It’s almost hard to believe that it’s been more than 50 years since James Bond first looked up from his casino table and uttered the immortal line “Bond, James Bond.” But it has indeed been over half a century since Dr No was released and the British secret agent leapt from the pages of Ian Fleming’s novels to the cinema screens. Since then the Cold War has ended, sexual politics have moved on and the internet has changed our lives forever. But – give or take the occasional absence – Bond has been a constant presence on our screens. Skyfall, the latest instalment of the franchise that broke records across the world and became one of the most talked about film of 2012, was something of re-invention of 007 whilst also celebrating the character’s cinematic past. And what a cinematic history it’s been.
Ian Fleming was a former British Naval Intelligence officer who put his long and distinguished career in the military and journalistic training to use to create James Bond. In Fleming’s eyes Bond was to be a ‘blunt instrument’ and quite dull character to whom interesting things would happen. Indeed, he chose the name ‘James Bond’ from the author of a book on his shelf (‘Birds of the West Indies’) because he felt “…it’s the dullest name I ever heard.” Luckily for him, readers didn’t think so with the first Bond book Casino Royale and subsequent instalments being huge sellers. Influenced by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Graham Greene, Fleming mixed the journalists' penchant for detail with tightly plotted narratives and wild characters. James Bond was a British agent in a world where British imperialism and influence was on the wane. He was cruel, misogynist and had an eye for the finer things in life. But he was also suave, elegant and his adventures were thrilling. Critics would often be harsh on Fleming – with his books derided for being a mixture of ‘snobbery and sadism’ and damned for their populist nature – but audiences made sure he was constantly a best-selling author. When it was revealed that From Russia With Love was one of John F. Kennedy’s favourite books of all time, Fleming would become one of the highest selling authors in the US. It was almost inevitable that Bond would find himself on the big screen.
As we all know, the first on-screen James Bond was Barry Nelson.
Wait a minute. Barry Nelson? Who’s he? Wasn’t the first Bond Sean Connery?
Given the popularity of Bond in the US, CBS approached Fleming and asked for the rights to make Casino Royale into a one hour television play. Permission was duly granted and the show was aired live in 1954 with Bond being portrayed as the American ‘Combined Intelligence Officer’ Jimmy Bond battling against the evil Le Chiffre (played by Peter Lorre, who was about the best thing in it). It was cheap affair and did nothing to enhance the character’s reputation. Bond was British. Or at least he should be played as so.
Enter producer Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli who teamed up with Canadian producer Harry Saltzman – who owned the screen rights to Bond – to form EON Productions (EON meaning ‘Everything or Njohn baothing’) and bring 007 to the big screen. Their choice to play Bond was Sean Connery, a former milkman whose biggest previous role had been as the star of little seen Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Fleming wasn’t happy with the selection (“Ian Fleming said I was an over-developed stunt man,” Connery would say in interviews years later), preferring such names as Cary Grant, James Mason and David Niven. But, by the time Dr No made it to the big screen, it became clear why Connery was the perfect choice. The rough edges of Fleming’s character (and the innate elitism) had been sanded down whilst still retaining the edge required to make Bond a believable hero. Connery had a classlessness about him, equally at home in a fancy casino and a run-down Jamaican bar. He was the ultimate male fantasy writ large. Here was a secret agent who had a license to kill and whose job was to visit various exotic locations, drink, sleep with a bevy of beautiful women and kill bad guys. No worrying about remembering to pay the gas bill, to fix the shelf or (‘M’ aside) to deal with authority figures: just a life of luxury and danger. Sure, the poster proclaimed “Sean Connery IS James Bond” but there was a subtle inference that anyone could be Bond. Men bought their tickets because they wanted to be Bond. Women wanted to be with Bond – and not just for a lunch date. Broccoli himself said “With a Bond movie a guy pays his [money] and buys his dream.”
Fleming passed away in 1964 just as the cinematic formula of Bond slowly established itself. By the time of the third movie – Goldfinger – it had been perfected. The movie always began with a pre-credits sequence which worked as a mini movie in its own right. Then the titles (designed in the formative years by Maurice Binder) would include abstract silhouettes (mostly of naked women) accompanied by a bold and faintly ridiculous theme tune sung by one of the big singers of the day. Then onto the movie proper in which a villain with a ridiculous name would threaten the world and Bond would stop him with the help of some gadgets and cars provided by Q, some very beautiful women (often also sporting silly names) and some usually sunny locales. And there was always a brilliant score by composer John Barry, whose work in both arranging the legendary James Bond theme and creating the evocative scores for the films means that he’s also one of the key figures in Bond history.
The success of the Bond films began to wear Connery down and the constant press and public attention – alongside an increasingly acrimonious relationship with Broccoli and Saltzman - convinced him that 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the fifth in the series, would be his last. The search for a replacement 007 began with many actors screen tested - including a young man by the name of Timothy Dalton who thought, at the age of 23, he was too young to play the part. The role ultimately went to the Australian actor and model George Lazenby after an audition which saw him paraded in front of the office secretaries whose approval convinced Broccoli and Saltzman to go with him. For many, Lazenby’s only outing as Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the highlights of the franchise. Lazenby is a hard hitting and tough Bond but with the requisite deadpan humour and not-before-seen sensitive side (the incorrigible womaniser actually gets married in it!). With an uncharacteristically dark tone (it ends with Bond’s wife being murdered), the film showed that Bond had much more to explore as a character.
But Lazenby was frustrated by what he saw as a lack of respect on the part of the producers for his talents and refused to sign on for another outing – a fact that he laments to this day. Connery was quickly convinced to return to the part for 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever (basically by offering him a shedload of cash), but it was Roger Moore – long a favourite of Broccoli – who would take Bond fully into the 70s and 80s. From his debut in Live And Let Die, Moore’s Bond kept the core of the character but he added a slight air of camp and silliness as if acknowledging the wildly improbable adventures he was embroiled in. But – as the Moore films wore on - the series started to get a bit too silly, a bit too knowing. Bond was always slightly camp. But now he was building an entire Bedouin settlement. It wasn’t helped by the fact that Bond was now facing an enemy bigger than Blofeld. He now had to compete against the big budget blockbusters and he was looking a bit old as films such as the sci-fi tinged Moonraker looked like a cheap attempt to rip off the likes of Star Wars (which, to be fair, it was). When Moore discovered that the mother of Tanya Roberts – his love interest in 1985’s A View To A Kill – was two years younger than he was, he knew it was time to hang up the gun. And so did audiences.
Almost 20 years after first turning down the role, Timothy Dalton would get the chance to give his interpretation of Bond. 1987’s The Living Daylights saw Bond enter a world in which the Cold War was thawing and his misogyny would not be tolerated and Dalton played Bond closer to Fleming’s original vision dispensing with camp and silliness that had begun to typify the Moore era. Daylights remains a great Bond film but still some felt that Dalton was too harsh, too dour. More importantly audiences were still wanting the kind of sci-fi adventures that were littering the screens at the time and the Bond films were perceived as a relic of another era. 1991’s License To Kill – which saw a Bond story bolted onto the slick action adventures so beloved of the time – was something of a box office disappointment (though, in my opinion, a completely underrated Bond film and interesting attempt to try and do something different with the character) and 007 was placed in storage.
By the time he emerged in 1996’s Goldeneye, he had the face of Pierce Brosnan (who had been pencilled in to play Bond in the 80s before his contract for TV show Remington Steele prevented him from doing so). His take on Bond tried to bring the best of all the previous incarnations to the screen while still being his ‘own’ take on the world’s most famous spy. He very much succeeded: he was a 007 in a modern era, with a female boss and a world in which the enemies were a lot harder to define. But he had the charm and the wit beloved of Bond and it was clear that audiences had a soft spot for the character. But again, it still all started to seem slightly formulaic and – despite Brosnan’s fine work – 007 still needed to be tweaked if he was going to survive.
Enter Daniel Craig. He would usher in a new era of a hard, gritty - and blonde - James Bond. Casino Royale would take the title of Fleming’s first book and be a bold reboot of the character, explain his origins and place him firmly in the modern world. This was a Bond for the era of Bourne films. No gadgets or campness. Just hard edged action and complex character motivations. At first, audiences loved the new interpretation. But it soon became apparent. Bond wasn’t Bond without Q. Without the gadgets. When it got too silly the Bond films were unbearable. But when they got too serious they weren’t Bond anymore. Time to change once more with 007 Skyfall.
Sam Mendes’ latest addition to the Bond canon proved a glorious celebration of James Bond and his 50 years on screen, managing to be a great blockbuster in its own right while being a superlative example of a Bond film. With plenty of great references to the past, combined with a satisfying narrative and some stunning set-pieces, it sets up Bond for audiences of today. Craig manages to imbue with a cold intensity yet inner heroism while finding time for subtle moments of humour and wit. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a Bond film to be nominated for numerous BAFTA and other awards. But Skyfall has put 007 back on top of the world
James Bond has endured thanks not only to the fact that he’s changed with the times but also due to the fact that he has always been a uniquely British hero with a sense of honour and wit often absent from our heroes.
He’s been keeping the British end up for 50 years. Here’s a vodka martini (shaken not stirred) to another 50.
For those wanting to know more about the history of EON and Bond on screen, then check out the rather excellent documentary Everything or Nothing out now on DVD.
Skyfall is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Picture Home Entertainment.