It’s hard for me to comprehend that it has been 49 years since I walked into a theatre (probably on Market Street) in San Francisco to watch James Coburn (Figure 1) as Derek Flint for the very first time. I left that theatre so impressed with the movie and its star that I rushed over to one of the many (then) Market Street emporia and bought the soundtrack (by Jerry Goldsmith), which I still have to this day! Although I touched on both these movies in December 2013, I think maybe it’s time to revisit the series, as they’ve had a re-release on Blu-Ray recently. This is mostly a re-review of the first movie, however.
Capsule review: Our Man Flint (1966)—Although James Bond is still with us in the person of Daniel Craig, the spy movie as a genre has lost most of its lustre over the years. But back in the late sixties, there were lots of movies and movie series hoping to capitalize on the success of the Bond movies. But none of the spies then or now could compare to Derek Flint. What does a near-50-year-old spy spoof have to offer today’s more sophisticated movie-goer? As it turns out, plenty—most of it in the person of the late James Coburn, whose lanky frame and million-watt smile graced plenty of movies over his career, from screen classics The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape to the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Eraser and the Mel Gibson movie Payback. Although Our Man Flint—Coburn’s very first starring role—was made for only three million dollars, and some of the special effects are kind of cheesy by today’s extravagant standards (not to mention a less-than-stellar leading lady), the movie—which grossed around $16 million at the box office, and spawned one somewhat less tight sequel—is still entertaining and fun after all these years.
Our Man Flint review continues: I knew of Coburn from his smaller but significant roles in The Magnificent Seven (as the knife-throwing Britt—1960) and The Great Escape (Sedgewick “Manufacturer”—1963); but this was his first starring role, and he obviously reveled in it! That smile you see in Figure 1 appeared often on the face of Coburn/Flint; and in all his years and parts in movies and TV, that brilliant, lighting-up-the-screen grin was to characterize many of his parts. Unlike many actors, Coburn wasn’t interested in becoming a “star”—acting was a job to him*, one he felt constrained to do as well as possible.
During the mid-to-late ‘60s, given the success of the Bond franchise, many studios attempted to cash in on the “spy craze,” which is probably pretty dead now that the Cold War is history. The last non-Bond spy movie of any consequence was (in my opinion) the Gary Oldman vehicle Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), based on the John LeCarré novel of the same name; most of the period spy movies, with a few exceptions—some also based on LeCarré books, like Richard Burton’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), or Len Deighton books—like The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral In Berlin (1966) and more, starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer—were almost uniformly pretty terrrible. There was also a very jocular, and popular, series of movies starring Dean Martin as CIA agent Matt Helm, extremely loosely based on the very serious series of books by Donald Hamilton. It’s probable that the popularity of the four Helm movies (The Silencers—1966, Murderers’ Row—1966, The Ambushers—1967 and The Wrecking Crew—1969) was mostly due to the charisma of the star, who was a very popular crooner and part of Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack.”
As you can tell from Figure 3, in Canada, the movie was recommended for adult audiences; but really, even for the time, it was pretty tame for violence and sex. (My wife searched out and bought me the one-sheet poster for my birthday a year or two ago, knowing how much I loved these movies. The reflections made this framed poster hard to photograph, by the way, so I apologize for how it looks.) The plot—no more implausible than many movies of the sixties—and even more plausible than some of today’s movies (Guardians of the Galaxy, anyone?)—features three scientists, who form an organization called “Galaxy,” dedicated to changing this world’s violent tendencies and building a happy, peaceful (drugged) society, in some ways similar to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (where they employed a drug called “Soma”; I don’t know if the orangy-pink pills featured in this movie were ever named). They intend to overthrow the existing governments (from inside a defunct volcano on an island) by controlling the weather through some kind of gigantic drill that taps into the Earth’s core and cause volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and other phenomena.
When they reveal their demands for nuclear disarmament (oddly enough, in this pre-Bush era, they didn’t pronounce it “nucular”!) and destruction of the world’s warplanes and dissolutions of armies, the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage (Z.O.W.I.E.), headed by Cramden (Lee J. Cobb) takes in the suggestions of all the world’s spy agencies (the British claimed that 0008 was unavailable), runs them through a giant computer, which decides the only man who could possibly overcome them is Flint! Cramden visits Flint and tries to enlist him to the cause; Flint has other fish to fry—he’s going on his annual Death Valley survival course. Finally, he agrees to help Cramden, but only on his, Flint’s, terms. Cramden tries to give him a briefcase with built-in throwing knives, tape recorders, chemical packets, etc., claiming the case had 65 different weapons. “This,” claims Flint, holding up a gold cigar lighter, “has 82 functions—83 if you wish to light a cigar.” He also refuses Cramden’s team, saying that he works alone. “Dammit, man,” fumes Cramden—ex-military, and a lover of the chain of command—“I wish that for just once in your life you’d follow orders!”
So is Our Man Flint a parody, a send-up, a spoof? Coburn reportedly said that he had no interest in being in a parody. He wanted to make a legitimate movie that was a bit of fun… according to what I’ve read, he was a really nice guy whom everyone liked; that smile was genuine. His good friend Bruce Lee, who trained him, Steve McQueen, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and others in the martial arts, said “Coburn is a peaceful man; he’s interested in the philosophy of martial arts and [self-]control.” (Coburn’s karate kicks are visible in both Flint movies; there are a couple of clips of Lee training him; in one scene in In Like Flint he made identical moves to those in one clip.) Coburn had a large amount of input into both movies, but there were only two because he reportedly did not want to be trapped into a franchise, the way the Bond actors were. So that would make the Flint movies more of a gentle send-up or spoof, than parody.
What about Derek Flint as opposed to James Coburn? According to one movie poster, “[He] makes love in 47 languages! He’s a Karate Champion, Brain Surgeon, Swordsman and Nuclear Physicist… He’s the top Master Spy of all time, with his Cigarette Lighter containing 82 Death-Dealing Devices, his 2 Man-Eating Dogs, his 4 Luscious Playmates and his Love Nest-Built-For-5….” Regarding that last, one of the screenwriters had said that “Bond had one girl [sic], so I gave Flint 4.” Seemingly, Flint could do anything; he was a ballet dancer and teacher, a dolphin linguist, a pilot. He devised his own secret code based on the numerical sequence 40-23-36… well, you can guess what that’s based on. When Cramden said, however, “Dammit, Flint, is there anything you don’t know?” Flint gave a self-deprecating shake of his head and said, “Oh, a good many things, sir.” And because of James Coburn, you bought it! Anyone else—maybe with the exception of Austin Powers (who simply had to be at least partially based on Flint)—would have irritated you into leaving the theatre about halfway through the movie, but Coburn kept us interested and entertained.
The supporting cast was, with only one exception, quite good—from the four women (Leslie, played by Shelby Grant as a kind of Doris Day; Anna, played by Sigrid Valdis; Gina, who was played by Gianna Serra; and Sakito, played by Helen Funai) who were his companions, to the three scientists (Dr. Schneider, Benson Fong; Dr. Krupov, Rhys Williams; Dr. Wu, Peter Brocco); to second-banana bad guy Malcolm Rodney, played to the British private-school hilt by Edward Mulhare, they were terrific. With one giant exception: Israeli actress Gila Golan, whom one critic described as “a hole in the screen”; she sucked energy out of practically every scene she was in. She had a decent body; I think that was all she contributed. (A technician in one scene, by the way, was played—uncredited—by then-unknown actor James Brolin.)
The special effects in both movies were, by today’s standards, laughable. Of course, there was no CGI in those days; models and stock photography were used extensively. Several gadgets (in both films) were well-enough done; some have argued that due to such things as cryogenic storage of people (In Like Flint) and ultrasonic beams to destroy solid objects, as well as some of the space-related scenes, and psychological conditioning made the films science fiction. I might not go quite that far, but I think they were firmly in the “near-future” fiction category. There were some pretty big stage sets built for the movies, and all concerned seemed to be having a great time.
The soundtrack music was provided by Jerry Goldsmith—not exactly an unknown in film or TV scoring; he’d previously provided music for many TV episodes and series, including Studio One, GE Theatre, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason and so on; and for top-rated movies such as Lilies of the Field, The List of Adrian Messenger, Seven Days in May and even a Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie (culled mostly from the TV pilot) called To Trap a Spy (1964)! Goldsmith created a couple of recurring themes that not only were memorable, but kept you humming them for quite a while after the movie ended. These themes have been covered by just about everyone including Herbie Mann and Nelson Riddle. Goldsmith is probably most familiar to Star Trek fans for his scores for Trek movies. One scene from Our Man Flint has the incidental music credited to Goldsmith as well as the nephew of Fox Studios musical head Lionel Newman; I refer to now well-known singer-songwriter Randy Newman.
Thanks to the success of the first movie, both the studio and Coburn were persuaded to make a second Flint movie, In Like Flint, which concerned a different set of not-really-evil villains; the first movie’s villains were scientists who wanted to do good with bad methods. This movie’s baddies are a set of successful famous women (obviously modeled on Elizabeth Arden and other big fashion and cosmetics names) and their lackey general (played to the hilt by Steve Ihnat) who think that men have made a mess of the planet and who plan to take over the orbiting nuclear platforms and put themselves in charge.
They replace the President (Andrew Duggan) with a look-alike actor (“An actor? As President?” Flint asks, incredulously at one point) as part of their plan. Cramden is unceremoniously dumped from his position as head of Z.O.W.I.E., and Flint comes to his—and the planet’s—rescue in typical Flint fashion. Yvonne Craig (Batgirl) has a part as a Russian ballerina, and the whole movie takes a much lighter tone than the first one; whether you think it’s better or worse than its predecessor—at least according to the comments on IMDB —depends on your point of view. It’s all great fun, anyway, even if Flint occasionally comes across in this one as a bit of a male chauvinist. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to be….
There was also a TV-movie pilot made, called Our Man Flint: Dead On Target (1976), with Ray Danton as Derek Flint. Only this Flint is a private detective who lives alone (with only a masseuse for occasional company) in a large “modern” house with a pool… apparently in North Vancouver, though no city name is ever stated. At one point, his assistant (I think played by Gay Rowan) talks about “States,” as if to cement that this was happening in the U.S.; however, all the extensive aerial photography as well as street photography showcases Vancouver (the Second Narrows Bridge, Stanley Park, Gastown), and most of the visible license plates are British Columbia plates. The movie is made with no particular flair or attention to detail—Flint drives a rather conspicuous powder blue Mercedes sedan; its license plate changes from a B.C. plate to a green-and-yellow generic plate that says “Drive Safely” in a rather haphazard fashion. Danton and all the actors are not particularly charismatic or convincing, and the whole thing is rather stupid. No wonder this series was never picked up.
Also in the late ‘70s, Harlan Ellison wrote an unproduced screenplay for a Flint movie, called Flintlock. I don’t know anything about the contents, except that Subterranean Press’s Charnel House has brought out a limited-edition (300 copies) hardcover—with the cover having an embossed picture of Flint’s iconic multi-function watch—in a signed and numbered edition that cost $150 U.S. One report I’ve read also says that a third Flint movie was planned, but before it could come to fruition, both the studio—due to the reduced income from #2—and Coburn—partially due to his not wanting to get “typed” as Flint—had lost interest, and the project was indefinitely shelved.
And last, but not least, Mike Meyers has to be a fan, as some of the tropes from the Flint movies—particularly the Red Phone’s ring (from the President) are seen/heard in the Austin Powers movies. Personally, I find Flint much more fun than Powers; Coburn is a much more engaging actor than Meyers is—I think the Powers character is way too smarmy. But maybe that’s just me.
*According to one of my cousins, who was Coburn’s maid for several years (before she went to work for the Roddenberrys), Coburn felt the Flint pictures were something he didn’t have to concentrate too hard on, and that left him more time for his hobbies. Considering he had—according to several sources—considerable input into the script, one wonders whether that was entirely accurate. Maybe he was just yanking her chain!
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In Like Flint was on TV one day, I had not even heard of it. I chose to watch it because it had James Coburn, who I’d seen in the Magnificent Seven (my favorite of the 7, including Steve McQueen). He’s just so charismatic and his long arms and legs really add something to him (especially in those tight white pants…). “An actor? As President?” was one of my favorite parts of the movie, I just found it hilarious, reminded me of Doc Brown in Back to the Future questioning Reagan’s presidency. I watched Our Man Flint after In Like Flint, also a great movie. I wish I could find the Galaxy jacket (figure 5) online because I would definitely wear it. I hadn’t previously picked up on the 40-23-36 joke. Thanks for writing this great article.
Glad you liked the films (and my column)! Welcome to the great Flint-lovers community! 🙂
I’m watching In like Flint now-I remember some from when I saw them as a boy-you filled in with some nice details-thank you for taking the time.
I always liked Corburn, a wonderful screen presence.
Hey, thanks for reading. James Coburn was probably my favourite actor of all time. There was just something about that big, toothy grin!
You’re observations are, generally, spot on. But I have to pick at one nit; In the 6th paragraph, you mention Flint’s first movie. And prior to agreeing to help Cramden, he is going on a Death Valley survival course.
The problem is that this survival course is mentioned in the SECOND Flint flick (IN LIKE FLINT) rather than the first film (OUR MAN FLINT),
Other than that, this was an enjoyable set of reviews.
Hey, Warren–I must have gotten confused somewhere. Thanks for the correction and the nice words.