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Thunderbollocks: The Golden Age of Bond Rip-Offs

  Dr. No in 1962 was the movie that changed popular cinema, introducing British agent 007, James Bond, to the silver screen where he has remained in various incarnations ever since. But where there's a blockbuster, there will follow the imitators, be they spoofs or more sincere attempts at cashing in, though it took two years for the first parody to hit the picture palaces of the sixties. Carry On Spying in 1964 was that movie, part of another long lasting series of British films that was just about to make the permanent jump to colour (not that the budgets were going to be increased too much), but notable for being one of the few Bond variations to use black and white cinematography when the official franchise had been proudly a colour production. For that reason, the prejudice against monochrome, it was perhaps not one of the Carry Ons most often returned to, in spite of those early ones having many funny lines.

Toilet humour and smut were the order of the day with these, therefore matching the inspiration to the material was the issue for screenwriters Talbot Rothwell and Sid Colin, a task they accomplished with their accustomed ease. The actual Bond movies included their share of jokes too, but you wouldn't have that hero making quips about visiting the smallest room as you did here, even though the more sexual gags were not a million miles away, rendering them a surprisingly decent fit with the likes of Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor pantomiming their way through the ridiculousness. They played trainee secret service agents who were put on the trail of a secret formula stolen by a spy dressed as a milkman, and many have pointed out the similarity between the plot and details here and the genuine Bond entry The Living Daylights, ironically starring the least humorous Bond ever, Timothy Dalton.

Williams and Windsor were joined in their mission by Bernard Cribbins and Charles Hawtrey, who played Charles - not James - Bind, which curiously seemed to have inspired Bond fan and exploitation filmmaker Lindsay Shonteff when he made a trio of his rip-offs from the late seventies onwards with the like-named agent of his own. These characters' incompetence embraced the British appreciation of the loveable loser as they bumbled their way from London to Vienna to Algiers and finally back to London for sequences in the requisite bad guys' base, the bad guy in this case being Dr. Crow, a hermaphrodite who represents the self-proclaimed future of mankind at the head of STENCH - Society for Total Extinction of Non-Conforming Humans, natch. The fact the production got away with this globetrotting on the meagre Carry On means was more testament to the talented cast's way with the corny but often hilarious jokes and double entendres.

A rather more lavish affair was The Liquidator in 1965, which tried to start its own franchise with a Bond-a-like, this time drawn from the novels of John Gardner which themselves were a cash-in on Ian Fleming's books - Gardner would go on to pen his own 007 efforts for the page. Boysie Oakes was the reluctant hero of this, with Australian star Rod Taylor in the lead role using his American accent since apparently an Aussie spy was stretching credibility (he would change his tune in later movies). Oakes is recruited by British Department head Trevor Howard to assassinate various targets, the joke being that his latest acquisition was no killer, indeed he cannot think of anything worse than taking a life. We were offered a lot of training to watch as Oakes begins to measure up, but once he was supposed to be in the field he gave way to the genuine article, an assassin somewhat bizarrely essayed by comedian Eric Sykes.

Now, this was a comedy to all intents and purposes, but it should be noted it had a serious edge, so there were no Carry On-style jokes here, and certainly no slapstick: when people died, they stayed dead, as if to underline the gravity of its protagonist's non-violent ways. Oddly, the film was more keen to off female characters than many a humorous approach would dictate in this format, one woman was pushed in front of an underground train in what came across as particularly callous even if it was Sykes committing the act, and another was shot dead despite coming across as sympathetic, balanced apparently by the fact she was working for the enemy. This assembled the required cast of lovely ladies to offset Taylor's rugged handsomeness, and at the forefront was Jill St. John, who would go on to appear as Tiffany Case in one of the spoofiest official instalments of Bond, Diamonds are Forever.

She was playing English here, and was Oakes' love interest as the boss's secretary who he is not supposed to be seeing socially, but does anyway, manufacturing an excuse to head off to Nice for a break after all that death and destruction he is not really responsible for. That was about the extent of the travel to foreign climes, a mark of a Bond copy, and Taylor barely got an action scene to flex his muscles in until well past the one-hour mark when he did that old favourite, the hanging off the cliff in a car that's teetering on the brink of doom. However, what you imagine the star wanted audiences to wonder was what presumably every actor in a spy role of this kind wanted: how would they measure up as the actual James Bond? On this evidence, the American drawl apart, Taylor would have been about the level of fellow Aussie George Lazenby, not perfect but if they had settled on the right vehicle, passable.

After a Bond movie a year since 1962, in 1966 there was a missed year and the international film community did their best to fill the gap in the market. Hollywood was not slow on the uptake when they realised they could turn a profit with a variation of their own, so you could have seen the attempt at kicking off the Derek Flint franchise with the James Coburn-starring In Like Flint (sequel Our Man Flint was as far as that went) or you could settle for the decidedly sleazier family entertainment The Silencers. This commenced a four-film series of Matt Helm movies, as with many of these drawn from successful paperback pulp novels, written by Donald Hamilton in that instance, and the louche lounge lizard's louche lounge lizard Dean Martin was chosen to embody everything that made Americans superior to the British when it came to hard drinking, womanising purveyors of action flicks.

Martin fans would offer the excuse that he was essentially sending himself up here, but it was difficult to tell since his public image and that of the fictional Helm were extremely close. Those followers would presumably get a kick out of Helm who beds a succession of women half his age and is rarely five minutes away from his next Bourbon, but they went so over the top with this that it was a miracle he was able to walk in a straight line, never mind get it up for Daliah Lavi, who played his secret agent counterpart. Cyd Charisse was there too, performing a couple of dances and miming to corresponding songs, but getting gunned down on stage before she could do anything more vital to the plot; the fact that she made her first appearance under the opening titles and right after a couple of strippers had strutted their stuff should give you some idea of how this series approached its stylings: never passing an opportunity to leer.

However, Lavi was sharing the top billing with Stella Stevens, who was called on to bring her comedy talents to bear as the innocent tourist Matt believes is a secret agent no matter all evidence to the contrary, hardly an endearing trait in a hero who was meant to be sharp-witted. To her credit, Stevens did look fantastic in her sixties get ups, that was until the extended sequence where she was humiliated in a muddy rainstorm, which not only wasn't remotely funny but made you feel sorry for the actress into the bargain. The Bond gadgets amounted to a coat with grenade buttons and a pistol that fired backwards, handy if you could persuade an enemy to shoot it at you for a nasty surprise, though Helm's bachelor pad was decked out with a selection of mechanical comforts including a revolving bed that dumped the owner in a huge bubble bath come the morning. Even Martin's songs were pressed into service with altered lyrics for ultimate cringe.

If Sean Connery was not accommodating in providing your spy thrills in '66, how about Tony Randall? That's right, among the many, many pretenders to Sir Sean's crown was the light comedian who had risen to fame in Rock Hudson and Doris Day romantic comedies as the camp sidekick, but in Our Man in Marrakesh he got to toughen up his act. Quite what attracted Harry Alan Towers that made him an obvious choice in a spy spoof is something of a mystery, other than Randall being available which was the excuse Towers used for many of his starry casts, but in effect it was less Connery he was emulating and more Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest. That fifties blockbuster was the most obvious precedent for the Bond series, and indeed what the whole action genres would grow into as the latter half of the twentieth century wore on, so it was instructive to see a film based around both properties.

Randall played an innocent tourist in Morocco (much as James Stewart had in Hitch's remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which co-starred, you guessed it, Doris Day) who within nanoseconds of him checking into his hotel room discovers a dead body in the wardrobe. No sooner than this mishap has occurred than Senta Berger shows up asking to swap rooms, and over the rest of the storyline they would get to know one another in one of Towers' trademark exotic locations which he would get to film in cheap (see also 24 Hours to Kill in tourist-era Beirut, Five Golden Dragons in Hong Kong, Ten Little Indians in Iran, and so on) but came across as suitably captivating for the international audience. Or they would have if Towers had splashed the cash on some decent film stock, as it was that thrifty quality rarely showed off those locations to their best advantage, unlike Bond where it was all impossibly glamorous.

Well, most of the time, but Towers was keen to highlight the Bond connection by presenting Randall in a very 007 pose on the poster, flanked by a kneeling Berger and further down the billing, Margaret Lee, Randall holding a handgun aloft and with a self-confident smirk on his features you would be hard pressed to spot in the movie itself. Nevertheless, the producer (who was also the writer) knew how to get a decent calibre of performer in his efforts, and backing his leading man were Wilfrid Hyde White and John Le Mesurier as businessmen who may not be all they seemed, Herbert Lom as the chief antagonist who is after a briefcase and its contents (that was our MacGuffin), Grégoire Aslan as a helpful, local truck driver who proves handy in a scrape, and Terry-Thomas as the world's least likely Arab sheik (he's been schooled in England). It was all a bit of fun, really, a few serious bits aside, and Randall and Berger even shared a literal roll in the hay in one scene.

Elsewhere in '66, there were a number of series movies that were seeking to add a bit of oomph to their entries, and while France had secret agent O.S.S. 117, and Germany had the similar Kommissar X, and Italy had about a million knock-offs of their own to counter the onslaught (though O.K. Connery never did get that sequel), an older franchise was looking rather past it, hence Tarzan and the Valley of Gold delivered the famed apeman hero in a notably more Bondlike demeanour. Seen flying into Mexico at the beginning in a sharp, grey suit rather than his accustomed loincloth, Tarzan had his producer Sy Weintraub modernise the celebrated property by recasting yet again - Mike Henry was our Lord of the Jungle this time around, after Jock Mahoney had either declined after nearly dying making the previous entry, or was deemed too old. Henry, once he eventually donned the skimpy costume, certainly looked the part, a six foot plus slab of manflesh who the camera loved.

On the other hand, transforming Tarzan into a Bond figure raised some problematic elements, or rather one: the violence. The British agent had no qualms about using bloodshed, some of it ingeniously concocted, to get his way, whereas the apeman's trait in his most famous Johnny Weissmuller incarnation was his hatred of guns, spending every movie smashing a rifle against a tree to ensure it would not be fired by anyone. Here, however, while Henry carried his usual hunting knife, he was not averse to picking up any shooter that happened his way, and indeed proved very adept at gunning down the bad guys, mostly henchmen for the head villain David Opatoshu who in a Goldfinger style plot point was after as much of the shiny yellow stuff as he could gather, with a community of (what?) Aztecs presumably who are now peace loving and have relinquished all forms of human sacrifice.

Tarzan definitely had not, however, and the Bond signifier of the hero's no-nonsense attitude, his grim cruelty, was well to the fore here as well, curious when Tarzan was arguably more a father figure to kids than 007 ever was. He grabbed a heavy-duty machine gun and mowed down those heavies, or threw together a hand grenade bolas he then flung at a passing helicopter whose occupants were shooting at him, blowing it up and slaughtering them, and in the least credible sequence he climbed inside a tank (!) and was able to aim and fire missiles at a half-track containing, that's right, yet more henchmen. Henry did not give the impression of relishing this murderous streak, he was simply a man doing his job, he had been called to save the village and kidnapped kiddie Manuel Padilla Jr, so accompanied by a lion, jaguar and Dinky the chimp, that's precisely what he did. Opatoshu met a particularly sticky end in Bond baddie fashion.

The Bondage continued for the rest of the sixties, but come the seventies the genre was coming unstuck with a new breed of violent protagonist beginning to dominate the action thriller genre, something the British brand had encouraged by its success. That was not to say they dried up completely, and indeed there were still examples worth a look, none more so than Philippe de Broca's post-modern parody Le Magnifique in 1973. This starred Jean-Paul Belmondo, who when he was not participating in French New Wave films was making his impact with his daredevil action flicks, often featuring the star performing his own insanely dangerous stunts, not something Connery, and certainly not Roger Moore, could lay claim to. That was only sensible from a producer's point of view as they would not have wished their lead injured thanks to a misplaced sense of pride.

That said, Belmondo was a star of a kind that had never been seen before, and would not be seen again, most likely, a huge celebrity in France and a major cult figure elsewhere, and pieces like Le Magnifique were part of that admiration. We started this with him in a typical Bond scenario: the previous agent assigned to this deadly mission has been eaten by a shark while in a telephone booth (really), so his Bob Sinclar (yes, where the dance musician lifted his moniker from decades later) steps in and winds up in Acapulco where he immediately joins forces with Jacqueline Bisset as a fellow agent and love interest. As the scenes grew ever more outlandish with Sinclar destroying countless would-be assassins, we twig that this is not a serious spy outing, it's a spoof, and when we then see Belmondo writing it on his typewriter we understand he is the author and channelling his frustrations with life into his pulp fiction, for which he is paid a pittance by his publisher.

What he really wants is a chance to romance his upstairs neighbour (also Bisset), and when she discovers he is the author of many wish-fulfilment paperbacks in an adventure vein she, as a sociologist, is fascinated and wants to pen a paper on the subject. But the path of true love does not run smoothly, and the publisher tries to step in to take Bisset away, leading to many abortive drafts of the new Sinclar novel where Belmondo goes off the creative rails, punishing him for his failings. Although this was very funny, especially in the abundant fantasy sequences, it was when he started taking it out on the neighbour surrogate that it strayed into unpleasant territory: fair enough, Ian Fleming may have been getting something out of his system when he crafted his females, but this was supposed to be a comedy and threats of mutilation and acts of gang rape weren't exactly hilarious, even if fictional. Other than that, de Broca skewered the Bond phenomenon well.

It was not merely in the Western world that these were made, in the Far East, Bond was very influential with places like Japan and Hong Kong doing their best to imitate the formula. In Australia, in spite of one of the official Bonds being from that neck of the woods, they were more likely to plough their own action extravaganza furrow, but in 1975 director Brian Trenchard-Smith and star Jimmy Wang Yu joined forces on The Man from Hong Kong. This was not a purely Aussie effort, as it was a co-production with Hong Kong, and Yu was the titular hero, not a secret agent but acting like one no matter his cop status as his Inspector Fang hunted down drugs smugglers. And who was the Mister Big? Step forward George Lazenby who was evidently hired for his connection to Bond, having been him once in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but in this instance essaying the role of the evildoer.

Bond had since become Roger Moore, whose most recent endeavour had seen him journey to the East in The Man with the Golden Gun, though this demonstrated Lazenby was more adept at kung fu than he was, or perhaps the former 007 felt he had more to prove therefore threw himself into the combat. The Man from Hong Kong mixed two styles of action from either nation, as Trenchard-Smith indulged himself in a lengthy car chase of the sort no Australian exploitation thriller would be without (and nor would a Bond blockbuster), while Yu, who received co-director credit on some prints, delivered a trademark Fist of Fury-esque battle through a martial arts school where the students/underlings would confront him one at a time to see about stopping the cop's investigation in its tracks. Naturally, with Jimmy orchestrating the mayhem, they could only get so far before falling victim to his violent tactics.

Yes, this was a lot more violent than the supposedly family-friendly series it was drawn from would ever be, with blood pouring from wounds, not that it slowed down Fang any. Double Oo-yah, Licenced to Kick Men in the Bollocks could have been his alternate moniker judging by the amount of times he did just that, including an extended punch up with legendary stuntman Grant Page who was hit so hard by Yu that the arse split out of his trousers to reveal bright yellow underpants. Our leading man also got to romance a couple of ladies, though even with a soppy musical montage with one of them we were unconvinced his heart was anywhere else but in beating up ruffians. This did have its own theme tune, like a lot of these Bond rip-offs since the real thing was well known for that (The Liquidator hired Shirley Bassey to yell theirs), here it was chart hit Sky High by Jigsaw, which had the orchestration but not the dramatic heft.

Also adept at kicking men in the bollocks was Weng Weng, the shortest ever star at two foot nine of an action movie in For Y'ur Height Only in 1981. As mentioned, the Far East were much enamoured of the Bond brand, with Hong Kong's Mad Mission movies probably the best known strain to emerge from that region, but the Philippines got in on the act too with Tony Ferrer's Agent X44 series - and who should show up as Weng's boss but Tony Ferrer? Obviously the novelty was shortlived, no pun intended, and the diminutive hero did not enjoy a lasting career as a leading man, but for plainly being the inspiration for nineties Bond spoof Austin Powers' Mini-Me (played by Verne Troyer, who was even shorter than Weng), it was apparent this little guy had made his impression on the world. This was ostensibly a comedy, and it assuredly made audiences laugh, and still does, the appeal of watching a tiny man kick ass undiminished.

For Your Eyes Only was the official 007 entry that year, but the sole reference to it in this knock-off was the theme tune, sung by Sheena Easton originally but adapted into an instrumental variation that repeatedly cropped up on the soundtrack to the Filipino effort, along with an equally copyright-infringing version of Monty Norman's traditional Bond theme. If this was intended to make the viewer believe Weng Weng was at least the equal of Roger Moore (curiously, Hervé Villechaize from The Man with the Golden Gun was not referenced) then you could safely say their ambition did not exactly measure up to their results, but the star had been trained in martial arts, which left the sequences where he beats up the bad guy, proving surprisingly agile, bizarrely entertaining. And didn't the production know it? Time and again, whenever the plot was flagging they simply had to unleash Weng's fury on anonymous stuntmen and all was back on course.

There was a plot, yes, that had a visiting American scientist in Manila kidnapped the nanosecond he set foot out of the airport, and as he had designed a devastating N-bomb (not what you may be thinking) it was imperative the authorities be brought in to rescue him from the bad guys, who were led by one Mr Giant. He is merely a disembodied voice for much of the movie, but when he is revealed you will be familiar enough with the concept of dramatic irony to not be too shocked at his appearance. Before that exposure, Weng got up to such stunts as jumping (or being thrown) off a thirty foot high bridge into a river, or leaping from an upper storey window and using an umbrella as a parachute, but he was a hit with the ladies too, cutting a rug on the dancefloor in his Saturday Night Fever suit, though when one of his potential conquests describes him as "petite, like a potato" you wonder if that's much of a compliment. Strange they went for the downbeat ending, too.

Never Say Never Again in 1983 was probably the highest profile Bond rip-off until The Bourne Identity and its sequels, or even the xXx franchise, in the following century, and that was down to it posing as a genuine article. This was because Sean Connery had been coaxed back to the role, but not in the official series which meant Octopussy out the same year was its clear rival at the box office. As it turned out, Roger Moore emerged the man most audiences wanted to see in '83 as the secret agent, leaving this as a curious footnote, more interesting for its politics behind the scenes than what ended up on the screen, which was a loose remake of Thunderball. Producer Kevin McClory had the remake rights to the fourth instalment, and spent the best part of twenty years trying to wangle his way through the legal battles to bring it to fruition, and indeed spent the rest of his life trying to do it again afterwards.

Sad to say, it was clear he could only create a facsimile of 007 and even with the original star returning, now aged 53 (though still younger than Moore), there was little else original about what proved an underwhelming experience. Constant jokes about Connery's advancing years simply served to remind the viewer he was getting on a bit rather than delivering self-deprecating humour (not sure what place that has in a Bond movie anyway), and the opening told us the 00 agents were on hold, with Bond having to attend a health farm as ordered by the bureaucrats who have become as big an enemy as SPECTRE, if this is to be believed. While he is there, he stumbles upon (instead of being assigned to) a plot to steal nuclear warheads, and also kills assassin Pat Roach by throwing his urine sample in his face. That was the level, not much wit, humour more offputting and obvious, and there was but one decent laugh in the entirety ("You did say you would catch me later").

What was similar to the legitimate efforts were those zeitgeist-chasing moves that the official entries had been employing since the seventies, here most exemplified by the scene where Bond and villain Largo (a bland Klaus Maria Brandauer) played a computer game instead of, say, baccarat in a casino. The Bond Girls were notable for making Kim Basinger, as Largo's girlfriend Domino, a star to be reckoned with this decade, though Barbara Carrera as his lead henchwoman was a lot more fun and livened up the proceedings - you missed her when she exited the story. As the warheads were under the ocean, this cued the swimming stuntmen for the cast to give way to, as noted by everyone at the time a poor excuse for an action scene when you couldn't see Sir Sean's face since he did damn little at the finale, never mind the shark attack. After this, the power of Bond had its ups and downs, but remained the series to beat for spectacular action-adventure; we'll likely never see the end of the cash-ins, but they would never be the same after that first twenty years or so. Russ Abbott's Basildon Bond ("I have letters after my name!") didn't get his spin-off and Rowan Atkinson's Johnny English did, that's why.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006