"No man is free who works for a living . . . but I am available." (-- Illya Kuryakin, "The Bow-Wow Affair")

These reviews/commentaries on the show's 105 episodes originally appeared in slightly different form on the Yahoo! Groups website Channel_D, from 2008 to 2010. If you're new to MfU fandom, these may give you some idea of the flavor of the series, which is still famous and beloved more than 50 (!) years after its premiere in 1964. Enjoy!

News: Decades Channel is running a "Weekend Binge" of MfU episodes on July 2, 2017. Check the schedule here.

(Except where otherwise noted, images are used with permission of the exhaustive site Lisa's Video Frame Capture Library. Thanks to Lisa for all her work!)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"The Secret Sceptre Affair" (ep. 1/19)

The 20th episode filmed is the second of only two "personal" stories in the series, the other being "Terbuf."  An odd story it is. There is no innocent; Zia, who comes closest, proclaims herself a soldier, and is apparently no stranger to risk.  The only moment resembling humor is when Solo growls at Illya, "You could have saved a few shots for the bear!"  This rather grim tone presages the darker episodes that the writer of "Secret Sceptre," Anthony Spinner, would bring to the show as producer in the fourth season.

Read between the dialog, this is a story about loyalty, both properly placed (that between Solo and Illya) and misplaced (Solo and Morgan, and the loyalty Morgan's soldiers have to him, especially Zia). We're not sure why Illya comes along with Solo on this one.  And Solo admits he doesn't know why either. Asked point-blank by Morgan, Illya gives only his enigmatic "It is inevitable.  A man must die a little every day," which apparently is enough for Morgan.  Solo remains steadfast in his loyalty to Morgan, despite what he hears from the premier, until the evidence -- the jewels hidden in the sceptre -- makes it impossible for him to believe in Morgan's altruism and patriotism.

So Solo served in Korea!  Michael Avallone's "Thousand Coffins Affair" (1965) also postulates that Solo attended that little party. Avallone was a fast writer, by all accounts, and could have seen this episode while finishing his novel (it also has Solo and Illya doing a parachute drop).  On the other hand, what other military action could Solo, who is apparently about 32 in 1964, have been the right age for, if not Korea? (Imagine:  Solo, N., 1st Lt., U.S. Army Rangers, age 20, is wounded and passes through the MASH 4077 unit, and works his even-then-winning charm on Margaret Houlihan. . . .)

Morgan's references to Ethiopia, Spain, and Dien Bien Phu fit with his apparent age of 50.  He comes across as an authentic career soldier: "I fought my wars, the right wars, for the right causes. And you know what I have today?  A body full of scars, inside and out.   If I died tomorrow, they'd have to put me in a pauper's grave."

This country is a Moslem nation, as indicated by the premier's invocation of Allah.  On the arch as Solo and Zia approach the dress shop is a logo, "Ecole de Dance," a weird French-English hybrid for "school of dance."  Perhaps this country was once under French domination, like Algeria?  Throwing off the French yoke was the "revolution" referred to several times?  Yet, at the beginning of Act II, we see that traffic drives on the left in the British (not French or American) fashion.

I have to wonder: Who gets the job of feeding the viper and cleaning its box?  "Here, Achmed, it is your turn.  Bring this mouse to the snake.  Try not to get bitten; we are short on snakebite antidote."

I also find it a little hard to believe that Solo managed to hide the sceptre in front of the Ford's radiator.  That dark cloth would mask it, but if the captain's men didn't check that, they're lousy searchers.

Okay, we'll have to tackle it sooner or later: The Solo line "You have something which belongs to me," referring to the captured Illya.  Until I encountered slash fiction I never considered that the series could even remotely be about anything other than two heterosexual men, friends and partners in global crimefighting.  But that line!  It's not something that one partner would say about another, even among cops, whose partnerships can often be compared to marriages.  "You have one of my men," perhaps, or "You have my partner," but this?  Not even James Kirk, whose partnership/friendship with Spock is equally legendary (Kirk risked his career at least twice for Spock, and the second time lost his son and his ship in the bargain) -- not even Kirk would refer to Spock as "something that belongs to me."  Can anybody possibly come up with a non-slash interpretation?  (Compare the relationship hinted at between Scylla, the superspy, and "Janey" in William Goldman's novel "Marathon Man" nine years later.  I'll say no more in case you haven't read it.)

At least the unconvincing bear is concealed behind the mesh gate so that we don't get too clear a look. Better if they had dimly lit the bear's lair, and we only glimpsed the beast pacing around in the shadows.

Besides his "inevitable" line, Illya has a visual iconic moment: When he sends the Ford off toward the minefield, he races toward us in his black suit and turtleneck, springing past the camera at the last second.  This kind of energy-filled camera work is part of what made, and makes, the series special. 

Nearly every vehicle we see in the show this season is a Chevrolet, yet their car with the X is a Ford sedan about 3-4 years old, and Achmed's dark sedan is a recent Chrysler Imperial. The Jaguar Illya drives at the end is the popular Mark 2 saloon, which might be as much as 6 years old. Nice touches, to suggest that they are in foreign lands.

Solo's epitaph for Morgan (see below) would have been the perfect place to end this one. If we had to have a tag, I'd have liked it better if Illya, who has relatively little dialogue in this episode, said to Solo as they stand by the Jaguar, "Will you be all right?" and Solo says quietly, "Eventually."

Verdict: An unusual and rather dark story, but enjoyable.

Memorable lines:
Zia: "You'd risk the whole mission for one man?"
Solo: "Yes, I know it's rather unprofessional of me -- but then, I'm not perfect."

Zia: "Has it occurred to you that Kuryakin may already be dead?"
Solo: "Often."

Solo (to the viper): "Sorry. Next time, Charlie."
(An echo of the Starkist Charlie the Tuna "Sorry, Charlie" commercials?)

Morgan: "When you're old, it's easy to be pushed."
Solo: "Yes, and it's easy to fall."

Solo (to Zia, as they stare at Morgan's body): "He was just tired of fighting for other people's causes. He wanted something for himself. . . ."


MrsSpooky said...

I know it's years late, but I'm watching Man From U.N.C.L.E. again (just bought season 1 on DVD). in "The Secret Scepter Affair" and "The Terbuf Affair" I've read on two different blogs about Illya tagging along with Solo without saying why.

Personally, I think Illya goes with Solo to save him from himself and help out where needed.

He's a good friend, that Illya! :)

nephew-from-france said...

Even by Hollywood standards, the streets where Napoleon and Zia arrive when fleeing are very odd for a Middle-East city : not only the (half-)French writing on the wall, but also the Roman arcades, the Gothic door of the fashion shop. My guess is that they needed a set with a shop window (for the robe and the tennis racket) and chose one of a French provincial city.
But much odder is the way Zia enters the shop with short hair tightly bobbed under a beret - and comes out with a huge hairdo which rivals with those of the B-52's singers. Fast and impressive hairdressers there - or a gown?
As to the story : I guess the writer remembered the Third Man plot, especially for the final scene with Morgan half in the dark.
But there might be a stronger inspiration : it so happens that I'm currently watching some episodes from Have Gun - Will Travel, the series created earlier by Sam Rolfe - and one, The Yuma Treasure, has a plot line remarkably similar to this one. A long-serving cavalry colonel betrays his moral principles to steal a treasure from local people, and feels vindicated because after all his years of loyal service he is still dirt-poor. He exposes all that in a speech to Paladin, which comes extremely close to the arguments served by Morgan in his speech to Napoleon in this episode.
Of course all French or Belgian viewers will have identified another very likely source of the plot - the 30s Tintin comic book King Ottokar's Scepter, which takes place in a fictional Balkan kingdom. However, in that earlier book, the rulers of the country make some real efforts to protect their cherished national treasure on which their power so much depends. They don't just dump it unceremoniously, wrapped into some nondescript cloth, lost among the contents of an Oriental bazaar (the national treasure, one may assume), in a not-so-safe room, only watched by two sleepy and decidedly unfierce guards.

That being said about plot holes (not a real drawback - I feel MFU episodes are even more fun when they include such "weaknesses", reminding us how quickly they must have been written and shot), this episode seems to me one of the most enjoyable ones : not many funny lines, but a fast pace and, though Le Carré or Graham Greene it is not, some room for moral complexity and human failure.

Just a last comment on guest actors : in this episode most of them are not so great or plain weak, with the exception of the delightfully wicked "queen mother" - one discovers in the biography of the actress, Lili Vardas, that when young she was a great theatrical star in her native country, Hungary. No wonder.

nephew-from-france said...

Sorry, correction : Lili Darvas.

Benzadmiral said...

Nephew-from-France, I've been watching "Have Gun - Will Travel" lately as well. The connection between it and MfU, of course, would be Sam Rolfe, who essentially created both series.