Bond's Vacation to the world of Blaxploitation.
The next hurdle to overcome was the story. The Civil Rights Movement was a monuments event in American history, and as Bond had a great amount of American appeal, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz thought he'd adapt a story more relevant to the times. Granted adapting a story which features blacks in all the villainous roles at a time when they're seeking to change their image in America may sound like a bad idea, Mankiewicz liked the challenge, and convinced the producers to go with Fleming's second novel, despite that major creative license was taken with the adaptation, as the villain had connections to SMERSH, and was a gold smuggler in the english caribbean territories making the story far more cold war oriented than the film ended up becoming. Though despite the amount of blaxploitation films being released at the time, this one would reach a global audience, so it was up to Mankiewicz to see that it was less negative, and more 'adventurous' and reminiscent of the Connery Era by following a very specific Bond formula. The result was a success with mixed reviews, though ultimately Mankiewicz succeeded in making the script applicable and acceptable. For while it is still a clear cut blaxploitation film, it was far more stylistic than the other typical installments to that sub-genre.
In his eighth adventure, James Bond (Roger Moore) once again finds himself intermingling with non-british affairs when three MI6 agents are killed mysteriously when investigating the activities of caribbean dictator Dr. Kananga. Along the way, Bond will find himself wrapped up in the illegal drug trade of Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto) and Kananga's psychic Solitaire (Jane Seymour) who are all involved in one of the most daringly realistic villainous plots a Bond film has ever sported. For while scenarios similar to this have arisen, this one seems to get close to the edge of the realism barrier.
Originally, Mankiewicz wanted Diana Ross for Solitaire, but Cubby & Saltzman decided to stick with the novel's caucasian description in the book, leading them to consider Jane Seymour and Catherine Deneuve for the part. Seymour won out after the producers saw her in the series "The Onedin Line" (1971-1980). As for the main antagonist, Yaphet Kotto was a suggestion by United Artists as he was starring in their production of "Across 110th Street" (1972). Kotto was reportedly pleased with the role as his character delved into the occult, which he thought unique for a Bond villain, and a drug lord at that. Both Seymour & Kotto had the required on-screen chemistry that their roles called for. You totally bought his controlling personality over his timid brainwashed psychic. But of course, that's no ailment that Bond can't fix. ;)
Apart from the realistic plot, the film was full of fantasy elements, such as the great presence of voodoo throughout the film, and the supporting roles which made that more colorful, such as witch doctor and part time entertainer Baron Samedi played by choreographer Geoffrey Holder who's directed and designed broadway productions such as "The Wiz" (1984 revival), voiced the narrator in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005), and choreographed this film with all its extensive voodoo rituals and dance numbers. Famous in his own right, he was by far the most unique supporting villain, as you never can tell where his allegiances lie. Is he an entertainer? A true witch doctor? A drug smuggler who's voodoo is a result of his freak outs from chronic cocaine use? Or is he just an actor in this whole scheme in a very 'Scooby Doo' type motivation? And then there's Tee Hee Jonhson--yes that's his character's name--who's better known as Butterhook for the giant metal pincer for a right hand. Julius Harris plays him as a jolly fellow who enjoys showing Bond around his 'zoo' of man eating gators as if they're good friends. Lastly we can't for get the overweight wheezer of a voice named Whisper (Earl Jolly Brown), whom like his namesake, only whispers and kind of hangs around while the villains scheme. So that's a colorful cast of supporting villains, if you'd call them that.
If there's one thing that everyone had in common during filming it was fear. Such as the actor being sacrificed to a venomous snake fainted at the stake, while the snake handler decked out in voodoo garb screamed like a girl and ran when he accidentally dropped it, much to the dismay of the tied up Seymour whom the snake slithered towards without means of escape. Or one better, the fact that Geoffrey Holder was too terrified to fall into a coffin of snakes and only did it because as a proper brit, it'd be cowardly to not do so when Princess Alexandra visited the set. But what can top the producers paying a local Harlem gang for protection from rival gangs while filming there? You read it right, they paid gangsters for protection, and they weren't even being racketeered. Of course they were 'encouraged' to leave when the producer's 'protection' budget ran low. Well, there is something which can top it. And that's when you're on a recce near Montego Bay in Jamaica and speed past a sign which reads "Trespassers Will Be Eaten." Of course such a place would have to work its way into the script, and the croc farm owner Ross Kananga was honored with a villain taking his namesake. This was also the source of fear for the script supervisor and various other crew members, and ultimately, Kananga himself had to make the daring dash over the croc heads to escape the sandbar of death. On one take he nearly lost his foot to an angry crocodile. So yes, they were real in that dashing shot (forgive the pun) when Bond goes for broke. There was nobody more crazy than Ross Kananga at this location--as Moore's stuntman certainly wasn't going to do it--and he was by far the most unique person met along the side of the road during a Bond production, despite not officially appearing in the film. That's right, more unique than Howard Hughes even. But everyone made it out okay thanks to veteran Bond director Guy Hamilton who'd just directed "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971), and then "Goldfinger" (1964) seven years before that. So going with a director that knows his audience contributes to this being a great first outing for Roger Moore.
One sequence which really takes the cake is the Guinness Record setting Glaston Speed Boat chase through the Louisiana Bayou. A planned jump over the road resulted in the much higher 110' jump setting the record, and creating waves big enough to flip the pursuing boat. With excessive speeds in the winding bayou, and plenty of retakes on the wedding crasher shot (again, pun not intended) which continually ended in smashing into trees to the dismay of the homeowners, this wild chase was among the best in the franchise, better even than the double decker chase that's also in the film. Granted none of the speedboats were decked out at all with any gadgets; Just good old fashioned speed. And let's not forget the most popular comedic supporting role in the film, Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) who fits the negative southern stereotype to a T. He was so funny and well received that he'd make a brief appearance in the next Bond adventure.
Now as James Bond himself, Roger Moore certainly seemed older from the start, almost old enough to retire the role even at age forty-five. He was less misogynistic towards women, but was more of a smooth talker. He had a much less convincing aggressive side, if he even had one at all. He seemed almost unfazed by everything. Moore still had all the catchphrases that Connery used, but also carried a greater elegance in the part, if not the more brash side. These things worked against him as far as being a popular Bond, but he worked out well enough for six sequels. For example, when interrogating Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) he's more relaxed and doesn't change his tone at all in regards to voice and appearance, whereas Connery would slap you around and shout at you. That's ultimately what Roger Moore lacked: Aggression. Though he was far better than George Lazenby or future Bond Timothy Dalton in my opinion.
Overall, it wasn't the lack of an appearance by 'Q' (Desmond Llewelyn) which brought the film down for people--yes, Desmond set aside three episodes of a series he was appearing in to make room for Bond, only to discover he was written out of the film--but it was rather once again having to get used to a new Bond that just wasn't Sean Connery. Also, the plot wasn't as fantastical, and there were less gadgets. Though for me, it was a plus as it wasn't nearly as droll as "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969), or the later film "For Your Eyes Only" (1981) which both went for realism over fantasy. This film also doesn't dwell on the introduction of the new Bond as "Dr. No" (1962) did, nor spend time idly in tropical locations like "Thunderball" (1965) did. Rather it was a fast paced film which continued the storytelling rather than going idle at any time. Pulling in $126,400,000 off a seven million dollar budget, it fared better than the previous three Bond films, even if most critics didn't like the racial overtones and lack of a boisterous villain like Largo, Blofeld, Goldfinger, or No--at least in their opinion, as Kotto was greater in enthusiasm than those villains. The title song by Paul McCartney and the Wings was alright, though was very well received remaining at #2 in the U.S. for three weeks, and #9 in the U.K. It was after all the first rock 'n' roll title song for a Bond film. But even better was the jazz atmosphere of New Orleans or the tribal voodoo theme that was captured in the music by John Barry. So while some may think this rating is a bit high, the more colorful atmosphere for a Bond film hit all the high notes for me--being among the first few Bond films I ever saw--and is one of my favorites from the Moore Era.