by Ryan Lewellen

The Archivist

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand and Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

Archivers, the next couple of issues of the column were a gamble — one that has paid off with a rewarding discovery. Guy Ritchie is trying his hand at bringing the classic NBC show The Man From U.N.C.L.E to the big screen with a cool cast and some style. The Warner Archives just so happens to have all eight previous cinematic incarnations of the immensely popular show, so I am watching the whole collection! Today, you can learn all about the first four productions of this fun, campy, and beautifully retro take on espionage.

The series, born in 1964, was such an unprecedented hit (biggest in merchandizing tie-ins before Star Trek) that NBC authorized the producers to shoot additional footage, with added sex and violence (to keep up with James Bond), and re-cut certain episodes as feature-length films for theatrical distribution. The series shares a great deal in common with Bond, partially thanks to Ian Fleming’s first-hand work on its development. I had never heard of the show, and I had never heard of such a bizarre re-formatting practice, and I am so happy to see the results.

These movies are bonkers.

TO TRAP A SPY (1964)

In what would serve as the pilot for the show, U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo (a name created by Ian Fleming) has to recruit an old flame of American Industrialist, Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver), so as to infiltrate his compound and thwart the assassination of an African Prime Minister. The recruited, “an innocent” named Elaine Donaldson, was the inception of a common trope for the series. In most episodes, a civilian was usually present with whom we might identify. The concept works here, and in their climactic moment of doubt, she also prompts a more human side of Solo (Robert Vaughn).

Our hero is a classic smarmy-charmy “gentleman,” whose casual swagger has women ready to make love at the drop of a hat. Vaughn’s every ridiculous move as Solo is so completely obsolete, one can barely recognize the silliness as masculinity. For his day, however, he was the smoothest M-F’er on television, and his committed female co-stars almost have me convinced his nonsense could work. So far, To Trap A Spy is the most complete and cohesive re-cut movie version. The few out-of-nowhere sexy scenes might feel shoe-horned in, but they manage to drive the A-plot forward, and a few characters have intriguing and fully-earned arcs. The action scenes are classic, and so is the charisma. If you are only curious enough to check out one title, this would probably be it.


That being said, it would be a shame for you to miss out on the charm of Napoleon Solo’s soviet partner (U.N.C.L.E. is an international alliance of spies), Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). My mother informs me he was quite the hunk, and all the boomer girls knew and loved him, whether they had watched the show, or not. I can’t speak to his attractiveness, but his comedic instincts are certainly on point, and the films have only been growing wittier and livelier since this installment.

T.H.R.U.S.H. (This spy universe’s SPECTRE equivalent), has created a Solo doppelganger (through the magic of plastic surgery), captured the real U.N.C.L.E. agent, and infiltrated the heroic organization with for purposes of eeeeevil. You would think the lady employees of U.N.C.L.E. would have caught this imposter immediately, considering he couldn’t spare a second staring at their backsides. This is the least successful movie thus far in the franchise. The footage from separate shoots doesn’t match, the tone is all over the place, and the sluggish story is further crippled by a plot lacking cohesiveness.

One Spy Too Many (1966)


The third theatrical go-round for Solo and Kuryakin is possibly my favorite. Our stalwart spies stumble onto the world-domination plot of Alexander (Rip Torn), who idolizes Alexander The Great, and is being tracked down by his clever playgirl ex-wife for her considerable share of the divorce settlement. There is a lot of movie to offer in this one, and the production really upped the ante for set-pieces. The characters are great, especially Rip Torn’s Alexander, who is the most Bond-esque villain in the series thus far.

Plus, David McCallum fights a bunch of evil farmers.


Things are starting to get uncomfortably campy, and it can probably be blamed on feminism… or the fountain of youth… or missing cats. One Of Our Spies Is Missing is a lot of fun, but it is one hell of a mess. Many plots are at work here, and within them, certain themes die as quickly as they are born.

An evil band of feminists are posing (puns!) as a group of models. Their leader is in love (and has been since childhood) with an elderly English statesman who was a colleague of Winston Churchill. She has kidnapped a scientist so he can use his anti-aging formula on her lover, but also use the poor old man for her own personal gang… then T.H.R.U.S.H. gets involved…

Again, this one is a big movie, and it isn’t quite so jaunty as its predecessors, but by the second half, the comedy is as good as ever, and there was one particularly funny bit I actually watched twice just to verify its strangely modern feel.

I enjoyed watching these goofball films so much that I’m now very excited to see what they do with the material in the new production. I haven’t exactly been a Guy Ritchie acolyte since I aged past 15, and even his Sherlock Holmes movies came and went without my seeing them. Hopefully his latest will be at least fun as I hear those films were.

Click here to read Part 2 of this series.

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