The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: "The Arabian Affair"
Somewhere near the Gulf of Aqaba, Illya lies in the sand, binoculars out, keeping a covert watch over a THRUSH compound built into the side of a sand dune. Inside the compound, THRUSH agents test their latest fiendish device: a vaporizer that shoots out a deadly foam capable of dissolving an entire human body. They successfully test it on a chained-up Middle Eastern tribesman, as portrayed by some white dude in brown face paint and a burnoose. Unfortunate! This episode is regrettably chockablock with brownface. Into every classic 1960s television series, a little racism must fall.
Illya is spotted by local tribe leader Sulador (Syria-born actor Michael Ansara, who, despite being legitimately Middle Eastern, can’t escape a zealous slathering of brown face paint) and his daughter Sophie (Phyllis Newman). At Sulador’s command, a pair of his men attempt to kill Illya; Illya fights them off, but Sophie hurls a knife at him, winging him in the leg. Sulador wants to finish him off, but Sophie objects: She recently lost her camel, and she wants to trade Illya at the marketplace for a new one.
…I mean, it’s not the most offensive portrayal of Middle Eastern characters on an American television show ever, but it’s not good. This episode is going to take a little bit of patience. Be prepared to cringe and/or shake your head sadly a few times.
Illya hasn’t reported to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in two days. Mr. Waverly has already written him off as dead (“You’d better inform Personnel that we don’t expect Mr. Kuryakin to be returning,” he cheerfully tells an underling). Napoleon, for his part, is camped out in the Research department, coffee pot and a tray of food at his elbow, searching for more information about Illya’s last assignment—gathering intel on THRUSH’s vaporizer project—to see if he can find out what happened to his partner. He keeps persuading a perky young researcher, Mitzi, to pester Mr. Waverly for updates on Illya. Aw, Napoleon cares. It’s sweet and cute.
Mr. Waverly is not charmed by Napoleon’s concern for his missing partner: “Good grief, young woman, can’t you and Mr. Solo find someone else to bother today?” he snaps at Mitzi. For such a kindly old man, Mr. Waverly has a cold, cruel streak.
While sorting through U.N.C.L.E.’s files on all known THRUSH agents working on the vaporizer project, Napoleon detects an ominous trend: All THRUSH agents tend to die immediately after their mandatory retirement at age sixty-five. THRUSH, it seems, covertly murders all retirees to prevent former agents from spilling secrets.
Across town at THRUSH headquarters, a low-level drone named David Lewin leaves the office on his last day of work. He’s met in the corridor by his boss, Norman (Jerome Thor), who congratulates him on thirty years of loyal service to THRUSH. As soon as Lewin leaves, Norman jokes with a fellow THRUSH agent about various ways they could murder him after his retirement dinner: “We could bash him with a stick until his main spring breaks.”
Oh, THRUSH. They do enjoy their little jokes, don’t they?
The soon-to-retire Lewin is played by Robert Ellenstein, who was in his very early forties when this episode was filmed. He’s obviously wearing a ton of old-age makeup to add twenty-some years to his appearance. The first time I watched this episode, I assumed this would factor into the plot—maybe in addition to the vaporizer, THRUSH has perfected a machine to reverse the effects of aging, and at a later point in the episode Lewin would be de-aged to look dewy and youthful? Maybe?
Nope. The powers-that-be just cast a fortysomething dude as a sixtysomething dude. Between this and all the brownface, there are some downright odd casting decisions in this episode.
Back at his apartment, Lewin and his wife, Hazel, make giddy retirement plans. They’re interrupted by Napoleon, who climbs in through the window, points a gun at them, and politely asks Hazel to fix him a cup of tea while he explains how THRUSH is totally going to murder her husband.
At first, Lewin and Hazel refuse to believe him, until he presents them with his evidence: All retiring THRUSH employees are assassinated via explosives hidden inside their farewell gold watches. Overwhelmed, Hazel yammers on in a heartbreaking way about how THRUSH has always been a good employer with a great benefits package: “Stock options, even!” Napoleon makes Lewin a deal: In exchange for access to all files pertaining to the THRUSH vaporizer, he’ll make sure Lewin and Hazel live out the rest of their lives under U.N.C.L.E.’s protection.
In a remote village near Aqaba, a badly-wounded Illya wakes to find himself in Sophie’s care. Illya asks her to take him to town so he can notify U.N.C.L.E. that THRUSH has been using captured members of her tribe as guinea pigs for their vaporizer. Their conversation goes… poorly. Sophie doesn’t take well to being bossed around by her captive.
The files pertaining to the vaporization project are located in THRUSH’s New York headquarters, which is where Lewin’s retirement banquet is being held. After Lewin smuggles him into the building, which is teeming with banquet attendees, a tuxedo-clad Napoleon saunters around like he owns the joint. You are not in disguise, Napoleon! Everyone at THRUSH knows who you are and what you look like! There’s a section dedicated to you in the official THRUSH manual!
Upon finding the door to the file room locked, Napoleon accosts a hapless security guard. The following exchange takes place:
Napoleon: This door was supposed to be left open! Why wasn’t it?
Guard: Well, sir, I don’t know. Nobody said anything to me.
Napoleon: Well, I’m saying something. Open it!
This almost works.
The guard starts to unlock the door, then gets a clue at the last second and challenges Napoleon, whereupon Napoleon punches him out, strips him of his clothes, ties him up, and steals his uniform.
Nothing to see here. Just a little footage from Napoleon’s shockingly ill-advised foray into bondage porn, that’s all. Move along.
Meanwhile, the fancy black-tie soirée in Lewin’s honor has reached the much-anticipated Orange Jell-O™ course.
In the desert, an increasingly irritable Illya squabbles with his captor, Sophie. He hurls a series of insults at her about her stubbornness and her foul personality, wrapping up his tirade with, “No wonder you’re still unmarried at your age!” In response, she kicks him in his wounded leg. Hard. I love you, Illya, but you had that one coming.
During their contretemps, Sophie makes an offhanded comment about how others in her tribe have remarked upon similarities between Illya and Lawrence of Arabia—both are blond-haired, blue-eyed foreigners who mysteriously appeared in the desert—which gives Illya ideas. Soon enough, he’s spinning a web of weird lies to the tribespeople about how he’s Lawrence’s son and how this means he’s destined to lead them in an uprising against THRUSH.
Upset at this potential threat to his authority, Sulador sends a couple of his men to murder Illya in his sleep.
The files pertaining to the vaporizer project are locked in a vault. Before Napoleon can figure out how to break into it, THRUSH is on to him. He flees down to the ground floor and uses Lewin’s explosive-laced gold watch to blast his way out of the building.
Realizing Lewin betrayed THRUSH by letting Napoleon into the building, Norman takes Lewin to his private plane, which is preparing to depart to the Aqaba compound, in order to use him as a test subject for the vaporizer. Napoleon trails them to the airstrip, then stows away on the plane.
Robert Vaughn is working that THRUSH uniform. This is a good look on him.
Illya fends off the attack by Sulador’s men, whereupon Sulador challenges him to a duel to the death. Sophie angrily orders Illya not to hurt her father in the duel. “Why don’t you take that sparsely-furnished mind of yours and join the other elderly, unmarried women?” Illya snarls at her.
Wow. Illya, you can be a real bitch sometimes.
Armed with hot pokers, Illya and Sulador engage in mortal combat. Illya gets off to a shaky start—he stumbles into a bed of hot coals, then Sulador sets his leg on fire—but eventually reigns supreme. Humbled by defeat, Sulador agrees to follow him into battle against THRUSH.
So Illya, dressed in a flowing white burnoose and astride a white stallion—gosh, they’re riding the David McCallum-Peter O’Toole physical similarities pretty hard here—hides outside the THRUSH compound with Sulador and all of his tribesmen, waiting for the right moment to attack.
The THRUSH desert compound, by the way, is represented by this matte painting. It looks pretty shoddy!
And then the plane carrying Napoleon, Lewin, and Norman lands in front of it.
Napoleon emerges from his hiding place in the back of the plane, attacks Norman, strips him of his clothes, and changes into his tuxedo. I appreciate the casual way Napoleon keeps knocking dudes out and stripping them whenever he needs a change of wardrobe. Resourceful! Saves on dry-cleaning bills! Posing as Norman, he waltzes into the compound, accompanied by Lewin.
Led by Illya on his white horse, the tribespeople storm the compound. Chaos ensues! To drive out the intruders, THRUSH agents flood the entire compound with the vaporization foam; Napoleon dons a protective suit and saves Illya from disintegration. There then ensues one of those magical moments where Illya and Napoleon stare at each other for a very long time, shocked and relieved beyond words, before launching right back into their usual barrage of cutting insults to disguise their very real, very deep affection for each other. “I should’ve known who it was when I saw you trip over your own feet,” Illya snarls. In response, Napoleon fondles Illya’s burnoose: “Gee, I wish I had a dress like that.”
These two. This relationship. It’s magical.
Having secured the base, Illya and Napoleon assure Lewin that U.N.C.L.E. will make sure he has a peaceful and happy retirement. Sophie, who has fallen madly in love with Illya even though he’s been nothing but a big old jerkwad to her, wanders the compound forlornly in search of him. “I look for skinny young man with yellow hair!” she tells Napoleon. As Illya, disguised in a protective suit, gives Sophie the slip, Napoleon alerts Sophie to the “limping bunny” trying to escape unnoticed. As Sophie chases down Illya, Napoleon celebrates the triumphant completion of the mission.
Monstrously silly and often offensive, yet delightful all the same. That’s U.N.C.L.E. in a nutshell.