How Hollywood still doesn’t get U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: misunderstood in Hollywood

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: misunderstood in Hollywood

Scott Z. Burns, who wrote a script for a proposed movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., seems really proud that he based the plot off the real-life Palomares 1966 crash of a B-52 plane with atomic bombs.

There was one bomb that wasn’t recovered initially. It was “laying on the floor of the Mediterranean and no one could find it and so it was the race to find it that was what our episode was about,” Burns told Collider.com IN AN INTERVIEW. The scribe said he thought “it “was going to be really, really cool and I’m bummed we didn’t get to do it.”

The thing was the crash happened Jan. 17, 1966, less than a month after Thunderball, the fourth James Bond movie debuted. Thunderball centered on the theft of two atomic bombs from a NATO aircraft. When the Palomares incident occurred, comparisons to Thunderball were made then and sinceSUCH AS THIS 2012 STORY on the BBC’s Web site or THIS POST on the Web site of The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

Put another way, Burns, who was working for director Steven Soderbergh (who ditched the project in late 2011), wasn’t exactly examining fresh ground. Especially considering the last official U.N.C.L.E. production, 1983’s The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television movie, concerned how a resurgent Thrush (the villainous organization that opposed U.N.C.L.E. in the show) stole, you guessed it, two atomic bombs from a U.S. military plane.

What’s wrong with that? Wasn’t The Man From U.N.C.L.E. sold to NBC as “James Bond for television”? True enough, but if you take the time to actually watch the show, you’ll see some technology that still hasn’t been invented: a near limitless power source held in reserve in case Earth is ever invaded (The Double Affair); a vaporizer (The Arabian Affair); a mind-reading machine (The Foxes and Hounds Affair); and a serum that accelerates the healing process (The Girls of Nazarone Affair). And that’s just off the top of our head.

But U.N.C.L.E. was different than Bond in more than gadgets. The dynamic was noticeably different, in part, because Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) interacted with “innocents,” or stand-ins for the television audience. Some times, it was deliberate (recruiting a former girlfriend of the villain in the pilot episode), other times “innocents” got drawn into the story by dumb luck.

In any event, Solo and Kuryakin had to try to defeat the villain *and* look out for the “innocents. That element alone changed the dynamic significantly compared with James Bond’s film universe. In addition, Napoleon Solo while sharing Bond’s appreciation for the ladies, also had a moral streak Bond didn’t seem to exhibit.

Perhaps the best example was the show’s final episode, The Seven Wonders of the World Affair Part II. A former U.N.C.L.E. official, believes the world is inevitably headed for ruin unless the “right” people take over. Kingsley (Barry Sullivan) has access to a gas that will make people obedient (there’s that tech that hasn’t been invented yet). This way, “my way,” as Kingsley says, the never-ending battle between evil and good will be settled permanently for good.

Solo is offered a chance to join Kingsley but instead sharply criticizes Kingsley and his lieutenants, the “wonders” of the title. “In your world, Kingsley, there’ll be no wonder,” Solo says in what is one of Robert Vaughn’s best acting moments in the series. It’s a bit of gravitas in a story that was padded out for a two-part length so it could be released internationally as a movie.

You wouldn’t get much of this vibe from comments that Soderbergh and Burns made about U.N.C.L.E. while they were involved in the aborted movie. All too often, U.N.C.L.E. is viewed in Hollywood as a way to do an alternate James Bond.

To a degree that’s understandable. Sam Rolfe, who wrote the pilot and was the first-season producer, died two decades ago. Norman Felton, the long-retired executive producer, died last year at age 99. There are few people left in Hollywood who even remember the show much, much less know what made it tick.

Until evidence surfaces to the contrary, it’s clear Hollywood simply doesn’t get U.N.C.L.E.

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10 Responses

  1. Thanks for pointing the way to that interview! Personally, I would have rather the movie happened than not happen, no matter how close to the show they were. You nail the spirit of U.N.C.L.E. in your write-up, but the interview with Burns doesn’t prove to me that he and Soderbergh DIDN’T get it. They may well have had an innocent involved, and they might have gotten Napoleon’s character right. I’d love to read the script and see. It’s also worth considering that even if it’s set in the Sixties, they couldn’t just make an episode of the show. TMFU is honestly pretty dated in a lot of ways (though I love it for that), and making a movie now for mass audiences, they would have had to update the concept a bit. That said, there are certainly indications that they were headed in a different direction. Watching Harry Palmer movies isn’t quite the right way to prep for directing U.N.C.L.E…. though it is a pretty great way to prep for directing a Sixties spy movie in general. SS might not have been planning to copy that tone. And Burns’ fixation on U.N.C.L.E. itself being neither American nor Russian doesn’t seem like the right thing to fixate on, either. But a plot about different groups chasing a missing weapon certainly sounds sufficiently U.N.C.L.E.ish! (Even if it’s based on TB or The Day the Fish Came Out.) I just love that they were going to set it in the Sixties. I hope Ritchie continues that idea, but I kind of doubt anyone else will do that. I really would have liked to see the Soderbergh version get made.

  2. Look, either The Man Form U.N.C.L.E. movie is made or it isn’t; either way, the concept must be updated to the present day. Setting it in the 1960’s won’t work, as the show was set in the present day to begin with-it would be like setting the original show in the 1930’s because of the popularity of the old ’30’s pulp magazine Operator #5, and would have been considered stupid back in the 1960’s.

    To stay relevant to today, just like the James Bond series that it takes after, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. must be updated to today-that’s the only way it can compete against the Bond and Bourne franchises (as well as the resurgent Mission: Impossible franchise, which itself was revived and updated to today in a different manner.) Even the Star Trek franchise can’t just be a ship travelling to a different planet every week, but something new that will survive on TV and in the movies today. To do anything else will make it a period piece that will be only a success to the small hundreds of U.N.C.L.E. fans, but a failure to the rest of the movie-going public.

  3. thank you for posting a great story how i wish we could see the man from u.n.c.l.e. again i highly doubt it.I think a period piece would have been awesome but i agree with neville ross in the previous post it would please the true u.n.c.l.e. fans but the main public would just scratch thier heads and go huh thank you for leeting me rant closing channel d

  4. Introducing the weekly ‘innocent’ into the show was Ian Fleming’s idea. He had a lot to do with UNCLE’s development. The name Solo came from Fleming (the name is used in Goldfinger) as was the name April Dancer. The idea of an innocent being involved originated in North by Northwest, where Cary Grant, an advertising exec, was mistakenly thought to be a spy by the bad guys. Coincidentally the good guys were led by Leo G. Carroll. The show was going to be called SOLO, but the Broccolli gang had other ideas, Fleming had his wrists slapped and the rest is history.

  5. great comments neville tanner max cant disgree with anyone cocur 110% closing channel d

  6. [...] Side Effects was written by Scott Z. Burns, who, based on recent comments, we’re not sure really gets what makes U.N.C.L.E. tick. While we don’t expect any future U.N.C.L.E. movie to be a clone of the TV show, it still [...]

  7. [...] It was a mixed homecoming. Return’s script, penned by executive producer Michael Sloan, recycled the plot of Thunderball, the fourth James Bond film. Thrush steals two nuclear bombs from a U.S. military aircraft. Thrush operative Janus (Geoffrey Lewis) boasts that the criminal organization is now “a nuclear power.” Yawn. Thrush was much more ambitious in the old days. [...]

  8. [...] It was a mixed homecoming. Return’s script, penned by executive producer Michael Sloan, recycled the plot of Thunderball, the fourth James Bond film. Thrush steals two nuclear bombs from a U.S. military aircraft. Thrush operative Janus (Geoffrey Lewis) boasts that the criminal organization is now “a nuclear power.” Yawn. Thrush was much more ambitious in the old days. [...]

  9. […] Guy Ritchie took over the project after Soderbergh’s departure. There has certainly been enough time since then for a different script to be written. The bigger question is whether the Cavill-Armie Hammer vehicle will grasp what made U.N.C.L.E. different than James Bond. […]

  10. […] script, set in the 1960s was based on a real-life 1966 incident that mirrored the 1965 James Bond film […]

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