Monday, 22 July 2013

Licence to swear

[I've spelled out the swear words, so if potentially offended, look away now!]

I was watching A View To A Kill the other week and was surprised to hear one of the characters swear. I've seen the film countless times, but hadn't noticed before that the San Franciscan police captain utters the word shit as one of his patrol cars is smashed or crushed. Recently we have come to expect swearing in Bond films, but for most of the series, audiences have heard nothing stronger than 'hell', 'damn', or 'bloody'. We tend to think of Bond films as being free of stronger words, which makes their infrequent use all the more shocking.

If Skyfall was made in 1962, the film, with its five uses of the word 'shit', and one use of the word 'fuck', would have been heading towards an X-rating or may have been refused a classification without cuts. Dr No, by comparison, is extremely mild in its language. This may have reflected a deliberate policy of the film-makers to ensure that the film was family friendly, but it is worth noting that very few British films made at that time, even X-rated ones, used words stronger than those used in Dr No. As one Bond film followed the other, the style of the earlier films was retained, so that the films became well known for the absence of swearing. Over time, the series diverged from changes in everyday language, and the lack of swearing may also have contributed to the popular perception that the Bond films are family-orientated, even though film classifiers have consistently put them in categories suitable for older children and adults

Skyfall tops the list for swearing, followed by Licence to Kill (1989), in which the word 'shit' is heard four times. Here, the attempt to present a tougher film that could compete with the crop of more adult-orientated action films such as Die Hard may have guided the screenwriters, but to me the result was unexpected and jarring on first viewing. The stronger language disappeared during the Pierce Brosnan era, but the lack of swearing also gave the films a somewhat old-fashioned quality. After all, it was a rare action/adventure film that didn't have some swearing. True Lies (1994), for example, a near-Bond film which helped fill the long hiatus between Licence to Kill and GoldenEye, included a fair few swear words.

Perhaps reflecting modern realities where words once thought shocking have been co-opted into everyday conversational speech to serve as fillers and to give emphasis, the swear words re-introduced into Daniel Craig's films now pass almost without comment (Casino Royale has one use of the word 'shit', while the word is heard twice in Quantum of Solace). Notably, James Bond is never heard to swear (if I remember aright), whereas Judy Dench's M is heard to swear the most. For a really honest portrayal of Ian Fleming's Bond, however, we should allow Bond to swear in the films. After all, he swears in the books. In Dr No, for example, he shouts out “Fuck them all” (rendered as “–them all” in the text) as he sees Dr No's staff observe his progress in the deadly obstacle course (chapter 17), and in Goldfinger (chapter 15), he tells the eponymous villain to “go and fuck yourself” (again, the obscenity is represented by a long dash).


It should be noted, though, that while he admitted to swearing, Fleming avoided spelling out the coarse language in his books. In an interview with Munro Scott of the CBC-TV's Explorations programme, he said that he didn't 'like seeing them [swear words] on the page', arguing that they held up the reader's interest. He imagined that readers would see the words and say, 'Good Lord! What's that?' Overall, Fleming viewed the use of coarse language as a 'bad literary device'.

While the Bond films have kept up with fashion, technology and politics, they have not kept up so successfully with changes in the use of language. The Daniel Craig era has seen the series catch up to some extent, although there remains a residual sense that swearing just isn't appropriate for a Bond film. It wouldn't be out of keeping with Fleming's character, though, if we permitted even James Bond to swear occasionally.

8 comments:

  1. Not sure if I want to hear Bond say f*ck. To me, he's still the product of an earlier era. Although, to contradict myself, if he were to swear because an escape helicopter blew up before he could get to it, then that would be perfectly in context within the scene. "True Lies" is a good example of coarse language being used just for its own sake. Use too much of it and it begins to smack of poor writing.
    Still, I thought it was cool that the first person to use the F-word in a Bond film was Judi Dench's M. It seemed to fit with her portrayal of the no-nonsense, hard-drinking MI6 chief.
    Do I want to hear Bond say f*ck? Not particularly, because he can show anger and frustration in other ways. And that's coming from a guy who swears like a tradesman at times.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This reminds me of reading You Only Live Twice for the first time and being completely mystified by "Freddie Uncle Charlie Katie".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I spent about three days figuring that one out. In my defence, I was about fifteen years old.

      Delete
  3. I agree. I've presented the case for Bond swearing, but I don't think I'd feel comfortable hearing it (although Daniel Craig seems to swear like a trooper!). While the films have gradually introduced more coarse language, it's significant that Bond himself isn't shown to swear, and this remains a big taboo. I don't think we'll hear him 'effing and blinding' for some time to come - or until Tarantino makes a Bond film. Yes, I was confused by the Freddie Uncle Charlie Katie reference for ages as well. Incidentally, I'm sure there are other incidences of Bond swearing in the books, though I couldn't find them after a quick trawl. I think that there are some naughty Russian words as well.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I got a lot of feedback from people complaining about the level of swearing in Skyfall. I think part of it is that Bond films are seen as family entertainment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's interesting about the feedback. I think you're right that Bond films are seen as family entertainment. Being taken to watch your first Bond film as a child is almost a rite of passage. When I watched Skyfall in the cinema, I noticed parents bring their young children, and I have to admit that I felt uncomfortable at the thought of their watching it. It's not just the swearing, but the violence too. I suppose being a parent myself, I'm more sensitive to such matters. It's not just Craig's films, though. Even Roger Moore-era Bond films have a level of violence and 'peril' that is possibly inappropriate for young children. It's a personal judgement, though. Returning to the swearing issue, I don't think the films would lose anything if the swearing was just taken out.

      Delete
    2. I have to say that it seemed to me that Judi Dench almost muttered the word under her breath. Either that or I'm so used to hearing the word (usually from my OWN mouth) that it barely registered on my radar.

      Delete
  5. I didn't catch the cop swear in A View To A Kill but I did hear Stacy Sutton say "shit" when driving the fire truck with Bond hanging from the ladder. It does stick out because it's the first time heard in Bond films at that point in time.

    ReplyDelete