Roger Moore's second turn as James Bond, The Man With the Golden Gun, came close to sinking the franchise.

After starting strong with 1973's Live and Let Die, Moore proved that another actor could bring something new to the role after Sean Connery's definitive portrayal in the early movies and a poor showing by George Lazenby in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. But the problems with the movie went far beyond its star.

An adaptation of Ian Fleming's 1965 novel, The Man With the Golden Gun was inspired by martial arts and kung-fu films that were popular thanks to Bruce Lee's budding stardom. There would be exotic Asian locations (Thailand, Hong Kong and Macao, among them), a tie-in to current events (the global energy crisis) and an iconic villain with an iconic weapon. It was a surefire hit ... until it wasn’t.

The Man With the Golden Gun opened in theaters on Dec. 19, 1974, and critically and commercially was a big disappointment. Live and Let Die was the second-highest-grossing James Bond film up until that point. Golden Gun, after a strong opening, made $30 million less following poor word-of-mouth and was one of the lowest grossing James Bond films. Critics weren’t much kinder. The New York Times called Moore “[p]edantic, sluggish … [and] clumsy” adding, “If you enjoyed the early Bond films as much as I did, you'd better skip this one.” The Guardian was even more blunt suggesting “maybe enough's enough” for the entire Bond franchise.

The series had quickly gone from an air of sophistication and swagger to bordering on self-parody. Moore, who would later criticize the Daniel Craig-era films, was not a fan of violence and wanted to focus more on some of the comedic and lighter elements of the script. Despite the title teasing the villainous Francisco Scaramanga’s gaudy weapon, there’s little violence onscreen (Moore had to be coerced into performing a scene where he twists a woman’s arm for information; he thought he should just seduce her instead).

Instead, Golden Gun leaned into a certain campiness that the Austin Powers films would later successfully parody (a sparkling wine called “Phuy-uck”). Even one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Bond launching an AMC Hornet off a broken bridge into a corkscrew twist, was undercut with a slide-whistle sound effect. (The less we talk about Scaramanga’s superfluous third nipple, the better.)

Watch the Astro-Spiral Jump From 'The Man With the Golden Gun'

Even with all the complaints, there was a lot to like in Golden Gun. Christopher Lee, who's played his fair share of movie villains throughout the years, shines as Scaramanga, still regarded as one of the best Bond villains of all time, and his weapon outdoes almost all of the gadgets in Bond’s cinematic arsenal. Scaramanga is also one of the first of the popular “we’re not so different” villains, who fancies himself a mirror image of Bond and later seen in Skyfall, Goldeneye, Die Another Day and Spectre. The astro-spiral car jump in the Hornet marked the first time a Hollywood film production had used computer technology to plan a stunt. But ultimately it was a combination of interesting parts with very little solid connective tissue to turn those ideas into a satisfying movie.

While it could have been the end of the Bond franchise, it actually wound up perhaps serving as an opportunity for Moore and producers to start shifting the films into the more successful ones later. Instead of reading the criticisms of the film and completely starting over, producers were more determined than ever to fix the errors and make a bigger, better Bond movie.

Director Guy Hamilton, who had directed three Bond movies before Golden Gun, was the easiest to blame as the films under his tenure had strayed further and further into arch comedy. (He would later say in a 2003 interview that out of the 20-plus films he had directed, Golden Gun was the only one he regretted making.)

Hamilton, who left to develop the Superman movie at Warner Bros. before Richard Donner signed on to direct, would not return. It was around this time that Steven Spielberg, who'd just exploded onto the scene with Jaws, lobbied for the job but was turned down. Instead, Lewis Gilbert, who had previously directed You Only Live Twice in 1967, returned to the franchise.

Despite Bond films hitting theaters almost every year, the production took almost three years to make sure that whatever followed Golden Gun would be able to restore interest and save the James Bond films (it was even promoted early on as the “biggest” and “best” Bond film). The result was The Spy Who Loved Me, a huge hit financially and critically (it was nominated for three Academy Awards) and now remembered as one of the most influential in the entire series. Even the film’s theme song, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” was a worldwide smash and Simon’s longest-running hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

So while The Man With the Golden Gun may not be remembered as fondly as some of the other James Bond films, there’s no denying its importance when it came to impacting the future of the franchise.

Watch the Trailer for 'The Man With the Golden Gun'

 

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