This week, Guy Ritchie takes a stab at recreating the magic of the sixties TV show The Man from UNCLE. The original show gives him a lot to work with, and there are only a few things that the movies needs to nail to get it right.
The Man from UNCLE premiered in 1964, running for four seasons before ending in 1968. It was a huge success, and pretty much every spy show that’s existed since Man from UNCLE owes it a debt. Given that, it’s kind of surprising that a movie reboot languished in development hell for so long. So what did the show do so right?
The Man from UNCLE had a number of elements that are so familiar to the spy genre that you can watch the show now, fifty years later, and instantly recognize its progenitors and the influence it had on later fictional spies.
First of all, there’s the international organization of spies in the form of UNCLE (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) and its evil counterpart THRUSH (... never actually explained in the show, but the novels used Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity). Cool tech, fast cars, and one liners abounded.
In addition to all of those trappings, The Man from UNCLE had a formula that applied to almost every episode. It went like this: there’s some sort of threat to world safety, which inevitably draws some sort of innocent civilian into the crossfire. The team from UNCLE then has to either protect or save the innocent while saving the world.
The Man from UNCLE is a great example of episodic television — few plot threads ran longer than a few episodes. Despite the constant formula, each episode was fun and the writers could embroider the structure with whatever they wanted. That means that there were robots, fear gas, and tiny deadly bees. Yes, things got silly. The innocent civilians made things easy to explain things to the audience. Plus, it put a nice lampshade on the insane world of international espionage.
The team The Man from UNCLE followed was American agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). And the brilliance of this partnership was pretty much a fluke — Illya was meant to be a small role, but the popularity of the character (likened to Beatlemania) and the chemistry between the two actors led to McCallum getting bumped up to co-star.
Napoleon was pretty much James Bond for television — dark-haired and charming. He even has the cool name required of sixties spies. Kuryakin, on the other hand, matches the template for spies in a darker show — smart, enigmatic, and slightly disdainful of Napoleon’s more grandiose style.
The interaction between Solo and Kuryakin is the best part of the series. Given the formula, you’d think that the two would spend a lot of time rescuing pretty innocents. Which they did, but they spent as much time, if not more, rescuing each other. They rescued each other a lot. Enough that you started to wonder how good at being spies they really were.
Come for the spying, stay for the banter. Such as:
Napoleon: Open Channel D. Control, this is Sheep’s Clothing. Come in, Control. Open Channel D. Jammed. How about Channel F? Is there anything new on Channel F?
Illya: Not much. What’s new with you?
Napoleon: Illya, is that you? What are you doing on Channel F?
Illya: Don’t be presumptuous. You called me.
Napoleon: Where are you?
Illya: I’m tied up right now.
Napoleon: I get the feeling you’re not telling me everything.
Illya: Well, Miss Francis and I were detained by the THRUSH welcome wagon.
Napoleon: Ah, you’ve been captured.
Illya: It’s amazing how you grasp the picture with such unerring clarity.
If nothing else, Man from UNCLE was a perfect fusion of the buddy-cop genre with spy-fi. The way Napoleon and Illya were great friends and a perfect team thrived on the way they also ragged on each other. Every other aspect of this show could collapse as long as there were moments like this:
Iconic technology is a staple of the spy genre. And Man from UNCLE was no slouch in that department. The “UNCLE Special” was a gun so popular that it got its own fanmail. Yes, there were hundreds of pieces of mail addressed to “the gun.” The UNCLE special was a basic pistol with attachments that turned it into an automatic.
The other bits of technology featured in most episodes were the communicators, hidden as cigarette cases and pens. The most simple of spy gear — guns and phones — got the appropriate sixties trappings.
Finally, the headquarters for the American UNCLE office had the requisite secret entrance — Del Floria’s Tailor Shop. In a bit of security tech that was just smarter than anything any spy organization has had before or since, everyone entering headquarters had to wear a badge. Yellow triangles for agents, red and green for visitors and people with low security clearance. Just having the badge wasn’t enough; the receptionist activated them with a chemical on their fingers. So no one could just steal a badge and walk in. Not unforgeable, but a neat trick.
UNCLE itself was wonderfully built out as an organization. It was an international organization, which Napoleon and Illya’s partnership exemplified. In the middle of the Cold War, nothing proved how dangerous THRUSH was than having the Americans and the Soviets working together.
UNCLE wasn’t a nebulous group. We know more about its mission and organization than we do in shows that use fictional versions of real intelligence agencies. We know, for example, that it’s divided into five regions, each with its own headquarters. The regional heads in New York, Caracas, Nairobi, New Delhi and Berlin ran their own operations and acted as a governing committee.
We also know that UNCLE has eight sections, each with different roles. Alexander Waverly was “Number One of Section One” — in charge of the New York office and therefore the administration section. Section Two was for the agents. And so on and so forth. Attention to detail and world-building gave a surprising depth to what was essentially just a fun action show.
Plus, they spent a lot of time trying to convince the audience that UNCLE was totally real, putting this in the end credits:
The old spy-fi shows of the sixties all had a tendency towards the camp. That’s what made them fun. It also ultimately killed Man from UNCLE, which later in its run ditched campy elements for full-blown self-parody. The attempt to pull it back to a mix of realistic with a few science fiction elements was too-little, too-late.
But it didn’t erase the show from fond memory, nor its effect on pop culture as a whole. Here’s hoping that the movie gets even half of this right.
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