[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
Gold is a big potboiler of a movie, filled with action, violence, gore, and adultery. It’s a genre piece, fraught with convention and predictability. It has no characters, only cartoon people whose actions are as unsurprising as their motivations are unlikely. And I enjoyed the hell out of it. The credit is due largely to Peter Hunt who, on the basis of only two films, may already lay claim to being one of the finest action directors around. Hunt had his apprenticeship as editor of several of the James Bond movies, and he has brought a skilled action-editor’s grasp of pace to the director’s chair. During the whole of Gold he gave me one minute out of 115 to sit back, temporarily bored, and say to myself, “This really isn’t very good.” And I’m not one to argue with 99.13 percent success.
The main purpose of the film, of course, is for as many things to happen as excitingly as possible, and it is all the more to Hunt’s glory that he has succeeded in making Gold do this, despite having to navigate around such generic obstacles as the obligatory scene in which the hero is introduced by having his own dossier read aloud to him (an idea so ill-conceived that I wonder why scenarists keep writing it), and an obnoxious love song (music: Elmer Bernstein; lyrics: Don Black) for the duration of which Hunt is constrained to keep showing us Rod Slater (Roger Moore) and his adulterous love Teresa Steyner (Susannah York) flying in her private plane over South Africa, bound for an idyllic holiday in the interior. Ousama Rawi’s Technicolor cinematography of backcountry and veldt is the only thing that saves this sequence. Bernstein’s music certainly can’t; it’s the biggest mistake in the film, a brass choir sounding for all the world like cold leftovers from Walk on the Wild Side: intrusive, overbearing, and altogether too American for the film’s milieu. Slightly more appropriate is a tinkling xylophone phrase which Bernstein has devised to depict the sparkle of gold, and of other sparkly things which Hunt uses as transitional devices in cuts from the world outside to the underworld of the gold mine: champagne, golden lettering on a skyscraper, Susannah York’s shimmering hair, the ‘RR’ monogram on the dashboard of a Rolls-Royce.
The naïvely written characters leave Hunt no latitude to treat them any differently than he treats the objects in the film. Thus Teresa is defined in one short scene, in which she lies in bed reading Chekhov until her husband’s car pulls up, then hastily puts out the light and feigns sleep. When Steyner (Bradford Dillman) approaches her with caresses, she stares emptily past him. Steyner, too, is objectified rather than characterized: he’s an obsessive handwasher, who can never seem to get clean enough. He despises tobacco smoke, and presses a perfumed handkerchief to his face to overcome such pollutants. You see, he’s trying to cover his own guilt, etc. There is an effort to introduce some moral significance through the dialogue of the hero, Slater, who blames gold and greed for all the grief suffered in the course of the film. But this is always tangential to the interests of both audience and filmmaker, and no one is under the illusion that these remarks are going to inspire a decline in greed among the characters in the film or the viewers in the theater. Least of all Slater himself, who may talk like a moralizing cynic, but who lives the high life of the proverbial capitalist lackey, with an expensive apartment, an expensive car, and several expensive girlfriends, whom he beds with expensive champagne. Roger Moore is still trying to play James Bond here; and it may well be that Hunt is still trying to direct James Bond. Nevertheless, one must recall that it was Hunt, in his only previous directorial effort, who killed off the love of Bond’s life at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and gave the fantasy-Bond some grimly human weaknesses, implying to me that Hunt takes even his stock superheroes more seriously and less simplistically than the Terence Youngs and Guy Hamiltons of the genre. In Gold Hunt uses the convention of the indestructible hero, and his predictable lifestyle, strength, courage, and survival, as the means to creating the suspense of action rather than of plot: not what’s going to happen, but when and how. If Hunt is willing to work with caricatures instead of characters, it is only to better serve the larger purpose of action; and in that Gold is a hands-down winner.
From its opening disaster sequence—a cave-in with a barrage of noises providing the sprung rhythm for a dizzyingly fast-paced montage—through the teeth-grinding suspense of an on-site amputation scene, which had me praying that Hunt would cut before the doctor did; through several fistfights mounted in the gut-punching, close-in style of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; to the climactic flooding of the mines and Slater’s race with time to seal off the rushing waters, Gold kept me involved. At least a share of the credit goes to Rawi’s photography, which draws one claustrophobically into the mines with oppressive compositions in shades of darkness. One especially good shot—so good that Hunt uses it a second time and gets away with it—occurs toward the beginning of the film, when Slater goes underground to supervise rescue operations after the cave-in: the camera, mounted on top of the descending elevator car and tilted straight up, drops rapidly into the gloomy mine shaft, and darkness rises around it, until the bright yellow roof of the shaft, on which the camera is focused, shrinks to a mere streak in the center of a study in black—a last glimpse of ersatz sunshine as we drop into the bowels of the earth. Moments like this make Gold stand out among the many current entries in the action-epic genre. The film is not without its pretensions, and certainly not without its flaws; but it’s ultimately a satisfying film, because its major promise—excitement—is so completely and competently realized.
Direction: Peter Hunt. Screenplay: Wilbur Smith and Stanley Price, after the novel Gold Mine by Smith. Cinematography: Ousama Rawi. Second-unit Direction and Editing: John Glen. Music: Elmer Bernstein. Production: Michael Klinger.
The Players: Roger Moore, Susannah York, Bradford Dillman, Ray Milland, Tony Beckley, Simon Sabela, Marc Smith, Bernard Horsfall, John Gielgud.
Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow