Sunday, 3 August 2014

The disguises of James Bond

A toy version of a spy from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
While sharing creator, producer, writers, and production crew, the film of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is far removed from the world of James Bond, but there is still room in the children's adventure film for a couple of spies. Known simply as first and second spies (played by Alexander Doré and Bernard Spear respectively), the bumbling agents of Baron Bomburst are hardly the epitome of intelligence. They do, however, display one aspect of espionage work beloved of early spy fiction: they employ disguises to blend into their surroundings and fulfil their missions without raising suspicions.

In one scene, the spies are dressed as English gentlemen out for a stroll. In another, they wade on to a beach from the sea underneath funnels from a ship. That their disguises are so ridiculous and transparent is of course part of the joke, but their attempts are nevertheless expressions of a key idea or meme of spy culture, particularly in fiction, that spies routinely wear disguises to keep their operations secret and gather intelligence in enemy territory.

In order to keep his activities secret, James Bond uses false identities and elaborate covers, but he does not, in contrast to the spies in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, use disguises, at least according to the file held by the Soviet Union's Ministry of State Security or MGB (a precursor to the KGB) in the novel, From Russia, with Love (1957). Except that occasionally Bond does.

In Diamonds are Forever, published a year earlier, Bond's appearance is altered by make-up before paying a visit to Rufus B Saye's House of Diamonds in Hatton Garden. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963), Bond infiltrates Piz Gloria, Blofeld's Swiss base as representative of the College of Arms, Sir Hilary Bray. Bond does not exactly wear a disguise, but he does arrive at London Airport sporting a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella to give himself the appearance of a baronet. And in You Only Live Twice (1964), Bond's hair is cut, his eyebrows shaved, and his skin darkened to allow him to mingle among the crowd at Tokyo's main rail station, restaurants and temples without being recognised as a 'gaijin'.

The film series sees Bond wearing disguises more often. In Dr No (1962), Bond puts on a radiation suit to pass unnoticed in the reactor room of the eponymous villain's base. The film of You Only Live Twice (1967) shows Bond adopting the same sort of disguise he uses in the book, and in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), he wears tweeds, kilt and glasses to look more like a Scottish baronet. Bond wears the robes of a sheikh in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and the poncho and hat of a South American gaucho (with more than a hint of Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy) in Moonraker (1979). In Octopussy (1983), Bond disguises himself as a clown, allowing him to pass through security to enter the Big Top of Octopussy's circus. Bond briefly dons a fire fighter's uniform in A View To A Kill (1985), and in The Living Daylights (1987) wears Afghan clothes, which allows him to pass by Russian soldiers and plant a bomb on a Soviet plane.

Interestingly, James Bond is not the only character to wear disguises. In For Your Eyes Only, Q disguises himself as a Greek Orthodox priest, and in Licence to Kill (1989), Q wears the clothes of a Mexican peasant. Curiously, he wears false facial hair for both disguises.

Unlike the archetypal spy of fiction, such as the two spies in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, James Bond is not known for wearing disguises. However, he does occasionally adopt disguises (there is in any case a fine line between a cover or false identity and a disguise), and in the film series perhaps uses them more often than is perhaps realised. In that respect, the cinematic Bond is given more of the traditions of early spy fiction and the spy of the First and Second World Wars than is the Bond of Fleming's novels.

One possible explanation may lie in the origins of Fleming's Bond. Fleming was inspired in part by American crime fiction, particularly that of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and consequently his Bond has some of the characteristics of a hard-boiled detective, who tends to be more open when investigating a case. In contrast, writers of the Bond films, in preparing the script of a spy film, are likely to have turned more strongly, perhaps exclusively, to the common tropes of spy, rather than detective, fiction.


  1. A very interesting article as always, Edward on a topic I'd noted down myself - Bond also uses a disguise by greying his hair in John Gardner's For Special Services (1982) and like you I always thought that it was rather curious that the Soviet Intelligence file on Bond stated that he did not wear disguises when he sometimes did, but as you point out here eloquently this is more of a Bond film meme than a literary one. Interesting too how you bring in the film writers' going back to early spy fiction of the imperial years and the First World War given it is the 100th Anniversary of the start of the First World War today. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks, glad you liked it. Thanks for the reminder about Bond's disguise in For Special Services. I think that Soviet file needs updating! But yes, it's interesting how the films seem to reflect world war spy lore more than the books do. To me it's another indication that, contrary to the popular view, the books don't really follow the literary traditions of the 'clubland heroes', such as Richard Hannay or Bulldog Drummond, and other imperial spies/adventurers.

  2. No, they don't follow the "clubland heroes" as much as O.F. Snelling and Kingsley Amis supposed in their brilliant books on the literary Bond in the 1960s. In fact, spy novelist and Bond expert Jeremy Duns has made this case in various articles on his blog suggesting Dennis Wheatley as one instance of an author who had a more recent influence on Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. Jeremy is a pioneer in this field and he certainly puts his vast knowledge of spy fiction to good use.


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