Shaken and Stirred
The release this month of the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall, coincides with the 50th anniversary of James Bond's first appearance on the silver screen. Klaus Dodds looks back on half a century of 007
On October 5th, 1962 Dr. No premiered at the London Pavilion and made a relatively unknown Scottish actor, Sean Connery, a star. Sent to Jamaica to investigate a suspicious disappearance, the British spy James Bond (007) eventually tracks the killer and a previously unknown secret organisation to Crab Key. With the help of an innocent girl called Honey Ryder, famously dressed in a white bikini, Bond confronts the first of many evil geniuses intent on implementing plans for global domination. Dr. No, a disfigured but gifted scientist, reveals that he works for Spectre (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism and Revenge and Extortion). The organisation is planning to sabotage the US space programme in nearby Florida in order to wreak havoc and trigger a conflict between East and West. Spectre hopes the United States will attack the Soviet Union in retaliation. Bond, after evading capture and assassination, kills Dr. No and scuppers the plot
The film was a commercial success, even if the trade press reviews were mixed. With a budget of $1 million it generated nearly $60 million in box office receipts and thus initiated an extraordinary chapter in cinematic history. This is all the more remarkable given that there were disagreements over who should play James Bond, arguments over the rights to the original novels and unease among some Hollywood studios that the film was both 'too British' and excessively 'sexualized'. It would have taken a brave person to predict with confidence at that time that Dr. No would lead to over 20 other films, making Bond a British icon admired and imitated around the world. Since 1961 Bond has been watched in some form or another by over one billion people. Bond is big business. The latest production will have a budget of $150-$200 million and will expect to earn around $550-$600 million in global box office takings. As a filmic formula the Bond series has proven remarkably resilient over 50 years.
But why has Bond proven so popular? Created by Ian Fleming (1908-64) on the basis of his wartime experience in Whitehall in the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) of the Admiralty, James Bond made his debut in the novel Casino Royale (1953). The activities of Bond, a field agent, stood in contrast to Fleming's own wartime career that had been largely deskbound. Nevertheless it had given him an opportunity to observe and even help plan daring intelligence operations involving highly trained men in France, North Africa, Sicily and Germany at the tail end of the war. A man's man, Bond was tough, resourceful and willing to carry out his orders with ruthlessness. Written for apparently 'warm blooded heterosexuals' waiting for their trains and planes, the women in the books are portrayed either as simple love-interests or devious, hideous threats (such as Colonel Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love, for example). More complex female characters only emerged in the later films, such as Grace Jones' Mayday (A View To A Kill), Halle Berry's Jinx (Die Another Day) and Eva Green's Vesper (Casino Royale).
Penned at Goldeneye, his Jamaica home, Casino Royale was not an immediate publishing sensation. Sales were indifferent, even with the introduction of a cartoon strip in the Daily Express. Paul Johnson, writing in the New Statesman in 1958, was sharply critical of Fleming's descriptions of what he termed, 'sex, snobbery and sadism'. (Casino Royale has an explicit description of Bond's grisly torture by his enemies.) What helped to turn indifference into worldwide popularity was an endorsement by the US president John F. Kennedy. A wartime hero and hyper-masculine figure, it was perhaps not surprising that Kennedy should admire James Bond (he particularly liked From Russia With Love, 1957). His brother Robert was also a fan and the two of them helped to make Bond a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. In her published letters (1985), Fleming's wife Ann provides some memorable accounts of her husband meeting with the Kennedys and their shared passion for this fictional man of action who enjoyed the good life. In stark contrast to the grim experiences of austerity and drabness, both Bond and the Kennedys stood for something altogether more exciting, chic and virile. The president later arranged for a private showing of Dr. No in the White House and Fleming got to share with the CIA his ideas about how to deal with Castro's seizure of power in Cuba. Sadly, John Kennedy did not live long enough to see the premiere of From Russia With Love (1963) and Ian Fleming was dead by the time Goldfinger appeared in September 1964.
Who dares wins
Two men, Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were instrumental in bringing the Bond phenomenon to the
big screen. In 1961 they bought the rights to all the Fleming novels with the exception of Casino Royale. Under the auspices of EON productions, Broccoli and Saltzman co-produced all the Bond films until 1975, with the exception of Thunderball, which involved a third party, Kevin McClory, and was the subject of a controversy over film rights. Broccoli and his family directed subsequent productions. United Artists in alliance with EON productions distributed the films worldwide for several decades. Others were also instrumental in the success of the films. Both the screenwriter, Richard Maibaum, and the designer, Ken Adam, had a long association with the Bond series, bringing to the productions expertise and stunning designs, vividly conveying to audiences the threats and dangers Bond faced when confronting ruthless enemies.
The Bond films are action thrillers with generic qualities that follow a clear formula. A simple but dramatic narrative arc was established from the outset. A film opens with a scene setter giving background information and establishing some of the key players. Bond is often shown completing another mission. Thereafter he is informed of his new mission by his controller M in his London office. After some brief exchanges with M's secretary, Miss Moneypenny, and sometimes with Q, head of Q branch and suppliers of bespoke agent equipment, Bond sets out into the field. There, while gathering intelligence and confronting dramatic situations, he encounters a coterie of allies, lovers and enemies. Mission completion is signalled by his killing the evil genius and thwarting a fiendish plan. Bond then has time to reengage with his love interest, usually in some romantic or remote location.
A very British snobbery
Sean Connery's portrayal of Bond (1962-67 and 1971), with due emphasis on his physical presence, masculine prowess and sardonic wit, established this generic identity. A very British kind of snobbery was injected into the conventions of the Cold War spy thriller (as seen in From Russia With Love, regarding drinking wine). This was to change somewhat with George Lazenby's only performance as Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), which depicted 007 as far more vulnerable and genuinely struggling to combine his love for a woman, Tracy, with his duty as a professional spy. The box office takings for this film, however, were noticeably lower than those of Connery's era and, after recalling Connery for a last outing in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), the franchise turned to a successful television actor, Roger Moore, who made seven Bond films between 1973 and 1985.
Timothy Dalton's brooding and embittered Bond (1987,1989) replaced the smooth-talking comedic one-liners associated with Moore, who had invested the character with an unstinting sense of loyalty to Queen and country. In Licence To Kill (1989), Dalton's Bond defies an order from M and offers his resignation. Angry at the loss of his friend, Felix Leiter, he embarks on a mission designed to exact revenge on a drug dealer. Pierce Brosnan's Bond, the final 007 before Daniel Craig's emergence, returns to a more up-beat version of Bond and British identity. Brosnan's Bond is more spectacular and dramatic -- he flies planes and drives more dangerously, escaping from ever more challenging situations, including a doomed submarine (The World Is Not Enough, 1999) and a disintegrating aircraft (Die Another Day, 2002).
Gadgets, girls and glamour
Over the years a balance has been struck between respecting the defining elements of the genre and reworking the character of Bond. But while he can be moodier, darker and at times witty, Bond's heterosexual nature and heroism remain consistently intact. He is on the face of it a very English/British hero, but one in which the Bond franchise has been keen not to alienate the North American market by investing too many British mannerisms in his character. Representations of central London, such as Whitehall, the MI6 buildings, Houses of Parliament and Trafalgar Square reinforce Bond's association with Britain. But if Bond can represent Queen and country then he is also able to do so in a knowing and, at times, callous manner.
Three elements of the James Bond series have especially helped broaden its reach in terms of global markets. The first involves Bond's relationship to technology and gadgets, in particular. While the films often feature spectacular aircraft, ships and cars, gadgets serve a number of different crucial purposes -- they facilitate his missions, impress his friends and stun his adversaries, they save his life and sometimes they save the world. Bond's understanding of technology is vital to his success and durability. When issued with new kit by Q Branch, he may be initially insolent about the special pistol, explosive fountain pen, X-ray glasses or miniature breathing unit but, out in the field, he quickly shows a capacity to master these devices. However Bond's occasional dependence on gadgets in no way undermines his masculine prowess: in his capable hands objects are, in effect, expressive of his capabilities.
The second element that has helped the popularity of
the franchise has been the role of locations in the films. Bond travels often and the audience is frequently transported to famous sites or attractive looking settings. From the outset the films have showcased exotic locations. By 1967 Connery's Bond had completed missions in Jamaica, Turkey, Yugoslavia, the Bahamas and Japan, when for most people at the time international travel was the preserve of the rich and famous. In the Roger Moore era (1973-84) the films incorporate an A-Z of magnificent destinations, from the Arctic (A View To A Kill) to Thailand (Live And Let Die), while taking in Brazil (Moonraker), Egypt and Sardinia (The Spy Who Loved Me), Greece (For Your Eyes Only) and India (Octopussy). This feature has continued. Locations are rarely drab unless they are conveying Cold War Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union.
The locations also allow the staging of dramatic action with notable structures (such as buildings and bridges) employed to animate the storyline. Less picturesque settings are also significant; for example, M's office. Here, behind the façade of 'Universal Exports', Bond picked up his instructions and enjoyed flirtatious banter with Miss Moneypenny for many years. Audiences came to expect and enjoy this element, which disappeared with the introduction of a new M (played by Judi Dench) in a very different kind of office in the Brosnan and Craig eras. The shift helped to propel Bond into a new, post-Cold War era, refreshing the Bond storyline at the same time.
The final element of the Bond success story involves the so-called Bond girls. Critics have frequently derided the films for their sexist, even misogynistic, qualities. At their worst, women were present either to be saved by Bond or to act as romantic interest. In the earliest phase, the girls were very much identified as British (for example, Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg) and culturally aligned with Bond. This changed in the 1970s when a new generation of females often acting as allies, were introduced, in the aftermath of the CIA agent Felix Leiter. Both the characters Rosie Carver (Live And Let Die, 1973) and Holly Goodhead (Moonraker, 1979) embody American interests, even if they eventually succumb to 007's charms. Later films such as Licence To Kill (1989) maintained the presence of a female American ally but one less tied to the CIA.
The 1990s onwards marked a distinct shift towards Bond girls who were more of a physical and intellectual match for Bond. The best example is Jinx in Die Another Day (2002), who acts as a protagonist in her own right, rather than simply following Bond. The very English character Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale (2006) also avoids the earlier stereotype. In a striking encounter with Bond on a train she establishes her intellectual and psychological credentials by identifying him insightfully as someone burdened by emotional baggage. Lynd proves herself to be both loyal and affectionate to Bond, yet she is far from simple eye candy. If anything, it is Daniel Craig's character (and indeed body) that is the object of consideration. Memorably, the camera lingers on Bond's naked body during a torture session with his adversary, LeChiffre.
The James Bond phenomena persists not only because it rests on a successful formula but because of the willingness to adapt that formula. There are elements of continuity and change. The introduction of Daniel Craig was significant in re-booting Bond and Craig's performance was on the whole critically acclaimed. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are a different kind of Bond film, released in an era of high quality, spy-based television dramas (such as 24 and Spooks), many of which were inspired by 9/11 and the onset of the War on Terror.
Mindful of the criticisms of Die Another Day, the publicity leading up to the release of Casino Royale prepared audiences for a shift in mood by depicting a brooding and introspective Bond. The CIA's Felix Leiter is played by the African-American actor Jeffrey Wright. The relationship between the two men is more prominent even to the point of Leiter saving Bond's life from a CIA assassination plot. Both Craig films pay homage to the Bond legacy through references to past characters and incidents. In Quantum of Solace (2008) the British operative Strawberry Fields is found dead on a bed covered in oil. Bond fans will immediately recognise the parallel with Jill Masterson's demise in Goldfinger (1964). Oil, however, is the new gold.
These most recent films mark a radical departure in the Bond portfolio. The biggest change is the way in which Bond's character is depicted. With its film noir inspired opening, Casino Royale outlines Bond's introduction to 00 status. His first two sanctioned killings are vividly portrayed and Bond's psychological state is shown to be both fraught and fragile. He no longer resembles the invincible hero and is shown to be vulnerable and sensitive about his orphan background. Rather than being a loyal and unquestioning secret agent, Bond
becomes a security risk to M, as his anger over Vesper's death in Venice leads him to seek out those responsible. His violent pursuit of the Quantum network is driven more by his desire to avenge her death than by a sense of duty to complete a mission for the British government. Just before arriving in Venice Bond even resigns from MI6, a move he only considers in the original book.
Rather than depicting Bond embarking on a new mission, Quantum of Solace is a companion piece following this trajectory. It traces Bond's evolving relationship with M and with Leiter and reflects on Bond's struggle to come to terms with the loss of Vesper. He remains an unstable secret agent and his devotion to duty is less assured, as he remains consumed with anger and hurt over Lynd's death.
With the introduction of Craig, the Bond franchise has taken narrative and representational risks. Bond's character is more closely aligned with contemporary action thrillers (such as the Batman and Bourne series) and yet this recognisably Hollywood action hero speaks with a British accent and retains British mannerisms, such as sarcasm, irony and understatement. But this Bond is not a traditional British gentleman spy.
The Bond legacy
As Bond returns this month to pursue the elusive Quantum network in Skyfall he will be required to tackle personal and professional challenges in a world depicted as confusing, hyper-mobile and always shadowy. We can expect that the next state-sanctioned mission might well struggle to be reconciled with his personal mission of revenge.
James Bond's impact on popular culture remains multi-faceted and it is interesting, too, in relation to popular geopolitics. The Bond films helped to dramatise and depict the Cold War around the world. Timing and prescience mattered in this regard. In October 1962 the world was brought to the brink of a Third World War as the two superpowers found themselves at loggerheads over the future of Cuba and the presence of nuclear weapons on that Caribbean island. The script for Dr. No appeared clairvoyant, with its gloomy storyline involving two superpowers potentially being drawn into conflict. The writers and producers of the films showed how it was possible to experiment with the geopolitical landscape and depict Spectre operatives working inside and outside conventional intelligence agencies and armed forces.
The prophetic qualities of James Bond and Cold War geopolitics endured beyond the 1960s. In Moon-raker (1979) Bond tackles a Hitler-like villain (Hugo Drax) who is planning to wipe out the human race from the vantage point of outer space. Anticipating Ronald Reagan and his Strategic Defence Initiative ('Star Wars') in the early to mid-1980s, the film shows in a shocking manner the militarisation of outer space. In a dramatic ending American space shuttles are launched in order to confront Drax's space station. Bond and US space marines eventually foil the evil genius's plan to devastate planet earth. In so doing the Bond series reaffirmed its capacity to reflect and intervene in the contemporary world and this trend has continued, as more recent films have reflected on such themes as the drugs war (Licence To Kill), hydrocarbon resources (The World Is Not Enough), criminal networks (Casino Royale) and rogue states (Die Another Day).
Interestingly, when journalists were looking for ways to explain the al-Qaeda network, references to the Bond films involving Spectre in the 1960s were made as a way of helping readers and listeners to make sense of the idea of a transnational terror/criminal network. The more recent Bond films continue to draw upon and even anticipate contemporary terrorism, resource wars and a world in which states and their specialist agencies seek to secure and militarise organisations, objects and processes. Bring on Skyfall.
From the Archive
The Search for the Real James Bond
Andrew Cook relates the story of Sidney Reilly -- the inspiration for the fictional James Bond. www.historytoday.com/archive
Jeremy Black, The Politics of James Bond (Praeger, 2005).
James Chapman, Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of James Bond (I.B.Tauris, 2007).
Christopher Lindner (ed.), Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale (Columbia University Press, 2010).
For more articles on this subject visit www.historytoday.com
His word is his Bond: Ian Fleming photographed in 1963 and (inset) the cover of a first edition of Casino Royale.
A gamble: Sean Connery as 007 in the first Bond film, Dr. No, 1962.
Love interest: Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in Dr. No.
Charles Gray playing the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of Spectre, in Diamonds Are Forever, 1971.
A design by Ken Adam for the set of You Only Live Twice, 1967.
Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman with Roger Moore on the set of Live And Let Die, 1973.
Thrill of the chase: an action shot from The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977.
Packing a punch: Roger Moore in Moonraker, 1979.
The sensitive type: Daniel Craig and Eva Green in Casino Royale.
By Klaus Dodds
Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2007).