Guy Richie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is based on the 1964-68 TV series about agents working for an international crime fighting organisation. One of the key attributes of the TV series was that the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, even at the height of the Cold War, had Americans and Russians working together for the common good. The TV series, although not a spoof as lazy latter day TV critics would claim was nevertheless set in a world where the ideology of the US and USSR were not really alluded to. It was, in short, fantasy.
As a concept, certainly to this then teenager watching repeats in the 1980s, it was a fascinating internationalist concept, that there was far more that united us as a race than divided us. Could it have worked?
One would have to say no. There’s a telling line in the series when Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo, the titular Man from U.N.C.L.E., describes THRUSH, a nasty group of international renegades that acts as the anti-U.N.C.L.E. of the series, as an organisation that “believes in the two party system: the masters and the slaves” Solo could easily be describing the Soviet government (and funder of U.N.C.L.E.) of his fellow agent Ilya Kuryakin. But more on THRUSH in a minute.
Indeed, given that U.N.C.L.E. by its own admission (via voiceover in the series) is dedicated to the maintaining of legal order anywhere in the world, that logically meant that behind the Iron Curtain U.N.C.L.E. was battling democrats and opponents of the Communist one party state. Not something one would wish to see on their TV, scenes of Solo and Kuyakin valiantly shooting people trying to hop the Berlin wall to freedom. On the flipside, what were THRUSH doing behind the Iron Curtain? Surely the United States would be quite happy with any disruption they could cause? Would it be that hard to imagine THRUSH selling its services to both sides occasionally?
If one looks at so much of the things U.N.C.L.E. could logically be expected to combat, one comes into problems. In the 1970s and 1980s the KGB funded many terrorist groups in Europe and elsewhere. They’d hardly support U.N.C.L.E. trying to undermine their efforts. Would Henry Kissinger have been pleased if U.N.C.L.E. had intervened to stop the overthrow of the (democratically elected) Communist president of Chile in 1973 as per the mandate about preserving legal order? Chances are, U.N.C.L.E. agents would have spent most of their time sitting around whilst their bosses negotiated over what they could actually investigate. They probably spend most of their time fighting copyright fraud.
We do get a glimmer in the real world of what happens when an international law enforcement organisation does operate, and it’s not always pretty. Interpol, for example, was headquartered in Vienna in the 1930s, and was seized by the Nazis, at one stage being headed by Gestapo head Reinhard Heydrich. He was head of Interpol at the time of the notorious Wannsee conference that planned the “final solution”. There have been complaints in recent years of Interpol warrants being used by Putin’s Russia to harass political opponents of his regime. Yet there are unusual glimmers of international security cooperation. Germany, France and seven other European countries, for example, have a combined military unit called Eurocorps (See symbol left).
Curiously enough, the central plot of the new movie, which focusses on the US and USSR working together to stop weapons of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands is quite believable, even today. It is easy to imagine the US, Europe, Russia or China all working together to stop nuclear or biological weapons being developed by rogue nations or indeed groups, as they are with Iran. United Nuclear Control, Logistics and Enforcement, anyone?
And that’s the key to something like U.N.C.L.E. It only works if there is a common THRUSH-like enemy that the great powers feel is a threat to global stability.