The Sixties were a time of upheaval of the status quo against the backdrop of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Television was starting to come into its own as a medium, especially with colour technology becoming affordable. 007 made the jump from the books to the silver screen and audiences wanted more. To help fill the demand, MGM worked with Ian Fleming to develop a TV series along the lines of the Bond movies, resulting in 1964’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Fleming’s participation ended when a connection between the TV series and Goldfinger was discovered; Napoleon Solo was named after a character in Fleming’s novel, a gunsel that got on the wrong side of Bond.
Fleming’s touch remained. U.N.C.L.E, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, is a multinational agency keeping the peace by working behind the scenes. Alexander Waverly heads up the agency from its hidden base in New York City. His top agents include suave American Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn, and dour Russian Illya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum. The original plan was to have Vaughn be The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – it’s even in the name, Solo – but McCallum’s Illya worked well with Solo that they became a team in the series. Solo would be the more visible of the two, taking a Bond-like approach to investigation, while Kuryakin took advantage of the distraction. UNCLE had an opposite number, THRUSH, an agency bent on world domination. Like UNCLE, THRUSH also recruited from around the world. The difference between the two agencies is simple, their goals. With competing goals, UNCLE and THRUSH clash often, with Solo and Kuryakin responsible for shutting down several seasons worth of plots.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had several advantages while filming. MGM wanted to get its money worth out of its sets, so the studio allowed the series to reuse existing sets from other movies. To add to the unusual for television look that the series had, action scenes had a personal touch as a camera man jumped into the middle, long before handheld cameras were available. Ensuring that the series felt world-spanning, guest stars weren’t limited to just Hollywood. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. became a weekly cinematic spy thriller, with a memorable theme tune by Jerry Goldsmith. Rounding out the globetrotting spy series, the titles were always an Affair; the first episode was called “The Vulcan Affair”, setting the tone for the rest of the run.
In 2015, Warner Bros. released Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The fifty years between the original and the remake saw a number of changes in the world, including the fall of both the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. The nature of terrorism changed; instead of trying to get a message out even just fundraising, today’s terrorists are driven by ideology to the point where fear is the only end to the means. The likes of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army have given way to Daesh. At the same time, a black and white approach to fiction has been replaced with nuance and shades of grey; no one expects heroes to be shiny anymore. Updating The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would mean losing much of what made the series work in the Sixties.
To Ritchie’s credit, he realized that and made the movie as a period piece, set in 1963. He makes use of cinematic techniques of the era, including split screen montages, to cement the mood. The opening credits cover history between the end of World War II and the beginning of the action in 1963, including the Cold War between the US and the USSR, the nuclear escalation between the two nations, the splitting of Germany between East and West, and the building of the Berlin Wall. The plot starts with Solo, now played by Henry Cavill, crossing the border between West and East Berlin, entering the Soviet sector. His goal, extract Gabby, played by Alicia Vikander, a mechanic whose biological father is a top nuclear researcher. However, the KGB has sent someone to prevent Gabby’s extraction, Illya Kurakin, played by Armie Hammer. The extraction is difficult; Illya is as good an agent as Solo, and is only lost while crossing over no-man’s land between the two Berlins.
Gabby’s father turns out to be a bigger problem than expected. He’s disappeared, and both the CIA and the KGB want him found. Both agencies bring their top agents together. Kuryakin and Solo recognize each other and are ordered to put aside their differences to work together and Gabby. The trail goes to Rome, Italy, where Gabby’s uncle and his wife have a shipping company. Both CIA and KGB expect that Victoria, the wife, played by Elizabeth Debicki, is the force behind the operation involving a nuclear missile. However, Gabby is already working for someone, a Mr. Waverly, played by High Grant, who is several steps ahead of both Solo and Kuryakin.
Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is more of an origins movie, though one that keeps the action going. Many of the bits that made up the TV series didn’t appear, but since neither Solo nor Kuryakin were UNCLE agents, they couldn’t get to UNCLE HQ through Del Florio’s, nor could they use either the pen radios* nor the modified Walther P-38s** that appeared in the TV series. Another missing element, though the people Victoria was working with were never mentioned, is THRUSH. The movie also introduced backstories for both Solo and Kuryakin, something that never came up in the TV series.
That said, the movie did keep to the feel of the TV series. While Hammer as Kuryakin worked for the Illya of the movie, Cavill’s Solo came from Vaughn’s portrayal. The film avoided a gritty look while still keeping the approach of the TV series, a mix of serious and lightness. Given the trend to make grim-and-gritty versions of older series, avoiding the temptation to do that with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a good move. Solo and Kuryakin aren’t grim killers, nor do they traipse around, usually, and their portrayals in the movie reflected the teamwork seen in the original.
For those who have seen the original series, some of the twists, particularly involving Waverly, could be seen coming. Given that the last episode was first run in 1968, it has been almost fifty years since a new episode*** and even a syndicated run is now limited to specialty channels. The movie reintroduces the characters and the setting for new audiences, bringing them into the world of the 1963 UNCLE. By the end of the movie, UNCLE is a new agency, with Waverly bringing in top agents from around the world, leaving room for further affairs. The movie brings back the core of the original TV series with few missteps.
* The TV series began with a cigarette case radio, but changed to the pen radio after concerns about children wanting a toy based on the prop.
** Known as the P-38 UNCLE, the pistol used by UNCLE agents had an attachable stock, barrel extension, silencer, and telescopic sight, and was never available commercially.
*** Barring the reunion TV movie, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair in 1983.