The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Foreign Legion Affair”

Strap yourselves in, folks. We’re hurtling toward peak Illya-mania at reckless and irresponsible speeds.

I’m at a loss as to how to even start recapping this episode. Part of me thinks I should just give you the first sentence of Amazon’s summary and leave it at that: Illya is thrown from a plane, naked, in the arms of a dazzling stewardess. Really, that says it all. That preposterously high-concept story idea is padded out into a traditional plot, of sorts, but the plot isn’t very good, and anyway, it’s beside the point. Concepts like “good” and “bad” (and “plot”) don’t apply to this episode. Illya is thrown naked from a plane: Either you’re going to want to see that, or you won’t, and nothing I write here is likely to sway your judgment one way or another.

Illya skulks around a THRUSH compound located inside a casbah somewhere in Sudan. He breaks into a safe and photographs a document known as the Triad, which is the key to cracking THRUSH’s latest top-secret cipher. A patrolling guard discovers him and opens fire; Illya shoots him and escapes.

The dying guard gives the regional THRUSH leader, Lucienne Bey (Michael Pate), a description of his attacker: “He was blond. Very blond. Not very tall. Slim.” He fails to add “…boyishly handsome, with biceps of steel and eyes like the Aegean,” probably because he’s too busy hemorrhaging from a gunshot wound to the gut. Lucienne whips out his wallet and shows the guard a fetching posed photograph of Illya. “Is this the man?” he asks.

I mean, sure. Why wouldn’t Lucienne be toting around a wallet-sized photo of Illya? Even THRUSH agents are susceptible to Illya-mania.

Illya takes a chartered plane to Cairo to deliver his Triad photographs to the local U.N.C.L.E. office. The plane comes equipped with a glamorous flight attendant from Marseilles named Barbara (Danielle De Metz), who flirts outrageously with Illya even as she gushes about her upcoming nuptials to some dude named Bob in Akron, Ohio. In the face of her flirting, Illya is his usual brusque self. Because Illya is a tiny, weird, prickly volcano of seething sexual charisma beneath a chilly and implacable Soviet demeanor, this charms the socks off of Barbara.

Mid-flight, Lucienne and a henchman jump out of the cockpit, having replaced the pilot and copilot before takeoff. They attack Illya and strip him down to his underwear to search for the photos. Sharing a single parachute, Illya and Barbara leap from the plane and land safely in the Sahara between Casablanca and Marrakech.

Geography lesson! If you parachute from an Egypt-bound plane that departed from Sudan, you are very unlikely to land in Morocco. That’s more than three thousand miles (and multiple countries) out of the way of your flight path. Even assuming Lucienne had diverted the plane toward his lair in Casablanca, surely Illya would’ve noticed they’d been in the air for several hours longer than necessary.

Oh, who am I kidding? Illya’s cute, but he’s not the most observant spy ever.

Illya and Barbara spend the night in the desert, snuggling together under the parachute. In the morning, a giggling Barbara wonders how she can ever explain this to her fiancé. Illya gravely informs her, “In the desert, nights are cold, and the days are hot. It was the survival instinct.” Ah… did they shag? Even though sex isn’t usually Illya’s thing, even though he typically regards any suggestion of physical intimacy with a mixture of exasperation, bewilderment, and mild alarm, it seems like we’re meant to assume they shagged on the sand, like a pair of glorious tawny-haired lions in heat. All in the name of “survival”, of course.

Barbara, Illya discovers, has a weird habit: In times of stress, she tends to bite people. Hard. Barbara is gorgeous, but she’s definitely an odd bird.

Back at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Mr. Waverly tells Napoleon his partner is missing and presumed dead. Napoleon has exactly the right reaction to this bit of news.

Waverly sends Napoleon to Casablanca to find Illya—or his body—and retrieve the photographs of the Triad. He suggests Napoleon question Lucienne Bey to find out what happened to Illya. At the mention of Lucienne, Napoleon says, “Yes, I know the gentleman. We have, ah, crossed swords before.” Sure, obviously, we’re supposed to assume this means Napoleon and Lucienne are old enemies, but Robert Vaughn, being Robert Vaughn, delivers the line with so much lurid insinuation that my brain automatically leapt to inappropriate and vulgar places. Vaughn’s performance as Napoleon is the gift that keeps on giving.

Illya swaddles himself in the parachute and carries Barbara across the desert. Exhausted and heat-dazed, Barbara babbles deliriously about wanting a cold, cold glass of champagne. As a die-hard champagne aficionado, I find Barbara very relatable and down-to-earth.

Pretty sure this episode came about as a dare between executives at NBC to see how much footage of David McCallum’s bare thighs could be jammed into a single episode.

Illya collapses in exhaustion in front of the ruins of an old French Foreign Legion outpost, which is now manned by an insane former commander, Captain Basil Calhoun (Howard Da Silva), and his still-loyal aide, Corporal Remy (Rupert Crosse). Suspecting Illya and Barbara of being Arab spies (and mistaking Barbara’s snazzy flight attendant outfit for a military uniform), Calhoun proclaims them his prisoners of war. When Illya politely mentions that the Legion was dissolved five years ago, Calhoun flies into an unstable rage.

In Casablanca, Napoleon breaks into Lucienne’s lair, where he’s captured and tossed into a cell to await execution. Napoleon discovers his jailor is a beautiful woman, Aisha (Vivienne Ventura), which gives him ideas. This is happier than we’ve seen Napoleon all episode.

Meanwhile, back at Calhoun’s fort, Illya finally puts some pants on.

At night, Illya and Barbara attempt to sneak out of the fort. The attempt is unsuccessful, mostly because Barbara keeps biting Illya at inappropriate moments.

So Calhoun punishes Illya by tying him up outside in the hot sun, because what this episode really needed was a spot of gratuitous bondage.

Lucienne arrives in a small plane and opens fire on the fort. After freeing himself, Illya grabs a gun and drives him away, but Calhoun is wounded in the fracas. Illya and Barbara nurse him to health, whereupon a grateful Calhoun offers to have his close friend, Sheik Ali Tchard, escort them to Marrakesh.

Back in Casablanca, Aisha agrees to smuggle Napoleon out of his cell in exchange for sex. Napoleon’s cool with this.

Napoleon heads across the desert, hitching a ride with a nice Irish lady named Macushla O’Shea (Elizabeth Fraser), who turns out to be Calhoun’s former lover. Newly widowed, she’s come to bring her old flame back to Ireland.

Lucienne pays Sheik Ali Tchard (Edmund Hashim) a generous bribe to smuggle him into Calhoun’s fort. THRUSH goons capture Barbara and threaten to kill her unless Illya surrenders the Triad photographs.

At Illya’s urging, Barbara bites her captor and frees herself. Illya gets the situation under control just as Napoleon triumphantly arrives on the scene, ready to save his partner.

As Macushla and Calhoun have a tender reconciliation, Illya snarls at Napoleon for taking too long to rescue him, whereupon Napoleon flounces off in a huff. He returns and attempts to put the moves on Barbara, then seems shocked to discover Barbara and Illya have some kind of thing going on. I’d feel sorry for Napoleon, but it’s not like he’s been starved for romantic attention this episode.

Well! If we’re forced to consider such mundane concepts as “coherence” and “logic”, then obviously this is a very bad episode. By all standards that matter, however (namely, NBC’s cheerful willingness to exploit David McCallum to capitalize on the Illya-mania that was sweeping the world in 1966), it’s a blazing success.


DKoren said…
Dear me, this made me laugh so much. From Illya is thrown from a plane, naked, in the arms of a dazzling stewardess onward, I just couldn't stop laughing at your description of this ep. It is totally priceless and I can't wait to see it at some point.

I mean, sure. Why wouldn’t Lucienne be toting around a wallet-sized photo of Illya? Even THRUSH agents are susceptible to Illya-mania.

Just a fabulous review in a string of fabulous reviews!! Made my day.
Morgan Richter said…
It's a delightfully bizarre and almost indescribable episode! Very glad you enjoyed the review.
Hamlette said…
Oh wow. They just get daffier, huh?

BTW, we were at the Museum of American History this week, and down by the cafeteria, I spotted this and thought of you :-)
Morgan Richter said…
Hamlette, that is a fantastic lunchbox!
Hamlette said…
I love how Illya seems to be pointing his gun directly at Napoleon's head. It's just so perfectly them.
vintagehoarder said…
I wonder how Lucienne got hold of that photo of Illya. Part of me suspects that U.N.C.L.E. has a PR department that will happily send pictures of its agents to anyone who writes to them and asks for one.
Morgan Richter said…
Ha! Vintagehoarder, I bet you're right. You can probably stop by the front desk at UNCLE headquarters (because EVERYBODY seems to know about the secret entrance), and the receptionist will be happy to give you a glossy posed publicity photo of your favorite agent.
M'lady said…
He's probably got an autographed pic of napoleon to.
Uncle top trumps anyone?

Anyone else notice the reuse of the Lawrence of Arabia motif again. He can really work a parachute. ;)

Someone needs to do a video of all napoleon and illyas face!palm moments.

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