Goodbye, Mr. Bond


By Wayne Allensworth

You only live twice

Once when you are born

And once when you look death in the face

—  James Bond, after Japanese poet Basho in You Only Live Twice

My first encounter with James Bond at the movies was quite memorable, partly because I was trying to watch Goldfinger from the backseat of our family car at Thunderbird Drive-in in Houston, Texas, and partly because my mother was swatting me in an attempt to redirect my attention away from a movie she didn’t think I should be watching. Thunderbird was one of those two screen drive-ins. To no avail. Pussy Galore, 007, that tricked-out Aston Martin, and Oddjob were a lot more fun than what was on the screen in front of us (I can’t remember what it was–I was a bit distracted). I was soon collecting James Bond movie tie-ins, including a miniature Aston Martin and a board game based on the movie Thunderball. And it wasn’t long after that that I was reading Ian Fleming’s novels. There was no stopping Bond. I couldn’t decide at the time whether I wanted to be Errol Flynn as Captain Blood or Robin Hood, John Wayne (as John Wayne), or James Bond (as personified by Sean Connery). Those were fun days, and I ate up everything Bond as much as I did Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. There were other suave spies, but Bond was the pacesetter. Thanks for the memories, Ian Fleming, Sean Connery, and all those involved with the Bond movies.

In the best of the James Bond films derived directly from the novels of Ian Fleming — Dr. NoFrom Russia with LoveGoldfinger, and Thunderball — Sean Connery evoked the roguish yet gentlemanly quality of British “clubland” heroes like Richard Hannay, Nayland Smith, and Bulldog Drummond who had helped inspire 007’s creator. But Fleming and Connery, essentially co-creators of the character as the films inevitably eclipsed the novels, added a hard-edged violence to the character’s persona that was rarely seen in the clean-limbed protagonists of an earlier time.

Like Conan Doyle, Fleming had brought to life a character who seemed real, however improbable his adventures, to the reading public, and with help from Connery, the film-going public. Like Fleming’s creation, Connery, tongue firmly in cheek, faced the most unlikely of villains with amused irony, but nevertheless lent a seriousness to the role that seemed more realistic to an audience that had witnessed world war, Stalin, Hitler, and Hiroshima. Fleming’s novels, and especially the early Bond films, like postwar film noir or “adult” Westerns, suited an era that did not require Boy Scout heroes, but was perhaps not yet quite prepared for the amoral antihero that Clint Eastwood popularized in his squint-and-kill “spaghetti Westerns.”

The superhuman antics of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1980s and 1990s action films were probably a carryover from the Bond films. But the tight-lipped Terminator-style killing in Rambo or Commando more closely resembled the cold-bloodedness of Eastwood’s .45-toting Angel of Death. Especially as fleshed out by Fleming in his novels, Bond still has a code. It is a rough one to be sure, like that of John Wayne’s Western heroes, whose behavior would hardly have passed muster with Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy, but one that retains some sense of honor. Bond is a killer, but not a murderer. He considers himself a soldier in a secret war, his “license to kill” a relic of the global bloodletting of WWII. By the mid-1980’s, the EON Productions team behind the Bond movies had steered away from the spoofs of the 1970s, when Roger Moore was essentially acting in Matt Helm- or Derrick Flint-style self-parodies. Shakespearean actor Timothy Dalton, then Pierce Brosnan, at his best in 1995’s Goldeneye, brought back the winning combination of irony and ruthlessness that Connery created. The genial Moore had made the image of Bond as a highly trained commando impossible to believe. No one wanted to be Moore’s Bond. Connery’s Bond exuded confidence, charm, and an aura of danger. As the movie ads from the era read, “Sean Connery is James Bond.”  He set the standard for the series and helped make 007 a worldwide entertainment phenomenon. Audiences waited for the announcement in the closing credits, “James Bond will return in…”

In Fleming’s novels, Bond was sometimes troubled by the ruthlessness — and loneliness — of his profession. Loyalty is a strong element in his character — loyalty to his service, to his chief, known only as “M,” to the British crown and to his country. He is a bit of a loner. Yet he enjoys the company and comradery of male friends, including a host of larger-than-life counterparts who turn up as memorably drawn characters in the novels. Apart from “M,” a venerable naval officer who disapproves of Bond’s “womanizing,” we meet Felix Leiter, a lanky Texan with the CIA who shares some of Bond’s adventures (and is badly mangled by a shark in Live and Let Die, subsequently sporting a steel hook instead of a right hand); One time circus strongman Darko Kerim, head of station “T” in Istanbul in From Russia with Love; Quarrel, the knowledgeable Cayman islander of Bond’s Caribbean adventures, Live and Let Die and Dr. No; Marc Ange Draco, head of the Corsican mafia and, briefly, Bond’s father-law in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; and two memorable friends in You Only Live Twice, the hard-drinking Australian Dikko Henderson, and the head of the Japanese secret service and one-time kamikaze pilot trainee Tiger Tanaka.

 Ian Fleming

Bond likes gambling, fast cars, good food, and is quite fussy about his other pronounced likes and dislikes. Indeed, Bond is as quirky as Sherlock Holmes. In Fleming’s novels, we are familiarized with Bond’s flat off of King’s Road in Chelsea (like Holmes’ digs at 221B Baker Street) and meet his fussy Scottish maid, May (analogous to Holmes’ landlady, Mrs. Hudson). We also discover that Bond had a colleague who played the role of Watson, writing up stylized versions of 007’s adventures that M mentions in 007’s premature obituary in You Only Live Twice. Bond’s roots are firmly in an earlier era, when Ian Fleming undoubtedly read adventure stories that informed and inspired his own hero’s tales of derring-do. 

Like Holmes, Bond is set in his ways. As with Doyle’s wonderful “consulting detective,” Bond fans knew every detail of their hero’s world. Bond practically always wore a dark-blue worsted-wool suit with a black knitted silk tie, for instance. He wore Sea Island cotton shirts and hated shoelaces, preferring what Americans would call “loafers,” albeit ones often equipped with steel tips in case of a fight. He sometimes carried a throwing knife and was rated by his enemies in the Soviet assassination bureau SMERSH (a contraction of the Russian words meaning “death to spies”), as we found out from reading his Soviet dossier in From Russia with Love, as a tough and tenacious fighter. We knew that breakfast was Bond’s favorite meal; what handgun he carried; that he favored a special Balkan tobacco blend of cigarettes with three gold bands made by Morland’s; that he had a scar on his right cheek (acquired in Casino Royale); and what cars he drove, usually a supercharged Bentley, but in Goldfinger, the specially- equipped Aston Martin that in the films became the vehicle filmgoers associated with their favorite secret agent. Commander Bond, R.N.V.R, flirted with M’s secretary, the desirable Miss Moneypenny, as well as two of his own secretaries, Loelia Ponsonby and Mary Goodnight. The 007 movie production team induced moviegoers, like Fleming’s readers, to revel in Bondania: Our man liked his vodka martini shaken, not stirred; He tossed his hat (when men still wore hats) at the hat stand when he entered M’s office; he traded quips with the delightful Desmond Llewellyn as gadget master Q; and he always announced himself as “Bond, James Bond.” He inhabited a world both deadly and outlandishly exciting.

As for Bond’s “womanizing,” without a doubt, Bond’s escapades would have made Holmes and Hannay, not to mention Dr. Watson, blush. But Bond also had style, and a dash of the white knight in him. The women who populate Fleming’s novels are not shallow “Bond girls.” Bond liked a particular type, an athletic woman who drove a sports car like a man. She was stylish but not overdone (light on the makeup, please), yet often vulnerable, physically or psychologically, someone Bond felt an urge to protect. They often had tragic backstories related in interesting, sometimes gripping, vignettes Fleming incorporated into the novels. Honeychile Ryder (Dr. No) had a broken nose she thought disfigured her (broken by a rapist she subsequently killed off with a black widow spider). Tough talking Tiffany Case (Diamonds are Forever) had also been raped by gangsters — and after rescuing her from the Spangled Mob, Bond wants to marry her. Domino Vitale (Thunderball) had one leg that was shorter than the other. Bond fell for double agent Vesper Lynd (blackmailed into turning by SMERSH) in Casino Royale, and she commits suicide. Bond prevents Tracy Draco (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) from committing suicide, then marries her, only to see her murdered by his arch nemesis, Blofeld. In spite of his claims of cold and detached ruthlessness, Bond is actually a bit of a romantic, which, again, fits with his clubland hero roots.

Bond villains Ernst Stavro Blofeld, founder of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counterespionage, Terror, Revenge, and Extortion), and the fiendish Dr. No are obvious descendants of Professor Moriarty and Fu Manchu. Bond villains were diabolical, sometimes sexually deviant, invariably sadistic, and often grotesque: Hugo Drax (Moonraker) was badly disfigured in the war. One of his eyes is bigger than the other, the protruding eyeball seeming to follow Bond’s every move. SMERSH chief assassin Red Grant (From Russia with Love) is a manic-depressive psychopath who prefers to kill under a full moon — the closest Grant ever gets to a sexual thrill. Grant’s SMERSH boss Rosa Kleb is downright physically repulsive as well as being asexual. Haitian gangster and SMERSH agent Mr. Big (Live and Let Die) is a massive man with gray skin (due to a rare heart condition) with a head the size and shape of a soccer ball. Oddjob (Goldfinger) is a karate expert who eats cats as a delicacy. Bond villains are twisted in every way, physically and mentally. The evil ways and warped personalities of Mr. Big, Grant, Kleb, Blofeld, Goldfinger, and Bond’s other adversaries are made graphically clear in the novels. In Casino Royale, Rene Mathis, head of the French Deuxieme Bureau, predicts that Bond’s life will be devoted to confronting and destroying the evil men of the world. “And now that you have seen a really evil man [the Soviet agent Le Chiffre],” he tells Bond, “You will know how evil they can be and you will go after them to destroy them in order to protect yourself and the people you love.”

With Connery as Bond, the 007-film series achieved a delicate balance between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek high adventure, with stress on the latter. Another path to approach Bond would have been to emphasize the ruthlessness and sometimes reflective guilt of the character. A filmmaker could emphasize the harsh actions of the character and the violence of the Fleming novels (dismissed as a combination of “sex, snobbery, and sadism” by critics), a more realistic and tough-minded approach that was eventually superseded, as noted above, by the amoral carnage of “spaghetti westerns,” followed by the savage brutality of “slasher” films. What else could one do with the Bond series in a world where one of the most popular fictional characters was serial killer Hannibal Lecter?

The producers took that approach when Daniel Craig became Bond in Casino Royale, released in 2006 to “reboot” the series, which had been showing its age. In Craig’s Casino Royale, a young Bond has just earned his “00” prefix by registering two kills on an assignment. His boss is not the venerable Bernard Lee or a reasonable facsimile, but a quite unsympathetic, hard-nosed woman, played by Dame Judi Dench. Her coming aboard as M in 1995’s Goldeneye was a sure sign the series had outlived its time. Craig’s Bond was a fine impersonation of an SAS commando, desensitized to killing and the hard world he inhabits, a world full of terrorists, African warlords, and money launderers. He is attractive to certain women, but hardly suave. Craig’s interpretation of the character stresses his distance and cold demeanor, perhaps because he fears attachments in a world that seems so harsh and transient. He has little in the way of a sense of style, and his short-cropped hair advertises a military background. This Bond looks as if he would feel more comfortable in fatigues and combat boots than in a tuxedo and dress shoes.

After surviving brutal torture at the hands of Le Chiffre (the torture scene in Fleming’s original prompted critics’ recurring “sadism” charges) and witnessing Vesper’s death, Craig’s Bond straps on his emotional armor and, having been schooled in style by Vesper and having acquired some taste for the high life at the card tables of an exclusive casino, is transformed into … what? A jaded commando who vacations in Cancun and plays poker with rich people? A leathery veteran who sometimes wears a tuxedo, which his late lady love picked for him? We are left with what would be a strong ending for a one-off thriller with a noir sensibility, or even a BBC miniseries. Indeed, the filmmakers were attempting to restart the Bond franchise by going back to its roots in Fleming’s original novel, the grimmest of the lot, reshaping a Bond more palpable for the 21st Century. But Daniel Craig was not James Bond. Indeed, he couldn’t be because the world his character lives in cannot make James Bonds. The filmmakers perhaps had no choice but to reinvent Bond as another postmodern Terminator, albeit one who can capture a degree of the audience’s sympathy. Still, the letdown for some veteran Bond fans was inevitable.

It’s quite a tribute to the enduring attraction of the Bond character that the films are set to continue after Craig’s retirement from the part. The Bond series, both Fleming’s highly enjoyable and readable novels and the films, was always a bit of nostalgia, a romanticized romp through a world that had ended once and for all in the ashes of Dresden and Hiroshima. Fleming himself was well aware of this. His James Bond was an attempt to recapture some of the glory of Britain’s past as the author sadly watched it evaporate in the post-war years while the empire was gradually wound up. An old-fashioned patriot, like his creation, Fleming longed for the England of his boyhood, the memory of a Great Britain that had passed its zenith. Bond was a reminder of that Edwardian past, an attempt to recapture a world that had been lost both in fact and in fiction. Fleming’s readers and then film audiences had a deep longing for someone like James Bond, a return to earlier days of swashbuckling adventure, a dashing man women wanted and men wanted to be like, a masculine avatar in a world that disdained “toxic masculinity.”  

 Sean Connery and Ian Fleming

Regrettably, Fleming himself never realized how good a writer he was (I recommend Nicolas Shakespeare’s recent biography, Ian Fleming: The Complete Man as the best source on Fleming’s full, adventurous, and tragic life and times. Many events in his personal life, including his wartime experiences in British Naval Intelligence, showed up in his novels). Despite the success of the Bond stories, Fleming thought that in some sense he had failed as a novelist, as he had at one time aspired to write “serious fiction.” And let’s not overlook one of Fleming’s great talents — that of a travel writer. His novels always included commentary on the far-flung locales that Bond visited, the people and their ways as observed by Fleming through the eyes of James Bond. And Fleming succeeded at something that few other writers had by creating a character who has endured. However fantastic his adventures, James Bond seemed real to his readers and to movie fans around the world. Like Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fleming invented an archetypal character who became a household term, a mainstay of popular culture that even postmodern wokeness can’t quite erase, as his attraction is elemental.

The film production team responsible for originating the Bond series deserves a lot of credit as well: Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli, who wisely chose Sean Connery to set the standard for the series in the role of Bond. Ken Adam’s production design gave the Bond films an unmistakable look. Maurice Binder’s title design, was, again, a pacesetter for the series. Then there were Monty Norman’s jaunty James Bond theme, John Barry’s terrific film scores, and the songwriters and performers who gave us memorable Bond movie theme songs, the bone-crunching fight scenes choreographed by Bob Simmons, director Terrance Young, whose mentoring of Sean Connery played a key role in the creation of the celluloid Bond, and the scriptwriters who brought Bond to the screen. From those of us who loved those movies, a belated thanks.  

But the romance is gone. So are the playfulness and irony, as well as the stylized characterization that Connery — perhaps the last of the old-fashioned movie stars — could pull off in the early films. Gone is the high adventure and savoir faire of big-screen swashbucklers from Fairbanks to Flynn to Connery. In any case, Connery’s impersonation of Bond was a throwback to a time that was already past when 007 faced the celluloid Dr. No in 1962. Gone too are the days of Cary Grant and stars like him, dressed to the nines, carnation in lapel with Ingrid Bergman or Audrey Hepburn on his arm, fighting and making love, living dangerously and well. At the time Casino Royale was released, I wrote that “nobody will leave the theater after Casino Royale humming Monty Norman’s unforgettable James Bond theme. Nobody will want to be Craig’s Bond.” Bond has lived more than twice, but his time may have come. It may be time to end the series, leaving us to savor those memories of Saturday matinees, M, Pussy Galore, Oddjob, SMERSH, SPECTRE, and an Aston Martin with an ejector seat. In the words of Auric Goldfinger, as a deadly laser beam bore down on 007, “Goodbye, Mr. Bond.”

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood. For thirty-two years, he worked as an analyst and Russia area expert in the US intelligence community.

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Wayne Allensworth

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