Christopher Lee’s Francisco Scaramanga is the saving grace of 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun, a kitschy, frazzled adventure for Roger Moore’s 007.

This feature contains minor spoilers for The Man With The Golden Gun.

“To us, Mr Bond, we are the best.”

“There’s a useful four-letter word, and you’re full of it.”

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There’s a bit in Kingsman: The Secret Service where Colin Firth’s gentleman spy snipes to Samuel L. Jackson’s megalomaniac: “I always felt that the old Bond films were only as good as the villain.” It’s far from the top of the list of things that Kingsman gets wrong about the James Bond franchise, but it’s the sort of adage that’s instantly debunked by The Man With The Golden Gun, a film that’s significantly weaker than its outstanding villain.

Fleming’s final Bond novel was published posthumously in 1965 and was notably less polished than the late author’s earlier outings. Still, by this point in the franchise, the adaptations were getting a little looser, so the main carryover from the novel to the 1974 Roger Moore film is the title character, Francisco Scaramanga, played by the one and only Christopher Lee.

Given a suitably seedy makeover for the movie version, Scaramanga pops up on MI6’s radar when they receive a golden bullet with “007” etched on it, prompting M to declare Bond a liability and take him off active duty. Though no one knows what the famous “Man With The Golden Gun” looks like (barring a fixation on his incongruous third nipple), Bond travels east on a hunt for the famous assassin, first getting embroiled in a dispute over a stolen solar-powered McGuffin and, finally, joining in a duel to the death.

In an interview around the time of the Bond series’ 20th anniversary in 1982, producer Albert R. Broccoli told The Hollywood Reporter: “I can’t say there is a single [Bond film] I’d like to completely redo if I had the chance, although there are parts of The Man With the Golden Gun I’d change.”

The film marked the final collaboration between Broccoli and his long-time producing partner on the Bond films, Harry Saltzman. Having maintained their fraught creative partnership by alternating as lead producer on each film since You Only Live Twice, the pair were given 18 months to turn this film around, against the backdrop of Saltzman’s personal and financial difficulties.

The behind-the-scenes turmoil had a knock-on effect on the writing, the principal photography, and the post-production of The Man With The Golden Gun. The result is soaking in kitsch and self-indulgence, even by the standards of this particular film series.

It certainly doesn’t have a villain problem though. On one hand, Rami Malek is one of the worst-ever Bond villains in the otherwise good No Time To Die, (we’ll get to that) and on the other, Lee’s Scaramanga is one of the very best, in a film that’s barely fit to carry his character’s nickname…

 

Second to none?

Broccoli and Saltzman had mulled over filming The Man With The Golden Gun with Roger Moore as Bond since at least 1969, when they were first looking to recast Sean Connery. Moore was unavailable at that time and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, and Live And Let Die all leap-frogged it onto the big screen.

Encouraged by the editing rushes for Live And Let Die, Bond distributors United Artists greenlit the ninth Bond film for a December 1974 release. Where the first few Bond films hit cinemas annually, the series was a more elaborate proposition by this point and there was a bit of a crunch effect from this quick turnaround.

For starters, writer Tom Mankiewicz, who joined the series two films prior, fell out with returning director Guy Hamilton over the development of the story, and resigned after handing in his first draft of The Man With The Golden Gun. Bond’s other regular screenwriter Richard Maibaum was brought into rework his script.

Mankiewicz’s take on the story was that it was a duel of equals between Bond and Scaramanga, more personal than the global stakes of other adventures. In writing his draft, he took direct inspiration from the 1953 western Shane. Indeed, the role of Scaramanga was originally offered to Jack Palance, who also played the title character’s nemesis in that film, but he turned them down.

Maibaum’s rewrites sidelined this aspect and brought the film back around to the typical franchise formula. With a pulled-from-the-headlines scheme involving energy shortages, Scaramanga cuts a more typical Bond villain figure with his own stuff going on beyond his sabre-rattling with 007.

Between the two writers, there’s the addition of various salacious details to the ex-KGB assassin, like the aforementioned “superfluous papilla” (and they really milk that nipple, years before Meet The Parents came along) and his habit of bedding Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) before each million-dollar kill.

However, it’s not the writing of Scaramanga, but the casting of Christopher Lee that sets Scaramanga apart. Then best known as Dracula in the Hammer horror films, Lee was Ian Fleming’s cousin and had previously been suggested to play another title character, in the original Bond film, Dr No.

In a 1975 interview with Cinemafantastique, Lee recalled that he considered Scaramanga one of his cousin’s least well-written antagonists, but was impressed by the way Hamilton and the screenwriters had reinvented the character for the film. Moreover, he wasn’t playing a monster in the vein of Dracula, but a role where he could smile and have fun and tote that iconic Golden Gun around like so many of us would in console multiplayer deathmatches later on.

In Lee’s unctuous performance, there’s something of the antagonism of Red Grant in From Russia With Love, another great villain who similarly keeps Bond alive long enough to kill him when he’s good and ready. When the whole “Before I kill you, Mr Bond…” trope was already tried and tested, it’s only so effective here because of Lee’s total confidence that he can kill 007 whenever he wants to.

It’s there in their electric first meeting, when Bond is entirely caught out by Scaramanga sitting next to him while he searches Andrea at the sumo wrestling match. It carries on in their verbal sparring at the dinner table on the villain’s private island.

The better bits of The Man With The Golden Gun all involve Bond and Scaramanga sizing each other up. And yes, it peters out in the perfunctory and surreal duel sequence, but that’s certainly no fault of Lee’s.

Indeed, whether intentional or not, it’s possible to read the character of Scaramanga, who’s colder and more sadistic than Moore, as part of the series’ ongoing attempts to move on from Sean Connery. It may just be a side effect of making a villain who’s a darker version of Bond, but he almost seems styled after the erstwhile 007.

His costumes look like outfits Connery might have worn, his dark hair matches his dark sense of humour, and he takes joy in killing where Moore’s Bond sees it more like a part of the job, protesting that he kills killers on behalf of a government, rather than fun or profit. Even Scaramanga’s million-dollar salary per assignment has some scent of sour grapes about it.

Read more: Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond

By the time it comes down to the “We’re not so different, you and I” spiel, the stage is set for a bubblier Bond to battle an amoral alter-ego, who has one shot versus his six. The climactic duel was judged to be slow-paced and was duly shortened – one deleted scene had Bond improvise a Molotov cocktail and make Scaramanga waste his golden bullet, only for the villain to reveal he’s got another stowed in his belt.

That aside, Lee’s so good that he’s not even undermined by his hype song being so irredeemably naff. The film was delivered so close to release that John Barry only had three weeks to score it. Barry didn’t look back fondly on this particular score, nor on the theme song he co-wrote with Don Black for then-recent Eurovision winner Lulu to perform.

While Elton John and Cat Stevens were suggested as theme song artists, and Alice Cooper submitted a demo title song, Broccoli insisted on a female singer. With Lulu’s bouncy vocals and Black’s absurdly suggestive lyrics, the song sounds like nothing so much as a Victoria Wood parody of a Bond song. (“Who will he bang? We shall seeeee…”)

It’s emblematic of a film that doesn’t make the most of all of Lee’s great work in it, but then it’s far from the biggest problem behind the scenes.

 

A glittering end

The arrangement of the series’ two producers having the final say on different films (Broccoli led You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, while Saltzman took On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Live And Let Die) was expressly designed to prevent a costly divorce.

The Bond franchise was worth big bucks to both men, especially with the growing revenue generated by merchandising and broadcast rights sales, and besides, each of them felt passionately about continuing to work on the series they had built together.

That didn’t stop the arguments though. Saltzman was noted for handing wild ideas to screenwriters and directors and telling them to fit them in the movie somewhere. Most notoriously, he wanted The Man With The Golden Gun to feature a chase in the midst of an elephant stampede.

Despite Broccoli being the lead producer and Hamilton and Mankiewicz never agreeing to use the idea, Saltzman chased whimsy and ordered more than 50 pairs of elephant shoes for the sequence. Broccoli and the crew were bemused when this delivery arrived during the film’s Thailand location shoot.

But time was the biggest challenge on this particular outing. Second-unit work kicked off in November 1973, with shots of the wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, but principal photography didn’t start until April 1974. Filming wrapped at Pinewood Studios in August, leaving just over four months to complete the film in time for UA’s December release date.

The most obvious side effect is that the film is over-indulgent, but without the tongue-in-cheek quality that excuses a lot of the most over-the-top Moore outings. For instance, 00-section secretary Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) is transplanted from Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but her initially interesting flirtation with Bond is reduced to bedroom farce, complete with her proclaiming “I’m weak” as she flumps onto a bed. Meanwhile, diminutive henchman Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize) was directly conceived by Goldfinger director Hamilton as “the opposite of Oddjob”, which is a quite illogical extreme.

Following Live And Let Die‘s blaxploitation homage, the eastern setting allows the filmmakers to delve into Enter The Dragon territory (though they rip it off more effectively with the prisoners being released into a battle royale at the end of the next film in the series) with a sojourn to a martial arts academy, but that’s all very tacked-on.

Worst of all is the return of Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) from Live And Let Die, incongruously holidaying with his wife in Thailand and merrily dishing out racist epithets to the locals before, during, and after his next wild ride with Bond. All concerned admitted this was just because they’d enjoyed working with James in the previous film, but there’s really no excuse for bringing this character (of all characters!) back in a series traditionally made up of standalone adventures.

Still, he’s not even the worst aspect of the moment that should be the film’s crowning glory – a stunt so audacious that it was the first ever to be designed by computer modelling. Javelin-jumping a 1974 AMC Hornet X over a broken bridge is what James Bond is all about but putting a slide-whistle sound effect over the top of it is the goofiest creative decision in the entire series. But then from the title song on, it feels almost designed to deflate the rare jeopardy that a villain like Scaramanga represents.

The Man With The Golden Gun arrived in cinemas to middling reviews, but performed respectably at the box office, grossing $96.7m on a $7m budget. However, this was also a significant drop-off from Live And Let Die’s blockbuster success, and together with the ongoing dispute between Saltzman and Broccoli, it was enough to cast doubt on the franchise’s future.

To paraphrase Lulu, The Man With The Golden Gun is not “a glittering end” to its producers’ long-running cooperation. Saltzman lost money investing in Technicolor and after this instalment came out, any further Bond production was deadlocked during the litigation over his sale of his 50% stake. He wound up selling to UA, not only dissolving his partnership with Broccoli but also handing half of the franchise over to a studio that could now technically exercise a greater measure of control over future films.

When all was said and done, Bond would come roaring back three years later, the longest break between instalments up to that point. In the meantime, The Man With The Golden Gun wasn’t half as good as its villain, but then the real villain of the piece is whoever signed off on that bloody slide whistle…

The Man With The Golden Gun is now streaming on Prime Video and will also screen in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 10th June.

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