One of my guiltier pleasures is the “Matt Helm” films of the 1960s. There were four of these, all produced by Irving Allen and starring Dean Martin as secret agent Matt Helm. The first (The Silencers) appeared in 1966. The story behind these films is an interesting one. In the 1950s Irving Allen was partnered with Albert R. (“Cubby”) Broccoli. Things came to an end, however, when Broccoli announced that he was interested in purchasing the film rights to the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. Allen thought this a terrible idea, and according to legend told Fleming over lunch that he didn’t think his novels were good enough even for television (!). Broccoli and Allen went their separate ways, the former partnering with Harry Saltzman. Their first film together was 1962’s Dr. No, starring Sean Connery.
The result left Mr. Allen with a considerable amount of egg on his face. Not to be deterred – and apparently burdened by neither a sense of irony nor of shame – he purchased the rights to Donald Hamilton’s series of Matt Helm spy novels. These books were actually the antithesis of Fleming’s: Helm was a cold-blooded, no-nonsense American assassin, a character as devoid of charm as Hamilton’s realistic plots were devoid of Bondian fantasy. Irving launched a phoney, “world-wide” search for an actor with the balls enough to play Helm – but in reality Dean Martin apparently had the part all along.
With a vocal style uncomfortably close to that of Bing Crosby, Martin had carefully cultivated the image of a boozy, lovable playboy. (In reality, he was by all accounts a serious, introverted man whose on-stage glasses of “whisky” were actually iced tea.) He was an odd choice for an American James Bond. But the Matt Helm films were consciously aimed at an unsophisticated, lower-middle-class American audience. The people who thought Bond was just a wee bit too toffee-nosed and foreign. The cinematic Matt Helm was Bond if Bond had been from Long Island. Helm was a boozing, womanizing wastrel. Incorrigibly lazy, he is depicted in three of the four films as unable to get out of bed to answer a call from the head of I.C.E. (Intelligence Counter-Espionage). But somehow he is always the only man who can save the world.
The Helm films borrow shamelessly from Bond but exaggerate all the Bondian elements. Instead of Maurice Binder’s tasteful nude silhouettes, the credits sequence of the first Helm film features a strip show (the title “The Silencers” appears over the boobs of one of the girls, when she flings off her top). Unlike the spiritually virile Bond, who attracts women by actually seeming to be rather indifferent to them, Helm is a leering, eye-popping adolescent sex maniac. Instead of an Aston Martin complete with lethal accessories, Helm drives a 1965 Mercury Parklane station wagon complete with a bar and a bed (convenient for roadside quickies).The Helm films also frequently push the limit in sexual innuendo and double entendres. (The poster for the first film features Martin astride the barrel of a huge gun, under the words “Matt Helm Shoots the Works!”) Perhaps the most amusing of these is the name of the evil organization Helm confronts in three of the four films: B.I.G.O.
Pronounced “Big Oh,” the letters stand for Bureau of International Government and Order. Evil organizations with acronyms for names were a staple of the Bond-inspired films and television shows of the 1960s. The granddaddy of all of these was Fleming’s S.P.E.C.T.R.E.: The Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. S.P.E.C.T.R.E. had been introduced in Fleming’s 1961 novel Thunderball, which he had actually based (without attribution) on a screenplay written with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. S.P.E.C.T.R.E. was conceived by Messrs. Fleming, McClory, and Whittingham as a relatively small organization made up of the greatest criminal brains of the world. Headed by the sinister, asexual German-Greek Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Fleming’s villains were often foreign mongrels) the organization was apolitical, and aimed simply at making a profit – it is never depicted as motivated by any sort of political ideology. (For example, in Thunderball S.P.E.C.T.R.E. steals two nuclear bombs with the intention of extorting £100 million from the United States and Great Britain.)
In the Bond films, which eventually came to completely eclipse the novels in the popular imagination, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. became a vast organization equipped with its own secret island (From Russia with Love), steel-lined Paris headquarters (Thunderball), and steel-framed rocket base concealed inside an inactive volcano (You Only Live Twice). Blofeld really loved steel. In For Your Eyes Only (1981), Bond disposes of a Blofeld-like character who begs for his life, promising to build Bond “a delicatessen in stainless steel” (I am not kidding – watch it and see for yourself). And in the films S.P.E.C.T.R.E. has its own insignia: a stylized amalgam of a ghost and an octopus.
When S.P.E.C.T.R.E. became B.I.G.O. in the Matt Helm films, however, a curious thing happened. B.I.G.O. was not merely a vast criminal organization – it was a vast right-wing conspiracy. The aim of the Bureau of International Government and Order was world domination: the creation of one world, fascist-style government. And, of course, it had to have its own insignia, just like S.P.E.C.T.R.E., and this is where things get really interesting: B.I.G.O.’s emblem was a lightning bolt through a circle (an “O”), uncannily similar to the official symbol of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (even the color scheme is the same).
Derisively referred to by critics of the B.U.F. as “the flash in the pan” (I have to admit that this is witty), the “Flash and Circle” was adopted by the organization in the summer of 1935, replacing the fasces. It was supposed to represent “the flash of action within a circle of unity” and was designed by Eric Hamilton Percy, Commander of the Fascist Defence Force. A similar insignia was adopted by the Canadian Union of Fascists (a lightning bolt over a maple leaf), and in 1948 Mosley revived the flash and circle as the emblem of his new party, the Union Movement.
The B.I.G.O. “flash and circle” was introduced in The Silencers, but features even more prominently near the beginning of the second Helm film Murderers’ Row (also 1966). In this film, the head of the organization is played to hammy perfection by Karl Malden, who is seen wearing a flash and circle ring (like the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. octopus rings prominently featured in Thunderball), and seated in a kind of throne festooned with flashes and circles.
As a fascist super power, B.I.G.O. was by no means unique among the 60s spy spoofs. Indeed, one of the interesting features of that cinematic phenomenon – the vast scope of which (from about 1965 to 1969) is largely forgotten today – is that the villains in the American films and television shows were almost always in the B.I.G.O. mold: quasi fascist secret organizations out to “take over the world.” On the other hand, the British and Continental spy films of the period usually feature villains moved by pure profit, not ideology – or by some strangely personal motivation. (For example, the 1966 Dino de Laurentiis-produced Se Tutte le Donne del Mondo – released in the U.S. as Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die – features a villain who plans to kill off the human race and repopulate the planet by inseminating a bevy of beautiful women kept in a state of suspended animation.)
The reason for this difference between the American and European spy extravaganzas is not hard to discern. Americans had been sold on entering the Second World War with the promise that the fascists were out to “take over the world.” This ridiculous fabrication is still believed almost universally by Americans. Villains assimilated to this “fascist” model were therefore very easy for Americans to understand, and so Blofeld was transmuted into a plethora of little Hitlers and Mussolinis and Mosleys, armed this time with all the “secret weapons” we were frightened that the fascists might be developing in hollowed-out mountain lairs: death rays and flying saucers and doomsday devices of all kinds.
I started watching the 60s spy spoofs as a child, when local TV stations would run them in the afternoons. Bond was always a big TV event back then. He was only shown around my bedtime, and always with parental warnings (which seem absurd today). As a consequence, I was exposed to the Bond spoofs prior to ever being exposed to Bond. I thrilled to the adventures of Matt Helm, Derek Flint, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, and The Avengers. The odd thing was that I usually found the villains more attractive than the heroes. The villains, for one thing, had those terrific, steel-lined underground lairs. They had snazzy uniforms (with thrilling lightning-bolt insignia). They were ruthless and efficient. They were serious and disciplined. They seemed bent on doing something important. The heroes, on the other hand, were usually wise-cracking hedonists – the most extreme example, of course, being Matt Helm.
Was this childhood attraction to B.I.G.O. and Thrush and Galaxy (we’ll come to the latter two organizations in a moment) a sign of my incipient fascism? Probably. But much more interesting is what these American spy spoofs reveal about the modern American soul. Let’s focus just on Matt Helm for the moment, as paradigmatic of the genre. It’s discipline, order, duty, and iron will (the villains) . . . against hedonism, debauchery, and selfish abandon (the hero). (I didn’t mention this earlier but Matt Helm always has to be talked into taking a break from chasing tail so that he can save the world.) The conflict between America and fascism in World War II was presented as the conflict between freedom and slavery. In Matt Helm, however, the truth is laid bare and the conflict revealed for what it really was. The freedom of Matt Helm is mere license. He’s out to make the world safe not for democracy and individual rights, but for boozing and boinking and sleeping till noon. That’s the American Dream, and he is living it. And so when those handsome, uniformed, lock-step, lightning-bolted troops in their spotless lairs are blown to kingdom come we can all cheer. Who did they think they were, anyway?
Flint is another interesting case, almost forgotten today. He was played by James Coburn in two films: Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967). These are actually among the most significant 60s spy films, simply because they had some of the highest budgets (still not as high as the Bond films – but getting there). Derek Flint is a kind of absurdly exaggerated amalgamation of James Bond and Doc Savage. He is a scientist, a surgeon, an expert in several martial arts, an accomplished ballet dancer (and teacher!), a war hero, a marine biologist, and a linguist. He is able to stop his heart to feign death. Most memorable of all is his specially-designed cigarette lighter with its 82 functions (“83 if you wish to light a cigar”).
Flint is what my mother would call “higher class” than Matt Helm (whom my mother would dismiss as “ethnic”). Nevertheless there are significant parallels – and very interesting ones, given the above analysis of the Americanization of the Bond genre. Just like Helm, Flint is a hedonist. He lives in a swanky, high tech apartment (like Helm’s, only in better taste), located on Central Park West (unlike Helm, who parks his station wagon in the burbs – I kid you not). Flint is part Hugh Hefner, living with four beautiful girls (“there were five at one time, but that got to be a little much,” he explains). Just like Helm, Flint has to be convinced to set aside his personal projects to save the world. (Although Helm technically works for I.C.E., Flint is a completely free agent.) In both films, in fact, Flint ultimately agrees to go on his mission only after something happens which affects him personally. In the first film, he only really gets serious when the villains kidnap his girlfriends. Apparently saving the world from their infernal weather machine was not enough of a motivating factor for him.
In Our Man Flint, the villains – the ones with the weather machine – work for “Galaxy” (apparently not an acronym). Of course, they have their own insignia. Not a lightning bolt this time (that would be too perfect) but a G on a circle with Saturn-like rings encircling it (the exact same insignia, it is interesting to note, was used on the TV series Land of the Giants, also produced by Twentieth-Century Fox). Again, however, they are ideologically-motivated and vaguely fascist. Galaxy is a bit different from B.I.G.O., however. They are headed by three white-coated, idealistic scientists who aim to pacify the world and create a conflict-free utopia. Ideologically, this actually puts them further to the left, but there are strongly authoritarian overtones to Galaxy (nifty uniforms, a “Führer Prinzip” of absolute loyalty to the three leaders, etc.). At the climax of the film, as Flint is poised to destroy the weather machine, one of the mad scientists pleads with him to desist: “Ours would be a perfect world!” he cries. “Not my kind of world,” Flint responds, as he proceeds to demolish their handiwork. Again, everything here is on personal terms. Our hero goes on his mission because his life is adversely affected; he foils the villains’ scheme because their vision is not his. No conception of duty is at work in Flint, and no high-minded ideals. He is just looking out for number one. (It is noteworthy that on its release, Our Man Flint received a positive review in Ayn Rand’s journal The Objectivist.)
Flint is consciously and deliberately presented in the films as an American hero – and an American answer to Bond (in the first film, he beats up a Connery lookalike dubbed “Triple-O-Eight”). Flint infiltrates Galaxy’s secret island but is captured when an eagle swoops down and attacks him. One of the guards explains that the eagle is trained to spot and attack Americans. Flint smiles ruefully and says “The anti-American eagle. Diabolical!” Here we Americans are supposed to recognize that although the villains of this film are not the Soviets, it’s still about Us vs. Them. Us vs. them foreign interllectuals with their books and their high-minded ideals. (The villains in the Helm films are always foreign and often – interestingly – aristocratic. What a delight it is to see the noble and the dignified toppled by the hometown boy!)
At least Bond still works for Queen and Country. For all his high living, it is clear that he still has a strong sense of duty. The American versions of Bond jettison all that is noble about the character and turn him into a grinning lothario, a self-involved hedonist, a perpetual adolescent, a vulgar operator always on the make. And please keep squarely in mind that this was done so that American audiences would have a character they could more easily identify with and root for. The American soul is rotten to the core.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the quasi-fascist spy villains is the one that figures in virtually all 105 episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Thrush. U.N.C.L.E. creator Sam Rolfe invented Thrush actually as a fall-back villain. Recognizing that it would be difficult to invent new villains every week, with new motivations, Rolfe thought Thrush would be a convenient, regular foil for the do-gooding U.N.C.L.E. organization (that’s the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Thrush was initially supposed to be mysterious. We were not even supposed to know what the name “Thrush” meant: it could be the name of the organization, or the code-name of the organization’s leader (in one 1964 episode, “The Double Affair,” Thrush is actually referred to as “him”).
As the series progressed, however, the writers came up with more definite ideas about Thrush. First, the name became fixed as the name of the organization (though why it was called that was never explained in the series). Rolfe decided that Thrush was a “supra-nation” spread all over the earth. (In the pilot episode, one of the villains says “Thrush is my country.”) Its center was “The City of Thrush,” though this was always referred to in the series as “Thrush Central”: a mobile headquarters always shifting from place to place. Thrush’s agents had cover roles within their communities. Borrowing a term from the ancient Persians, Rolfe referred to the individual, local outposts of Thrush as “satraps,” each of which would be disguised in some ordinary way: as a shop, an office block, a school, a mortuary, a garage, a winery, etc. This concept, of course, was equivalent to that of the “communist cell.” And Thrush, in fact, is a unique amalgam of elements of the Left and Right – but, as always with these spy baddies – the accent is on the Right.
Thrush’s stated purpose is taking over the world and imposing a fascist-style state. “Thrush believes in the two-party system: the masters and the slaves,” our hero Napoleon Solo intones in an early episode. “Very nicely put,” concurs his Thrush captor. Like B.I.G.O. and Galaxy and all the other fascistic spy villains, Thrush is depicted as highly disciplined and regimented (the “Thrush Uniform Code of Procedure” is mentioned in two episodes written by Peter Allan Fields, the man principally responsible for much of the detail about Thrush introduced in the series; many of Rolfe’s original ideas were never used). Thrush agents, again, wear snazzy uniforms (complete with black berets). They carry specially-designed guns equipped with bizarre-looking night scopes. And Thrush is always coming up with some doomsday device: an earthquake machine, a “volcanic activator,” a deadly hiccup-inducing gas, a death ray, another death ray, and still another death ray.
David McDaniel, author of several of the U.N.C.L.E. paperback novels (published by Ace Books), eventually decided that Thrush was an acronym standing for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity. Though this is often mentioned in retrospectives on U.N.C.LE., in fact it was never used in the series and is not considered “canonical.” Still, McDaniel did a nice job here in highlighting the “fascistic” nature of Thrush (at least insofar as fascism is popularly conceived).
The heroes of U.N.C.L.E. – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – are a cut above Helm and Flint. Rolfe conceived U.N.C.L.E. as an FBI-like organization, utilizing only educated men of high moral character. And though Solo is a bit of a womanizer, both he and Kuryakin are depicted chiefly as stalwart, straight arrow types. Still, the motives and raison d’être of U.N.C.L.E. are more than a bit vague. In the narration that opens the first several episodes of the series we are told that U.N.C.L.E. is involved in “maintaining political and legal order anywhere in the world.” But what does this mean?
In a 1965 essay partly dealing with U.N.C.L.E., Ayn Rand rightly asked:
If ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ is dedicated to international law enforcement, does this mean that it protects indiscriminately any sort of government? . . . If so, then would ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ have protected the Nazi government against the Jewish refugees? Would it protect Castro’s government against the Cuban refugees? Would it protect the Soviet government against the refugees from one-third of the globe? The presence of Illya Kuryakin [a Russian agent] among the knights of ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ would seem to indicate the affirmative, which is pretty sickening.
The truth seems to be that U.N.C.L.E. is out to maintain the status quo in our post-historical world of Last Men. U.N.C.L.E.’s only ideological commitment is opposition to Thrush, who are the quasi-fascistic Nietzschean Overmen bent on re-starting history. In other words, the good guys.
Thrush’s symbol was an angry, stylized bird inside a kind of shield. However, when U.N.C.L.E. was revived in the shockingly lame 1983 TV movie The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair, the producers (who were not involved with the original series) forgot about this insignia. And when their designer was asked to come up with a symbol for Thrush, guess what he produced. That’s right: a lightning bolt!
The American producers of the Bond-inspired spy spoofs made their villains fascists for the simple reason that Americans have been so well trained to see fascists as the bad guys. There was no need to provide any elaborate explanation for why these villains were bad – we all know these sorts of guys are bad, don’t we? And yet they possess an enduring fascination and allure, with their sleek black uniforms, their arresting insignia, their discipline, their ruthlessness, their unity, and, yes, their great underground steel lairs.
Another part of the appeal is that they have rejected all of the equality and democracy bullshit – the bullshit all Americans pay lip service to (terrified of each other, as Tocqueville pointed out), but only the most craven actually believe in. The dirty little secret is that B.I.G.O. and Galaxy and Thrush are a kind of fantasy wish fulfillment for us. Fear not: at the end of the film, our oversexed playboy hero (with whom we guiltily identify) will vanquish the morally superior bad guys and we can all give three cheers for the American way. But we all know whose way is really superior – and that that lightning bolt in fact strikes at the worst within us, the worst which, in our modern world, reigns ascendant.
Give me the lightning bolt and pass me the black coveralls, I want to join Thrush!
1. See John Millican, Mosley’s Men in Black: Uniforms, Flags and Insignia of the British Union of Fascists 1932–1940 and Union Movement (London: Brockingday Publications, 2004), 16.
2. Ayn Rand, “Bootleg Romanticism,” The Objectivist Newsletter, January 1965, p. 3. The version of “Bootleg Romanticism” published in The Romantic Manifesto is a shortened one, with all the material on U.N.C.L.E. excised.