You are hereAgent of Change: Bond from the Cold War to Blairite Britain

Agent of Change: Bond from the Cold War to Blairite Britain

When Skyfall, the 23rd ‘official’ James Bond film, premieres on 26 October it will mark five decades and three weeks since the opening of the first, Dr No, in 1962. Age does not wither Bond, nor custom stale his infinite variety. The most successfully enduring movie franchise ever retains a licence to thrill thanks to the character’s ability to adapt and survive in a hostile, changing world.

Six actors have played Bond in the Eon films produced by Harry Saltzman, Cubby Broccoli and the inheritors of their mantle, Cubby’s daughter Barbara and stepson Michael G Wilson. Each has been a perfect reflection of its time, politically, sexually and economically. The arc of the Bond films tells us much about post-war British society, our place in the world and our sense of ourselves.

WAR BONDS (1962-3) Dr No & From Russia With Love

The Bond of the first two films is recognisably a product of the Second World War, and the immediate pre- and post-war world, shaped by writer Ian Fleming’s experiences in naval intelligence, and director Terence Young’s time as a tank commander. Bond’s suits are sharp but he still wears a hat and the full fig of evening suit when wooing women at the gaming tables. His car is a 1935 Bentley, and the gadgets that would play such a part in the series are 1940s cloak-and-dagger stuff: cigarette cyanide capsules, throwing knives, folding rifles.

The enemy, though disguised as the stateless terrorist organisation SPECTRE, is recognisably the Russia of Fleming’s books, with a sharper awareness of the foe’s nuclear capability: Dr No, in which a reactor threatens to explode, opened amid the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a year after the Berlin Wall went up.

Bond’s attitude to Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder, and to his helpmeet Quarrel (‘Fetch my shoes’), and later to Daniela Bianchi’s Tatiana Romanova, are firmly rooted in assumptions of white male supremacy. Tellingly, both women were cast for their looks, and dubbed. The exoticism of the locations (Istanbul, Jamaica) and the super-saturated look of the films play against the straitened greyness of 1950s Britain. The signature songs of the first films are Monty Norman’s big-band Bond theme, and Matt Monro’s 1950s-style croon.

SWINGING BOND (1964-7) Goldfinger, Thunderball & You Only Live Twice

Bond may inform a girl that drinking Dom Pérignon ’53 at a temperature of less than 38 degrees is ‘like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs’, but with Goldfinger and its two successors, the films stepped properly into the 1960s. There are the Kennedy-esque suits, the Aston Martin DB5, and the gadgetry, such as Goldfinger’s laser, reflecting a society intrigued by technology: Goldfinger came out a year after Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech to the 1963 Labour Party Conference. We also have, in Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore, an attempt to recognise the Women’s Movement. In Fleming’s book she is a lesbian who is ‘cured’ by Bond; in the film she’s a criminal who eventually goes straight.

As the later Connery films progress, we see subtler changes. There is an acknowledgement of Britain’s subsidiary role in international statecraft to the US, manifested by the increased prominence of the CIA’s Felix Leiter. The lighter tone of the later films shows the series responding to its imitators. The Man from UNCLE TV series, first broadcast in 1964, sent up Bond’s gadgets, his insouciance and his acronymic foes (with Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin battling THRUSH instead of SPECTRE). The 1966 Derek Flint and Matt Helm films, starring James Coburn and Dean Martin, offered up even broader caricatures of secret agents. Bond is now part of pop culture and his theme tunes are sung by Tom Jones and Nancy Sinatra. Even the idea of terrorism as a political tool — which Fleming predicted — is given a 1960s twist with villains’ lairs looking like George Jetson’s bachelor pad.

BOND: THE LOST YEARS (1969-74) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die & The Man with the Golden Gun

Poor George Lazenby. The Australian model stepped into Bond’s well-tailored suits and sported a short back and sides just as everyone else was growing their hair and dropping out. He looked decidedly out of place amid the dolly birds undergoing an hallucinogenic form of mind control at the hands of Blofeld in the Alps. Connery’s return in Diamonds are Forever (1971) was an act of desperation, where the futuristic touches (the Moon Buggy, The Elrod House) look as dated as ditzy Tiffany Case, as played by Jill St John.

Oddly, the Bond film that best reflects the political and social uncertainty of the 1970s is Live and Let Die, which saw Roger Moore’s 1973 debut. Released a year after the Watergate scandal, it depicts America as a perilous place riven with drugs and ambivalent about the rise of Black Power. But Bond was looking increasingly stranded in a Hollywood polarised between comedies and big-name blockbusters: The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) earned a fraction of the year’s top grossers, Blazing Saddles and The Towering Inferno.

A LIGHTER SHADE OF BOND (1977-85) The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only & A View to a Kill & ANGRY BOND ISSUES (1987-9) The Living Daylights & Licence to Kill

Weirdly, and starting with The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore’s Bond anticipated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the international rehabilitation of Russia, as well as the rise of rogue, non-state elements threatening the world. This might have proved a stronger theme had the series not been sidetracked by the popularity of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind into the commercially successful but lame space opera Moonraker (1979). There was a cameo for Janet Brown’s Margaret Thatcher in For Your Eyes Only and, on a visceral level, the later films of Moore’s Bond accord with the Thatcher/Reagan ethos. They are about excess and instant gratification: bigger stunts and bigger jokes — though strangely, not bigger bangs. After Barbara Bach’s exquisite Anya Amasova, and with a few exceptions (Maud Adams’ Octopussy, Grace Jones’ May Day), Moore’s Bond girls function chiefly as décor. His Bond also switched from cigarettes to cigars, then gave up smoking altogether.

When the sheen started to go off the 1980s dream — video nasties, the Iran-Contra affair, cocaine — it was no longer acceptable to have a 58-year-old Moore quipping his way around the world. Timothy Dalton was appointed to be a new, harder-edged Bond. Unfortunately, in his first film, The Living Daylights, this meant a monogamous 007 who teamed up with the Mujaheddin (oops). And Licence to Kill was so brutal it became the first Bond film to have a 15 rating. At which point contractual wrangles held up the Bond series for six years.

BLAIRITE BOND (1995-2002) GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough & Die Another Day

OK, Pierce Brosnan (007) beat Tony Blair (PM) in assuming a coveted mantle by two years, but the parallels are uncanny. A youthful but vigorous new broom for the post-Cold War era. A man with new ideas who pays homage to the past, who knows that international conflict is no longer about territory but about a more conceptual form of control: of money markets, and the media. Is it too much of a stretch to see Tony Blair’s admiration for Margaret Thatcher reflected in the relationship Pierce Brosnan’s Bond has with Judi Dench’s M? Probably, yes. But when M calls him a ‘sexist dinosaur’, she couldn’t be more wrong. This was Bond reborn. Like New Labour, the films suffered an identity crisis, with heroines ranging from Michelle Yeoh’s spunky Wei Lin to Denise Richards’ ridiculous Christmas Jones. And it was no longer easy to impress audiences with cars and foreign locations, or even, in a computer-generated world, with stunts. So where next?

BOND REBOOTED (2006-12) Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace & Skyfall

Daniel Craig’s Bond goes back to the Fleming books in more ways than one. Yes, there’s the use of the title and most of the plot of the first novel, and a refreshing back-to-basics approach to weaponry and transport. Yes, Craig’s Bond is a ‘blunt instrument’, a lethal killing machine who can take ferocious punishment as well as dish it out. But he is also the most emotional 007 and only the second Bond (Lazenby was the other) to be visibly bereaved on learning about the death of Vesper Lynd. The Bond of the books is always crying, and one can read a world of hurt in Craig’s ice-blue eyes.

In this sense, strange as it may seem, he is the ideal Bond for the post-Diana era. Marc Forster, director of Quantum of Solace, pointed out that, since overseas travel is no longer the mystery it was in the 1960s, the only uncharted territory on earth now is the psyche. And it looks like Sam Mendes, whose film work so far has been more concerned with nuanced emotion than with action, but who grew up with the changing face of Bond, may explore Bond’s interior landscape more comprehensively yet. We don’t know much about the plot of Skyfall, but we do know that Bond’s past comes back to haunt him, and his longest-lasting and most consistent relationship, with M, is threatened. Bond with a breakdown?

Nick Curtis

19 October 2012
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