Sense of Wonder: James Bond at 50
James Bond is 50.1 Wow, who thought the old boy would ever make it this long? After all, the “misogynistic dinosaur” should have been irrelevant after the end of the Cold War, right? Apparently not. In fact, James Bond is probably the longest running franchise in the history of cinema: beginning way back in 1962 with DR. NO and extending to tomorrow’s release of SKYFALL, Agent 007 has weathered numerous changes in pop culture and geo-politics, with no end in sight.
What is the secret to Bond’s longevity? Well, the obvious things I suppose: sex and violence never go out of style. However, there is more to the story. To begin with, the producers have been smart about adapting to the times. Even at the very beginning, in the early 1960s, the films downplayed the anti-communist of Ian Fleming’s novels, in favor of highlighting the secret organization known as Spectre (which – contrary to the book- was responsible for the devious events in the film version of FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE ). A decade later, when relations between East and West began to thaw, 007 could even team up with his Soviet counterpart in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977). Was this move politically motivated? No, the filmmakers just wanted a property that they could export everywhere in the world. Whatever their motivations, the result helped avoid fixing 007 in a context that would trap him in the past.
Recasting has certainly helped. Fans of a particular generation (just before mine) probably still regard Sean Connery as not only the first but also the best James Bond. However, when the spy routine was starting to seem worn out in the early 1970s, and the series moved toward self-parody, Roger Moore was there to put tongue in cheek and play the whole thing for laughs. Many purists have never forgiven Moore for this, but the move toward overt comedy actually preceded his arrival; though he never matched Connery’s lethal poise, Moore could deliver a one-liner as well as anyone, and he truly was what the series needed at that time.
Later, Pierce Brosnan tried to fuse the strengths of his predecessors; along with his natural inclination for light comedy, Brosnan attempted to weigh in with greater dramatic force, but the scripts he worked with were a bit too tied to the old formula, adding perhaps a serious touch or two but always undercutting them with a laugh, whether appropriate or not. Still, there was an interesting idea lurking just beneath the surface: at the end of the 20th century, the films suggested, all-out war was too dangerous a proposition; the only sensible way to fight our battles was through covert means, avoiding the kind of full-blown military confrontations that could lead to WWIII. This made Bond relevant again.
Most recently, we have the Daniel Craig Bond, who is unfairly derided as a Jason Bourne clone. In fact, Craig’s version of 007 harkens back to the conception presented in Ian Fleming’s novel. His Bond is vulnerable and fallible; he can put on a tuxedo and sit down at the casino table, blending in with high society around him; but underneath the polished facade, he is a stone-cold killer, who takes his job very seriously. The occasional quips (when they do come, which is not so often) are like explosive exhalations from a pressure-valve – spat out because they can no longer be contained.2
Finally, the last explanation I will offer for 007’s continued presence on the screen is this: he is the ultimate embodiment of grace under pressure. As a culture, we are perhaps a bit more cynical these days about noble heroes doing the right thing for purely altruistic purposes, but we can always appreciate someone who keeps his cool even under the most dangerous circumstances. There is something pragmatic about James Bond – almost working class (at least in the Connery and Craig incarnations). He’s not exactly one of us (how many of us know the difference between shaken and stirred?), but he is what many of us imagine we would like to be, in our fantasies if not our realities.
In a world in which old-fashioned warfare seems out-of-date and inadequate to the dangers we now face, the 50-year-old James Bond seems perfectly suited to the times. With the hope of global peace and harmony still a distant dream that will not likely be realized in our lifetimes, I suspect 007 will be with us for a long time to come.
- Strictly speaking, it is the film franchise that is 50 years old. Bond himself was “born” in 1954, with the publication of Ian Fleming’s first 007 novel, CASINO ROYALE.
- I don’t mean to slight the two other Bond actors, George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton, who never quite caught on. I think both of them deserve more credit than they get, but neither was around long enough to make an indelible, lasting impression that would contribute to the character’s longevity.
This article has been corrected to state that CASINO ROYALE, published in 1954, is the first Bond novel – not DR. NO, which was published in 1958.