Our Man Flint came out at the height of the pop cultural “spy craze” that followed in the wake of the Bond films’ phenomenal popularity. By 1966, an apparently endless proliferation of globetrotting and gadget-mongering secret agents seemed to dominate American feature films and television programming alike. This trend can be explained by the convergence of factors impacting the national psyche: ever-present anxieties about the then-brimming Cold War warming up, an unabashed embrace of technological fetishism that came to be called the Space Race, as well as the (relatively) uninhibited lifestyle popularly espoused by Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. Our Man Flint is also the film that cemented James Coburn’s status as a star. With his lanky frame, thatch of gray hair, and toothy grin, Coburn may not have had the conventional good looks of your average leading man, but he exuded an aura that mixed self-assurance and insubordination. This turned him, along with the likes of Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, into an embodiment of ’60s anti-establishment cool, a poster boy for what Bonnie and Clyde scribes Robert Benton and David Newman referred to, in their now-famous 1964 Esquire piece, as “the New Sentimentality.”
Along the spectrum of responses to the Bond films, Our Man Flint is pitched somewhere between dutiful homage and over-the-top parody, with its tongue planted too firmly in cheek to be mistaken for just another carbon copy. At the same time, neither is it the all-out deconstructionist assault that 1967’s Casino Royale aspired to be—at least in theory. Our Man Flint has an investment in character that sets it apart. Producer Saul David and star Coburn saw it as an opportunity to put across their version of a philosophy that idealizes the rugged individualism of the frontier type, even a sort of Ayn Rand-inflected Objectivist Übermensch. Either way, Derek Flint (Coburn) is no organization man. Faced with immanent environmental catastrophe at the hands of a shadowy secret society, representatives of Z.O.W.I.E. (the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage, natch) are forced to beseech the reluctant Flint for assistance. Even the personal intercession of agency head Lloyd Cramden (Lee J. Cobb), with whom Flint has considerable history, is fruitless, until an attempt on Flint’s life convinces him, more out of self-preservation than altruism or patriotism, to lend a hand.
An expert in nearly everything, Flint flatly rejects the espionage equipment Cramden offers to outfit him with: a standard-issue Walther PPK and suitcase laden with gadgets. Flint dismisses them as crude, holding up instead a gold-plated lighter. “This has 82 uses,” he deadpans. “Eighty three, if you wish to light a cigar.” Elsewhere, Flint exhibits his prowess in myriad disciplines: boxing, fencing, the proper discernment of a bouillabaisse recipe, even surgery. After Flint confesses to having paid a visit to the Moscow Ballet, Cramden incredulously asks, “You went all the way to Moscow to watch a ballet?” Flint shoots back: “No, to dance.” The film’s funniest sight gag shows him laying stiff as a board between two chairs, having suspended his heartbeat in quasi-yogic meditation.
As resolute as Our Man Flint can be in its unapologetic individualism, it often swerves rather recklessly into chauvinism. And it’s never quite clear whether the film accepts its rampant sexism as par for the course, or wants to poke fun at it as an element intrinsic to the genre’s lexicon. Certainly, Flint’s conversion of villainess Gila (Gila Golan) to his enthralled amour with a single kiss is evident mockery of a Bond-film staple. And Flint’s motivation for tracking down the Galaxy group to their island redoubt has more than anything to do with rescuing his quartet of leggy “playmates” from their clutches. That they’re being brainwashed and conditioned as “Pleasure Units” amounts to a solidly amusing critique. But, of course, they are freed from abuse in Galaxy’s pleasure dome—amusingly rendered as an erotic sampler combining Roman orgy, swinging ’60s go-go club, and 1950s drive-in—only to return to sensual service in Flint’s phalanx.
[This article first appeared in Slant Magazine.]