The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The My Friend The Gorilla Affair”


Well. Here we are. This is widely regarded as the Worst U.N.C.L.E. Episode Ever, though I would respectfully disagree; it’s not as disgracefully wretched as “The Jingle Bells Affair”, nor is it as in-your-face offensive as “The Indian Affair Affairs.” I’d even argue that it’s slightly better than “The Hong Kong Shilling Affair.” Heck, throw a dart at a list of season four episodes, and odds are very good it’ll hit an episode at least marginally worse than this one.

That said, this one is indeed pretty terrible. Napoleon dances the Watusi with a gorilla. There’s just no putting a positive spin on that.


Illya travels through a jungle with Prince Khufu (Percy Rodrigues, giving a solemn and dignified performance in the midst of utter nonsense), the president of an unnamed African nation. They meet with a gravely ill man, who claims he was forcibly taken to a secret camp located near an elephant graveyard and injected with an experimental serum designed to give him supernatural strength. While the man tells his story, Illya and Khufu are ambushed by a small army of natives led by a super-strong warrior named Arunda (Raymond St. Jacques)

At U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Mr. Waverly tells Napoleon he’s lost contact with Illya. Therefore, he’s sending Napoleon to Africa to complete Illya’s mission, which is to locate a biochemist named Professor Kenton (Arthur Malet), inventor of the super-strength serum. Professor Kenton offered Prince Khufu the chance to inject all his subjects with the serum; when Khufu turned him down, Kenton began kidnapping his citizens en masse to perform medical tests on them against their will.


Somebody needs to explain the point of Waverly’s gigantic half-globe to me, because I’m confused. You can either have a traditional flat world map, in which the scale will be off but which can easily hang on a wall or lie on a table, or you can have a full globe, which is less convenient yet gives you a more accurate representation of the spatial layout of the continents. This cram-the-whole-world-into-half-a-globe business, though? It’s useless. The scale is grotesquely wrong, and it takes up far too much room. This half-globe is a metaphor for U.N.C.L.E. as a whole: decorative, quirky, and slightly less useful than nothing at all.

So Napoleon dons a pith helmet and zips in a jeep across the African plains. Upon blowing a tire, he whips out his communicator and whines about his predicament to Mr. Waverly for a while, then finally rolls up his sleeves and changes the flat. While he’s thus occupied, Arunda lobs explosives at his jeep, knocking him unconscious. 

Meanwhile, Illya and Prince Khufu are being marched through the jungle by Arunda’s army. Illya makes a break for freedom; goons chase him into a lagoon, then shrug and saunter off, figuring the crocodiles will devour him sooner or later. As terminally lazy and incompetent (but charming and adorable!) as Illya and Napoleon both are, the bad guys are always juuuuuuust a smidgen lazier and more incompetent. The universe remains balanced.

Dazed from the explosion, Napoleon staggers through the jungle, fending off attacks from stock footage of leopards, until he collapses in an exhausted heap. A local witch doctor steals his communicator and tries to impale him with his spear. Napoleon is rescued by the arrival of a strapping young woman (Vitina Marcus) in a leopard-skin tunic, who swings in on a vine while howling animalistically, Tarzan-style. She introduces herself as Girl (“Me Girl,” she says), punches Napoleon unconscious, swings him over her shoulder, and carries him off to her tree house, where she hands him over to her faithful companion, a large and singularly unconvincing gorilla named Baby.


Girl is a ridiculous character, but by gum, Vitina Marcus is doing all she can with the role, even in the face of multiple indignities. Like the weird-ass way this shot is framed:


Yeah, that’s not anyone’s best angle.

Elsewhere in the jungle, a young photographer named Marsha (Joyce Jillson, channeling the spirit of Jill Ireland), traveling on safari with a horrible old racist ivory trader named Harry Blackburn (Alan Mowbray), comes across Illya, who, after emerging out of the crocodile-laden lagoon, managed to get himself trapped in an elephant-hunting net. Blackburn takes him back to his camp, where Marsha dabs tenderly at his wounds.


Napoleon, struggling to maintain his usual pluck and bonhomie while being held captive by a gorilla in a tree house, sets about trying to charm Girl, who knows only a few rudimentary words in English. He whips out his portable radio, which starts playing that jazzy version of “London Bridge Is Falling Down” that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. uses whenever it wants to seem young and hip, and shows her how to dance the Watusi. Baby joins in, and while I don’t know how much Robert Vaughn was earning for starring in this show, I sure hope it was enough to cover the various grievous affronts to dignity this episode puts him through. 


You are taking one for the team, Vaughn. I salute you.

Having broken the ice, Napoleon shows Girl a nice photo of Illya, which he happened to be carrying around with him. Girl doesn’t respond to Illya, though she does recognize a photo of Prince Khufu. After a lot of mortifying pantomime, Napoleon manages to convey to Girl that he wants her to take him to Khufu.

Illya sneaks away from Blackburn’s camp at night to do some investigating. He’s discovered by a flirtatious Marsha, who immediately guesses his identity: “I’ve got it! You’re a secret agent!”


They flirt for a while, because every once in a while the writers feel Illya should be paired up with a cute young blonde woman, then Marsha explains the purpose behind her safari: She’s looking for her long-lost sister, who was in a plane crash that killed their parents and who was reportedly raised in the jungle by apes. 

Illya listens dutifully, then saves her from an attack by a giant spider. Oh, come on, Man From U.N.C.L.E. prop department! Even by your cut-rate standards, that’s pretty shoddy. It’s an avocado with legs!


Harry Blackburn, who is in cahoots with Professor Kenyon, sends a secret signal via tribal drums across the jungle to inform Kenyon of Illya’s presence. Marsha takes the opportunity to do a weird little impromptu boogie to the beat of the drums, because this episode is bound and determined to strip every single actor in it of his or her dignity. 

Girl and Napoleon tromp across the jungle in search of Khufu. They end up falling into an elephant trap, whereupon Napoleon seizes the opportunity to make out with the primitive woman-child who knows nothing of the ways of men.


Kind of uncool, Napoleon.

Blackburn whips out a gun and apprehends Illya and Marsha. He ties them to stakes and threatens to slather them in honey (kinky!) and let army ants devour the flesh from their bones.


Anyway, Illya and Marsha are saved from certain doom by a vicious band of angry natives, including the witch doctor who stole Napoleon’s communicator. Illya swipes the communicator and uses it to convince the natives he has (sigh) godlike powers.


Napoleon and Girl are captured by Arunda and brought to Professor Kenyon, who pervs on Girl for a while, then imprisons them with Prince Khufu.


Illya and Marsha trail a dying elephant to Kenyon’s lair in the elephant graveyard, whereupon they’re promptly captured and imprisoned along with Napoleon, Girl, and Khufu. Oh, and Harry Blackburn is now one of Kenyon’s captives, too, because of Reasons. Not sure why, actually. I might’ve zoned out at this point. I’ll just quickly mention that this is the fourth separate time Illya has been captured by villains in this episode, which might be his personal best.


Anyway, Marsha immediately identifies Girl as her long-missing sister, Rebecca. Girl howls and summons Baby, who challenges Arunda to a duel. Then all our heroes stand around and tamely watch while Arunda beats Baby to an unconscious pulp. Girl, to her credit, tries to help her dearest friend, but Napoleon hauls her back. Guys, you’re the captives of a mad scientist who plans on murdering you all. In a situation like this, you don’t have to fight fair.


And then stampeding elephants crush Professor Kenyon to death, and then Girl/Rebecca gets gussied up in a pretty dress and heads off with Marsha, Illya, and Napoleon. They leave Harry Blackburn behind in the jungle with a heartbroken Baby, whom he immediately begins treating as his manservant.



Did you make it all the way through this episode with your soul and sanity intact? Excellent. Pour yourself a stiff martini (for Napoleon) or an icy glass of slivovitz (for Illya), then reward yourself by watching something sparkling and charming and hilarious from season one or two. You deserve it.

Comments

This is my six year old's favourite episode. He will choose this episode every time. The only consolation is that in it Illya drinks tea exquisitely, and he's scared of the creepy scientist villain so we fast forward through those bits. We have to watch Napoleon dancing with the gorilla though. Every damn time.
vintagehoarder said…
All right: time to trot out the theory I originally posted on tumblr. I believe Napoleon was either concussed when he was knocked out, or suffered a very bad reaction to all the vaccinations he was given in Waverly's office. Most of the events of this episode are his hallucinations as he stumbles deliriously around the African bush.

Eventually he wakes up in a hospital "somewhere in Africa" and discovers that most of the people he met in his dream were the medical staff. Illya is there, and he complains that he not only had to complete the mission on his own, but when he had finished he had to find Napoleon and rescue him from the jungle. Oh, and did Napoleon realise that while he was hallucinating, he'd tried to dance the watusi with a male nurse?

Aconitum-napeĺlus, I can easily see why this episode appeals to a six-year old! Us grownups, on the other hand...
DKoren said…
LOL! Oh wow. Also... did every sixties show have to have a gorilla on it at some point?

I adore Vitina Marcus, but she sure did get typecast in these roles. I suspect my young nephew would love this.
Morgan Richter said…
vintagehoarder, this episode makes SO MUCH MORE SENSE if you view it as Napoleon's hallucination. Brilliant.

Aconitum -- I get such strong second-hand embarrassment from Napoleon's scenes with the gorilla that I cringe my way through them. I can't imagine watching them repeatedly.

DKoren -- it's a deeply embarrassing role, but Vitina Marcus has nothing to be ashamed about here. She and Vaughn are doing their best to be team players with terrible material.
vintagehoarder said…
My other theory - formulated a couple of minutes ago - is the entire third season is an ongoing prank by Napoleon and Illya where they add the most absurd details they can think of to their reports to see if anyone is actually reading them. "A yeti disguise? I'll see your yeti and raise you a gorilla dancing the watusi!"
montereysnow said…
This episode seems like it would be more at home on Gilligan's Island than the Man from U.N.C.L.E. with its dancing gorilla, Tarzan girl, and big game hunter. All we need is for Napoleon to call Illya "little buddy".

I am so glad this was not the first episode I saw when I started watching U.N.C.L.E. again or I might have concluded that my fond childhood memories were through rose colored glasses.

This episodes aired December 16, 1966. Just a year earlier, December 17, 1965 the episode shown was the delightfully charming and entertaining Adriatic Express Affair.

What a mighty fall in just a year.
Morgan Richter said…
Ha! Vintagehoarder, your second theory also makes a certain amount of lunatic sense. Honestly, I'll take any explanation I can find for season three.

A year since Adriatic Express! montereysnow, you're right, that's a huge and unprecedented drop in quality. Such a shame, too -- when this show is good, it's absolutely delightful.

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