Since the end of the year (coming up!) seems to be the traditional time for nostalgia, I’d like to stay in that nostalgic mood by talking about the ultimate secret agent: Derek Flint; portrayed, of course, by that coolest of cool actors, the late James Coburn. (Between Coburn and Steve McQueen, they cornered the acting market on “cool”—there is not one of today’s stars who can match either one of them. The Magnificent Seven was full of “cool” actors (and a few not-so-cool; for example, Horst Buchholtz and Eli Wallach) or actors who had “cool” cred in this or other films, like Charles Bronson, the magnificent Yul Brynner or even The Man From Uncle’s Robert Vaughn. Don’t take my word for it, watch the movie again! But the coolest of the cool were Steve McQueen and James Coburn—and I think Jimmy C was the ultimate cool guy, especially in the two “spy spoof” movies he did about Derek Flint. (He never, ever lost that cool, even in the last movie I saw him in, which was Payback, with Mel Gibson , where his hands were so crippled with arthritis he could hardly hold a cigar.)
Why am I writing about secret agents in an SF column? True, Bond is not an SF concept, in spite of the filmic SF touches—the space station and the underwater city concept (Moonraker); the underwater car and the laser watch (The Spy Who Loved Me and various others), the various nuclear threats (Thunderball, et al.), but I would argue that one particular secret agent spoof is pure SF from beginning to end, and that agent is Derek Flint. Flint was played by James Coburn in two (Coburn declined a third movie, sadly) iconic films: Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967). Unlike Bond, Flint was not a full-time secret agent; like Modesty Blaise he worked somewhat reluctantly for his government to cope with threats that were above the government’s (in these cases, a fictional alliance of various countries’ government agencies) ability to resolve.
Unlike Bond, who was described by one of his opponents as a sort of “glorified policeman,” Flint doesn’t do this secret agent stuff for a living. Flint is a surgeon, a linguist, a ballet dancer and teacher, a marine biologist and a martial artist—even before Chuck Norris made it big; in fact, there’s little Flint hasn’t done or can’t do. He is, in fact, Keith Laumer’s Ultimax Man! And without the assistance of space aliens!
Now that we agree that Flint is SF, let’s do a bit of comparison between Flint and Bond. Okay, Bond works for the British Government (MI-6 by now, probably); Flint agrees to help a multinational governmental organization called “Z.O.W.I.E.”—the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage. Bond is highly trained by his government; Flint is pretty much an autodidact (it’s never clearly stated) but is pretty much world-class in every endeavour, including cooking. Bond is licensed to kill; Flint avoids killing as a rule, but knows when to—and is the only arbiter of whom to kill. Bond drives an Aston-Martin (in the films; in the books he’s fond of an old Bentley at the beginning); Flint flies his own Lear Jet. Bond woos (and loses) a succession of beautiful women; Flint lives with five women who are not his “harem”; they are all successful women in various fields who choose to be with him (in the first movie). Bond knows Judo; Flint knows various arts, including Karate. Bond has (in From Russia With Love) a briefcase which contains a folding AR-7 sniper rifle, 40 rounds of ammunition, a throwing knife that pops out of the side, a bottle of tear gas disguised as a bottle of talcum powder and 50 gold sovereigns; Flint carries a lighter that has “82 different functions—83 if you want to light a cigar,” and a watch which does a lot more than just keep time. When Bond is presumed dead (Skyfall), the government sells his flat and his possessions; Flint lives in a penthouse, which presumably he owns, and is not beholden to any government. Okay, enough already. What about the films?
The first Flint movie is Our Man Flint (the title is probably meant to echo the Alec Guinness spy spoof Our Man in Havana, which, from 1959, is probably the first-ever spy spoof. There were many more, including Dean Martin in a very silly set of adaptations of Donald Hamilton’s ultra-serious Matt Helm books, as well as an actual Bond film, Casino Royale, which had something like five James Bonds in it—including Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond!). Our Man Flint is about a plot by three mad scientists (their organization is called “Galaxy”; the doctors are Krupov, Wu and Schneider, and there’s an in-joke if you watch the film) to conquer the world. Okay, they weren’t mad in the Despicable Me sense; they had good intentions—ending poverty, hunger and suchlike—but their methods included murder, drugs and slavery, which aren’t a very sensible way to go about it. Besides a secret island with a super-science drill that could change the world’s weather by tapping the Earth’s core (How? I dunno, man, it’s science!) and a swarm of uniformed drugged-out workers and sex-slave “pleasure unit” women, the three scientists had minions Gila (Israeli actress Gila Golan), Malcolm Rodney (Edward Mulhare) and muscle man Gruber, to do their evil bidding.
The head of Z.O.W.I.E. is Cramden, played delightfully well by Lee J. Cobb; Cramden is perpetually one step behind Flint and never understands either the man or his decidedly non-military methods. The “presidential ring” on Cramden’s red phone, by the way, was “borrowed” by Austin Powers for his movies. And in one of Austin’s movies, he’s heard to say In Like Flint is his favourite movie!
The action moves from the U.S. to Italy to the secret Galaxy island; and Flint is never at a loss for how to deal with what happens—in the first case, he saves Cramden’s life when Gila shoots a poisoned dart into his arm while trying to hit Flint; he saves his own life by going into a self-induced “suspended animation” when locked in an airtight safe; he saves his female friends’ lives and minds when they are kidnapped and brainwashed into thinking they are nothing but “pleasure units,” and he even saves his enemy, Gila, from her own side (Photo 3). Although British author Sinclair McKay, in The Man With The Golden Touch: How the Bond Films Conquered the World, says that Derek Flint is cold, arrogant and unlikeable, I really disagree. Flint is always charming, even under duress—how could he be else? He’s James Coburn!—he never walks; he glides like a jungle cat. And is it arrogance when you actually know more than most people—Flint never condescends—and can do most anything?
Look here: Flint is over the top because he’s supposed to be. We’re not supposed to believe in him any more than we believe in any movie superman; but somehow Coburn brings a presence to Flint that’s totally lacking in, say, the Roger Moore (and George Lazenby) Bonds. If Coburn hadn’t vetoed a third Flint movie, I could actually and honestly have seen this becoming a franchise on the order of Bond simply because of Coburn’s screen presence. Anyhow, if you have a sense of humour and like the Bond movies, I recommend these two films over some of the other spoofs and even over some of the Bonds. (If you take your spy stuff seriously, you probably won’t like Dean Martin’s Matt Helm, because the screenwriters obviously read the books but chose to make fun of them; but on the other hand, who can dislike Dino? C’mon!) Some of the Bonds, particularly some of Moore’s come perilously close (Octopussy, anyone?) to being spoofs themselves.
So anyway, Our Man Flint ends with a bang, and the right people end up being saved. OMF has a terrific score (running through my head even as we speak… er, I type) by Jerry Goldsmith (with Shelly Mann on drums!), which is catchy and dramatic where it needs to be, and somehow manages to use the same several themes throughout the movie—with different emphases—without appearing repetitious. I saw this film in the theatre in San Francisco when I was in the Navy, and was so captivated I bought the soundtrack album. (In those days LPs cost under $5, too.) Let’s skip ahead to 1967 and the new movie, In Like Flint.
In Like Flint (the title is borrowed from an old saying, which some of the younger readers might not have heard, which is “You’re in like Flynn,” which may or may not refer to the dashing, hedonistic late actor Errol Flynn) has a different premise: men have made a hash of things, and the women—led by a consortium of famous women in the fashion industry—are going to rectify things by replacing the President of the United States with an actor look-alike.
Although Coburn and Cobb do the same fine job in this movie that they did in the first one, the movie suffers from a somewhat more lackluster script that tries in some ways to be as silly as the Batman TV series. Although OMF was played rather straight for a spoof, ILF goes over the top in some ways. The movie begins with Cramden playing golf with the President (Andrew Duggan); and when the President hits an exploding (gas) golf ball and is replaced by an actor (Andrew Duggan again), Cramden realizes he’s lost 3 minutes of his life. Soon the fake President, aided by a traitorous General Carter (Steve Ihnat) manages to disgrace Cramden and take away his authority as leader of Z.O.W.I.E. In desperation, Cramden makes his way to Flint’s penthouse, where Flint is compiling a human/dolphin dictionary, and begs him for help.
There are some of the usual fun touches—for example, Flint’s young ladies, Cramden notices upon a visit to the penthouse, seem to be fewer; there are only three instead of the previous five. “I’m trying to cut down,” Flint tells him (a reference to smoking; in the ‘60s people were beginning to see the correlation between too many cigarettes and a rising health cost to smoking). Flint’s “dolphin speech” is very funny, but Coburn plays it straight-faced. Flint infiltrates Z.O.W.I.E. to find out what’s going on, but the general’s men kill him and turn him to ash—they think! In reality, Flint manages to escape to Russia where he stars in a ballet; there’s a priceless scene with Yvonne Craig (Batgirl) as Natasha, who betrays him; Flint must hijack a plane from Cuba and take it to the Virgin Islands to find out what’s going on with all these women.
The women, meant to represent Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein and maybe Simone de Beauvoir (the character is just called “Simone,” who could be any of the several popular Simones of the day) figure that if they can replace the President with their hired actor they can control the free world; aided by Carter, they plan to take over the nuclear space platform and thereby control the world. The script fluctuates between silly and serious, but one of the absolute best bits is Cramden in drag trying to infiltrate the Virgin Islands spa called “Fabulous Face,” which is the front for the women who want to take over the world.
I don’t want to detail every plot twist of either movie; to me, half the fun for a new viewer would be them finding this stuff out for themselves; of course, we realize that Flint, being the person he is, will have to emerge victorious in both. Oh, and In Like Flint, as well, has a wonderful Jerry Goldsmith score. Both films succeed, in my opinion, not only as humourous spoofs—and believe me, there are many unhumourous ones—but also as vehicles for Coburn and Lee J. Cobb’s acting chops. Oh, and there was (in the ’70s) an abortive attempt at a Flint TV show, but it didn’t have Coburn or any kind of good writing. I was unable to finish watching the pilot, it was so bad. Or maybe I did finish, and my memory has mercifully blanked it out.
My opinion is only my opinion—I welcome other points of view; sometimes if those other POVs are well-argued, I change my opinion. So please, don’t be afraid to disagree, but do have something to back it up. You can either comment here on the Amazing Stories website—although you’ll have to register—or on Facebook, where I also post a link in several fan-related groups. Next week, who knows what I’ll have?
See you then!
You do right by identifying the parallels between espionage and science fiction. It’s right in place, too, for the espionage stories are all just exactly amazing.