Recreating the sixties and golden era of the spy genre

Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill.
Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill.
  • As The Man from U.N.C.L.E. gets a sexy reboot, Film Critic Tony Earnshaw looks back at the enduring appeal of a Sixties TV phenomenon.
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It’s telling that at the London premiere of Guy Ritchie’s reboot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. star Henry Cavill openly expressed his ignorance of the ’60s TV show that spawned it.

“The only familiarity I have with it is having done our version of it,” he admitted as he trod the red carpet. “I may however go and watch the TV series now that I’ve finished this.”

Unlike Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, both of which have seeped deep into a global public consciousness, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. appears trapped in a bubble of 50 years past. That meant Guy Ritchie could work his magic with something akin to a clean slate. “What we were trying to do was capture the tone of the original,” he said at the premiere. “Outside of that there are obviously certain prerequisites – like a Russian and an American. But really it was about what we saw as the golden age of the spy genre.”

The early years of the 1960s were a time of immense upheaval. The world teetered on the brink of Armageddon. A new permissive age was dawning. And new heroes were emerging.

David McCallum was just 30 when he was cast as the blond Russian agent partnered with a smooth CIA operative played by debonair Robert Vaughn. He remembers the series and its effect as summing up the mood of the decade. “It was a very agonising time for the United States because of the Vietnam War, the Cold War,” he recalls. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which was totally tongue in cheek, was escapism. People managed to escape for an hour with a Russian working with an American, which was totally unheard of in those days.”

The new movie, already being tagged as the coolest film of the year, partners Henry Cavill (as Solo) with Armie Hammer as Kuryakin and retains the Cold War milieu. Moreover it combines action, stunts, sex appeal – the two stars cross paths with Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki – and humour to present a viable update of a show that was very much of its time.

David McCallum is clearly a fan. “I don’t want to give anything away about the plot,” he says, “but the backstory that they have – about who Ilya is and Napoleon Solo’s past –they’re interesting stories. We never went into any of that, which is a shame. But they’ve done it beautifully.”

The partnership has to match the Vaughn and McCallum dynamic evolved over many years. For Cavill, 32, and Hammer, 28 it meant crashing into their characters. “We spent many, many hours at Guy’s house. We would literally read through our scenes and build the bits as we were going. It just created a dynamic because it was all collaborative. It built from there.”

McCallum remembers with affection the sense of family that surrounded the TV series and the multitude of guest stars – which included everyone from George Sanders to Joan Crawford.

The new film has its own surprise guest: none other than David Beckham, playing a projectionist and then there is Hugh Grant as U.N.C.L.E. chief Mr Waverley.

“People have tried to do The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for years,” says McCallum. “But nobody was able to develop a script that made sense of the Cold War and the period and the characters. But Guy Ritchie and [producer/writer] Lionel Wigram have produced a wonderful, exciting movie that in no way encroaches into what we did back in the Sixties.”

• The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is on saturation release.