Universal Soldier (1971) Review

"Universal Soldier" VHS Cover

“Universal Soldier” VHS Cover

Director: Cy Enfield
Producer: Donald Factor, Frederick Schwartz
Cast: George Lazenby, Ben Caruthers, Robin Hunter, Edward Judd, Alan Barnes, Cy Enfield, Germaine Greer, Rudolph Walker, Chrissie Townson, Guy Deghy, Edward Judd, Ronan O’Rahilly
Running Time: 94 min.

By Jeff Bona

While promoting 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, model-turned-actor, George Lazenby, the film’s “New James Bond” star, was literally a signature away from playing Bond again, until his then-manager, Ronan O’Rahilly, convinced him not to take the deal: “Bond is [Sean] Connery’s gig,” O’Rahilly told Lazenby. “Make one and get out.” Lazenby listened, only to admit later that he had taken bad advice: “Yes, I turned down doing another [Bond] film… It was hippie time and getting laid in a suit was difficult. You had to have long hair and bell bottoms. It was the time of Easy Rider. Bond was part of the establishment.” (*)

Ultimately, Lazenby turned down a six picture/$1 million upfront deal to return as 007 (Connery ended up coming back for 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever) and instead decided to downgrade his newfound acting career by taking a lead role in Universal Soldier, a low budget, art-house drama directed by Cy Enfield (Zulu).

Universal Soldier was everything a Bond production wasn’t: Low on action, slow-paced and contrary to the cutting edge camera work of a Bond flick, it was shot guerilla-style, using the fly-on-the-wall approach – an unconventional method similar to what was applied to Easy Rider, which was the type of film Lazenby desired to be a part of.

Additionally, Lazenby’s clean cut, tailored-suit appearance was replaced with shaggy long hair, an extreme pornstache, bell-bottoms, and a black leather trench coat; also gone was the cool cigarette dangling from his mouth, which was swapped with wacky tobacky (one scene shows him inhaling smoke through an actual gun; a “golden gun” no less – see alternative VHS artwork).

In the film, Lazenby is Ryker, a mercenary soldier/weapons expert who takes part in a scheme to overthrow an African dictator. To do the job, he reunites with some former associates – Jesse (Ben Carruthers), Freddy (Robin Hunter) and Temple (Alan Barnes) – and together they plan their strategy, which mostly involves the testing and shipment of military-grade firearms. In the process, Ryker, who suffers from a slight case of shell shock, has a change of heart and begins to question his morality, which intensifies even more when he falls for a young woman (Chrissie Townson, who would later become Lazenby’s real-life, first wife).

Despite the film being incoherent with no real sense of direction or solid plot line, Universal Soldier is an interesting viewing, but for all the wrong reasons. To put it simply, it’s Lazenby’s post-Bond involvement that gives the movie a certain appeal, especially in the context of these points: Lazenby became Bond by luck; Lazenby was an exceptional Bond; Lazenby was Bond in a great Bond movie; Lastly, Lazenby voluntarily gave up playing Bond ever again so he can sport long hair, smoke grass, partake in hippie sex orgies and star in an Easy Rider-wannabe that most-likely paid chunk change compared to the goldmine he would have received from the Bond franchise. Definitely not Lazenby’s wisest choice, but you have to respect the guy’s honorable decision. Obviously, the Age of Aquarius was more important to him than money.

In spite of what you’d expect from the film’s title, there is hardly any action going on, other than some weapon testing scenes, a brief car chase and a short fight sequence. The lack of action didn’t stop the producers from marketing it as an “action movie” (see poster), which may have played a part to why it bombed at the box office. Let’s get real here: If a film is titled Universal Soldier and it stars a former Bond, then who wouldn’t expect a decent amount of violence? Even today, the film has been completely overshadowed by the 1992 Van Damme/Dolph Lundgren all-out actioner of the same name, which, as you may have already guessed, is 100% unrelated to the former.

What stands out the most about Universal Soldier is its catchy soundtrack, which features a handful of melodic songs by Phillip Goodhand-Tait. In fact, if you have a decent imagination, you can pretend the film, along with its accompanying music, is an unofficial sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (just think: Bond resigns from the British Secret Service to become a hippie, but takes odd mercenary jobs to make ends meet), not to mention a metaphor for Lazenby’s actual life and career choices. The following is an excerpt from the prophetic lyrics to Goodhand-Tait’s song, “One Road,” which plays during the film’s opening credit sequence:

One road leads to sadness
One road leads to pain
One road shows you life is a game
One road leads to darkness
One road leads to light
One road leads you right to love 

I wouldn’t be surprised if some film connoisseurs out there consider Universal Soldier Lazenby’s masterpiece, which isn’t totally unrealistic. As epic and innovative as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was, it was still a Bond film, i.e. a blockbuster extravaganza, one that was first and foremost designed to make lots of money. And as entertaining as Lazenby’s exploitative Italian/Hong Kong/Hollywood films that followed – 1972’s Who Saw Her DieStoner, 1974’s Stoner, 1975’s The Man from Hong Kong1976’s A Queen’s Ransom and 1978’s Death Dimension – they all lacked any real artistic merit, when judged from a film snob’s point of view.

With its artsy, unorthodox approach, Universal Soldier is somewhat of a hidden gem. And considering its anti-war/pacifist overtones, together with Lazenby’s natural acting abilities, it passes as a well-crafted film with a message. As long as you’re a fully caffeinated Lazenby fan, it’s well worth checking out.

Jeff Bona’s Rating: 6/10

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4 Responses to Universal Soldier (1971) Review

  1. Mike Leeder says:

    Always been a big fan of Lazenby, and the fact in the recent documentaries he was very honest about some of the bad decisions he made, i did love the “i was given bad advice, and even worse I followed it’ comment in the 50th anniversary Bond documentary.

    Ref Universal Soldier, remember seeing it as a kid and hating it as i expected it to be an action movie but its a strange one and has its moments….ref finances etc Lazenby financed, co-produced, co-wrote, and starred in Universal Soldier, for which he was paid
    a salary of £100,000 per month plus 25% of the worldwide profits, which at the time was the highest salary for any actor in the UK.
    Originally,Jimi Hendrix was signed to co-star with Lazenby in the film, however he died from complications due to an
    alcohol/drug-related overdose shortly before filming was set to begin, which gave the film much bad press
    even before it began shooting, the film caused a lot of controversy in
    the UK at the time of its release due to its blatant depictions of sexuality, hippie culture, and drug use.
    Germaine Greer appeared as pot-smoking Clara Bowden.

  2. Mike Leeder says:

    revisited UNIVERSAL SOLDIER this afternoon, its better than i remembered but man its a product of its time…… havent seen the Lazenby documentary yet

    • JJ Bona says:

      Definitely seek it out BECOMING BOND. You’ll enjoy it. Some of the dramatizations are silly, but that’s what makes it work. Yeah, U.S. has got the early 70s written all over it.

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