When I turned 40 in November 2009, I decided that my 40th birthday party should be James Bond themed. I wore a tux and asked others to dress in similar Bondian style. My friend Scott dressed as Largo from Thunderball (though he looked more like Pierce Brosnan playing Largo). My friend Cameron brought a stuffed toy cat and was Blofeld. We played Bond films in the background. It was a good night.
Doing a Bond party was an easy inspiration. When you turn 40, what heroes are left to you? Superman and Batman are perpetually, inexplicably, in their 30s (Superman lately on film seems destined to be played by twentysomethings). The Doctor from Doctor Who lately looks like a guy in his 30s (and now someone in his 20s). The best action films feature someone in their mid-thirties: young enough to look dashing but old enough to command their surroundings. What’s a 40 year-old to look toward as a hero?
The answer is James Bond. The man is what every 40 year old aspires to: suave, charming, in command, has sex for sport with great looking women and gets to destroy everything that gets in his way. And he’s best played by someone over 40. (Daniel Craig is the exception that proves the rule—in any event, now that EON has gotten over its problems with MGM, Daniel Craig will be over 40 by the next Bond film).
I can only guess that, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of James Bond in 2012, they’re getting ready to release new versions of the Bond films on DVD, presumably to tie in with Blu-Ray somehow. (Mark Evanier once said that he thinks the whole reason for changing video formats is a way to get people to buy Goldfinger again. He may be literally right in this instance). It’s the only reason I can see that they would be selling the box sets of Bond films at ridiculously cheap prices—cheap enough that I was able to get all of them as a Christmas present.
Last year, these box sets in hand, I decided to embark on an ambitious project: to watch every Bond film—both the EON-produced films and the ‘non-canonical’ releases of the 1967 Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again—in chronological order. I’ve never done this before. I came to the Bond franchise as a teenager (the first film I saw was Octopussy on the then cutting edge format of Videodisc; the first film I saw in the theatres was The Living Daylights). I didn’t really become a fan until I was in my 20s. My experience of Bond was, therefore, a bit jumbled. I saw most of the films in a completely random order depending on when they were on TV or what was available for rental at the local Blockbuster. It helped in some ways: I don’t have the brand loyalty to Connery since I haven’t been acculturated to him the way others have. However I never saw the bigger picture.
Watching all 22 Bond films (plus the two unofficial ones) in order has been fascinating to say the least just to watch how the series overall course corrects itself, trying to capture just what it is the public wants based on the response to prior films, the Fleming source material and changing fashion (in all senses of the term).
The Sean Connery films illustrate this brilliantly: low budget British spy thriller (Dr. No), big budget British spy thriller (From Russia With Love), go-big-or-go-home blockbuster (Goldfinger), blockbuster-mixed-with-spy-thriller (Thunderball), go-really-big-or-go-home campy blockbuster (You Only Live Twice), skip a film for a serious Fleming adaptation with George Lazenby, then back for a campy, frothy, American adventure (Diamonds Are Forever). It’s fascinating to watch Sean Connery’s own evolution from pure character part (watch him unself consciously introduce himself with a ciggy in his mouth in Dr. No) to full-fledged icon. For a ten-year period, that’s a lot of tonal shift, both subtle and overt.
Some of those tonal shifts are down to the directors—Terence Young kept an edge whereas Lewis Gilbert was enamoured with the scale of it, like a giant piece of pop art, and Guy Hamilton just saw it as ludicrous, larger-than-life fantasy. A lot of the shifts were down to the canniness of producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. All of them were reflecting the popularity of Bond and were attempting to figure out what made it so popular with the public. Was it the gadgets? The villains? The sets? The comedy? It was, and is, a process of endless tinkering.
The interesting thing about watching Bond in sequence is that you can see a pattern emerge of bold assertion, followed by complacency. Roger Moore’s first four films really show this: the first two are Bond films at their most complacent: Live and Let Die starts out cool and ‘70s urban American hip, but quickly devolves into another runaround where the big bad has an underground base and wears a Nehru jacket. The Man With the Golden Gun just takes this and does it worse with the most insipid Bond girl ever and a base guarded by one full-time henchman and Herve Villechase. (Christopher Lee is a big compensation, but not enough). But just when you think the Bond film is lost for the 1970s comes The Spy Who Loved Me, which puts even more money in the budget, gets some fresh writing and directing talent, gives us a great female lead, a cool villain and an even cooler henchman and does everything bigger, bolder and better—and it’s glorious. But then the next movie is Moonraker, where Jaws is given a romance and it goes so much bigger and so much bolder it pushes the brink of believability, even by Bondian standards. This is the other danger of the franchise: sometimes it tries too hard to be as successful as the last film.
The Pierce Brosnan films do this in reverse. The first two are high octane, solid thrillers with two of the best Bond girls ever (we’ll ignore Teri Hatcher), great supporting casts (again, we’ll ignore Teri Hatcher) and superb stunts. The latter two just get increasingly bloated and more preposterous. Which brings us to the other interesting trend in Bond: is it edgy or not? The makers of the films can’t make up their minds. For every From Russia With Love there’s a Goldfinger; every On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a Diamonds Are Forever; every For Your Eyes Only an Octopussy; every Tomorrow Never Dies a World Is Not Enough. It’s fascinating to watch how consecutive films go from hard-edged, stripped-down spy thrillers to excessive orgies of superspy wackiness. It’s as though they get scared by what Bond is capable of the closer they get to Ian Fleming’s source material.
The other thing about my 24-film sojourn through the Bond film ouevre was finding so many delightful surprises and discoveries in the process. Having been indifferent toward it for decades (even though it was a rare Connery I actually saw first in a cinema), I now utterly adore Thunderball. I think it may be the quintessential Bond film: it’s a big-scaled ‘60s Bond film but a superb spy thriller as well. Connery plays it utterly straight and it’s just glorious. These surprise discoveries worked in reverse though: for years my favourite Bond film was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for its faithful-to-Fleming edge, great use of location and stunts. But watching it in sequence I found it a giant letdown: George Lazenby talks like Prince Charles and looks wooden (worse, they dress him in some of the worst costumes Bond has ever worn—Bond would never be caught dead, or alive, in polyester). The movie is a half hour too long and, really, we didn’t need another ski sequence.
I was more pleasantly surprised about Roger Moore. He really gets a lot of stick by Bond fans, but honestly, he was great in the part. His Bond might well be my sentimental favourite. Plus, Moore is the reason we can accept new interpretations of the role. He made James Bond his own. The thing about Moore’s Bond is, more than any other iteration of the character, he’s charming. He’s the sort of man you immediately like. I know people that feel that’s not a quality Bond should have, but I think Moore’s Bond gets away with it precisely because he’s so damn likeable. (My Dad, who watched all the films with me, disagrees: every Roger Moore film we watched, he’d ask: “How many more are there with The Saint?”)
I think it’s a great shame Timothy Dalton didn’t have more time with the character. I love both of his movies. The Living Daylights is probably the best Bond film of the 1980s and Miryam D’Abo is probably my favourite Bond girl (full disclosure: it was the first Bond film I saw in the cinema and I was 17 at the time so she made quite an impression). But License to Kill is a forgotten gem of a film. Robert Davi is a superb villain, Dalton is great playing Iago to him and it promotes Q from a walk-on to a full-fledged supporting character and Desmond Llewlyn has as great a time playing him as we do watching him.
Watching all these films naturally had me reflecting on what it is about Bond that appeals to me. I think it’s all the usual things that people talk about—the formula, the central character, the women (filtered through a specific heterosexual viewpoint), the exotic locales—but, for me, I’ve come to realize the central appeal of Bond films is something almost abstract in conception: the Bond movies are physical movies.
Think about it: the showpieces of the any Bond movie are the stunts and sets, both physical things. The films’ elaborate set pieces often defy all laws of physics and nature but they’re illusions created through actual physical stunts (my least favourite recent Bond films are Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace because the stunts are obviously greenscreened and CG-ed). The sets are huge, but like any environment in a Bond film they’re there to be destroyed ultimately by Bond.
Which brings us to the specific genius of the character of James Bond: any situation or environment he’s in, he’ll pretty much figure out how to dismantle it, blow it up or rip it apart. (And that’s leaving aside the fact that the women are going to be handled one way or another). That I think is the genius of the Bond films generally: they show you sights to gape at before they blow it up or jump off of it. I think the most self-aware joke in the entire history of Bond is when Sheriff J.W. Pepper splutters amidst the all the destruction Bond caused in Live and Let Die, “What are you? Some kind of doomsday weapon!?” There are other spy films and action movies that have big set pieces and stunts but the Bond films have physicality to them that are unmatched.
I think it’s great they have Daniel Craig in the role because his chief strength is his raw physicality. He’s also, by far, the wittiest actor who has ever played the role. Casino Royale is a back-to-basics Fleming adaptation and, though I wasn’t as wowed by Quantum of Solace, for once, the follow-up film didn’t lose its nerve and stayed edgy. I’m pleased that Sam Mendes is on board to direct Bond 23—I’m really interested to see what he might bring to the mix.
It heartens me that, as a 41 year-old male, I can still have a hero my own age: a man who pretty much does everything well, destroys anything he comes into contact with, and can still sleep with any good looking woman he sees. Wish fulfilment? Hell, yeah. But as Carly Simon sings, nobody does it better.