After having succesfully jumped the hurdle that was his first appearance as 007, James Bond; Roger Moore was ready, once again, to tackle his next obstacle; trying to top what the creative team at United Artists, and himself had done in Live and Let Die.
“Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were very satisfied with the way the two previous entries had been handled, and the consequent financial success achieved by both of them. Riding on a wave of success, they felt that they had to make the most out of this momentum, and immediately started work on Pre-production for The Man with the Golden Gun.
This was a book that they had tried already to adapt, back when Sean Connery first expressed his desire to quit the role, and the producers were in talks with Roger Moore to take over as 007. That proyect had to be scrapped, however, as the producers’ desire to film the movie in Cambodia ground to a halt because of the political upheaval in the area. Moore also had to abandon the role, as he was already committed to another TV show; The Persuaders (1971-1972).
Both Guy Hamilton, and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz were asked to come back, and even though Mankiewicz wrote a first draft of the script; he felt he wasn’t giving it his best. He asked the producers to retire from the proyect, as he was suffering from creative exhaustion, and wasn’t able to come up with a satisfying enough script. The producers decided to get in contact with Richard Maibaum, who had successfully written the scripts for the first Bond movies. While in the process of writing, Mankiewicz, Hamilton and the producers were also scouting for locations. The story in the book originally takes place in Jamaica, but as the crew had already filmed there twice for Dr No and Live and Let Die, it was felt that they had to come up with somewhere exotic where they hadn’t filmed before. After watching a French film that had been shot in Iran, and being mesmerized by the magnificent locations; the team flew there to check it out by themselves. None of the locations lived up to the crew’s expectations, and anyway, on their flight back they learned that the Arab-Israeli War had sprang up, mirroring a similar situation when the crew had wanted to shoot The Man with the Golden Gun in Cambodia, before the Civil War started. It seemed that the James Bond crew was out of luck once again. Or were they?
The James Bond Islands
The misshap in Iran ultimately proved to be nothing more than a temporary set back. Hamilton, the eternal innovator, had always been fascinated about the idea of shooting a Bond movie on one of those isolated islands that formed a chain of rugged, and beautiful looking pinnacles off the coast of China. Hamilton had learned about these while thumbing through a traveller’s magazine, and although they couldn’t get any of those actual locations, they found something similar off the coast of Thailand. Permission was granted to the crew to shoot there, but as none of the islands had suitable establishments were the cast and crew could stay in, being the islands compressed mainly of small villages along the coast; the crew had to make do with the village’s brothel, which was the only house big enough to accommodate the whole filming crew, and convert in into a hotel of sorts. This was the least of the cast and crew’s problems, though, as they had to travel to the island chosen to be Scaramanga’s island by boat every day, carrying tons of wardrobe, set decoration building material, props and filming equipment. The crew had to also watch out for changes in the tide, and weather conditions. After filming, the island became a famous tourist destination, and would in time be dubbed as The James Bond Islands. Being fairly close to Hong Kong and Macau, it was decided that the bulk of the movie would be shot there, with interiors, like the sunken Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong harbor, the interior of Scaramanga’s island retreat, and the solar energy laboratory, all faithfully recreated in Pinewood Studios.
A great villain for a great actor
The movie gives us the opportunity to enjoy one of the best Bond villains ever to come out of Ian Fleming’s pages; the assassin Francisco Scaramanga, a.k.a, The Man with the Golden Gun. To find an actor capable of bringing across the menace and sophistication of such an iconic character, the producers went to the most unusual of places; the British Hammer Film Productions. Christopher Lee had made a name for himself portraying Count Dracula in numerous movies for the film production company, and was tired of being type cast in the same role. The part of Scaramanga would give the actor the opportunity to explore, and widen his acting range. He was also, in a way, related to the Bond series in that Ian Fleming and him were cousins, they had a mutual affection for golf, and would often play together many times. He was more than delighted to accept the role after he read the script. Tom Mankiewicz, who ultimately had to come back to do some re-writes on Maibaum’s script, had made several changes to the character from the way he was portrayed in the book. In the book, Scaramanga lacks the air of sophistication given to him by Mankiewicz, and comes across as nothing more than a mere thug for hire who happens to have a penchant for golden plated weaponry. Lee welcomed those changes, as he saw his character as a dark reversal of James Bond; a fact that comes to light during the dinner scene in Scaramanga’s hideout in the third act of the film. Even more unusual, and surprisingly effective was the casting of French painter-turned actor Herve Villechaize as Scaramanga’s pint-size second hand, Nick Nack. The actor turned out to be a lively presence on set, always in good spirits and, according to his fellow cast members; with a voracious appetite for the opposite sex.
On the Bond girls front, the producers turned to two Swedish beauties; Maud Adams and Britt Ekland. Ekland, who plays the part of agent Mary Goodnight, would be later on better known for her marriage with actor Peter Sellers than for her acting career, while Maud Adams, who plays Scaramanga’s lover Andrea Anders, would get the chance to play the enchanting and mysterious Jewl smuggler Octopussy, opposite Roger Moore, in the Bond film of the same name, years later. The role of Scaramanga’s employer, the Chinese Industrialist Hai Fat, was played by famous American-Chinese actor Richard Loo. The role of Bond’s assistant in Hong Kong, Hip, fell to Korean-American actor Soon Tek-Oh. Another surprising bit of re-casting was that of Clifton James reprising his role as Sherriff J.W. Pepper, who just happens to be vacationing in Hong Kong with his wife while Bond is on assignment there. Go figure!!.He came back by popular demand, and participates in one of the most exciting action set pieces in the movie; just like he did in the previous one.
Hardship and Luxury
The producers tried to accommodate the needs of its crew and cast as much as possible, but the isolated location on the island of Khow-Ping-Khan, which the crew was using as Scaramanga’s island, was a tricky location to get to in the best of circumstances. The whole cast and crew was staying on a nearby island where accommodations and means of transportation were limited, to say the least. Shooting in location was divided into the island and back on the mainland on Hong Kong, and a floating casino in Macau. The scenes in which Bond follows Andrea from the floating Casino in Macau to the Hotel Peninsula, in Hong Kong, in which Bond travels on a Hidrofoil for one island to the other, were shot in the same day. It was actually in this hotel where most of the crew stayed for the duration of the shoot in location, being treated with the utmost care by the producers, as a way of making up for the uncomfortable accommodations and shooting conditions on the Scaramanga island.
Spiral jumping cars, more speedboat chases, and other death-defying shenanigans.
The movie, once again, excells in its death-defying, action set pieces. There are not as many car chases, or action set pieces as there had been in the previous movies. In fact, this is one of the few Bond movies that is really restrained in that department, and it takes, for the most part, a very low key approach when it comes to this particular facet of the production. But what little there is, it’s outstanding. First off, we have a speed boat chase through the water markets and houses of the Bangkok area, immediately preceded by a kung fu fight sequence between Bond, Hip and his two nieces against a bunch of Kung Fu fighters in a Temple. The fight sequence was thoroughly rehearsed before hand, presenting little problems; but the speedboat chase sequence had to be carefully planned by the Stunt department, as the nimble boats used by the locals to traverse the river on a daily basis, were too fast, too unstable, and highly unreliable. They were powered by a rotor attached to a pole, which when sunk in the water by the boatman would reach high speeds on a moment’s notice. The peculiar way in which the boats were powered and steered around, also meant that, when bending a corner too fast, the pole with the rotor attached to it, could come out of the water and spin out of control. There was also the added health issue of speed boating around in dirty water, running the risk of falling in and catching all kind of diseases. Not something to be snuffed at.
But the action set piece that is the absolute standout in the movie is the car spiral jump. This jaw-dropping action set piece was performed by W.J. Milligan Jr’s stunt team. “Cubby” Broccoli had heard on the news about a daring car jump stunt performed for a live audience in an auditorium in the US, over a spiralling wooden bridge. It occurs while Bond is chasing after Scaramanga and Nick Nack, and mistakenly takes the wrong turn and ends up in the opposite lane with a river in between. Halfway through, Bond spots a broken-down, rickety, chopped-in-the-middle wooden bridge, with two very steep and short, spiralling ramps on either side. This is the point he chooses to cross over to the other side. The spiraling ramps were designed and constructed to Milligan’s specifications, after careful mathematical calculations were made using a computer model; taking into account mass of the vehicle, weight and speed necessary to achieve the jump. The steering wheel had to be placed in the middle of the car to even out the weight, while a mocap steering wheel, with two dummies seating on both front seats standing in for Moore and Clifton James were put there to perform the stunt. One driver from Milligan’s team was chosen to perform the stunt, who did it to perfection on the first take. It was actually Hamilton who was concerned that the jump looked too perfect, and asked if it could be repeated. Given the dangerous nature of the stunt, Milligan refused.
Another bit of funny business was the scene in which Scaramanga turns his car into a flying machine. Special Effects Supervisor John Stears, a veteran of the Bond movies, was asked to do the required modifications to a real car for close ups, while the shots of the car flying away were achieved using a model car.
For a movie light in action set pieces, it sure had a lot of, at times, overlooked work put into his Props and Set Design. Peter Murton was the man in charge this time around to provide the necessary background glitz to James Bond’s newest adventure. With Peter Lamont as his right hand man, Murton was in charge of designing not only Scaramanga’s entire island hideout and its Solar Energy lab which, by the way, is very reminiscent of Ken Adams’s design for Dr No’s lab from the first movie in the series, but he also was in charge of designing one of the most bizarre and psychedelic sets seen in a Bond movie; Scaramanga’s fun house, which he uses as a target practice arena for would-be assassins who come over the island to kill him. The set was recreated in its entirety in Pinewood Studios, using an assortment of mannequins, mirrors, period-themed areas, like a Western town Saloon, and an Al Capone gallery, and even a life-size wax sculpture of Roger Moore’s Bond himself!!. Another challenging set whose interior had to also be built in Pinewood was that of M’s office inside the capsized, half sunk, and water corrugated Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong harbor. The real life ship was used as a establishing shot, while a mocap of the exterior and an access hatch were built in Pinewood. As the real ship was tilted to one side, so had to be the rest of the set’s interior. Doors, furniture..everything was built on an angle; making for one of the most bizarre sets seen in a Bond movie. One prop that gave the designers a run for their money, and especially Peter Lamont, who was in charge of designing it; was the Golden Gun. Lamont was given instructions to build two models of the Golden Gun; one that was constructed as a whole piece, and other that could be taken apart, and put back together. Lamont took the design to a company they frequently worked with, to have them design a gold-plated lighter. In addition to this, a golden pen for the cannon and cuff links for the trigger completed the design, which was put together by a London-based company that specialized in Jewellery design. Lamont got used to assembling and disassembling the gun so much, that he could do it without looking at it. A trick that was never completely mastered by Christopher Lee himself.
In addition to all the Set and Prop Design, a great deal of miniatures were used, especially for the finale, in which Scaramanga’s entire rock-hidden Solar Lab blows up. For this, the producers recruited the help of Derek Meddings. Meddings had been hired in the previous movie to simulate the explosion of Kananga’s poppy fields at the end of the movie; which was all achieved with the use of miniatures. This time around, the use of miniatures was going to be even more extensive; as he had to, not only, recreate some of Murton’s sets in miniature for the long establishing shots, but also blow them up in the finale. The end result is so seamless, that I didn’t notice the difference between the real set and the miniature set until it was pointed out to me in the Audio commentary.
Struggling to finish
One other problem surfaced when Principal Photography in location for the movie had been completed. Ted Moore, the Cinematographer responsible for lighting most of the previous Bond movies fell ill. Faced with an ever encroaching delivery dead line, and with a good chunk of the movie yet to be filmed in Pinewood, Broccoli and Saltzman got in touch with Oswald Morris’ agent. Morris was a well known Cinematographer by then, with such credits as Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Norman Jewison, and Lolita (1962), Stanley Kubrick. Morris was reluctant to take the job, as he’d done it several times before, and wasn’t comfortable with walking into someone else’s set, taking over, and having to complete the job adhering to someone else’s style. It took him some convincing, especially by Broccoli, but he finally relented, and completed the movie on schedule.
Financial and critical reception
The movie was generally well received on both fronts. Moore was firmly established as 007’s new face and everyone was happy. Or were they?
The reason why I asked the question is because, for some reason or another, The Man with the Golden Gun seems to hold the record as the Bond movie most people make fun of. And this is totally undeserved. We also get some of that with Live and Let Die, but with this one, people really like to stick the knife in, and twist. Ok, granted it’s not the most exciting, or groundbreaking of Bond adventures at times, as say; Goldfinger, Thunderball, or Moore’s next Bond movie; The Spy who loved me. But it still has a lot going for it. It’s got a great villain, great locations, amazing action set pieces and stunts, and John Barry is back to compose the soundtrack. What more can you ask for?. Its heart is definitely on the right place. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s some goofy stuff there, we could’ve done without; the return of J.W. Pepper, (funny though Clifton James may be), the kung fu fight scene in the temple, and consequent speedboat chase sequence that’s done for the sake of doing it because of the kung-fu craze prevalent at the time, and an excuse to have an extra action set piece (as brillianty executed as always, I might add), and especially the blow whistle effect used for the car spiral jump scene, which totally undermines the effectiveness of such a wonderful stunt. An inclusion that John Barry has admitted, regrets having done. All that aside, there’s much to be enjoyed here. Moore is clearly in his element, and has some very good dialogue to work with thanks to Tom Mankiewicz’s contributions. Both Bond girls are beautiful, and in the case of Maud Adams, though admittedly inexperienced at the time, has some real meat to her role. Ekland does her best as the silly and clumsy assistant, but is regrettably nothing more than that. As for Herve Villechaize as Nick Nack, he’s a hoot. It’s unusual to have a short person as a sidekick, but I think it works wonders with this setting, and this story. The clear standout here is Christopher Lee. His interactions with Moore are very well written and acted, and Moore really has to step up his game to be on par with him on an acting level on occasion. The final duel is well shot, and very suspenseful. Editing and music play a great part in this, and the conclusion is rather surprising. This one is a minor title in the Bond/Moore movie run, but it’s got a lot of charm, and should be seen without prejudice and an open mind. It’s also the last time that Guy Hamilton directed a Bond movie, which was definitely a loss for most of us. One of the best directors in the series, and a consumate innovator.
Thanks for reading.