It's official. The pope is a James Bond fan. In a surprise move, the Vatican's daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, gave its blessing to James Bond recently with the publication of a glowing review of Skyfall and a series of features on the Bond phenomenon. The paper praised Judy Dench as the 'perfect M', Javier Bardem's Silva as 'terrific', and Daniel Craig's Bond as 'more human'. Skyfall is, in the paper's view, 'one of the best in the longest cinematic story of all time'.
The review represents a significant shift for the Vatican. In 1965, L'Osservatore Romano denounced the James Bond films and what the paper felt they represented. Dr No was 'a mixture of violence, vulgarity, sadism and sex', and the paper hoped that the film had not met with the success that it did. Of the subsequent films, the newspaper found their consistency 'deplorable but explicable'.
Similar views on James Bond were held by other well-known Catholics at the time and could be said to represent something of an official line on the Fleming/Bond phenomenon. Paul Johnson, who wrote an infamous 1958 review of the novel, Dr No, for the New Statesman, was a devout Catholic. His view that Fleming 'satisfies the very worst instincts of his readers' and that the book delivers a 'brew of sex and sadism' would no doubt have found wide agreement within the Vatican.
And it was his Catholic faith that prevented Patrick McGoohan pursuing the role of James Bond in 1962. In interviews McGoohan said that he abhorred violence and cheap sex and that society needed moral heroes. In his TV series, Danger Man (broadcast in the US as Secret Agent), the hero John Drake, played by McGoohan, was 'a man of high ideals'. McGoohan said that the series contained 'action, but no brutal violence', and that 'it would have been wrong [for Drake] to get seriously involved with women'.
But religious denunciation of Bond has not been confined to the Catholic church. In 1961, the Rev. Leslie Paxton of the Great George Street Congregational Church in Liverpool preached a sermon against James Bond. Ian Fleming responded with a letter to the reverend, requesting a copy of the sermon in order to understand the nature of the criticisms (but there was apparently no 'death-bed conversion' in Fleming's final novels). And in 1980/1, during location filming of For Your Eyes Only at Meteora, Greece, monks from the Eastern Orthodox Church protested against the use of their monastery in the film, and attempted to spoil the filming by hanging washing out of the windows.
It has taken 50 years for the Vatican to succumb to the charms of James Bond. During that time, the world has seen huge social change. The Vatican is clearly part of society and is not immune to the ever evolving landscape of what is morally acceptable. How else can we explain the fact that aspects of James Bond that caused such consternation for the church in the 1960s are points of celebration in 2012?
Barnes, A and Hearn, M, 1997 Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Batsford
Haining, P, 1987 James Bond, a celebration, Planet
Pearson, J, 1966 The life of Ian Fleming, Cape