Remembering Roger Moore: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (United Artists 1974)

I didn’t realize Sir Roger Moore was 89 years old when I first heard he’d passed away on May 23. But as Mick Jagger once sang, time waits for no one, and Moore’s passing is another sad reminder of our own mortality. It seemed like Roger had been around forever though, from his TV stardom as Simon Templar in THE SAINT (1962-69) though his seven appearances as James Bond, Agent 007.

There’s always been a rift  between fans of original film Bond Sean Connery and fans of Moore’s interpretation. The Connery camp maintains Moore’s Bond movies rely too much on comedy, turning the superspy into a parody of himself. Many point to his second, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, as an example, but I disagree. I think the film strikes a good balance between humor and suspense, with Roger on-target as 007, and the great Christopher Lee (who’d guest starred in Moore’s syndicated 1958 TV series IVANHOE) in great form as the cold-blooded master assassin Francisco Scaramanga.

The prologue takes us to Scaramanga’s island hideaway off the coast of (Red) China. A Chicago-style hit man (gangster vet Marc Lawrence  ) is invited to engage in a deadly battle of wits in Scaramanga’s bizarre fun house, won by the international executioner. A wax figure of Bond let us know who his next target is to be. Roll credits, over the (admittedly lame) title tune warbled by pop singer Lulu.

Now the story proper begins. 007 is called into M’s office and shown a golden bullet etched with his number. It can mean only one thing: ex-KGB assassin Francisco Scaramanga, the man with the golden gun who charges a million dollars a hit, has set his sights on James Bond. This sets up the scene for action, as Bond travels to Beirut (giving the film an excuse for sex & violence in a belly dancer’s dressing room), Macau (where he delivers the famous “My name’s Bond… James Bond” line), Hong Kong (introducing us to Britt Eklund as klutzy assistant Mary Goodnight and Maud Adams, later to portray OCTOPUSSY, as Scaramanga’s mistress Andrea Anders), Bangkok (with a nod to the 70’s chop-sockey martial arts craze featuring Soon Taik-Oh and a pair of kung-fu fighting schoolgirls), and finally to Scaramanga’s island lair, where the two “best in the business” have their final showdown, echoing Welles’s LADY FROM SHANGHAI.

All the traditional Bond elements are in place. Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn, and Lois Maxwell are back as M, Q, and Miss Moneypenny. There’s exotic locales, sexual innuendoes, hi-tech gadgetry, thrilling stunts, and plenty of action. The late Clifton James (who died April 15th this year) is also back from LIVE AND LET DIE as redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper, on vacation in Bangkok and accidentally caught up in a wild car chase (“Who you after this time, boy? Commies?”). Herve Villechaize is on hand as Scaramanga’s diminutive flunky Nick Nack, and long-time screen villain Richard Loo plays ultra-rich businessman Hai Fat, involved in the theft of the Solex Agitator, a super-powerful solar battery that could solve the world’s energy crisis and serves as the movie’s McGuffin.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN is fast and furious fun, and helped bring Christopher Lee out of the sinister shadow of Dracula and into the mainstream. It’s the last of Guy Hamilton’s four Bond films in the director’s chair (GOLDFINGER, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, LIVE AND LET DIE); he and Lewis Gilbert are the only two that directed both Connery and Moore in the role. James Bond may have a License to Kill, but he wasn’t meant to be a dour, brooding character on film (I’m talking to you, Daniel Craig!). The Moore/Bond films have a tongue-in-cheek charm to them, and are fondly remembered as much for their humor as for all the kiss-kiss-bang-bang action. Job well done, 007. And rest in peace, Sir Roger Moore.

RIP Roger Moore (1927-2017)

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: BACK TO BATAAN (RKO 1945)

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John Wayne  and Anthony Quinn fight World War II on the backlots of RKO (subbing for the jungles of the Philippines) in BACK TO BATAAN, a stirring exercise in propaganda ripped from headlines of the era. The film was made to stoke audience’s patriotic fires, and succeeds in it’s objective. It’s well directed and shot, has plenty of action, and superb performances by all, including a standout from 14-year-old Ducky Louie.

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Wayne plays Col. Madden, assigned to train Filipino freedom fighters (try saying that three times fast!) to battle the invading Japanese.  Quinn is Capt. Bonifacio, grandson of Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. He’s having issues with his girlfriend Dalisay, who’s the island version of Tokyo Rose (what he doesn’t realize is she’s secretly sending coded messages to the Allies through her broadcasts). Madden and his ragtag crew are out to destroy a Japanese gas depot, but first they encounter schoolteacher Bertha Barnes and little Maximo, whose village has been taken over, and whose principal refused to take down the American flag, and was hung in it’s place in a gruesome scene.

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The resistance fighters come across the infamous Bataan Death March, where Bonifacio has been taken prisoner. They free him, and Madden wants the men to rally around their former leader’s heir. He’s reluctant at first, but comes around and they make things hot for the Japanese. Little Maximo returns to his village and is tortured by the cruel invaders, but refuses to talk, and ends up sacrificing his life for the cause of freedom. Soon, the Americans are coming to the Philippines, and Madden and his guerilla band hold off the Japanese while the incoming Americans land and release the natives from their bondage.

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John Wayne, complete with scruffy beard, is his usual heroic self, and Quinn has never been bad in anything (although he has made some bad films, he always rises above them). The two macho men compliment each other well, with Quinn’s passionate Filipino trading off of Wayne’s stoicism. Wayne and Quinn only made one other film together, the 1947 South American western TYCOON, and it would’ve been interesting to have seen them make more.

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The wonderful Beulah Bondi shines as the schoolteacher, who’s just as tough as Wayne and his men. Miss Bondi was a two-time Oscar nominee (for THE GORGEOUS HUSSY and OF HUMAN HEARTS); although she never won the award, she did receive an Emmy for her final role in a 1976 episode of THE WALTONS. Always a welcome screen presence, Bondi appeared in classics and near classics like STREET SCENE (her film debut), RAIN (with Joan Crawford), the fantasy ON BORROWED TIME, with Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (both times as his mother), TRACK OF THE CAT (as Robert Mitchum’s mom), and A SUMMER PLACE.

That embodiment of Imperial Japanese evil, Richard Loo is on hand as the rotten Major Hasko. Loo, who was actually of Chinese descent, cornered the market on Nippon bad guys during the 40’s in such films as ACROSS THE PACIFIC, BEHIND THE RISING SUN, THE PURPLE HEART, GOD IS MY CO-PILOT, and FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO. Western fans will recognize Paul Fix (Micah on THE RIFLEMAN) as an American aiding the guerillas. And a young actor named Lawrence Tierney appears towards the end as Lt. Commander Waite, just before hitting it big in DILLINGER and other great noirs.

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Then there’s Ducky Louie, the boy playing young Maximo. Unlike a lot of child stars of the era, this kid had a natural acting ability, and holds his own with the pro cast. Ducky’s career was brief, appearing in only six films (most memorably in CHINA’S LITTLE DEVILS as a resistance fighter again,  and BLACK GOLD with costar Quinn). Young Ducky left show biz to become a dentist, and would be 85 if alive today (and if anyone can confirm whether he is or not, please let me know!). If his final death scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes, you just don’t have a heart or soul.

Director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriter Ben Barzman were the polar opposites of John Wayne politically, and I’m sure some sparks must’ve flew during shooting. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca lends his dark noir touches to the film, and Roy Webb’s score “borrows” from KING KONG, as well as some patriotic tunes. At film’s end, we’re introduced to some of the real survivors of the Bataan Death March, marching along with the cast. Now if THAT doesn’t get you up and saluting, I don’t know what will! BACK TO BATAAN is a rousing actioner, depicting the brutal realities of war, and the brave men who fought for liberty and freedom during WWII. It’s also a fine example of 1940’s Hollywood filmmaking, and contains many outstanding performances, particularly young Ducky Louie.

The real Bataan Death March
The real Bataan Death March

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