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Bond Girl: Re-Watching and Re-Evaluating The Man With The Golden Gun

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Original illustration by Emilie Majarian for The Mary Sue.

Welcome to Bond Girl, a new series where we’ll be re-watching and re-evaluating every James Bond film until Spectre’s release. Check out previous entries here

Content warnings for ableism, racism (stereotypes and slurs) against Asians, and normalized/accepted violence against women at linked blog.

The Man With The Golden Gun wins for one of the best villains with Christopher Lee’s Francisco Scaramanga, but falls short in many other ways. It’s a good movie, sure – but it has its issues.

First released in December of 1974, The Man With The Golden Gun is Guy Hamilton’s final outing as director for the franchise. Set in 1973 during a real life energy crisis that England was still having trouble getting over, the plot of the film revolves around the hunt for a device called the Solex Agitator that can harness the power of the sun. MI6 gets in on the action, along with Francisco Scaramanga who has a golden bullet with Bond’s name – or at least his call sign – written on one side.

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I like the way that this film deviates from Fleming’s original work in order to incorporate contemporary world events; the use of the energy crisis along with the fear that solar energy was a main viable solution drove the plot along nicely. MI6 gets involved because there was a device out there that could be used to fix that crisis, and there are comments made about how they can’t depend on fossil fuels for much longer. The historical stuff appeals to my inner history nerd – big moments, like the main plot, come from an event that actually happened, and little things, like the mention of communism in China, lend credence to the story – and it was nice that it definitely felt a bit more grounded in reality than the film before it.

This is also a gorgeous movie.

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Guy Hamilton is my favorite of the old-school directors, and there’s always a huge amount of attention paid to detail in his Bond films. All of the scenes set on Scaramanga’s island were visually stunning, and they worked. The characters moved well together and, man, the camera work was so good on some of the scenes. Hamilton really did some of his best work in the series in this film. I mean, even in the parts that I hated, I always found something visually that excited me. Camera angles were often flattering, and the characters fit each other very well. I think this was a very realistic movie (more so than Live And Let Die, which was supposed to be the realistic one), and the movie owes that in part to Hamilton’s directorial style and the way that the cast responded to his commands.

I have this huge thing for the way that the film looks and feels. Sure, while the plot and characters go in and out on whether or not I like them, watching the film wasn’t very hard. Seriously, one of my favorite parts in the film comes early on in when Maud Adams’ Andrea Anders hears Bond talking to her while she’s in the shower. The camera focuses on her shock and then when she turns, you get a shot of her brilliant blue eyes and it’s just such a striking scene. When in doubt, I looked at the way that the scene was set up and found something to like, because there are visual treats all over the place.

The cast and the characters they play are next among the highest of high points for me. While the MI6 characters (excluding James Bond, of course) are at this point very familiar to me, and in some ways have lost a bit of their gloss, the local characters and the villain and his crew always catch my eye first. I know it sounds wishy-washy, as if I can’t make up my mind on how I feel about the characters, but it’s so difficult for me. For most of the recurring characters in The Man With The Golden Gun, there’s something compelling about them even if they’re not likeable in the slightest. They’re fleshed out more than usual, even the villain. I mean, Scaramanga is actually known for being the villain that gets the most backstory and personality in Fleming’s original works.

So yeah, the characters? Most of them really work for me.

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I don’t know what it is about Roger Moore, but even in horrible scenes, he doesn’t come across as half as sleazy as Sean Connery did in the role. James Bond is somewhat of a sleazy character so a little bit is expected, but it felt over the top as Connery grew into the role. With Moore, there’s something about his features that makes you feel like he’s trustworthy, even when we’re hip deep in a scene where he’s making ridiculous remarks. I’m still not tired of him yet, although there are moments (depending on the time of the day when I’m watching his Bond films or how tired I am) when I continue to picture him as a tiny elderly man.

The ladies in the film are… interesting.

moneypenny anders goodnightUnfortunately, Miss Moneypenny maybe gets a full two minutes of dialogue in her appearance this film. At this point, I just get to bask in her beauty for a minute before she’s rushed off-screen. Alas, there’s no one I can write a letter to about this because this movie is older than I am by almost twenty years, but believe me I am peeved about how little screen time Moneypenny has been getting.

But this film has two Bond Girls, and each of them win me over for different things while also having major flaws to their characterization. I’ve already mentioned how striking I found Maud Adams’ Andrea Anders to be, but she’s a complex character on top of that. She is in many ways a typical Bond-franchise female character: trapped under the influence of an older, wealthier man with this web of power and the constant threat of death, Anders does a lot of stuff that she doesn’t want to. Most of her scenes with Scaramanga and even Bond are rife with tension and discomfort because she doesn’t want to be where she is.

Bond forces her into helping him by using threats and blackmail, which is pretty awful actually. I was so upset about the scene that I even wrote about that this past weekend, how James Bond frequently forces women to help him with his missions and how it’s always accepted as something that happens for the greater good. Following the scene in the shower that I thought was beautifully done, Bond winds up pinning Anders to a bed and threatening to hurt her or even break her arm if she doesn’t give him what he wants. And even though Anders does give him what he wants and a lot more besides, Bond still blackmails her.

The moment when you find out that Andrea Anders, not Scaramanga, is responsible for the bullet with James Bond’s call sign on it and therefore the entire mission knocks me right down every time because it’s so clever and yet understated. Everyone underestimates her in the film, with Bond and Scaramanga both not thinking that she would be capable of implementing a long con like that. But because Bond films tend to only allow you one Bond girl, Andrea Anders dies. I’m never going to be okay with how women in the franchise are treated as disposable. As long as James Bond has someone to float off into the sunset with, it doesn’t really matter.

Seriously!

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At the muay thai match Andrea Anders was using as a drop point, Scaramanga actually tells Bond to: “Forget the girl. She’s replaceable.” And isn’t that just how the franchise treats women? There’s not even a solid six seconds of mourning once Bond realizes she’s dead and from then on, the film focuses on Goodnight.

Mary Goodnight is one of those characters that grows on you. At first, I didn’t really like her. She’s a comedic character slotted firmly into a role that seems to put beauty over brains. Practically every comment that Bond makes to or about her is one questioning her intelligence. It was annoying. Sure she makes mistakes (including the huge one of getting caught trying to place a tracker in Scaramanga’s car and then knocked into the trunk), but who doesn’t?

I like Goodnight because she has an innocent air to her that doesn’t feel like she’s being infantilized. She’s bright and generally easy-going, but she’s also not afraid or unwilling to call James Bond out for being a cad for locking her in a closet so that he can have sex with Andrea Anders. She’s been out in the field for two years and the experience shows in the fact that M himself picks her to be Bond’s assistant.

Maybe Bond doesn’t think anything of her, and I know that I certainly fell for the trap of dismissing her initially, but it’s kind of messed up to dislike her from the mistakes she’s made in the film since Bond makes an even bigger mistake earlier on and he’s not dismissed because of it. I do think they could’ve and should’ve done more with her character especially as research tells me that she is a recurring character in the books that becomes a decent operative in her own right. Limiting her role to a wide-eyed innocent strikes me as something that shouldn’t have been allowed to stand, but again… Short of going back in time and shaking some sense into the production crew for the film, there’s no chance of me fixing any of this.

scaramanga

Now I know that I mentioned Scaramanga earlier, and I think it’s time to talk more about him. Where Blofeld and Kananga were Kingpin-esque villains that wanted to take part of the world and remake in their own image, Scaramanga is different. He kills because he can and because he’s good at it. With a circus backstory like something straight out of an issue of Hawkeye, Scaramanga’s character feels comic book-y and that’s a good thing. He’s not an over the top stereotype like Kananga but he also isn’t like Blofeld who seems a lot like Lex Luthor in certain aspects.

Scaramanga isn’t likeable. Christopher Lee has knack for playing menacing characters with creepiness interlaced throughout their very being, but he also brings depth to him. Scaramanga has a code of honor. He’s seeing himself as James Bond’s equal, perhaps seeing the truth to Bond that no one has ever seen before. He doesn’t even really want James Bond dead, not really. He wants to beat Bond at his own game, to show him that despite Bond’s high morals and reputation, he is the better shot.

funhouse

At the beginning of the movie in my favorite pre-credits scene from this era. A gangster from Chicago walks up the beach and into a funhouse-like setting, obviously hunting Scaramanga with Scaramanga’s assistant Nick Nack (played by Herve Villechaize of Fantasy Island fame) goading and helping him in turns. It feels like something out of an R-rated Scooby Doo movie because things like an animatronic gun-toting Al Capone, a statue of James Bond, and a wiggly glow-in-the-dark skeleton dropping out of the darkness. It’s actually ridiculous, and therefore redoing that scene with James Bond in the role of hunter is the perfect way to tie the start of the film to the end. Bond and Scaramanga track each other through the hunting ground, with Nick Nack making ridiculously unhelpful commentary the entire time. It’s the statue of James Bond that tips the balance into Bond’s favor, I think. Scaramanga expects the statue to be around the corner, but it’s the real Bond who shoots him square in the chest and ends their enmity.

Now, while there are many very good aspects of the film, one major thing that I want to talk about is how the movie’s reliance on popular film conventions and themes kind of bites it in the butt. Where Live And Let Die borrowed heavily from the Blaxploitation genre, The Man With The Golden Gun pulls from the martial arts craze that was also pretty big in the mid ’70s. This means that we get a movie set largely in Asia with key scenes in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Unfortunately, that also means that we get a lot of racism in the form of stereotypes and then in slurs.

With the stereotypes, it’s that every single Asian person can do martial arts well. It’s how the one named Asian character is named Chew Me and it’s set up like a double entendre. It’s how aside from Chew Me, bad guy Hai Fat (Richard Loo) and Lieutenant Hip (Richard Loo), no other Asian characters really get names. They’re either sensual beauties or men who kick butt. No names necessary. It’s uncomfortable to watch because the use of stereotypes here is dehumanizing.

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When we get to the slurs, it’s also a shock to the senses. A misstep in this film is how they try to include a comedic aspect in the form of Sheriff JW Pepper. Talk about a major mistake. In Live And Let Die, Clifton James plays a racist sheriff. In this movie, he’s playing a racist sheriff on vacation and he does not pull any off the stops.

There are slurs. Stereotypes. The man goes to another country and insults the native Asians for being “lazy”. I mean, it’s not funny in the slightest but it’s all played for jokes. I’m seriously wondering what’s going on in the minds of the people who write the final drafts for the script. Pepper straight up refers to people in Bangkok as “pointy heads” in pajamas. It’s supposed to be derogatory and funny.

To me, it’s just derogatory. There’s nothing funny about turning someone’s identity into a joke. It was a super sour spot for me in this movie because there was such potential for them to show more characters in Macau and Thailand that weren’t framed as funny jokes.

I liked the fight scenes that came from the focus on martial arts and the fact that two of the best fighters were teenage girls, but let’s be real: the racist “humor?” It’s so not something that the franchise ever needed and so not something I ever needed to see.

Also: Seeing Herve Villechaize as Nick Nack leaves me with complicated feelings because the character he’s playing in the film is one joke about little people after another. It’s near endless. Either there are sight gags about his size in comparison to his environment or one-liners about his height. It’s really messed up because Villechaize was a good actor and sticking him in the role of the joking sidekick is just a huge waste. (Let me not even get into how Villechaize suffered so much from health issues throughout his lifetime so the fact that he’s a jokey sidekick kind of hurts a bit to see. Ugh.)

Overall, I liked this movie because of the main characters’ vivid personalities and the ridiculous overlay to what is a somewhat serious plot. I could’ve done without Bond hitting and hurting Andrea Anders and I really could’ve done without the racism-as-humor bit. I liked this movie better than Live And Let Die. It’s not a favorite by any means (and it was one of the franchise’s least successful films), but it didn’t get old. It didn’t get boring after multiple rewatches and even in the annoying parts, I had fun making snide commentary to whomever was nearby.

What I’m looking forward to:

JAWS. There’s a freaking villain with metal shark teeth and his name is JAWS. With my thing about the sharks in the James Bond franchise, I’m definitely excited for that horrible lump of a villain making his first appearance in The Spy Who Loved Me.

There’s also the fact that this next film focuses on the KGB and Russian spies (because they couldn’t use SPECTRE/Blofeld after the fiasco with Fleming and McClory). Hello, that’s something I’m super excited about because it means I get to spend hours online looking up fun but horrible facts about history that are only vaguely related to the Bond franchise.

Zina Hutton writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories. Find her on her blog or on Twitter.

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