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Film

James Bond Revisited

Film

James Bond Revisited

Film

James Bond Revisited

There may be older stories which are still told and revisited today, but is there another that has remained so consistently and universally relevant since its conception as the James Bond series? Almost 70 years have passed since Ian Fleming introduced the world to 007 in his debut novel, Casino Royale – inspired by his wartime experience working for the Naval Intelligence Service. Twenty-five films and countless literary works later, Fleming’s British Secret Service agent has captured the world’s imagination and changed the face of the espionage genre forever. With Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 hitting the cinemas in April, we revisit the many faces of James Bond, exploring how the series has evolved over the years and why it lives on.

Sean Connery, Ian Fleming, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman on the set of Dr. No © 1962 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Danjaq, LLC

When we meet James Bond for the first time in the novels, it is three in the morning, at a grand casino somewhere in Northern France and Bond is exhausted from the smoke and smell of sweat. We learn he is a silent meticulous observer who kills time with careful gambling, heavy drinking and by speculating about the operational plausibility of robbing a casino. But he never wanders too far from Le Chiffre, the Russian agent that is his mark. When Bond later encounters his paramour in the form of Vesper Lynd, he admits bluntly to himself that “he wanted to sleep with her but only when the job had been done.”

The Bond of Fleming’s novels was calculating operative first and hedonist second. He enjoyed drinking and gambling. He took great pleasure from the fast driving of his 1930 Blower Bentley, and he lusted after many women. But these vices were less the focus of the stories and more positioned as symptoms of Bond’s professional life as a Double-O operative. Put simply, the Bond of Fleming’s novels was an extraordinary spy with darkly ordinary urges.

The film adaptations went on to glorify Bond’s vices and place them centre stage, choosing to omit the less exciting of his more human qualities – boredom, exhaustion, frequent spells of self-retrospection, even self-doubt. When we meet Bond in Dr. No, the first in the film series, he is also at a casino. But there’s no sense of a government mission, no trace of exhaustion, and he certainly no longer plays the role of silent observer. Instead, Bond, brought to life by Sean Connery, sits centre table, trying his hand at a high-stake round of Chemin de Fer (similar to baccarat). He promptly wins the game and seduces his opponent – clearly a trip for pleasure then, not business.

If Fleming’s novels presented unfiltered escapism for post-war England –patriotic comfort and the promise of national safety in a world where the Soviet Union still occupied half of Europe and the Korean War raged violently in the east. Then the Bond of the early films was escapism for an international audience of the early ‘60s, one that had been newly exposed to greater social freedoms and counterculture. In this respect, the early adaptations’ emphasis on Bond as maverick and seducer made perfect sense.

Sean Connery in Dr. No © 1962 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Danjaq, LLC

Ursula Andress in Dr. No, 1962 © 1962 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Danjaq, LLC

The depiction of violence in the novels enjoyed a similar kind of creative license in the films that really came into its own in Goldfinger. In one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the action genre, Bond finds himself strapped, spread eagle to a solid gold slab as an industrial laser beam glides precariously towards him, (in the novel it is only a circular buzzsaw). “Do you expect me to talk?”, says Bond. “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die”, replies Goldfinger.

It is great testament to Connery’s performance that the scene plays as suspenseful rather than comic; that we might imagine a time when the laser fed into the growing fear and suspicion surrounding rapid technological advancement in the mid-60s. This unique ability of Connery’s, to persuasively portray both Bond the ruthless spy, and Bond the pleasure seeker, without one rendition injuring the other, is in many ways why the series’ most serious fans still consider him to be the most effective Bond to date.

In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Roger Moore leant into the more comedic side of the role. This suited audiences who, at the time, were being introduced to a new generation of Hollywood filmmakers that were integrating broader comedic elements into otherwise more serious genres – Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and later James Cameron. Moore himself was proud of the fact that his “personality [was] different from previous Bonds. I’m not that cold-blooded-killer type, which is why I play it mostly for laughs.”

In a sense, Moore played the smooth carousing English gentleman to Connery’s rougher Scottish spy. His strength was in his outlandishness and there was a great joy to be had in watching Moore’s Bond flee from a corrupt Caribbean dictator by hopping along the snapping jaws of a float of crocodiles in Live and Let Die. Or having his sports car run off the road and into the sea by a helicopter, only for it to spread fins and become a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me.

For all that Moore brought to the series in terms of elaborate set pieces or increasingly suggestive one-liners – “Miss Anders… I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on” – we cannot escape the sense that this new 007 just felt a little bit too suave. That, as with Pierce Brosnan’s 007 a decade later, this was a man who couldn’t quite bear to get his hands dirty. For what we had gained in terms of fun, any likeness to the colder, more brutal Bond of Fleming’s novels was lost.

Roger Moore in Octopussy © Entertainment Pictures

By the time Timothy Dalton took up the mantle, it was the late ‘80s. A new wave of ultra-violent action films like Die Hard and Rambo suddenly made Bond’s action sequences of Moore stumbling around the Eiffel Tower and seducing girls half his age even more impotent. In turn, the Bond franchise suddenly became a lot more violent – with Licence to Kill opening on a central American drug baron ordering an enforcer to cut out a man’s heart and give it to his lover.

The sequence that followed, in which Dalton’s Bond hunts the baron down in a helicopter, abseils onto his plane and lassoes its tail fin, before finally parachuting down to attend the wedding below was, at the time, one of the most technically impressive action sequences ever filmed. So effective that years later Christopher Nolan would take it as inspiration for the opening action sequence in The Dark Knight Rises. But if Dalton’s Bond remembered the colder, blunter side of Fleming’s government operative, then any sense of the man behind the gun, who took great pleasure in the more leisurely aspects of life, was gone.

By the time Pierce Brosnan stepped into the role in the ‘90s, the series was in a strange place. Brosnan was the fifth actor to play Bond and GoldenEye was the 17th film. More important still, the producers had run out of Fleming source material to adapt – which meant that the action sequences – with the help of increasingly popular CGI – got more absurd. The villain’s hideouts got more ridiculous and the dialogue got more risque, culminating in The World Is Not Enough when Bond tells Dr. Christmas Jones, while they’re in bed together, that he was wrong about her because he thought “Christmas only comes once a year”.

It seemed that without Fleming’s source material, the series had turned to caricaturising itself. That, after three decades of constantly reinventing and reinterpreting itself to stay relevant, it had finally been reduced to its most base and superficial elements – to a series of hokey villains, oversexualised women, and violent set-pieces needlessly strung together. The Bond series was in danger of becoming an adaptation of an adaptation.

Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye © PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive

Then, in the early 2000s, there was a breakthrough as producers finally attained the rights to Fleming’s original novel and one of the most effective of the canon, Casino Royale. The resulting emergence of Daniel Craig’s 007, in 2006, was exactly the refashioning the series deserved. In Craig, audiences found a Bond that was grounded in reality. One that bled, felt pain, remorse and even in the later films, in Skyfall and Spectre, had to deal with the effects of ageing. The worst Connery’s Bond ever had to put up with was the threat of an uncomfortably positioned laser beam. But in Craig’s first outing we see him tied nude to a chair as his nemesis beats his nether regions with a knotted rope.

Casino Royale wiped the increasingly muddied narrative slate clean and introduced us to a new Bond for the modern age, one just starting out as an MI6 agent. More than that, it asked the question that all the other films glossed over and glorified – what does it actually mean, emotionally and practically, to have a licence to kill?

This question is posed in the opening scene of the film when we have the opportunity to see Bond’s first ever kills – the two kills that we are told earned him his Double-O status. The first one, which takes place in a dirty public toilet is a complete mess, closer to a drunken bar brawl than the slick standoffs in the film’s predecessors. Craig’s Bond literally gets his hands dirty as he drowns the man in a filthy sink. When he finishes, he stands back disturbed and out of breath. No sarcastic one-liner to undermine the whole affair.

This sense of an emotional toll, of consequence, is one that develops throughout the course of the film. When he later fights and kills an LRA warlord who attacks him and Vesper, his love interest, the camera stays with him as he washes off the copious amounts of blood and struggles to recompose himself. If we have never seen Bond physically bleed so much, then the scene that follows, which sees him comfort Vesper, fully clothed on the shower floor, exposes us to the most vulnerable side of him we’ve seen – even at this early stage it is clear that Craig’s Bond has stronger feelings for Vesper than Connery’s Bond seemed capable of for any woman. When Vesper finally dies in his arms, we are left wondering: if Bond had acted differently or been more experienced – it is his first mission after all – then would Vesper have lived?

Casino Royale demonstrated to audiences that this new world was one in which Bond’s actions had powerful consequences – circumstantial, physical or emotional. Skyfall, released six years later in 2012, developed those themes, opening them up to question the entire British Secret Service endeavour. The film would expose the uglier side of international espionage quite literally when Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva, an excommunicated Double-O agent, removed his prosthetic mouthpiece to reveal blackened teeth and a cyanide deformed face – the terrible price for loyalty to Queen and country.

Daniel Craig in Casino Royale © Everett Collection Inc

We were also made privy to Bond’s childhood home, which we learn is the source of all his early trauma, the site of his parents’ deaths, and a strong motivating factor for his pursuit of a life as a Secret Service agent. As an older Bond, barely able to shoot straight anymore, finally confronts Silva in the chapel that houses his parents’ gravestones, there is a pervading sense that everything has come full circle.

In the literature, readers loved James Bond because he was a man in extraordinary circumstances, with extraordinary abilities, but with very ordinary urges. He experienced boredom, lust, vanity, even self-doubt. In essence, readers loved Bond because they could escape with him but also because he was human. Almost 60 years after Connery brought the character to life, invulnerable and towering on the cinema screen, Daniel Craig’s Bond rediscovered the humanity of the protagonist in Fleming’s novels. With Craig’s final outing as Bond, No Time to Die, hitting cinemas in April, we can only hope his swansong provides the sense of an ending the era deserves, but also lays foundations for times to come.

“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”

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