Those of you who know me know that I’m a huge fan of James Bond: The movies, the books and the icon that the character is. In fan culture, it’s the sci-fi/fantasy crowd that hog the attention. Is Star Wars better than Star Trek? Is Doctor Who better than both of them? Harry Potter, Twilight, Tolkien, superheroes (are you Marvel or DC?) you name it; they have fan cultures and conventions aplenty but for me James Bond trumps them all.
I can clearly remember the first time I went to see a Bond film: Wood Green Odeon, 1973, Live and Let Die. Let me tell you that is not the ideal first Bond movie for a child, not because the movie is bad (on the contrary) but because Baron Samedi and the voodoo cult are scary! But I remember loving the boat chase in the bayou, the Bond one-liners, the goody versus the baddies (one of them had a metal claw for a hand!), and the crocodile jumping.
Within a short time, I’d seen the Sean Connery movies as well because they did the rounds on television, so by the time I got to see another Bond movie on the big screen (The Spy Who Loved Me, Odeon Leicester Square, 1977), I’d seen 7 of the 9 previous entries in the series. It’s telling that I saw The Spy Who Loved Me before I saw Star Wars and I know which pleased me more: James Bond. I will maintain that the opening ski jump was more exciting to watch than any sequence in Star Wars…because someone actually skied off that cliff and parachuted down. Star Wars had lots of models. Bond saved our world, a world that…although heightened reality…was recognisably our own. Star Wars happened in a galaxy far, far away (and a long time ago). Bond was a man; Luke Skywalker was a well-intentioned but slightly whiny kid. I remember leaving the cinema after seeing Star Wars and feeling I’d had a good time and I was glad I saw it, but it was a bit hollow. There was so much hype leading up to it, so many preview clips, merchandising and trading cards that I practically knew all the story and scenes before even going to see the movie.
As for Star Trek, I liked that show too. It was exciting, it was colourful and I thrilled to the adventures of the USS Enterprise and its crew. I remember getting excited if they showed an episode I’d never seen before. Captain Kirk was suave, intelligent, resourceful, witty, great with the ladies and could handle himself in a fight: He was almost like James Bond! But his adventures were weekly and there wasn’t that same sense of anticipation that you got with the announcement of a new Bond movie. I knew Star Trek would always be around, and it still is. On tap.
It was a similar thing with Doctor Who. He was always on TV. My first Doctor was Jon Pertwee, who played the part a bit like James Bond and why not? I never saw the first two Doctors as a child but Pertwee’s charging around, driving fast cars, improvising intelligent solutions to problems, using cool gadgets and saving a world visibly like our own resonated with me just as James Bond did. Then he became Tom Baker and the show had more travelling around the cosmos and with a weirder incarnation of The Doctor. I still liked the show but it was cheap looking compared with Bond and it was more like a favourite uncle in terms of entertainment than the big wow factor of Bond.
Superheroes presented their own lightweight entertainment but I always felt a disconnect with them as well. After all, they had powers and could do all manner of things that I knew would be impossible in real life. Most action scenes in James Bond are probably impossible as well, but there’s the clincher: probably. I could never be Superman or Spiderman; comic book science gave them powers. However, if I joined the Royal Navy, trained to an extremely high level, made the grade for MI6 then I might be a OO and be able to ski off mountains and live. That’s how my child mentality worked back then.
As I’m not a big fan of fantasy fiction, I’ll skip the comparisons.
Since those childhood days I’ve seen all the Bond movies multiple times. I’ve read about them, seen the behind the scenes stuff, read interviews with those involved and even analysed them. If you want a history of Bond and surface criticism of them, it’s all out there in books or DVD extras. However, I am going to be sharing my insights on the movies…all that analysis…and showing you why the world of James Bond and the movies (also the books) matters more than you think. If you think the other beloved of fans shows and movies had lots of subtext, you might be surprised to discover the hidden depths of James Bond movies. Star Trek and Doctor Who have slipped in plenty of liberal commentary on society during their runs, a lot of fantasy blends in real history and commentary about myths within the story but James Bond is one of the very few examples having small ‘c’ conservative and right-of-centre subtext and commentary in popular entertainment. Bond is largely apolitical; it matters not if the Conservatives, Labour, Republican or Democrat are in office. What matters is you, the ordinary viewer. His job is to keep you, and the ordinary folk of his world safe. How you vote is irrelevant. What political views the ordinary civilian has is of no matter to James Bond; he is there to preserve and protect the system that allows you to express them. Nor is he an Ayn Rand objectivist character either. Don’t mistake his brand of individualism for Rand’s sociopathic right wing views. Bond’s individual views and tastes are the result of the events of his life; he has decided what he likes and thinks is worthwhile based on experience and experimentation. He is both an individual who bends the rules and a loyal and obedient subject in varying degrees. Nor is he the paranoid, right wing scaremongering personification of the American Right like Jack Bauer in ‘24’. Like I said, Bond is right of centre, not a reactionary.
He’s obviously a standard bearer for the consumer society and capitalism. Even in the novels, there is plenty of product placement but it is a specific type. Everything is top of the range and a mark of quality. Dom Perignon, Aston Martin and Rolex hardly needed the advertising but curiously, Bond’s preferences for this stuff isn’t just a mark of snobbery and excess: Bond’s tastes are carefully cultivated. If he names a specific year of Champagne as a favourite, it’s because he has personally sampled it all and knows which is best. He’s a man of strong opinions and tastes; sometimes he’s alone in them. This highly cultivated palate and sense of style serves two purposes: Bond is a fatalist and he indulges in things because on the very next mission he may die. The trips to the casinos replicate the thrill he gets on missions, the champagne, martinis, Saville Row suits and copious amounts of freshly squeezed orange juice he drinks at breakfast are the payoff. Second, the villains’ sense of taste and style can be contrasted with Bond whether it’s red wine with fish, Goldfinger’s ludicrous golfing plus fours or Gustav Graves’ vulgarity. The villain has the trappings and wealth but not the sense of taste and, importantly, the sense of propriety and responsibility that goes along with that wealth and power, hence the ostentatiousness bordering on the obscene. It’s not mere snobbery that reduces them in Bond’s mind, it’s the fact that they’ve thrown money around for show….because, curiously, Bond hates show-offs.
I’m not even sure if we’re meant to like Bond too much either. That might seem strange for a heroic protagonist. His views on society, in the novels, are often quite strong: He doesn’t think blacks and whites can co-exist in society without violence flaring up, he thinks homosexuals are depraved and his opinions on women and sex are all over the place. The movies have toned these strong opinions down, or dispensed with them altogether. He still hates The Beatles, drinks way too much, cavorts with married women without a care and can push his luck with females. However, instead of Bond merely being a spokesman for Ian Fleming’s opinions, they serve to distance the viewer or reader from him. There’s no way any of us could keep up with Bond’s lifestyle and some of his antics are, to be frank, sometimes ludicrous. The audience identification figure in the Bond movies isn’t 007, it’s Felix Leiter. He rolls his eyeballs at Bond’s excesses, his flippancy, the girl chasing, the over indulgent lifestyle and often he’s scratching his head at it all. But he remains a friend and a fan. 007 is the guardian of our lives, not the role model. He is both compelling and shocking at the same time. He is the champion of everyday folk in Western Society. There are forces that want to destabilise society, ruin the nation (or nations), take away our freedom, subvert our institutions or even destroy them. Bond is not here a reformer of our society, that’s our job. He defends our flawed democracy and free market world because it allows that freedom he enjoys. What he gets in return are the luxuries of living in a free world. If you think he’s a vile, capitalist reactionary just remember he’s taken down more twisted millionaires and billionaires than he has totalitarian despots. Stray too far to the right, or the left and James Bond will descend on you in full force. Pleasingly, compared to some modern depiction of spies and secret agents, he never indulges in torture. Prolonging someone’s pain isn’t his style. Make ‘em sweat, make them suffer a bit but in the end if the villain has to die, it’s usually a quick death he dispatches.
So there you have it, a character and a series that seems formulaic on the surface but which contains layers and depths. So, I hope you come with me to discover what lies beneath the surface popcorn entertainment.
James Bond will return.