The immortal 007 is back with the new film Spectre. But what keeps James Bond so timeless and popular? A knack for survival against the odds, suggests Film Critic Tony Earnshaw.
“EVERYTHING comes in circles … The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.”
Those words were written for Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but they could so easily have been written by Ian Fleming for James Bond.
The journey of James Bond has been one of constant evolution, reinvention, resurrection and survival against the odds. Like Sherlock Holmes (and Doctor Who, come to that) he has changed guises over the decades to suit audience tastes and meet the demands of producers who, in creating a brand, want to keep it fresh. There have been bumps along the road. Sean Connery, the recalcitrant star who launched the brand, soon grew weary of the attendant fame and the limiting personal and professional effect of being 007.
Now Bond Mark VI, Daniel Craig, has been quoted as saying he wants his life back and that, after four movies, he will do another only for the money. The old wheel is turning. It’s 2015 but could just as easily be 1965. Swap Craig for Connery and it is. Ian Fleming would probably no longer recognise the hero he created in 1953 in Casino Royale. In the 53 years since 007 made his film debut in Dr No he has gradually drifted away from Fleming’s concept and into a shadow of what he once was.
In truth Bond has changed with the times, shifting from taciturn Cold War warrior to 21st century cultural icon. As the world has changed and old enemies have faded, so Bond has changed with it, always ready for a new fight.
And when he seemed to have been overtaken by newer, faster, sexier spies like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, 007 returned with a new look, a sadistic curl of the lip and a glint in the eye. He was the same but also not the same. He was different but still with vestiges of what he had been. Rebooted. Or, rather, re-tuxedoed.
When asked what he would do after the war, Lieutenant-Commander Ian Fleming, Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, answered simply: “Write the spy story to end all spy stories.” James Bond – the name was taken from an ornithology book, Birds of the West Indies, by a certain James Bond - was conceived as “a blunt instrument wielded by a Government department. Hard, ruthless, sardonic, fatalistic. He likes gambling, golf, fast motor cars. All his movements are relaxed and economical…”
Fleming himself admitted that, at least partly, he was living vicariously through his creation. “I really don’t see why Bond should drink miserable cups of tea and dreary half-pints of bitter,” he said. “Bond is the kind of man every girl secretly dreams of meeting, and leads the life every man would like to live if he dared. He takes care not to fall in love. He gets the girls – beautiful girls – but I make him suffer for it.”
Bond emerged into a frosty, austere post-war climate. The Cold War was building to its height. Britain was still in the midst of rationing. Life was grim. Then, suddenly, along came a character that scythed through all of that with abandon.
Whatever Bond wanted, he got. He acted with dispassion and, often, with cruelty. He was an Etonian thug in a tuxedo – a man equally at home in a fistfight as he was at the roulette wheel. His impact was immediate, and the public clamoured for more.
Soon Fleming was dreaming up ever more exotic locations and villains for Bond to tangle with. There was the devilish Auric Goldfinger, the Communist Le Chiffre, megalomaniac Dr No, gangster Mr Big and Nazi Hugo Drax – all of them over-the-top supercriminals in the mould of Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu.
By the early 1960s growing interest in 007 meant a movie was on the cards. The role was touted around a string of top stars, including Richard Burton, James Mason, Trevor Howard and, rumour has it, even Cary Grant, then in his mid-fifties.
History tells us that Sean Connery got the plum role. He would be followed by George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. If “blond Bond” Craig is genuine about wanting to hang up his guns then the hunt will soon be on for a replacement. Idris Elba – the first black Bond? Damien Lewis – the first ginger Bond? Anything is possible.
But the makers of the modern Bonds – Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, stepson and daughter of producer Albert R ‘Cubby’ Broccoli – would to well to learn from the mistakes of the past. Connery grew tired of 007 when the franchise overwhelmed his life. Plus he felt he wasn’t getting his due and later sued his former employers. Throughout the 1970s the plots and the gadgets became every more spectacular, relegating Bond to a supporting player in his own films.
And when Pierce Brosnan was partnered with Halle Berry in 2002’s execrable Die Another Day it felt as if Bond’s makers had lost faith in their man. They had certainly lost faith in Brosnan who, though wanting to do more, was unceremoniously dumped.
But you can’t keep a good man down. And after four years of forced retirement it was a younger, harder, tougher 007 that emerged from the wreckage of Die Another Day and its invisible car. Action veteran Martin Campbell, who had brought Bond in from the cold in 1995’s GoldenEye, was invited to perform his magic trick again. It worked. And, post-Bourne, audiences thrilled to a character who had clearly rediscovered his mojo. This Bond was a killer. He was also a lover.
It was another break with Fleming’s original. But this reinvention was a welcome one, and Bond enthusiasts went mad. James Bond’s evolution has been rapid over the past decade. Forced to keep up with his rivals he has been surrounded with a solid ensemble led by Judi Dench (and, now, Ralph Fiennes) and been immersed in plausible scenarios rooted in modern espionage.
His enemies are still our enemies. But the days of megalomaniacs are seemingly over. In the past the bad guys were SPECTRE and SMERSH. And yet, lo, the 24th 007 adventure is entitled Spectre. A whole new storyline is presented, a new world to explore, and new villains to conquer. And if Daniel Craig at 47 does decide to call it a day then the apparatus of Bond will roll inexorably on. All the machinery is in place; only the centrepiece is needed.
On his arrival in 1953 Bond’s age was described as “late 37”, which puts his date of birth at 1916. Next year 007 will be one hundred years old. Yet age has not wearied him. The years have not condemned him.
And the sun is not about to set on Commander James Bond, RN, agent 007, licence to kill.
Some Classic Bond moments
JAMES Bond knocked off countless enemies but only once was he genuinely in trouble. Donald Grant, a Spectre thug, made a fool of him in From Russia With Love. Bond won, after a titanic scrap in a train compartment, but by the skin of his teeth. It remains arguably the best example of equally matched mano-a-mano action.
The movies gave Bond some memorable one-liners. One comedic moment comes in Diamonds are Forever when 007 wakes up in a concrete pipe after being knocked unconscious. Beside him is a rat. When he makes his exit he astounds the workmen who discover him and remarks, “Good morning! I was just out walking my rat when I seem to have lost my way.”
Roger Moore’s 007 rarely had the chance to be as hard as Connery. But in The Man with the Golden Gun he balks when Scaramanga proposes a toast. “To us, Mr Bond. We are the best.” Bond replies: “There’s a useful four-letter word. And you’re full of it.”
The introduction of Daniel Craig in Casino Royale allowed the filmmakers to dispense with some established mores, not least Bond’s choice of drink. Asked if he wants his vodka martini shaken or stirred, Bond snaps, “Do I look like I give a damn?”