wrongly? badly? evilly?) hired himself out to someone other than the Queen, thus was working for Hai Fat, a Thai multimillionaire who has gone into partnership with the title character, the golden-gun man, Francisco Scaramanga. As far as I can tell, their evil plan is to, um, sell the Solex to someone. Yes, that’s their evil plan. We know this is an evil plan because this is a James Bond movie and they are the bad guys. Of course, don’t think too hard about it (because you might have a difficult time explaining why it would be so evil). The worst ramification we hear of is that the Saudis might pay to keep the Solex off the market. The Brits can’t let that happen! So after the usual hi-jinx, Bond stops him, steals the Solex, and sleeps with the nearest (non-dead) girl.
Anyway this is all backstory in the first half of the movie, because the main plot has Bond pulled off the assignment altogether. Why? Because (it seems) Scaramanga has sent a golden bullet to MI5 headquarters with ’007′ printed on it. That’s all it takes to get the skittish M to pull Bond off assignment, apparently. (If only Goldfinger, Dr. No and Blofeld had known!) Bond is told to go on “vacation”, wink, with the hint that if he takes care of Scaramanga, he can get back to the oh so important imperialistic-energy assignment.
M is really hilarious in this movie, by the way, probably the best I’ve ever seen him/her. His every utterance to Bond delivered dripping with sarcasm veering on comtempt. At one point he says he “almost wished” Scaramanga had a contract on him. He inexplicably forces Bond to take Mary Goodnight – the most inept, idiotic Bond girl in the history of Bond girls – along for the finale. It just never lets up. At times you just want to scream out ‘if you despise Bond and his methods so much why do you keep sending him on these half-baked assignments?’ This exchange is classic yet bizarre:
Bond: Who would pay a million dollars to have me killed?
M: Jealous husbands, outraged chefs, humiliated tailors. The list is endless.
For a tantalizing second it’s as if you get a glimpse of what these stories might be about if they had any depth and the characters had any dimensionality to them.
Anyway, so Bond leaves M’s office to do some investigative work (i.e. step into the adjacent room and ask Moneypenny some questions about 002, the secret agent who was killed by Scaramanga five years earlier). She’s ‘better than a computer’ and of course remembers every detail, thus before you know it Bond apparently has all the info he needs to find one particular belly-dancing chick named Saida who’s apparently still dancing, five years later, in the same one particular Beirut nightclub. Of course Saida freely gives Bond (whom she calls “very handsome”, apropos of nothing) whatever info he needs and within a minute of meeting him appears ready to go to bed with him, but instead some baddies attack him for no apparent reason and he’s forced to swallow the flayed golden dum-dum bullet she keeps in her belly button for mother England. Once rescued from his stomach it supposedly gives Q and “Colthorpe” (some lab tech who actually has two scenes – what’s this? a real MI5 character who’s not M or Q??) all the info they need to deduce it was made by Lazar, a Portuguese black-market guns ‘n ammo maker living in Macau. Cue a few casino scenes and more subtle secret-agent work from Bond (he points a gun at Lazar’s crotch) and Lazar is ready to clue Bond into his next ammo delivery to Scaramanga. Of course it’s not Scaramanga who makes the pickup, it’s some foxy girl (played by Maud Adams), Scaramanga’s mistress. Bond bluffs his way into her hotel room and threatens her into cooperating.
These scenes exemplify all the classic Bond methods: fly around the world on a dime, make the most tenuous (but always, correct) connections following one lead to the next, be the opposite of subtle and sneaky, barge into girls’ rooms and demand information and/or to sleep with them… This is what Bond does in every Bond film, of course, but in this one it’s just so out in the open, and clunky. This is, after all, the film in which he’s making out with one girl, another girl knocks on the door, so he shoves girl 1 into the closet and proceeds to bed girl 2 for the next two hours while girl 1 waits/dozes off. And shows not a hint of shame about it afterwards: “All in the line of duty.”
Another classic Bond method, of course – in addition to getting all the girls he sleeps with killed, except for one – is getting caught. James Bond, if you think about it, is a pretty terrible and inept secret agent: he never really fools the bad guy for one second, and he almost always gets caught at some point. Heck, Goldfinger is considered by most (albeit not by me) the best Bond film of all and Bond spends a good chunk of the movie imprisoned by the bad guy, sitting around doing nothing. Here, the ol’ He Gets Caught But For Some Reason The Bad Guy Doesn’t Just Kill Him trick is used mostly to shove Bond into a kung fu’sploitation movie. (Another classic Bond schtick: shoving him into whatever other movie trend is all the rage at the moment; the previous movie Live And Let Die had already done blaxploitation…). There’s an amusing bit where Bond, in a foreshadowing of the Indiana Jones maneuver, kicks the honorable karate dude in the face as he’s bowing to start the match. At the end he’s rescued by two karate girls in schoolgirl outfits, in a scene that must have made a huge impression on eleven-year-old Quentin Tarantino.
The climax also has all the usual Bond stuff: the bad guy reveals his evil plans, says “you and I are not so different after all Mr. Bond”, and then Bond blows up the secret lair. This finale does come in the form of a duel, which would be promising and dramatic were not Christopher Lee just so dang wacky throughout the whole thing. The way he jumps out from behind the rock to welcome Bond like a long-lost gay lover. The way he makes such a big deal insisting that they “dine” together but the moment they sit down he’s ready to start the duel. (Bond, thankfully for my sanity, insists they at least finish their meal first.) It’s yet more glimpses of how strange and perhaps really deep and weird a movie like this could have been were it not a James Bond movie.
But perhaps the most interesting James Bond cliche this clunky movie delivers is its inherently lefty message. I think few realize just how many James Bond movies have at their heart fundamentally lefty, “progressive” premises, because most at least do a better job of hiding them beneath the glittery women and action-packed travelogues.
James Bond, in the books, is supposed to be a British spy, and his archenemy is Smersh – the Soviet agency whose name is an acronym for “death to spies”. The movies changed this to SPECTRE, some sort of unaligned, non-governmental-organization of terror, and invented Blofeld (a Belgian, like Dr. Evil?) to be his nemesis. So almost from their start, James Bond movies made a sort of “progressive” attempt to tone down the cold war and coach their audience into a ‘detente’ mode of thinking.
Also notice how virtually half of James Bond plots involve made-up, cartoony supervillains trying to get the major powers to fight wars against each other – and thus Bond, for all his licence-to-kill violence, is essentially cast in the ‘make love, not war’ role of inevitably trying to stop international misunderstandings and war. This is the plot of Thunderball (nuclear missiles are stolen and going to be launched against the east and west, each will think the other did it, and WW3 will start), which is the movie that invented SMERSH and Blofeld, and along with them most of what people know about James Bond. But it’s also the plot of You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Never Say Never Again (which is basically just a remake of Thunderball), and Tomorrow Never Dies. For all that people speak of Bond as a sort of Cold War-era phenomenon, the strange fact is, he almost never fought or even lifted a finger against the Soviets (in the movies at least). A much more likely movie Bond plot has Bond cooperating with the Soviets trying to prevent some baddie from tricking the West into bombing them.
But Golden Gun takes this to a new level, and not just because it has that loudmouth Louisiana sherriff prattling on about “Democrats” and calling Thai people “pointy-heads”. In Golden Gun, Bond is essentially doing the work of Al Gore, fighting to solve the fricking energy crisis. And like Al Gore, Bond and the rest of MI5 go about this with a breathtaking arrogance – we must get the Solex for ourselves and for the world – that only the very self-righteous can afford, a “progressive” conviction that bends around and becomes its own variation of imperialism. Uniquely, it’s not at all clear to me that Bond or MI5 is even at all in the right on this mission. The British scientist who invented the Solex may own all the rights to it, for all I know. He may have sold those rights to Hai Fat, fair and square. Now Scaramanga has it and ‘threatens’ to sell it to someone else, fair and square. Of course, Scaramanga killed the scientist and Hai Fat to get in this position, but at best this just means that his claim to the thing is no better than that of Britain and MI5. If Britain needs this thing so much, why not just enter the bidding for it? Instead they send Bond to just kill Scaramanga and take the Solex. Ironically this means Scaramanga’s cliched “we’re the same, you and I” speech near the end is basically correct:
Scaramanga: You work for peanuts. A ”well done” from the Queen and a pittance of a pension. Apart from that, we are the same. To us, Mr Bond. We are the best.
Bond: There’s a useful four-letter word, and you’re full of it. When l kill it’s under specific orders of my government. And those l kill are themselves killers.
Scaramanga: Come, come, Mr Bond. You disappoint me. You get as much fulfilment out of killing as l do. Admit it.
Notice how weenie Bond sounds in his own defense. He only kills ‘under specific orders of his government’ huh? Yeah right. And what sort of defense is that anyway? Well it’s a perfectly fine defense if one’s assumption is that the government always has progressive goals – such as ending the energy crisis. Bond rises above traditional morality, and above Scaramanga, because his goals are progressive. And just as they often touch on movie fads of the day, virtually all Bond films are laden with the baggage of these sorts of traditionally progressive goals and concerns. It’s just that one usually doesn’t notice it so much when the movies themselves are actually a bit, well, better.
POST SCRIPT: I was thinking a bit more about why this weird Bond movie has such a special place in my heart, and I recalled one possible reason: for a long time, it was the Last Bond Film I Hadn’t Yet Seen. I must have gone through my Bond phase somewhere around age 11-13, and during a fairly long gap between Bond films, because for a long time I knew the chronological list of Bond films by heart – and I knew that Golden Gun was the only one I hadn’t seen. So the possibilities about this one holdout grew in my mind. In that way I guess it’s the Bond equivalent of Rush’s 1976 album Caress of Steel. Of course, now I’m older and wiser, I’ve seen all the Bond films and heard all the Rush albums, and I know that Golden Gun isn’t any better than Caress of Steel. But for a while, at least, there was hope….so that’s why Golden Gun is so evocative and nostalgic for me, I suppose, and why I keep coming back to it again and again.
Or maybe it’s just cuz it’s the one with Britt Ekland….