Derek Flint was a fictional spy played by James Coburn in two 1960s films, Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967). The Flint films were 20th Century Fox's attempt to cash in on the tremendously popular James Bond films and subsequent spy-fi craze both sides of the Atlantic. Despite poor plots (if any were at all existent) dated values and substandard special effects, the films are surprisingly well regarded and were as large an influence on the Austin Powers trilogy as Bond himself. Uniquely for 60s superspies, Flint does not carry a gun and nor does he get involved in car chases.
Derek Flint is portrayed as by far the greatest spy the world has ever known. He is an Olympic gold medallist in five different events, fluent in over 45 languages and dialects – including dolphin – he has degrees from numerous universities, a highly-valued painter, chef, ballet dancer, astronaut and inventor. He has written the definitive book on sonic waves, can come back from the dead1 and has up to five women living with him at any one time.
Flint is a master of disguise, able to look like any stereotype nowadays considered offensive at a moment's notice. He can lie on two chairs, one supporting his neck and the other supporting his ankles, without sagging. He loves science and technical exposition so much he can even do the Vulcan nerve pinch2. As well as being Bond, he is also in effect Q too. He invents his own gadgets, including a small 82-function lighter - 83 if you include it occasionally setting fire to things - that can be written into any script situation that requires him to be in a degree of jeopardy and need to do something.
The Name's Flint, Derek Flint
In both films there are quite deliberate references to James Bond. In Our Man Flint Flint encounters agent '0008' who looks and sounds remarkably like Sean Connery, who informs him that the villainous organisation behind the scheme is 'bigger than SPECTRE', the villain in the four of the first five Bond films made between 1962-1967, before Flint beats him in a fight. The second film has sequences set in the Virgin Islands, but instead was very obviously filmed in Jamaica, shaing some of the same locations seen in Dr No. He is also offered an attaché case identical to the one Bond had in From Russia With Love as well as a Walther PPK, Bond's gun, only to dismiss both as crude.
Reluctantly, Flint is an agent for ZOWIE, the Zonal Organization World Intelligence Espionage3. This can never quite make up its mind whether it represents the United States or the entire world, as despite being international in nature it inexplicably reports to the US President. This seems entirely inappropriate if not a source of corruption, as it is never explained how with this set up ZOWIE would put the world's needs ahead of that of the United States in cases of a conflict of interest.
ZOWIE is headed by Lloyd C Cramden (Lee J Cobb, the only other recurring character in the two films) who was Flint's commander during the Second World War and found Flint to be 'the most undisciplined, insubordinate man [he] had ever had to deal with'. Cramden is a well-meaning bumbling idiot who eats pencils, and sadly lacks authority and credibility. He seems to have been made deliberately daft in order to make Flint look good in comparison.
Flint Spark: Making Of
In the mid-1960s 20th Century Fox was in a perilous position, having almost collapsed following the failure of Cleopatra (1963), saved only by the runaway success of The Sound of Music (1965). Following this the company's president Darryl F Zanuck was determined to be hands-on with every film Fox made under his watch, much to the displeasure of Saul David, the producer who was behind the Flint films. David hired experienced comedy writer Ben Starr to help Hal Finberg develop the Flint spy series from a story treatment Finberg had written. David had a reputation for being a controlling perfectionist and disapproved of Zanuck constantly ordering parts of the script to be re-written behind his back. David felt it was his duty to use the films to satirise modern society as a whole while Zanuck felt David was being too 'preachy' and kept undermining all the elements David felt were key. Actor Coburn also had his own agenda, wishing to use the role to promote his beliefs of New Age mind expansion, meditation and the martial arts.
The first film, Our Man Flint, was directed by Daniel Mann. Highly regarded for character dramas and with a background in theatre, Mann struggled with the fight scenes which really do look staged and fake. For example in the bar room brawl, someone falls dramatically backwards a few seconds after they are bumped into by 0008, not at the time of impact. The villain's lair is full of glass doors, only the glass panels in the doors constantly disappear. Sometimes the only way for the doors to be opened is for the cast member to put their hands through the gap where the glass is supposed to be to reach the handle on the other side of the door, the actors even step through where the panels are supposed to be. The loudest gun noise in the entire film happens after a character makes a point of adding a silencer to a gun, it is fired loudly in a restaurant to get the patrons' attention. Still at least Flint had an impressive wardrobe, and that is the most important thing. The earliest test audiences were ecstatic about the film, and so a sequel was commissioned four months before the film went on general release.
As the film was attracting rave reviews, and went on to far better than 20th Century Fox had dared hope, screenwriter Starr asked for a pay rise. Unfortunately while Eon Productions who made the Bond films believed in building bigger and better, making each film more outstanding than the last, 20th Century Fox were fond of cost-cutting. Producer David told Starr that as this time the budget could only stretch to either the writing or the wardrobe, and as Coburn did love his polo-necked jumpers, Starr's services would no longer be required. Any deficiencies in the second film's enemies' motivation was papered over by having them reciting long passages quoted verbatim from Ashley Montagu's The Natural Superiority of Women (1952). It also starred Saul David's wife as well as featuring the wives and girlfriends of other 20th Century Fox executives. Filming began before it was decided how the film would end, with 20th Century Fox more interested in the film being made quickly than well. In Like Flint was to be directed by Gordon Douglas, who had directed films starring Laurel and Hardy as well as Elvis Presley. Unfortunately due to ill health Douglas was unable to devote his full attention to filming, leaving Coburn to later state that his stunt double Robert 'Buzz' Henry and director of photography William H Daniels did the actual directing.
While Coburn expressed interest in returning for a third film if the film was made well, with both a writer and director, 20th Century Fox thought those were extravagant demands and so the series ended after its second film.
Our Man Flint (1966)
Three mad scientists, Dr Wu4, Dr Schnieder and Dr Krupov, who all have sinister foreign-sounding names, are threatening the world with weather-based stock footage and dodgy model work! They threaten to destroy the world using climate change and earthquakes, and have a device that can reactivate dormant volcanoes and make them erupt. Obviously they decided that the best place for them to live and keep their dormant-volcano-eruption machine is in the middle of a hollowed out dormant volcano, on a Mediterranean island. Calling their sinister organisation GALAXY for reasons never explained (but it is a much better name than ZOWIE) they also like to have women in bikinis that they have brainwashed bouncing around on trampolines, dancing in discos and massaging the men in their organisation to help them relax. Their aim is to create an ideal world and will continue causing weather chaos until the governments of the world capitulate and let them run things.
ZOWIE has decided that with the fate of the entire world at stake, a whole agent (but not more than one, as that would be excessive) should be sent to investigate, and Flint the one chosen, much to Cramden's dismay. GALAXY dispatches their agents Hans Gruber and Gila to assassinate Flint with a poison dart, only to inadvertently hit Cramden instead. Fortunately Flint is an expert at combating poison, saving Cramden's life, and swiftly realises that the dart had been handled by someone who had the day before eaten a bouillabaisse using specific ingredients and quantities only found in a district of Marseille. Flying to France, Flint eats bouillabaisse at every restaurant there before he is ambushed in one by Gruber and Gila, who have gone back to the French restaurant for no apparent reason. After killing Gruber in the loo and finding the explosive clue that Gila conveniently leaves for him to explain why he then needs to go to Rome next, Flint goes to Rome.
In Rome Flint finally finds Gila face-to-face. She plays a round of 'if you seduce me and I tell you everything you'd like to know, promise not to take this big key that should be labelled 'PLOT DEVICE' and use it to unlock that room over there'. Inexplicably in the middle of the night, Flint sneakily takes the key, unlocks the room and walks not only into a trap, but the third and final act. This is the point where everything goes from being an overdone spy film to a being bit weird at best, if not hedonistic, misogynistic and masochistic. Will Flint survive when only by being dead can he escape death this time? What will happen when his four girlfriends are kidnapped and brainwashed, and will they be rescued? Will Gila share their fate of being brainwashed and branded and turned into a 'Pleasure Unit'? How will Flint escape the clutches of the Anti-American Eagle? Who will roll out the barrel? Will Flint somehow also survive jumping off the top of an erupting volcano into the conveniently close-by sea and swim to safety after all the villains are defeated and everything explodes behind him?
- Derek Flint, superspy (James Coburn)
- Cramden, Head of ZOWIE (Lee J Cobb)
- Gila, GALAXY agent (Gila Golan)
- Malcolm Rodney, GALAXY agent who looks menacing but doesn't do much (Edward Mulhare)
- Hans Gruber, GALAXY agent (Michael St Clair) )
- Dr Schneider, Dr Krupov, Dr Wu – mad scientists (Benson Fong, Rhys Williams, Peter Brocco)
- Leslie, Anna, Gina, Sakito – Flint's 'playmates' (Shelby Grant, Sigrid Valdis, Gianna Serra & Helen Funai)
In Like Flint (1967)
Sequel In Like Flint is a weaker film than the first, largely because of the lack of plot. Ever wondered what a film would be like if virtually the entire story budget was spent instead on bikinis? Oh, and before watching this film it is important to remind yourself that a woman who wears a hat looks and sounds exactly like a young boy. Also, facial recognition is also impossible for anyone wearing a hat – even in the case of one of the most identifiable people in the world, in this case the American President. If he wears a hat no-one will know who he is. Just like Clark Kent and glasses, only more so.
In the Bond films at this time the opening credits featured dark silhouettes of scantily clad ladies or women in skimpy outfits having the credits projected onto their bodies. In Like Flint just jumped right in for an over-steamy intro with a 'let's film topless women's bare breasts in a sauna' approach. This time the villains are women who believe in women's lib, and although nude girls is one interpretation of 'liberated women' it is not the one usually meant in this context. Less women's lib, more women's ribs, and, erm nipples... Anyway, this women's lib movement is headed by three women who believe in liberating women through the medium of brainwashing them, which they do with mind-control devices built into dome hairdryers found in hairdressers and beauty salons.
Eventually the plot turns up and the women trying to establish their own matriarchy run a health spa called Fabulous Face, which is conveniently located next to a ZOWIE rocket base in the Virgin Islands5. There Fabulous Face have secretly switched the Russian cosmonauts who are going to The Space Platform, essentially an International Space Station with Russian women cosmonauts, in a rare example of ZOWIE actually being international for a bit. They will then at the film's climax try to secretly switch cosmonauts with women again for a second rocket that will also be carrying nuclear bombs, though why the film needs to duplicate the rocket switched cosmonauts plot point would seem like lazy writing if the writer hadn't already been fired.
Anyway, 15 minutes into the film and Flint is introduced – he has been busy talking to a dolphin who wanted to visit his Central Park apartment – when his boss Cramden is a bit puzzled and seeks his help. Cramden was playing golf with the American President and was timing his swing at the time and noticed that it took him over three minutes to do something that appeared to take seconds. He was unaware of two women with hats on (and thus completely indistinguishable from young boys) had been accompanied by a double of the President (who was also wearing a hat as an impenetrable disguise) had approached and drugged and kidnapped the real president while Cramden was unconscious and unaware of the switch.
Meanwhile a woman called Lisa is in Flint's apartment when Cramden and Flint are discussing this, and she persuades Flint's girlfriends to attend the Fabulous Face spa. Having heard which restaurant Cramden planned to dine at, Lisa puts glasses on and, thus completely unrecognisable from when Cramden saw her earlier, goes there. She drugs him to have him appear in a compromising position with her, thus discrediting Cramden and having him removed from his position of authority. A traitorous general in the villain's pay bursts in with a camera while both are on the bed and declares Cramden unfit for duty6. Amusingly the actress playing Lisa, Jean Hale, realising too late the sort of film she was appearing in, refused to wear the skimpy nightwear costume and lie on the bed. The decision was made that as it had been established that the characters couldn't tell the difference between men and women, just maybe the audience couldn't either and so they put a wig and some negligee on a burly stuntman who lies on the bed next to Cramden, walks into the bathroom to get dressed and turn back into actress Jean Hale.
Anyway Flint has heard a recording monitoring the cosmonauts' health and realised that the heartbeats were feminine. So he goes to Russia in order to do a bit of ballet with television series Batman's Batgirl actress Yvonne Craig7, where he is hunted by the KGB on a rooftop set that looks like it was borrowed from Dick van Dyke's 'Chim-Chim Cheree' number in Mary Poppins8 and then dresses as Castro in order to go to the Virgin Islands via Cuba. By this point Cramden tried to dress as a woman in order to investigate the Fabulous Face spa resort, but despite wearing a particularly big hat was inexplicably recognised as being a man and captured.
Flint however swims to the resort from the middle of the ocean, only to discover that the resort's beach is surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Remember how it was set up that Flint could talk to dolphins? Well, Flint starts talking to a dolphin now – only for there to be no pay off as one second he is talking to a dolphin next to the impenetrable fence, the next instant he is on Fabulous Face's beach. How did that happen? Did the dolphin lift him over the fence, or help him swim under, or tell him how to get round it? Did Flint instantly train it to be able to perform double-backward somersaults through hoops while whistling the 'Star-Spangled Banner'? After establishing that Flint talks to dolphins and is writing the definitive English-Dolphin Dictionary and asking the audience to suspend their belief that far, the only pay off near the end is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of a dolphin. Oh, and the impenetrable fence is never seen or mentioned again either; it has definitely completely gone later on when the characters need to leave the resort by the beach.
Will there be lots of scantily clad women? Will the villainous double-crossing henchmen end up being is a triple-crossing villain? Will things take a cold turn in the cryogenic chamber? Did they deliberately film where Dr No was made? Is Fabulous Face's plan 'Operation Smooch' of having women enter the top-secret heavily-guarded ZOWIE base by wearing bikinis, walking up to the guards and kissing them the best way to promote sexual equality?
- Derek Flint, superspy (James Coburn)
- Cramden, Head of ZOWIE (Lee J Cobb)
- Lisa, Fabulous Face agent (Jean Hale)
- President Trent, US President (Andrew Duggan - also imposter)
- Carter, traitorous traitor (Steve Ihnat)
- Elisabeth, Fabulous Face second-in-command (Anna Lee)
- Natasha the Ballerina (Yvonne Craig)
- Simone, Fabulous Face leader (Totty Ames, producer's wife)
This is a film with so much leering that it even has a cameo from William Powell 'Bill' Lear, the entrepreneur behind the Learjet.
These films have had a surprisingly large legacy over the years. Character Hans Gruber in Christmas film Die Hard (1988), was named after a henchman in Our Name Flint9. There are far too many references to the Flint films in the Austin Powers trilogy to mention them all, but Austin's phone ringtone used is the same as the ZOWIE hotline to the US President. Also many of the henchman wear identical clothing to those sported by GALAXY's henchmen, and Austin Powers even watches In Like Flint and calls it his favourite film in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999).
The Avengers (1998) has a similar plot with some overlap as Our Man Flint, starring Bond actor Sean Connery as the villain. In 1976 there was an attempt to make a television series about Flint, although this failed and did not feature James Coburn. Novelisations of both films were published and there was even an Italian spoof, Il Vostro Super Agente Flit (1966), which is a spoof of a spoof. As the soundtrack is surprisingly good the theme tune was covered by jazz flautist Herbie Mann on his delightfully titled 1966 album Our Mann Flute. The 'G' symbol used by Gru's Minions in the Despicable Me films shares a strong similarity with the G symbol used by GALAXY agents in Our Man Flint.
The films also transformed Coburn's career from being a television actor who played supporting roles in films like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape to being a film star in his own right, subsequently appearing on the cover of the Band on the Run album. From 1966 onwards James Coburn consistently was the headline star in films in which he appeared, for example playing Pat Garrett in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and he would later win an Academy Award for his supporting role in Affliction (1998).
The film led Columbia Pictures to greenlight its own Bond spoof, Casino Royale (1967) and by showing that spoofs can be financial successes helped Mel Brooks have his 1967 film The Producers approved.
Both Flint films have essentially the same plot and same weaknesses, particularly with regards having a threatening villain. In both films instead of having a single villain who poses a single, simple identifiable threat, the enemy Flint faces has been watered down and diluted. In both there are a trilogy of villains who between them are the heads of the threatening organisation, whether the three mad scientists in the first film or the three feminists in the second. In both cases they have a more effective henchman who poses the real threat to Flint, wants Flint put in a machine that in the first film disintegrates people and in the second reduces people to ashes, and assumes that this has gone according to plan without any attempt to double check. Flint doesn't want to investigate either case until a femme fatale has drugged or poisoned his boss, but that's okay as in both films the attractive female villainess is only there for Flint to seduce and persuade to join his side. Both cases have the villains plan to capture and brainwash Flint's girlfriends, with Flint having to rescue them from a villainous beach resort populated predominantly with women in skimpy outfits.
Sometimes Flint encounters the villain's thugs in large numbers. In these cases his instinct is always to climb up somewhere really high. Once on the top of a gantry his enemies approach one-by-one while the villainous main henchman looks on, thus allowing Flint the opportunity to dispatch the nameless guards by karate chop one at a time with them each having the chance to make suitably dramatic falls from up high before the next brute comes along having patiently waited his turn for the same fate.
The real problem is that there simply aren't any strong characters, which are essential to making a memorable Bond spoof in a crowded subgenre. A strong character in this context can still be a stereotype provided they are memorable and have defining characteristics that they act in accordance with. Austin Powers and Dr Evil work well in this regard. Flint has a constant stream of interchangeable girlfriends who don't seem to have anything unique or identifiable about them. Flint, though, is not a strong character, merely one written to be ludicrously good at everything. Obviously Flint was not the first Bond parody, and won't be the last. Yet overall the films remain less memorable than competitors such as the Matt Helm films, Carry On Spying, or more recently the Johnny English or Kingsman trilogies.
Flint's attitudes makes Fred Flintstone look positively progressive by comparison. The way that women are portrayed in these films has dated far more than even in the Bond films. Women don't have surnames in the Flint films. They also tend not to be overly burdened with clothing either. Almost every female character gets brainwashed – and those who don't are misled and double-crossed – and exist largely to either go in Flint's bed or seduce all the men around them, even those with whom they have never previously interacted or had even met. In order to rescue Flint's girlfriends from being 'pleasure units' (which involves Flint whispering to them, 'you are not a pleasure unit') Gia asks Flint to burn a brand onto her arm – which is never referred to again and seems to have no purpose to the plot of the film other than add a moment of sado-masochism. Our Man Flint even has 'women in refrigerators10' by having Flint's girlfriends – and the leaders of the women's lib movement - cryogenically frozen, but of course Flint being Flint he resurrects them all. When the leaders of Fabulous Face explain their motivations and what they hope to achieve, Flint simply responds 'forget it' and so they do and join his side. The film easily passes the Bechdel test, which only goes to highlight that test's acknowledged limitations.
That said the films have a strong 60s spy score by talented composer Jerry Goldsmith. These films, if taken with a fist of salt, are entertaining enough in a 'so bad they're entertainingly bad' kind of way. They were never intended to be good, but be fun. They are not only dated but outdated reminders of films that are unlikely to be made or generally released in the present day, and for very good reason. Yet if you like colourful kitschy hokum distracting nonsense that is bordering on offensive, these farcical films are certainly watchable.