Monday, September 15, 2014

Book vs. Film: "The Man with the Golden Gun"

Or, The Man with the Phallic Phallus.

This, the last of the Bond novels, continues Bond's story from You Only Live Twice. Such continuity is rare in the series, but the last three take this approach.

(spoilers ahead...)

Bond has returned home from Japan via Russia, his amnesia gone only to be replaced by Soviet brainwashing. Bond actually tries to assassinate M, but M outwits him and, still holding out hope for the broken man, sends Bond off for shock treatment.

After successful treatment, M gives Bond a mission of little national security importance to try and see if he's still "got it". So he's sent out to kill an infamous assassin named Paco "Pistols" Scaramanga.  In the book, Scaramanga uses a gold-plated Colt 45, firing bullets with a gold core because they cause more internal damage. He grew up as a trick shot in the circus, then fled after killing a policeman. On the run, he winds up spending most of his time as a killer for the Spang Brothers of Diamonds are Forever fame - basically the Vegas mob. He's a caricature American gangster, and not especially deep as Fleming villains go.  But he does have great sexual prowess.  This point gets made frequently.

After a week of travel without success, Bond winds up finding Scaramanga in Jamaica.  The Caribbean is comfortable ground for Fleming, who lived there. As such it's easy to see why he chose the location.  The movie trades this locale for Southeast Asia -- Thiland and Macau, perhaps to avoid the repetition of returning to Jamaica once again, perhaps because the Cuban situation had changed significantly by the time the film came out (the politics of the region, in the Cold War sense, were very much centered around Cuba at the time the novel was written).

On the topic of Scaramanga: This is one of those occasions where the film improved on the books. Scaramanga is a more interesting character by far in the movie, and comes across as much more of a challenge for Bond to defeat. Unfortunately everything else in the movie is so bad it doesn't really matter.

The plot in the book is rather simple, and relies perhaps more than any other Fleming novel on coincidence. Bond just happens to spot a letter posted for Scaramanga in the airport, detailing where and when the man will have a meeting. Then Bond just happens to bump into Scaramanga at a brothel (Bond is there because he's nostalgic for "old Jamaica" and thinking about buying the place, not realizing what goes on there but not really shocked either). Scaramanga hires bond to be his assistant for this big meeting he's about to have, a trope Fleming also used in Goldfinger (interesting, both "Gold" named books). Felix Leiter just happens to be undercover at the same hotel where the meeting is taking place. And, one of the people coming to the meeting just happens to be a top KGB agent who is out to kill Bond.  They say that readers will forgive an author one coincidence, and Fleming is definitely pushing things well past the limit here.

It's a short, mediocre Bond novel adapted into an awful movie.

Film Scaramanga, purported to be this insanely good assassin, lives on an island China has given him, where he's constructed (in addition to an awesome house) a circus-inspired maze.  With the help of his sadistic personal assistant, Scaramanga lures other famous assassins to this maze and then "hunts them". The quotes there are important because there's nothing sporting about it. I think the point of this was supposed to be that Scaramanga is pitting his skill against potential rivals, purely to see who is better, but this is rendered completely moot by the fact that the opponent has to go through this crazy, over-the-top circus maze.  Scaramanga hides inside, knowing all the secrets, blindspots, and cover points. Then he shoots his opponent when they're at their most confused.  How the hell is that a battle of assassin skills? And really, why bother with all that nonsense?  None of this was in the book, at all. There's a passing mention of Scaramanga learning to shoot as a trick-shot in the circus, but that's it. As it stands, although everything else that happens points to this man being a top, if not thee top, assassin, the maze bit implies he cannot hope to beat his competition without massive external assistance. For me this killed all the other character building going on.

We see this maze in the opening scene and, inside, at the end of the contraption, is a wax model of James Bond -- telling us in bludgeoning-hammer-fashion that Scaramanga's ultimate rival is 007. I suspect at least 90% of viewers figure out in this opening minute that the movie will end with the real James Bond pretending to be the wax model in order to get the upper hand on Scaramanga.  And that is, of course, exactly what happens.
Psychedelic! The kids are into that, right? Right?

The film is one of the weakest in the franchise. A string of concocted situations, loosely connected to one another. Two absolute groaners stand out to me.

  • Bond is captured by his enemy and specifically ordered killed.  They've got him right there, and they have weapons.  How do they go about this execution? A bullet in the back of the head? Strangle him? No, no... what they do is put him up for the night in a sumptuous karate dojo, surrounded by beautiful women who cater to his every whim.  As morning arrives, Bond is treated to watching some of the warriors spar with each other, and then.. of course, Bond is invited to come out and fight their best man.  So that that man can kill Bond.  Because that's a slam dunk.  No possibility Bond will win!  No chance of escape! WAIT, BOND IS A KARATE EXPERT? SHIT! HUH?! HE DOVE THROUGH A PAPER WINDOW AND FLED?! AFTER HIM! WHAT? THE GOOD GUYS WERE WAITING RIGHT OUTSIDE TO PICK HIM UP? THAT LIMEY GENIUS!
  • And then there's the dreaded Sheriff. Perhaps the worst character in all the movies, Sheriff Redneck (I can't be bothered to look up the actual character name, but this tells you all you need to know) from Live and Let Die makes his triumphant return to the silver screen here.  I had forgotten about this fact until he appears--erased it from my mind you might say, and I found myself groaning that he was on screen for 10 seconds to deliver a dumb line. A cameo? Well, okay. I guess I can stomach it.  But then he comes back.  And doesn't leave.  Now he and Bond are in a car together, chasing the enemy.  Working together like some buddy cop duo.  For endless minutes of sheer cringe-inducing antics.  It boggles my mind that someone out there in movieland thought "We need to bring that Sheriff back. And... AND!!!... get him and Bond working together!" Hey guys, for this character, how about less "Live" and more "Let Die"?
Tonight on ABC, another hilarious episode of Bond and the Redneck!

There are plenty of other problems, but they're more forgivable.

One highlight is the gigantic MI6 field office hidden inside the half-sunken wreck of the Queen Elizabeth.  Despite being completely ridiculous as a secret base (I'm well past the point of expecting any actual spycraft to occur in these movies), it's a very cool set.

An entire secret base inside a ship listing at 45 degrees
Also, what is it with the filmmakers and their obsession with having M, Q, and Moneypenny showing up in the field where Bond is working?  It's like the entire secret service support staff travels with him, and yet Bond always seems surprised to stumble upon them.

In summation, what we have this time 'round is a mediocre book adapted (and I use the term loosely) into a forgettable movie.  You can safely put both of these near the bottom of you reading and viewing list.

Book: C-
Film: F+
Faithfulness to the source material: Well he has a gun, and it is gold...

Next up, and the last entry in the series, a short story collection:  Octopussy and The Living Daylights


Christopher R. Britt said...
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ridoy ahmed said...
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