James Bond's Mid-Life Crisis
How 007 has survived breakups, disease and old age to stay relevant in the 21st century
50 years and 23 movies. Over a billion dollars spent; five billion dollars made – and still counting – with all but the earliest films in the series drawing in regular nine-figure returns.It’s no surprise that film studios have fought to keep the character going across the decades.
Bond made it through Vietnam and its anti-establishment aftermath; blossoming during the Cold War and, arguably most importantly for the series, surviving the end of it. It saw women as playthings and objects; dealt with the threat of them being equals; tried to stop portraying them as victims, and even, rather dangerously – and quite condescendingly – attempted to counteract years of misogyny by pretending that it thought they were superior..
It took its character on a similarly adventurous path, from a rebellious Scottish brawler who quite enjoyed mistreating women and villains alike, to more of a lightweight debonair playboy – an effortlessly cool dapper English gentleman who had a quip ready for every situation, no matter how dangerous. We saw Bond transformed from a more solemn and personally involved superspy, who treated his women with respect and took his job seriously, to the Irish one-man-army needed to carry Bond through into a new Millennium, who didn’t care if he was a relic of the Cold War and didn’t think it was sexist to take pleasure in things of great beauty.
Alas, even Bond would be swallowed up by the passage of time, jumping the shark in an invisible car no less, only to be re-Bourne in the wake of a new era of spy action-thrillers. Meticulously returning to its source material, the first two ‘reboot’ movies would re-establish the iconic character and slowly, cleverly, introduce us to every single one of his now-clichéd characteristics, resetting the balance by showing us from where these elements came. His cold exterior; his relationships – always at a distance; his mistrust for his superiors; his independent, rebellious streak; and his need to jest in the face of adversity. After all he’s been through, what else would you expect? We finally understood Bond.Yet half a Century ago, this was far from important to the birth of a legend.
Ian Fleming created the character of Bond back in 1953, almost a decade before Dr. No immortalised him on-screen. Based upon a number of individuals he came across during his time in British Naval Intelligence during World War II – including his own brother – Bond would take his tastes from Fleming himself, as well as aspects of his looks. His name? Well, apparently it was the dullest name Fleming could think of, wanting his character to be an innocuous blunt instrument – the only thing exotic would be the adventures he gets into.
His first five novels would be met with largely positive reviews – Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever and From Russia with Love – but his sixth, Dr. No, would be heavily criticised for being both puerile and sadistic.
Fleming would start work adapting his novels with the assistance of one Kevin McClory, a man whose name has since become infamous in the ‘official’ world of Bond. Between the two of them they would create the first Bond story which was polished enough to be cinematically viable: Thunderball. Showcasing a marginally more palatable side to Bond, the story also introduced us to elements which were not present in any of Fleming’s books, but which would go on to become mainstays in the film adaptation – most notably Bond’s long-time arch-enemy, Blofeld, and his evil terrorist organisation, Spectre (up until this point the novels had used SMERSH, a real Soviet spy organisation).
Ironically, Thunderball would not be picked up to be adapted into a movie, and instead Albert “Cubby” Broccoli would take a gamble on a six month option to make a Bond film based on one of Fleming’s books, and would actually choose the least well-received novel, Dr. No, with which to introduce the cinema-going world to Bond. The result was a milestone moment in history, as Ursula Andress’s Honey Ryder would stride out of the Ocean in that iconic shot and Sean Connery’s Bond would say the immortal words, “Bond, James Bond”, for the very first time.
Though not the first choice to play Bond (Fleming reportedly preferred Roger Moore for the role), Connery won the part by introducing himself to the producers in character, with all the arrogance and assuredness that they wanted for the role and, despite Fleming’s initial disapproval, he was so pleased with the response to the Bond films – and the resulting increase in popularity of his books – that he would add in a Scottish ancestry for the character in later novels.
At the time, the public loved Connery. I suppose that he was what real men were expected to be, treating women in ways which, supposedly, they wanted to be treated. He was cold, harsh, dismissive, and often sadistic – not just with villains, but also with women too. However his forceful manner was only regarded as welcome machismo back in the 60s; audiences loved him, and he established the iconic character through a series of strong exploits, the best of which are often regarded as being his second and third films in the role – From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, respectively.
Unfortunately, despite establishing the iconic character through a series of strong adventures, things went wrong with the fifth film, You Only Live Twice, which usurped the position of the originally-planned On Her Majesty’s Secret Service adaptation reportedly just because it was the wrong time of year to shoot the snow-based revenge story. It was a great shame. Shooting these two novels out of order marked one of the first big shifts in the dynamic of the franchise. Connery would be keen on leaving the part after You Only Live Twice, and the new recruit – Lazenby – would provide a Bond that was simply too close to his predecessor for audiences to accept. Lazenby’s OHMSS would not find critical acclaim until several decades after its release, and the freshwater Antipodean’s career would stall even before it got started.
Connery would be pulled back into the role, although things would never be the same again. The magic was gone. Connery was tired of the part and, at the same time, the producers were keen in taking Bond in a different direction to suit public sensibility. You see times had changed since 1962’s Dr. No. Vietnam had generated an anti-establishment sentiment that made the producers wonder whether audiences would still be enamoured by a Government-backed assassin travelling the globe overthrowing despots at the behest of Western politicians. There was a drive towards making Bond more lightweight and entertaining in an escapist way. Connery’s return in Diamonds Are Forever was more frivolous, camp and over-the-top than ever before, a style which did not suit the actor. He left, once again, though – again – not for the last time.
Roger Moore entered the fray, a man who had been shortlisted for the role several times before but always missed the opportunity, because he was busy with his own popular TV shows, The Saint and The Persuaders. By the time he was cast as Bond, he was fifteen years older than Connery was when he started. Thankfully, his wittier approach gave him the appearance of being both younger and fresher than the fed-up Scotsman.
Slipping into the role as if he was born for it, it would take the writers and producers another couple of movies to fully get the formula right for this actor, but – with The Spy Who Loved Me – they would hit success like they hadn’t seen since Connery’s heyday. The film was so popular that Moore would be asked to stay on for the next film, the even more outlandish Moonraker.
Frivolous escapism is what audiences wanted and this is just what they got. They didn’t want a cold-hearted Government assassin killing with impunity at his country’s behest; forcing himself upon every woman he comes across; and doing so with a smile on his face. Moore’s Bond – at his height in the role – offered the perfect blend of girls, gadgets and insane villains who often wanted to destroy the entire human race. It was so over-the-top that it now seems positively comical, but, back in the 70s, it was grand spectacle – pure escapist entertainment, which audiences used to get away from the real politics, real assassinations, and real problems at the time.It was Bond and Beyond.
Once again, shifting sentiments both behind the franchise and out amidst the public saw the series evolve. After travelling into space (riding on the success of Star Wars), Bond was brought back down to earth, but the producers were still unsure about fully committing to a more serious, realistic Bond, deciding to keep their options open and retain elements of comedy whilst also forging more serious, down-to-earth, Cold-War-flavoured tales. They even wanted to go with a new Bond, but legal disputes with Fleming’s once-colleague, Kevin McClory, put the franchise in direct competition with McClory’s own rip-off – Never Say Never Again – which saw a treacherous Connery return to dishonour the very part that had made him a star. Concerned about putting a fresh new face up against the original Bond – Connery – they kept Roger Moore in the role way beyond his sell-by date, the oft-maligned actor soldiering on earnestly despite the fact that he had repeatedly asked to leave the franchise.
Come the mid-eighties, with the Cold War dying as the Soviet Union broke up, and AIDS concerns shutting the door on Bond’s trademark sexual dalliances, it seemed the end was nigh. Timothy Dalton – another actor whose name had been touted for over a decade previously but who wouldn’t get the part until he was considerably older – would attempt a largely ineffective reboot of the franchise with The Living Daylights, a strong enough debut, and Licence to Kill, which almost single-handedly destroyed the already-flailing series by earning it a dreaded 15 Certificate / R-rating. For a franchise which had made its name on being family-friendly, this more adult Bond was way before its time, and did not go down well at all.
After the longest hiatus in the history of the series, 1996 would see Bond’s triumphant post-Cold War renaissance with Pierce Brosnan’s debut in GoldenEye. Although it has since dated quite badly, and is – in hindsight – very misguided in its attempts to eschew or modernise all the trademark Bond characteristics (including barely featuring the quintessential Bond theme), it should still be heralded as one of the biggest reasons why Bond still exists to this day. The popularity of GoldenEye almost demands forgiveness for Brosnan’s swansong, the over-the-top Die Another Day, which was so ridiculous that, again, it threatened to destroy the franchise. In an age where audiences were starting to demand greater realism; more depth and substance to even their Big Screen blockbusters, Die Another Day threw away a great premise with outlandish invisible cars and villains with giant laser weapons and ice fortress lairs.
Post-Bourne, Bond would once again be rebooted, perhaps in the most successful way since the franchise started. Daniel Craig’s Bond Begins trilogy would return the series back to its Government-assassin routes, slowly introducing all of the classic Bond tropes and building up towards what could be – in the 24th Bond film – a classic Bond spectacle, complete with gadget-laden cars, M, Q, Miss Moneypenny, Bond girls, insane megalomaniac Bond villains and distinctive henchmen. Maybe.
It’s clear that Bond has tried to move with the times at every stage in the character’s illustrious history. Sometimes the changes may come smoothly; sometimes the character may have needed a nudge; and sometimes the changes came before their time – but perhaps that is why Bond often feels so fresh and unusual, no matter how many decades pass. The Connery Bond outings may be plagued by sexism and sadism, but it all seems historically forgivable, given that the Bond character has evolved; the Moore films may have gone for spectacle more than seriousness, but that feels like a refreshing change from both the more dated Connery days and the modern down-to-earth sentiments; the Dalton (and even Lazenby) films now feel like they were definitely before their time – the kind of more committed, serious and authentic representations of Fleming’s original character that would have been lapped up in the Craig era of Bond. Brosnan? He kept the series going through tough times just like the rest of them; unfortunately he never got his great moment to shine, and his films are both already too dated and also too modern to forgive as being flawed ‘classics’, particularly given the considerable step up once Craig got on-board.I’m sure there will be another Bond in due course.
I’m sure there will be another Bond in due course. Perhaps Idris Elba, as has been touted, although he seems such a good choice for the role that I can’t believe they’d offer it to him until he’s been passed up at least once or twice (as has been the habit with the franchise). In the meantime, contracted in to two more films following the magnificent Skyfall, we get to enjoy more of the excellent Daniel Craig era, bringing the series back to its leanest, meanest and most authentic, whilst also staying respectful of all the trademark elements that have kept the character – and the franchise – both so popular and so distinctive for over 50 years now.
Long live Bond.
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