The Importance of James BondJef Costello
The James Bond films turn fifty this year, an event commemorated by the eagerly-anticipated release of the 23rd Eon Productions 007 epic Skyfall.
The Broccoli family say they will keep making these films as long as audiences still want to see them. Since the Broccoli’s at this point have more money than God, we can be sure that this is entirely a labor of love (as Rosa Klebb might say, running her bony fingers through our hair). To date, the Bond films have grossed $5 billion (Bond is the second highest grossing film series of all time, after Harry Potter). And the books have sold around 100 million copies.
What can explain why these films have endured for half a century and are bigger now than ever before? (Bond himself, of course, has been around longer than that: the first Ian Fleming Bond novel – Casino Royale – was published in 1953.) I’m going to try to explain this – but, as usual, the real explanation is a far cry from what most people (especially critics) think it is.
Sex, Sadism, and Snobbery?
Let’s begin with the noteworthy fact that both the Bond novels and films have always pissed off the right people, and for the right reasons.
Attacks on Bond have come from both Left and Right. From the Left Bond has been accused – correctly – of sexism, racism, heterosexism (aka homophobia), classism, lookism, elitism, imperialism, and much else. This Leftist critique is still regularly trotted out. Just four years ago the BBC’s online news magazine published a piece asking “Is James Bond Loathsome?” The piece quotes one professorial authority who proclaims “Ideologically, none of us should like the Bond films. They are sexist, heterosexist, xenophobic, everything that is not politically correct. Either the audiences don’t notice these ideological issues or the films provide a different kind of pleasure.” (A third possibility: perhaps the very political incorrectness of the Bond films is the source of that “different kind of pleasure.”)
The Kremlin itself weighed in on the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962) condemning it as capitalist propaganda. A more mainstream Leftist critic, Cyril Connolly in The Sunday Times, said that Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice was “reactionary, sentimental, square, the Bond-image flails its way through the middle-brow masses, a relaxation to the great, a stimulus to the humble, the only common denominator between Kennedy and Oswald.” (Both Kennedy and Oswald were readers of Fleming.)
In the ’50s and ’60s, those on the Right tended to complain mostly about Bond’s amorality. They deplored the “sex” (such as it was) in the novels and films, the “hedonism,” and the callous disregard for human life. They found it shocking that an assassin – a man with a “licence to kill” (!) – could be romanticized and regarded as a hero. Indeed, in retrospect this actually is rather shocking – but something we take completely for granted today. Bond was seen as a particularly bad influence on little boys. The Guardian’s reviewer remarked that the second Bond film, From Russia With Love (1963) was “highly immoral in every imaginable way; it is neither uplifting, instructive nor life-enhancing.” (Though he admitted it was “fun.”) Predictably the Vatican condemned both the books and the films. But, oh, what a difference five decades makes! Just the other day the official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano gave Skyfall two thumbs up. (This made international news.)
However, the classic conservative critique of Bond came from the pen of none other than Paul Johnson. Writing in The New Statesmen, he summed Bond up with the words “Sex, Sadism, and Snobbery.” Johnson was actually reviewing Fleming’s 1958 novel Dr. No. This now-famous review began with the line, “I have just finished reading what is without doubt the nastiest book I have ever read.” It was actually the first time Fleming had come in for any major criticism, and Johnson opened the floodgates. For years afterwards those three words – sex, sadism, and snobbery – would be quoted again and again, as a derisive way of dismissing both Bond and his creator.
Sex? Well, yes. Of a kind. Bond does wind up bedding women quite a lot, and without any moral compunction. But Fleming doesn’t treat us to the gory, bedroom details (and there is very little humping in the Bond films). What Johnson and others found offensive was really the attitude toward the whole thing. For example, Fleming notes that Bond has a penchant for affairs with married women, apparently because there’s little chance of emotional entanglement – something about which much is made in the 2006 film of Casino Royale. In the novel, written 53 years earlier, Bond muses that “Women were for recreation.”
And then there are all those “Bond girls” with names like Honey Rider, Mary Goodnight, and – of course – Pussy Galore. That last one still takes the breath away, even after all these years. What an audacious, salacious old bugger that Fleming was! Then there are the names invented just for the films: Sylvia Trench (I’m convinced that’s a dirty one, but others may disagree), Plenty O’Toole (“Named after your father, perhaps?” quips Bond), Holly Goodhead, Octopussy, and Xenia Onatopp. In the films they’re all incarnated in jutting, jiggling, Technicolor pulchritude. The novels are more conservative. Fleming described Dr. No’s Honey Rider as having a boy’s bottom. This prompted his friend Nöel Coward (a real old bugger) to write to him, “I know that we are all becoming progressively more broad-minded nowadays but really, old chap, what could you have been thinking of?”
Sadism? Well, yes. And it’s actually more interesting and more imaginative than the sex. In the very first novel, the villain strips Bond naked and repeatedly assaults his testicles with a carpet beater. (A scene lovingly recreated in the recent film version, though with a rope instead of a carpet beater.) In the second novel, Live and Let Die (1954), the villain arranges for the lower extremities of Bond’s best friend to be nibbled away by a shark. The still-living Felix Leiter is then found with a note that reads “He disagreed with something that ate him.” (This also found its way into the films, though in 1989’s Licence To Kill. ) In the literary Dr. No, Honey Rider is staked out on a Caribbean island to await the arrival of flesh-eating crabs. And the list just goes on and on. In general, the novels are far more sadistic than the films.
Snobbery? Yes, I’m afraid so. And here things become rather ridiculous. Fleming spends pages describing Bond’s taste in spirits, suits, shirts, shoes, ties, pajamas (yes, he wears pj’s), shampoo, cars, and even eggs. Bond insists that his egg be boiled for precisely three minutes. And it must be a speckled brown egg laid by a French Marans hen. (I am not kidding you.) The egg must be served with two slices of whole-wheat toast, and a pat of Jersey butter accompanied by Tiptree “Little Scarlet” strawberry jelly, Cooper’s Vintage Oxford Marmalade, and Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum’s. Should the eggs be scrambled, they must be served with smoked salmon and champagne. But not just any champagne: Taittinger’s.
We are supposed to be left with the impression that Bond is a man of very discerning tastes. The impression we are actually left with is that Bond is a pretentious middle class snob trying to put on airs. This kind of thing must have seemed very exotic to the reading public of Great Britain in the 1950s, with post-war austerity still a very vivid memory. And it must have seemed exotic and teddibly British to American readers. But nowadays any yahoo with a wireless connection can order a jar of Frank Coopers Vintage Oxford Marmalade on Amazon.com and get it delivered in two days. And he will probably think it inferior to Smucker’s. (And he’ll probably be right.)
The classic example, however, is the vodka martini, shaken not stirred. This is how the recipe for the Bond martini is stated in just about every film, but the actual Bond Martini is a little more complicated. Here’s how it first appears in Chapter Seven of Fleming’s Casino Royale:
“A dry Martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”
“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?”
Yes, but why shake it? And why be so particular about not stirring it? Does it really make a difference? Believe it or not, this issue has actually prompted a scientific study. The Department of Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario found that a shaken martini has more antioxidants than a stirred one. So perhaps Bond is just much more health-conscious than we had originally thought. All kidding aside, he finally comes to his senses in the 2006 Casino Royale. Asked by a bartender if he wants his vodka martini shaken or stirred, Bond replies “Do I look like I give a damn?”
So, yes, the world of Bond is guilty as charged – of sex, sadism, and snobbery. But this just completely misses the point, because there really is something important about James Bond – very important. James Bond is a modern hero, a hero for the modern age. Actually, this claim has often been made. But I mean it in a special sense: Bond is a hero in spite of modernity; an anti-modern hero who manages to triumph over – and, indeed, harness – the very forces that turn most modern men into soulless, gelded appendages to their desktop PCs. This is why Bond is important, and this is why we’ve worshipped at the cinematic altar of Bond for half a century. We long to be as free as he is.
Bond’s Spiritual Virility
As Julius Evola might have put it, Bond is spiritually virile. He is a self-contained, self-actualized man who appears to be a self-indulgent hedonist, but is in fact fundamentally detached from the pleasures and distractions that obsess and enthrall most men.
Let’s begin with the much-discussed sex issue. In fact, Bond does not chase after women; women chase after him. This is established in the very first scene in which Sean Connery is introduced as Bond in Dr. No. He is playing Chemin de Fer at a London club. An attractive woman asks his name from across the table: “Mr. . . . ?” Famously, Connery replies “Bond. James Bond,” while lighting a cigarette and flourishing his great, caterpillar-like black eyebrows. The woman – Sylvia Trench, played by Eunice Gayson – pursues a rather disinterested Bond, acquires his business card, then breaks into his apartment and seduces him (over Bond’s protestations).
Later in the same film, in a brief but iconic scene, we see a female hotel receptionist ogle Bond as he makes his way across the lobby. Dr. No establishes the sexual pattern for all the succeeding films (which does indeed have its basis in the novels). Women practically throw themselves at Bond, who often seems rather weary of the whole thing. (The Bond imitators – those who brought us Matt Helm, Derek Flint, and others – often failed to get this, turning their pseudo-Bonds into lascivious, salivating womanizers.) The ease with which Bond attracts women has often been noted, and chalked up to “male fantasy wish fulfillment.” This is true, but what exactly is the wish? It’s not just the desire for easy sex. It’s also the desire – only dimly understood by most men – to be free of the tiresome indignity of having to pursue women.
At some level, men realize that there is something unmanly about Don Juan. They realize that Bond, by contrast, has “got something” that makes it possible for him to attract women without effort. But that “something” consists in the fact that he doesn’t care about it as much as they do (perhaps because he’s proved his masculinity in other, more significant areas). He is detached. As a result, Bond doesn’t just attract a lot of babes, he attracts extraordinary women. One of the great myths about Bond – particularly as far as the films are concerned – is that Bond girls are brainless, helpless bimbos. This perception is now cynically exploited by the filmmakers, who every so often announce that “the Bond girl in the new film is different: she’s strong, she’s capable, she’s Bond’s equal,” blah blah blah.
But this has been true from the very beginning. Honey Rider tells Bond in Dr. No that she murdered a man who raped her by putting a black widow spider under his mosquito net (“A female, and they’re the worst. It took him a whole week to die.”) Pussy Galore is a ball-busting lesbian and leader of her own gang of Amazons. And Octopussy is cut very much from the same cloth. Fiona in Thunderball is a cold-blooded assassin, and even Domino – rather bimbo-like for most of the film – winds up executing the villain herself. By my count, no fewer than ten of the cinematic Bond girls are spies or assassins. Two of the Bond girls are scientists: a geologist in A View to a Kill and a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough. (Though it must be admitted that the actresses who play these parts are not very convincing.) Yes, there a few helpless bimbos – like Mary Goodnight in The Man With The Golden Gun – but actually most of the Bondian heroines are strong, capable women. Which is just the sort of women we would expect a spiritually virile man to attract.
And as for Bond’s seemingly absurd culinary pretensions, they’re not actually born of a desire to impress, nor are they an expression of hedonism. Bond explains himself rather well in Chapter Eight of Fleming’s Casino Royale:
“You must forgive me,” he said. “I take a ridiculous amount of pleasure in what I eat or drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from a habit of taking a lot of trouble over details. It’s very pernickety and old-maidish really, but then when I’m working I generally have to eat my meals alone and it makes them more interesting when one takes trouble.”
Besides, when you’re facing death on a daily basis, every meal could be your last! Of course Bond takes a lot of trouble over details; of course he lives life to the full. Hagakure, the “Book of the Samurai,” states that “The Way of the Samurai is found in death. . . . If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way.” Bond has learned to face life as if death could come at any moment. This has the effect of heightening his senses and his tastes. He notices the nuances of food and drink that most men miss, and he takes greater pleasure in them, as he takes greater pleasure in sex.
Bond’s pleasure is greater than that of other men – but paradoxically he is free of desire in a way most men are not. His constant brushes with death have given him a unique perspective: he is keenly aware of the impermanence of things, and of what matters and what does not. Bond enjoys food, drink, and sex so much precisely because of their unimportance. Other men, who have never faced death, place too much importance on these things and – again, paradoxically – are less able to enjoy them.
Bond takes pleasure in the things of this world, but he is not mastered or absorbed by his appetites. This is the real meaning of the Bond family motto “The World is not Enough” (introduced in the novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and later its own Bond film title). This is usually taken to be an expression of rapacious desire. In fact what it says is that the things of this world, which would be too much for most men to handle, are not enough for James Bond. He is greater than they are, thus he can “use them” without being corrupted by them. It’s unsurprising that book and film critics would be unable to understand any of this, and would simply see Bond as a “hedonist” and “snob.”
Riding the Tiger
But, again, Bond’s spiritual virility is achieved in a uniquely modern context. He is an “organization man” through and through. Unlike earlier heroes such as Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond, and Doc Savage, Bond works for someone else. And not just anyone. He serves the state. And not just any state. He serves the tattered remnants of that Great Satan of yesteryear, the British Empire. Furthermore, Bond is a Commander in the Royal Navy. He is relatively low-ranking on the intelligence totem pole, and accustomed to obeying orders. All of this is part of the reason audiences identify with James Bond. This is an observation that may surprise some, since Bond is normally thought of as a superman we long to be, not someone we identify with. Yet we do. Like us, Bond works for a boss – and he is a rather small speck in the scheme of things. In this modern world we are all functionaries and office flunkies. Fleming actually spends a fair amount of time discussing the tedium of Bond’s office work – since he only goes on missions once or twice a year.
We long to be able to leave the office – which we loathe just as much as Bond does – and have adventures. And we note, rather enviously, that Bond has managed to be an employee, a part of a vast organization, without being spiritually reduced by it. Bond does not lie awake at night worrying about office politics. Bond does not suck up to the boss. Bond does not get ulcers. It’s been made very clear to Bond that he is quite expendable – as it’s made very clear to all the ordinary folks working corporate jobs! – but somehow he’s found a way to ride this tiger.
Day after day, we grow more and more anxious about the extent to which work encroaches on our lives. And a huge part of the problem has to do with our much ballyhooed advances in technology. As C. S. Lewis recognized in The Abolition of Man, every new advance in technology is an advance in some men’s ability to control others. So that now thanks to our cell phones and email the boss can always access us. Every new advance in software means more for us to learn on the job. It never ends, and we never outrun the fear that eventually we will simply not be able to catch up. This is yet one more way in which our culture puts all the emphasis on youth – for the young always know the new technologies better, the young can always adapt more swiftly to new innovations. Some of us even fear than new technologies will replace us entirely, as has actually happened to many people, both blue-collar and white-collar.
Needless to say, technology has always been a big part of James Bond. This is much truer of the films than the books, though there’s a slim basis for it in the books. The films, however, go whole hog and are thoroughly “modernistic.” There are gadgets galore in the Bond films; they seem to celebrate technology. But here again, things are much more complicated than they seem. If we pay careful attention to the Bond films we will realize that Bond’s attitude towards technology is disdainful. This is the basis for the well-known comic tension between Bond and crusty old Q, the gadget master.
Q first appears in From Russia With Love in which he provides Bond with a clever trick attache case and folding sniper’s rifle. It’s a brief scene without any comedic elements, though Bond seems a bit amused by the gadgets. It’s Goldfinger, the next film in the series, that establishes the familiar pattern. Bond visits a humorless Q who provides him with an Aston Martin equipped with revolving license plates, machine guns, smoke screen, tire slashers, radar, oil slick, and – most famously – an ejector seat. Bond seems completely unimpressed and rolls his eyes when Q tells him that he won’t take more than hour or two of his time. When they get to the ejector seat Bond sneers and says “You must be joking!” Q responds, deadpan, “I never joke about my work, Double-Oh-Seven.”
It is clear that Bond regards the real business of spying as a matter of physical stamina and mental agility. He is contemptuous of the idea that what he does could be done better by – or even with – machines. However, time and again Bond gets himself out of tight spot with one of Q’s gadgets. And so he does make a kind of uneasy peace with technology. But again and again when the time comes for Bond to really save the day he does so with his own wits and guts. In other words, the films wind up siding with Bond and declaring that technology – and technē – is not the answer.
Sometimes the producers forget this, however, and when they do the films tend to go off the rails. The first time this happens is in 1965’s Thunderball. By that point, after the major success of Goldfinger, the Bond gadgets had gotten a lot of publicity and the producers were careful to load up Thunderball with as much tech as possible. It begins in the pre-credit sequence, in which Bond escapes pursuers in a jetpack (!). The Aston Martin then reappears. And in the film’s climactic underwater action sequences, Bond dons a kind of underwater jetpack that fires projectiles. The effect is ridiculous. Author John Brosnan comments that the scene makes Connery look like a “clown.” And he writes of the whole film, “With Thunderball, James Bond tended to become depersonalised, turning into a sort of bland dummy whose only function was to manipulate the various gadgets and act as a catalyst to keep the whole show moving.”
The Bond films of the 60s started off as relatively realistic spy thrillers, but over time gee whiz technology took over and dwarfed the Bond character. In their first decade, the pinnacle of this technological silliness was reached with You Only Live Twice (1967), which one reviewer dismissed as looking like an episode of TV’s Thunderbirds. Everyone, including the producers, felt that something had been lost. The verdict was usually that the films had become too “outlandish.” The truth, however, is that what made Bond Bond had been negated: he wasn’t riding the tiger anymore; he was being dragged along behind it.
And so with 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service the producers dumped the gadgets, and cranked things back to the minimalism of From Russia With Love. The result was a film that many fans, myself included, regard as the best of the series. But this pattern has been repeated several times in its history. The producers again and again allow Bond to become diminished by high-tech and special effects, and again and again realize their mistake and swear never to repeat it. In truth what is happening here is that, like all of us, they are struggling with the allure – and the danger – of technology.
In later films, as actor Desmond Llewelyn aged into a lovable old codger, the Q character was softened a bit and given more to do. But early on he is as mechanical and charmless as the gadgets he dispenses. He is man become technics, who cares more about his inventions returning “intact from the field” than about Bond’s body returning intact! This, indeed, becomes a running joke and Bond seems to take delight not just in belittling Q’s gadgets but in demolishing them.
Bond also delights in destroying the villains’ hardware as well. The classic Bond villains tended to set themselves up with ultra-modern lairs filled with impressive technological marvels. And all of it constructed out of miles and miles of gleaming, stainless steel. By contrast, Bond’s own environment – M’s office, Whitehall, and Bond’s apartment (seen in two films) – is ultra-traditional. (Interestingly, Q’s environs look like just like the villains’.)
The contrast could not be clearer. The good dwells in small, warm, and human spaces surrounded by organic materials (wood and fabrics of various kinds), and decorations chosen for their charm, or because they suggest national heritage (the paintings and busts in M’s office). These spaces are inhabited by individuals with distinct characters and quirks: the crusty but benign M; the stalwart, love-struck Moneypenny, etc.
The evil, by contrast, dwells in huge, cold, intimidating, depersonalized spaces made of metal, stripped of anything charming and anything that suggests national identity – or cluttered with objects suggesting a confusion of national identities (e.g., Dr. No’s living room, Blofeld’s various apartments, etc.). And here the space is inhabited by emotionless human automata in coveralls, or Mao jackets, who often refer to each other only as numbers. I’ll have more to say about what this represents later on . . .
Bond as Modern Mythology
A handsome knight, a favorite of all the ladies at court, is sent to a remote part of the kingdom to investigate the disappearance of another knight. There he learns that a terrifying wizard is responsible. The wizard lives on a mysterious island, to which many have journeyed – but from which none has ever returned. Our hero teams up with a knight from a distant kingdom that is also being plagued by the wizard’s magic. Then, accompanied by a curmudgeonly but loyal dwarf, as black as the night, our hero journeys to the island. Unexpectedly, they find themselves assisted by an avatar of Venus, who suddenly rises from the ocean. Together, the trio explores the wizard’s island. One night, they encounter a terrible dragon, who breathes fire on the swarthy dwarf and kills him. The dragon is in thrall to the wizard, however, and is under orders not to kill our hero and his Venus. He takes them captive and drags them down into the wizard’s subterranean lair.
When they finally meet the wizard himself they find that he is a frightening, but also rather pathetic figure. He has no hands, having sacrificed them in order to read the leaves of Satan’s book and discover the secret of producing a terrible form of black magic. The wizard tries to seduce our hero with promises of magic power, but when he proves incorruptible the wizard seals him in a dungeon. The knight quickly finds, however, that it contains a tiny door that leads him into a vast labyrinth, filled with one terrifying challenge after another. The final challenge involves a fight with a giant sea monster.
The knight kills the beast and finds his way into the wizard’s secret chamber, where the evil necromancer is in the midst of a black magic rite. Over the smoky, hell-like abyss from whence comes the wizard’s power, the two men struggle. The knight seems doomed, but in the end the fates deal out poetic justice to the wizard. His lack of hands – the very hands he sacrificed to obtain his magic – makes him unable to cling to the altar over the abyss, and he plunges into it. Our hero then rescues Venus from certain death at the hands of the wizard’s flesh-eating demons, and together they leave the island, never to return.
For the uninitiated, this is exactly the plot of Dr. No. Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of another British agent. There, he teams up with a CIA agent investigating recent radio interference with American rocket launches. They discover that the man responsible seems to be a reclusive scientist named Dr. No, who lives on an island called Crab Key. Bond sails to the island, accompanied by a local black fisherman named Quarrel. The next morning, the beautiful Honey Rider appears, rising out of the ocean. (She had come to the island looking for shells.) Earlier, Quarrel had warned Bond that the island is guarded by a dragon, and that night the three actually encounter it. But the “dragon” turns out to be a tank of sorts, fitted out with a flamethrower – which kills poor Quarrel. Men with machine guns pile out of the “dragon” and take Bond and Honey down to Dr. No’s subterranean installation.
Over dinner, Dr. No reveals that he lost his hands as a result of his experiments with nuclear power. He tries to recruit Bond, unsuccessfully. Dr. No places Bond in a cell, and gives him the option of staying there or traversing a labyrinth. Bond chooses the latter, but much to his discomfort. He is shocked, burned, and almost drowned. (In the novel he is also attacked by poisonous insects.) Finally (in the novel only) Bond must defeat a giant squid. In the film version, Bond then infiltrates Dr. No’s reactor room. There is a final climactic battle, and Dr. No – owing to his lack of hands – is unable to stop himself from slipping into the steaming reactor pool. Things start to explode, and Bond rushes off to rescue Honey (who – again, in the novel only – is about to be eaten by flesh-eating crabs). Together, they escape the island.
That the Bond stories are “modern myths” has often been asserted, and there’s quite a bit to this. John Brosnan, states that “Dr. No, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, et al. are the descendents not of Al Capone but of Dracula himself.” And he continues:
Seen, then, in this context the Bond books and films become twentieth-century folk epics with Bond as a latter day St. George fighting against evil incarnate. They are the same basic stories that have been passed down through the centuries but with the hero and the villain adapted to our technological age. No longer is it Satan’s power that people fear but the new demons of machinery and atomic power. So the vampire has exchanged his castle for Dr. No’s subterranean laboratory, his fangs for Dr. No’s steel claws, and his unholy source of power for Dr. No’s atomic reactor.
This is actually a very insightful analysis, from one of the earliest book-length studies of the Bond films. All the traditional mythic elements are present in Bond, only they have been rather straightforwardly modernized. One might also mention the fact that Bond’s gadgets are simply modernized versions of things like magic swords and spears, helmets of invisibility, and indestructible shields. M is actually a sort of Odin figure, whose feelings of paternal affection for his No. 1 hero don’t change the fact that he controls Bond’s destiny, and is willing to send Bond to his death. And I could go on.
The Bond character has often been derided by critics as an exaggerated superman. And, in truth, his exploits are often incredible, in the literal sense of the term. Slaying the giant squid is just one example. He’s saved the entire world more often than anyone can remember, without so much as mussing his hair. Yet the exploits of the heroes of Celtic and Germanic mythology are just as implausible, often more so. But no one criticizes them as “unrealistic.”
Bond is indeed the stuff of modern myth. And audiences have responded to him so strongly because we have a need for this sort of thing. It provides a kind of spiritual fuel. Of course, the same could be said of Star Wars (indeed, Lucas consciously wove mythic motifs into his films). Yet Star Wars has never come in for anything like the criticism Bond has received. I think that this has to do with the fact that the ethos of the Bond films is implicitly pagan. Whereas the ethos of the Star Wars saga is implicitly Christian, and therefore more in line with the liberalism of most film critics (however secular they may imagine themselves to be). But I’ll have more to say about that later on . . . .
In case you haven’t figured this out, I have been fascinated by James Bond since a very early age – in fact, since before my parents allowed me to see a Bond film. I first learned about Bond from my mother, who one night told me about a secret agent who had a special car outfitted with machine guns and an ejector seat. I then acquired the classic Corgi toy version of the Bond Aston Martin (still being manufactured years after Goldfinger was released). But my parents decided that the films were “too adult” for me to see. Besides, I became interested in Bond during the three-year hiatus between 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun and 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. There just was no Bond for me to see – except on television. But back then the films were all broadcast with absurd “parental advisories” which scared my parents into changing the channel.
I longed for something like Bond to appear on television. But, alas, these were the days of shows like Kojak, Starsky and Hutch, and S.W.AT., which all struck me (even as a child) as cheap, seedy, and naturalistic. I longed, although I did not realize it, to see the present mythologized. Science fiction and fantasy didn’t appeal to me much. (I was the only kid in school who didn’t see Star Wars a second time.) I wanted to see grand conflicts between good and evil, with extraordinary heroes doing extraordinary things, but set in the here-and-now.
When we think about the traditional myths, sagas, and folktales that have been passed down to us, we tend to think that the “mythic elements” include such things as powerful kings, castles with moats around them, knights in armor, imperiled princesses, poisoned blades, and court magicians. But when our traditional myths were composed these things actually existed. They were the realistic elements in the myths. What the myths and sagas did was to take the here-and-now and introduce elements of the supernatural, and superhumanly heroic.
Myths make the present extraordinary. Thus, it actually seems a bit weaselly to refer to Bond as “modern myth.” Kind of like calling discrimination against whites “reverse discrimination.” No, it’s just discrimination. And Bond is just myth. When the Volsung Saga and Parzival were written they were “modern myths,” i.e., myths of today. In making the present extraordinary, myths make clear the difference between good and evil, which is often hard to discern when we are caught up in the complicated details of the moment. They show us eternal truth shining through present actuality. And they erect archetypes of heroism and virtue; they gave us something to aspire to.
This was what I wanted to see as a child: I wanted to see the world around me made mythic. And when my parents finally allowed me to see a Bond film (The Spy Who Loved Me, in 1977), this was exactly what I found. And I’ve been hooked ever since. It was for the same reasons that, in my early twenties, I responded so strongly to Ayn Rand’s novels. Rand called her literary style “romantic realism.” She laid her stories in the present day, but her characters were larger than life and did extraordinary things. It seemed natural to her to include elements of science fiction – just like in the Bond films. And so her characters invent new technologies, and hide them in secret valleys beneath holographic projection screens (see Atlas Shrugged). As Brosnan noted in writing of the Bond films, “modern myths” substitute science fiction for the supernatural. (There seems to be some kind of cultural or literary necessity to this.) “Romantic realism,” is just the same thing as myth, properly understood.
So how exactly do the Bond myths make clear the difference between good and evil? (The idea that there could be a moral dimension to Bond would strike many people as absurd.) I actually alluded to this earlier. To see this we have to look at who Bond is fighting, and how he fights them.
In the films, it was rarely the Soviets. When Fleming got tired of making Russians the villains, he invented S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion), a multi-national criminal organization headed by the diabolical Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Moriarty plus Mabuse). S.P.E.C.T.R.E. first appears in Fleming’s novel Thunderball (1961), but the filmmakers inserted the organization into their version of Dr. No, making the eponymous villain a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent (in the novel he’s working for the Soviets). The sinister organization then appears in five of the next six films (it’s even worked into From Russia With Love, in which the Russians only appear to be the baddies – it’s actually Blofeld and company).
Blofeld and his white Persian cat make their first appearance in From Russia With Love. In an early scene he explains the modus operandi of the organization in terms of the fish in his office aquarium:
“Siamese fighting fish. fascinating creatures, brave but on the whole stupid. Yes, they’re stupid. Except for the occasional one such as we have here, who lets the other two fight. He waits. Waits until the survivor is so exhausted that he cannot defend himself. And then, like S.P.E.C.T.R.E., he strikes.”
The idea is that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. will allow the two superpowers to fight it out, then move in and pick up the pieces. Does Blofeld want merely to profit financially, or does he seek world domination? Probably a bit of both. (And is there a difference?) What is fascinating here is that the organization is, as it were, “triangulated” vis-à-vis the U.S. and U.S.S.R. In fact, what S.P.E.C.T.R.E. embodies is Heidegger’s thesis of the metaphysical identity of the superpowers. S.P.E.C.T.R.E. represents the core of both: materialism, dehumanization, homogenization, globalism, and Heidegger’s Gestell.
These are the real villains, these are the things we are really worried about. And both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were out to advance them, each in their own way. But suddenly now it is little England (no longer an imperial power) that is caught in the pincers. So off goes Bond to slay the dragon of homogenization, and make the world safe for British eccentricity (which, if you think about it, was exactly the premise of TV’s The Avengers).
But there’s another significant sort of villain that Bond finds himself up against: the crazy idealist. These are mainly an invention of the films – there’s really only one in the Fleming novels. The villain in the literary Moonraker (1955), Sir Hugo Drax (really Graf Hugo von der Drache) is a Nazi who plans to destroy London with a missile as revenge for the defeat of Hitler and – I kid you not – as revenge for various forms of social humiliation inflicted on him in English boarding schools. The cinematic Drax is a much crazier idealist: he plans to destroy all life on earth using nerve gas, while creating a new master race on an orbiting space station. The villain of the previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me, plans to destroy the earth by provoking nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., while creating a new master race in a city beneath the sea.
Hmm . . . did these two guys ever meet? Needless to say, Bond vanquishes both of them. In the name of what? In the name of finitude and imperfection; in the name of this world, warts and all. This is surely one of the things that bothers liberal critics. Bond is not an idealist. His “world affirming” attitude extends well beyond a tolerance for marmalade.
But though Bond may not be an idealist, he certainly is a moralist. I have always been convinced that one of the reasons liberal critics tend to hate Bond is that, unlike them, he is not morally confused. Bond has no compunctions at all about passing moral judgments. And in making those judgments he is clearly not drawing on the Sermon on the Mount. No, Bond’s ethos is really that of a pagan.
In the early days of Bond, much was made of the fact that he had a “licence to kill” (I’m deliberately using the British spelling of “license”). This is what the Double-0 prefix in 007 signifies. In Britain in the ’60s, Bond was frequently depicted in film trailers and radio spots as “the gentleman agent with the licence to kill!” The concept of a “licence to kill” is really a legal one. What it means is that Bond is officially authorized to kill in the line of duty and, presumably, in Britain he cannot be prosecuted or otherwise held liable for deaths he causes on the job. It does not really mean that he can kill anyone he wants to, at anytime. Yet, that’s sort of what “licence to kill” communicates to people and – let’s be honest – it gives us a bit of a thrill.
If only I had a licence to kill. I’d probably start with some of the people I work with. Then I’d move on to . . . Well, it’s pointless to sit around fantasizing, pleasant though it might be. It is odd, isn’t it, that the concept of a licence to kill seems so Romantic. It makes Bond seem larger than life. Why? Because it suggests that he has been liberated from the mundane, popular moralism that constrains and confuses us.
In thinking about Blofeld and what must be done with him, Bond does not take time to ponder whether there might really be some good in everyone. (“After all, he does really seem to love that cat. He never goes anywhere without it . . .”) Nor does Bond feel the necessity to Mirandize Blofeld and turn him over to the proper authorities so that he can get due process and a speedy trial. No, Bond simply executes Blofeld (or he tries to – repeatedly).
Bond electrocutes people, harpoons them, strangles them, feeds them to piranha fish, dumps them into pits of boiling mud, explodes them with shark gun pellets, drops them off cliffs, throws them from airplanes, sets them on fire, and sometimes just shoots them (often repeatedly: see how Bond executes Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me). Usually, after each execution, Bond utters a memorable witticism. After harpooning one man with a shark gun in Thunderball, Bond remarks “I think he got the point.” After dumping someone in a pool of piranha in You Only Live Twice, Bonds wishes the little critters “Bon appétit.”
He doesn’t agonize over it later (though, admittedly, there’s a tiny bit of that in the novels). He doesn’t wonder if he did the right thing. No, one of the things that characterizes Bond is moral certainty. He knows who the bad guys are, and he knows they deserve it. And he doesn’t seem to wonder what God thinks about the matter either. No, Bond relies entirely on his own judgment, and is sure in his judgment. And sure of his moral authority to punish evildoers. This is the sort of thing that drives liberals crazy.
But what is it that guides Bond’s moral judgment? Though he takes it upon himself to be judge, jury, and executioner, Bond is never arrogant or capricious in his decision to take a life. Bond is no sociopath. When the assassin Scaramanga suggests in The Man with the Golden Gun that he and Bond are morally equivalent, Bond responds, memorably, “There’s a useful four letter word. And you’re full of it.” Bond is beyond good and evil – but only in the sense that he’s beyond Christian (or liberal) moralizing. This is typified by the title Live and Let Die.
The filmmakers have long employed a brilliant dramatic device that appears in most of the Bond films. At a certain point in the story, an ally of Bond (or, at least, a sympathetic character) will be killed by the villain or the villain’s henchmen. This introduces a note of pathos into what are often extremely lighthearted stories, and it also allows Bond to show some emotion and reveal some vulnerability (in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service he actually cries). But these scenes are important for yet another reason. Always up until that point in the story Bond has been pursuing his mission for Queen and Country. But the death of his friend makes the mission personal.
However, it would not be accurate to say that from that moment forward Bond is acting for Bond. Rather, he is acting according to his own, personal sense of justice. And it is interesting that what catalyzes this is invariably that good-old-pagan virtue of loyalty, and that good-old-pagan desire for vengeance. This is, in fact, the entire premise of 1989’s Licence to Kill, which is actually an eloquent commentary on the very concept of the “licence to kill.” In the story, M revokes Bond’s licence. But Bond goes rogue, bent on avenging the brutalization of his friend Felix and the rape and murder of Felix’s fiancé. What the title of the film means is that although Bond’s legal licence to kill is revoked, the events of the story grant him a moral licence to kill. This is the stuff of the pagan, pre-Christian sagas.
But what would Jesus do? Who bloody cares?! I’ve been asking myself for years “What would James Bond do?” Bond is my moral compass.
Bond as Racialist and Nationalist
Let’s talk a bit more about Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Odd name, isn’t it? It’s German, except for the middle name, because Blofeld is half German, half Greek. This is a pattern we often find with Bond villains: they are mutts of some kind, or something other than what they appear to be. Dr. No is German and Chinese (a frightening combination, if ever there was one!). Not being British is bad enough, but these men are double trouble. Perhaps the most chilling example is Donovan Grant, the homicidal killer in From Russia With Love. Fleming provides us with the details of his paternity in one lurid sentence: “Donovan Grant was the result of a midnight union between a German professional weight-lifter and a Southern Irish waitress.” Poor fellow. One gets the impression that for Fleming having German ancestry must be one of the worst things that could befall a man. (Too bad for the Queen!)
Clearly, Fleming was bothered by the idea of contamination by the non-white, and the not-quite-white. And he obviously endorsed the idea that “the wogs begin at Calais.” The filmmakers, probably without quite realizing it, have carried on this tradition. Perhaps someone will correct me, but I can’t think of a single villain in the Fleming novels or the films who’s genuinely English (aside from some very minor ones like Major Dexter Smythe in the “Octopussy” short story).
Even the non-whites in Fleming are of mixed parentage. I’ve already mentioned Dr. No. Then there’s Mr. Big in Live and Let Die. Fleming tells us that he was born in Haiti and is “half Negro and half French.” That novel, by the way, is usually cited as Fleming’s most racist. The book actually alternates between a kind of naïve, unselfconscious racism and overt attempts to be racially “broadminded.” When Bond is first briefed on Mr. Big he says
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a great Negro criminal before . . . Chinamen, of course, the men behind the opium trade. There’ve been plenty of big-time Japs, mostly in pearls and drugs. Plenty of Negros mixed up in diamonds and gold in Africa, but always in a small way. They don’t seem to take to big business.”
But then Bond immediately follows this up with “Pretty law-abiding chaps, on the whole, I should have thought.” Not to be out-run on this race to fantasyland, M responds: “the Negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions – scientists, doctors, writers. It’s about time they turned out a great criminal. . . . They’ve got plenty of brains and ability and guts.” Perhaps M had just had a snort of Bond’s Benzedrine.
But Fleming wasn’t fooling anybody. The title of Chapter Five in the British edition of Live and Let Die was “Nigger Heaven.” When it was published in the U.S. a year later this was changed to “Seventh Avenue,” and certain racially-charged passages were heavily censored.
Aside from the villains that are foreign mixtures of various kinds, there are the ones who are pretending to be British – which is almost as bad. Sir Hugo Drax in the literary Moonraker is actually half German, but he’s passing himself off as a British war hero. Goldfinger is perhaps the most interesting case: he’s Latvian, but a naturalized British subject. The surname Goldfinger is almost always German-Jewish, which has led to some speculation as to whether the character – who is obsessed with amassing great hordes of gold – is intended to be a kind of anti-Semitic caricature.
In the novel, Bond encounters Goldfinger for the first time in his hotel in Miami (just as in the film). Goldfinger is cheating a wealthy older gentleman at gin rummy – a fellow by the name of Du Pont, who happens to be an old friend of Bond’s. (Bond villains are not gentlemen: they tend to cheat at games. Goldfinger will cheat again at golf, Hugo Drax cheats at cards, Kamal Kahn cheats at backgammon in Octopussy, and Max Zorin cheats at horse racing in A View to a Kill.) Bond and Mr. Du Pont actually discuss whether or not Goldfinger might be Jewish. Du Pont says “You’d think he’d be a Jew from the name, but he doesn’t look it.” He then volunteers that were Goldfinger Jewish he would never have been admitted to the hotel (!).
But Fleming may just have been trying to throw us off the scent. It’s a well-known fact that he borrowed the name of his most famous villain from his neighbor, the architect Ernö Goldfinger. (In the novel the character’s first name is Auric – a clever play on the chemical symbol for gold, Au.) Goldfinger the architect was indeed Jewish, and Fleming seems to have disliked him intensely. Goldfinger’s designs represented the worst of modern, post-war architecture.
Ernö Goldfinger capitalized on post-war devastation and homelessness in Britain by creating some of the most hideous high-rise flats imaginable. His designs were completely devoid of charm, and anything suggesting Englishness. Ever the traditionalist, Fleming was horrified. And he was personally affected by it: Goldfinger had a number of cottages in Fleming’s neighborhood razed in order to make way for his new, butt-ugly modernistic home. The cherry on the cake is that Goldfinger also designed the post-war headquarters of the British Communist Party.
When Fleming’s novel was published, Ernö Goldfinger threatened to sue. Fleming responded by suggesting the book be re-titled Goldprick (a move that would have delighted Austin Powers). However, Goldfinger was apparently pleased by the publicity the book brought him, so he dropped his case in exchange for Fleming paying his legal costs and six free copies of the book. While Fleming may have delighted in naming his villain after the odious architect, the characterization of Goldfinger is actually said to have been based on Charles W. Engelhard, Jr., an American millionaire involved in the precious metals industry, and thoroughbred horse racing (just like Auric Goldfinger). Engelhard was also Jewish.
There were also “fake Englishmen” created exclusively for Bond’s cinematic exploits. Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye (1995) starts off as a British agent – and friend of Bond – but turns out to be descended from Cossacks and bent on revenge against the U.K. (It’s a long story . . . ) Perhaps the most dramatic example in the Bond films of the “fake Englishman” is Gustav Graves in Die Another Day (2002; possibly the worst of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds). Graves actually turns out to be a North Korean mastermind who has undergone “gene therapy” and physically transformed himself into an Englishman. (Perhaps the most confused and implausible plot element in any Bond film.)
Its one thing to be some heavily-accented, foreign counterjumper trying to pass himself off as an English gentleman. But the case of Graves suggests that there may be people out there who are genetic fakes: English, but not really. Come to think of it, doesn’t this describe Tony Blair and all the ethnomasochists of the Labour Party, who’ve pretty much destroyed England? And – ouch – doesn’t this also describe any American of English ancestry? Perhaps “gene therapy” is the solution to the U.K.’s immigration problem. They’d still be flooded with Pakis and Arabs, but at least they’d look English. (And let’s be quite honest with each other: to a significant degree, immigration is an aesthetic problem, as well as a cultural and racial one.)
It’s not just their race and ethnicity that makes the Bond villains so frightening: they’re usually also physically and psychologically screwed up. Dr. No has no hands. Blofeld has a syphilitic scar in the novels (and what appears to be a dueling scar in one film). Emilio Largo is missing an eye. Tee Hee in Live and Let Die is missing a hand. Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun has a third nipple. Nick Nack, in the same film, is a dwarf. Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me has steel teeth, and Stromberg, in the novelization of that film, has webbed fingers. Max Zorin is the product of Nazi experiments. Alec Trevelyan is hideously scarred. Renard in The World is Not Enough is incapable of feeling pain or pleasure. And Le Chiffre in Casino Royale cries blood.
In short, the Bond villains are “special.” In today’s world these people would all get to sit in the reserved benches at the front of the bus (even Scaramanga with his nipple: remember, not all disabilities are visible). But in Fleming’s world they are accorded no sympathy. In Fleming’s world there’s a healthy horror of physical abnormalities, and a Classically Greek intuition that what’s twisted on the outside is twisted on the inside. The flip side of this is the much-maligned Bondian focus on beauty. (Though what most feminist critics don’t seem to get is that Bond is offered to us as a sex object as well.)
Then there are all those perversions. From Russia With Love is a veritable cavalcade of perverts. Rosa Klebb is a lesbian who gets off on torturing people. Donovan Grant is a serial killer who derives a sexual thrill from killing (but only when the moon is full! This didn’t make it into the film). Finally, another From Russia With Love assassin, Krilencu, also kills for pleasure. So does Vargas in Thunderball. Blofeld is described as asexual. Wynt and Kidd in Diamonds are Forever are gay. And Scaramanga only makes love prior to killing. This just scratches the surface.
Thank god that physical deformity and sexual perversion don’t exist in Fleming’s England!
Actually, the most iconic Bond villain of all may be Le Chiffre in the literary Casino Royale. “Le Chiffre” means “the cipher.” The man in question adopted this name after the war, when he was liberated from Dachau. He claimed to be suffering from total amnesia, and at first was unable to speak. He could not remember his nationality. (M’s dossier, however, states that he has “large [ear]lobes, indicating some Jewish blood”!) Nor could he even remember his own name. And so he adopted the name Le Chiffre, to express his complete lack of identity. Le Chiffre is the perfect modern villain – and a perfect villain for the first Bond adventure. He embodies everything that Bond is fighting against: he is a rootless cosmopolitan, a man without a country, and without any allegiances (other than to himself).
Bond himself is the antithesis of this. Despite his Overmanish qualities, he’s a patriot who sees himself as serving Queen and Country. Much has been made of the fact that Bond is a kind of wish fulfillment for the post-imperial British. He came along at a time when British power and prestige were on the wane. But Bond allows the British to pretend that they are still a world power, and that it’s up to them to come to the rescue. There’s a lot to this analysis, actually. For one thing, isn’t it significant that Bond so often has to come to the aid of the hapless Americans? This actually begins in the novels, in which Bond is always ordering around Americans like Felix Leiter, who are portrayed as classless and inept. Kingsley Amis put it best, writing in The James Bond Dossier:
The point of Felix Leiter, such a nonentity as a piece of characterization, is that he, the American, takes orders from Bond, the Britisher, and that Bond is constantly doing better than he, showing himself, not braver or more devoted, but smarter, wilier, tougher, more resourceful—the incarnation of little old England with her quiet ways and shoestring budget wiping the eye of great big global-tentacled multi-billion-dollar-appropriating America.
This is all true, and I suppose that if one sees things from this perspective, Bond (and Fleming) come off seeming a trifle pathetic. But the truth is that Bond doesn’t really have any illusions about British power and influence. He’s just fighting for his country. Not because he thinks it’s the greatest country in the world, or because he thinks it has a mission to civilize the rest of the planet. The loss of the Empire really makes no difference to him, because he doesn’t need a reason to love England and the English. He simply loves what is his own. Would that there were more Englishmen like James Bond. . . .
Prospects for the Future
I am writing this some days prior to Skyfall’s release in the U.S. Based on the advance publicity, and reviews by critics in the U.K., I am cautiously optimistic.
During the gap between 1989’s Licence to Kill and the first Pierce Brosnan film, GoldenEye (1995), I worried that when Bond returned he would be made politically correct. But the producers actually seemed to signal that that wasn’t going to happen. In GoldenEye, the now-female M informs a bemused (and unrepentant) Bond that he’s a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.”
Yes, I was bothered a little bit by the female M. (And puzzled as to why they hadn’t followed Sir Humphrey Appleby’s suggestion in Yes, Minister and changed the code name to F.) But the real head of MI6 at the time was a woman, and Judi Dench is a fine actress, so I was willing to go along with it. It also didn’t bother me that there were token blacks surrounding M. So what? And Pierce Brosnan bedding down with Halle Berry didn’t trouble me at all (from Octopussy to Octoroon, I suppose one might say). Afterall, Bond has been bedding non-white women since Dr. No. I don’t think he plans to have children with any of them.
And I am also willing to overlook the fact that Bond no longer smokes. I still vividly recall an interview with Pierce Brosnan who described shooting a scene in Tomorrow Never Dies. Bond is sitting in the dark, lying in wait in someone’s hotel room, wearing shirtsleeves, cradling his gun and drinking vodka (in short, kind of like a scene in Dr. No). Brosnan said the scene “just cried out for a cigarette.” But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It would have been a bad influence on the kiddies. Let me get this straight: he’s sitting in the dark, swigging Smirnoff, about to kill someone – but smoking a cigarette would have sent impressionable viewers the wrong message? (Meanwhile, apparently, Brosnan was shooting Lark commercials in Japan.)
Yes, I’m willing to forgive James Bond quite a lot, actually. And at this point I’m not really concerned that the producers will ruin the series with political correctness. They’re too smart for that. I am concerned, however, that many of the things I’ve discussed in this essay – things that make Bond Bond – are falling by the wayside.
I was delighted with how the producers chose to “reboot” Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale. I had been saying for years that major changes needed to made; that the series was riding on nostalgia; that it had become stale. I also think that Daniel Craig is the best Bond since Connery. Why? Because he actually manages to make Bond into a three-dimensional, believable character. Timothy Dalton did this as well, but he somehow wasn’t quite the right “fit” – and Brosnan always gave me the impression of a man playing a man playing James Bond. However, one of the ways in which they’ve made the character more believable is to make him less self-possessed. This new Bond is unsure of himself in many ways. He seems a bit unstable, and is not fully in command of himself and his surroundings. He’s not riding the tiger yet. Maybe he’s learning to ride it, but I don’t know.
And this new Bond has no critical distance from technology. There’s something about seeing James Bond with a cell phone pressed against his ear that really bothers me. He’s become too much like us. Too swamped by the tech. Too swamped by the organization. He seems smaller and more vulnerable. He seems beleaguered – as we all are today. Is the character going to continue growing and developing? Will he grow into the old James Bond, who showed us that it is possible to ride the tiger of modernity and not be trampled by it? I hope so.
Despite my misgivings, I will be first in line to see Skyfall when it opens. And I have already ordered my 50th anniversary Blu-ray set of all twenty-two earlier Eon productions Bond films. I’ve learned a whole lot about life from James Bond, and I will continue to defend Bond and continue seeing these films from now till my dying breath . . .
. . . unless they make Bond black.
 More sadism was borrowed from the same novel and placed in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only: Bond and the heroine are tied together and dragged over coral reefs.
 Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, trans. William Scott Wilson (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1979), 23-24, emphasis added.
 A “Major Boothroyd,” who is apparently supposed to be the same person as Q, appears in Dr. No. But there he is merely an “armourer,” who provides Bond with his famous Walther PPK. He is also not played by Desmond Llewelyn, the actor most famously associated with Q, but by Peter Burton.
 John Brosnan, James Bond in the Cinema (London: Tantivy Press, 1972), 73.
 I have actually amalgamated elements from both the novel and the film.
 In the novel, he betrays the Tong society, who cut off his hands.
 In the novel, Bond buries Dr. No under a pile of bat guano.
 Brosnan, 11.
 This is why Bond, as myth, is actually superior to Tolkien – and why he appeals to a wider audience.
 It’s no surprise that Rand was gaga over Dr. No. But she disliked the later films, thinking that they undermined Bond’s mythic heroism.
 He was born in Gdynia, Poland, when it was part of Germany.
 Calm yourselves: this business about casting a black man as Bond has been around for years. It’s a publicity stunt.
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Fantastic review, Costello … Jeff Costello.
Somewhere on the web there’s an audio file of Ian Fleming interviewing Raymond Chandler, something I’m sure you would love to listen to.
Excellent!! James Bond forever!! I really don’t think a black James Bond is credible.
Perhaps they should test the water first by having Craig ‘black-up’ for the next movie? He could even crank out a version of “Mammy” for the theme tune!
It is my belief that Hollywood is seeking to replace the Caucasian Christian Jesus image with that of an all-powerful, all-loving black man.
Network programming is getting ridiculous with this meme of the wise black Negro. Are we about to see a rash of black soccer dads in the suburbs?
Interesting article, and I agree on some points, but we need to remember what the character is in the end: a government assassin, nothing more. He has no code beyond not killing in cold blood, and he fights for no cause, unlike actual Western heroes like Achilles or Aeneas.
Is Bond a model for White men? Maybe certain parts of him, such as his taste, confidence, etc. But is Bond a hero? Absolutely not, and Fleming didn’t write him as one. In one pivotol scene in You Only Live Twice (the novel), Bond is sulking in a garden and watching a colony of ants move about, and he gets depressed over the fact that that’s all he is: a drone in the service of a queen.
Don’t think for one moment that Bond wouldn’t be assigned to eliminate “bad guys” like nationalists and anyone who threatens the status quo. Let’s not forget that in the movies, the bad guys are always Germanic types who feel that the world is corrupt somehow. It is. Bond doesn’t care about the world… heck he barely even cares about England. What he likes are his suites, his cigarettes, and his bourbon. In many ways he’s actually Nietzsche’s Last Man.
The Bond movies and books are cool and fun to watch and read, but they’re no model for White Western men. They’re entertainment. Bond has admirable qualities, but what he does- killing for a corrupt government- is nothing to admire. There is one exception: Quantum of Solace, where Bond roots out a clandestine organization that has corrupted the governments of England and America. That’s where Bond was actually at his most heroic, though few people realize it because the film wasn’t as good as it could have been. But for the most part, Bond exists for shallow excitement, nothing more.
You are right. He is not a role model, but he is a hero despite all his peccadilloes. He does his duty his way. So do all the knights in King Arthur’s round table.
Wow! What a thorough piece! If I may say so, this is the most entertaining, informative essay you have published here. I, too, have always admired Bond for being one of the only overtly un-PC, hyper-masculine, traditional White action heroes in film. His enduring popularity speaks to the fact that most White males do absolutely identify with, long for much of what you explore in this essay, if even subconsciously.
I will also be enjoying Skyfall this weekend, with several male friends as is tradition each time a new Bond film is released! I look forward to a follow-up review Mr. Costello!
Hello Alaskan — Thanks for your kind words. I wish I could see the movie with you and your friends. Especially if you’re seeing it in Alaska.
This is brilliant, and I am dead jealous of not having written this myself. I grew up with a huge James Bond obsession as well in the Eighties, while being rather appalled by the more contemporary, more vulgar screen heroes of that time such as Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Van Damme. And only now, three decades later, while reading Jef”s sharp-sighted piece I am starting to analyze the elements of my (and probably the world’s) juvenile fascination, realizing how much influence Bond had on the development of my worldview. There are some very interesting points, like the role of technology or Bond’s position as a mere follower of orders, I have never thought about.
There is btw an essay by Umberto Eco from the 70s (I think) that pointed very similar things: notably that most Bond villains in the novels and movies were of dubiously “mixed” or uncertain ethnicity, physically charged, crippled or freakish, sexually deviant etc. as opposed to the very British (in fact according to Fleming half-Scottish, half-Swiss!), very heterosexual, very physically fit Bond. As a German I find Fleming’s British old school “Germanophobia” quite amusing. The film version made Goldfinger appear more Hermann-Goering-like than Jewish, starring the great and very teutonic Gert Froebe (Curd Juergens couldn’t tie his shoelaces).
An oddity aside is that in the novel “You Only Live Twice” Bond is actually somewhat “gen-therapy”-style turned into a Japanese fisherman (!) for undercover reasons, then losing his memory in the end… it is unspeakably weird and over-the-top.
I agree on Daniel Craig: best Bond since Connery!
I agree also that as long Bond has a broad appeal to mass audiences there is hope that all this PC deconstructioning of “white heterosexual males” has worked only on the surface so far…
Thank you, Petronius, for your kind compliments. I enjoyed writing this essay probably more than any other I’ve written.
Yes, there is an unfortunate Germanophobia running throughout Bond. One way in which it manifests itself (which I didn’t comment on in the essay) is in the large number of tall, blond, Germanic henchmen (i.e., secondary villains) that Bond dispatches in the series. Off the top of my head there’s one in YOLT, more than one in OHMSS, For Your Eyes Only, Living Daylights, Tomorrow Never Dies, others possible.
There is also Robert Shaw in “From Russia with Love”, and of course uber-blonde Aryan Max Zorin in “A View to a Kill”, mixing it up with uber-black Amazon Grace Jones.
Well you have to do a fair bit of ‘forgiving’ in watching modern film. Like Bowden talked about Marxists taking over Shakespearean plays and now Jews producing Wagner, Disney taking over Star Wars etc There’s just as many horrifying elements as there are mythic and Skyfall is no different… there’s even an Oscar push which is interesting. It’s a little like the Republican problem of living off the dream while they are simultaneously stabbing you.
GJ will be amused at this film drawing heavily from Batman TKD, particularly the villain.
” (The Bond imitators – those who brought us Matt Helm, Derek Flint, and others – often failed to get this, turning their pseudo-Bonds into lascivious, salivating womanizers.)”
Someone could argue — me, actually — that the horde of Bond-imitators (unlike, say, the “grittier” UK films like the various Le Carres, Deightons and Marlowes) were largely made by middle-aged Hollywood Jews (cigar-chomping, bald, big bellies and big horn-rimmed glasses) in which the “Bond” character enacted their midlife crisis fantasies of seducing nubile starlets.
Case in point: the snuggly cardigan wearing, girdle-braced, insufferably smug yet irresistible to women literally 25 years younger than he Adam Chance of “Agent For HARM”. MST3K call’s these sort of things ‘geriatric spy movies.” “Hey, look, it’s your dad’s golf buddy!”
As an analysis of the roots of the cinematic Matt Helm, I certainly agree with this!
The actor Patrick McGoohan was supposedly the first choice to play Bond.
He had to settle with creating “The Prisoner” that included sadism and snobbery but no sex for Number 6.
Bond is one of Savitri Devi’s Men of Time, a Destroyer in other words. But he does it with such style, using brains, brawn and gadgetry. A Black Bond? Just like a Black Santa Claus, it just doesn’t work. These are Northern European archetypes – just like the Latin Lover is Latin.
But in another sense, Bond, at least the Bond of the movies, is a Patriot – loyal to an England that he probably doesn’t bother to understand. Like people who believe the Bible without reading it, Bond just accepts. Perhaps like Genghis Khan’s Lieutentants – he is just worshiping a force greater than his own?
Glad to see you reference Kingsley Amis’ excellent James Bond Dossier, surely one of the most interesting and useful potboilers ever penned for a buck or a pound.
There are a few areas where his analysis differs somewhat from yours, possibly because he only takes the books as canon, — ‘Book Bond’ rather than ‘Movie Bond’ as he calls them – with occasional glances at the first couple of movies, so for comparison’s sake:
Rather than ‘sucking up’ to M Amis finds an Oedipal relationship. This certainly makes Bond’s attempt to kill M in YOLT rather interesting, although he was brainwashed at the time.
Moreover, Amis draws a parallel between the strained interviews with M, so formal, mocking, ironic — “those damnably clear grey eyes” with on one occasion ‘a hint of red’ when angry with Bond — in M’s book lined office or den or club, and, on the other hand, with the traditional Bond vs. Bad Guy scenes. In a way both scene show Bond trying to win approval as it were from older authority figures– probably not Dr. No, but certainly Hugo Drax, whom he openly admires, much to M’s annoyance [jealous much?].
Both types of scenes are where most of the ‘sadism’ is; M’s is psychological, of course. On this topic, you seem OK with the charge of ‘sadism’ but Amis, in his typical way, goes to the trouble of actually counting examples of sadism in the books and finds damned few.
He does the same, to the same effect, with the ‘womanizing’ as well. That’s still consistent with your idea of Bond’s indifference. However, Amis has a different take on it.
“Bond’s success with women is totally explicable within the terms of the novels. Women take to him because he likes them and knows how to be kind to them. He has, of course, further advantages. Other things being equal, women prefer handsome men to ugly and brave men to cowardly. There seems nothing to be done about that. Any number of us, however, could afford to take a couple of leaves out of Bond’s book. Unlike many heroes of more ambitious fiction, Bond is good-tempered and not moody. Women appreciate that in a man. And, as Tatiana notices at once, Bond looks very clean.”
Of course, Tatiana was Russian, in a time not far from when Krushchev’s father boasted of taking only two baths in his life, once when he was baptized and the other on his wedding day, so Bond must have been a pleasant surprise. And of course, Amis is writing not only before the high tide of feminism but also was notably a man who had, as his novel is titled, “Difficulties with Women” so one might take this with a grain of salt.
Nevertheless, if Amis had been writing in the 21st century, he might well have reached for a single word to describe Bond’s appeal to women: “metrosexual.”
It would be interesting to compare the most notable features of the books — the fetishism of labels and brands, the right this or that, the health regimens, even, in Thunderball, the spa visit [admittedly under orders, and, as Amis says, Bond, unlike us, is the sort of chap who’d go to a spa and stumble on a plot to blackmail NATO] — combined with Bond’s rather emotionally distant mentality, to one of those ‘metrosexual guides’ or even, dare I say it, the Queer Eye guides to life.
Perhaps, as they say, Bond isn’t queer, he’s just British.
Perhaps the most obviously ‘metrosexual’ spy is the Russian mole/assassin Krasnevin/Eberlin in A Dandy in Aspic [played by Laurence Harvey in the movie, against Mia Farrow]. Lacking any real past [raised in Russia to be a mole, then shipped to England to take over someone else’s biography] and unable to form human relationships now for security reasons, he becomes, indeed, a Wildean type dandy [for whom Wilde was too vulgar; Brummel is his man] who collects Sevres china. Amis notes that Bond, unlike his villains, lacks any oddball interests in orchids or the like, and notes with a shudder what Bond would be like with a taste for Bruckner or an obsession with … porcelain. Eberlin, being a mole, has both Bond’s cold bloodedness and the Bond Villian’s excentricities.
Finally, although you seem to consider Bond a kind of kshatrya, Amis dismisses Connery as Bond because while Book Bond is called on to impersonate the occasional upper class twit [or hanger on, like the heraldry expert Hillary] Connery “could pose as a Scottish businessman but never a Scottish baronet.” And as we know from my essay on The Untouchables, he can’t play an Irish cop either!
Connery is the original Bond, the one by which all others will be measured. Without him, it is most unlikely that there would have been Bonds 2, 3, etc. Connery the man is as you describe, but he epitomizes the Actor’s art by leaving his personal background behind in the portrayal of his character.
Absolutely brilliant essay, Mr. Costello! Thank you very much!
Btw – John de Nugent` opinion on Ian Fleming and James Bond is here:
Superb essay per usual, I do so love how CC articles are so lavishly illustrated.
Mr Costello are the uncensored books available?
The title of Chapter Five in the British edition of Live and Let Die was “Nigger Heaven.” When it was published in the U.S. a year later this was changed to “Seventh Avenue,” and certain racially-charged passages were heavily censored.
I was encouraged by the character assignments in “Skyfall.” The hero’s and heroines are white.
The major villian is hispanic and the black female is a scr-w up.
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