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 since SUCH 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.