Friday, 19 February 2016

A look at Some Kind of Hero

While there have been many books over the years that have charted the history of the Bond films, none has been as detailed, fascinating or, to be honest, daunting, as Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury's volume. Stacking up at some 600 pages (with a further 100 for footnotes, references etc.), Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films (2015, The History Press) could be described as the Bond film reference book to end all Bond film reference books, and I think it would be well deserving of the title.

The book begins, of course, with a chapter on Ian Fleming, before describing the tortuous path that eventually led to the deal between Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli to produce a series of Bond films, starting with Dr No in 1962. The book then runs through the background, scripts, production, casting, and much more for each film, pausing now and again to devote special chapter to key players and events. 

With so much written on Bond elsewhere, the authors could have taken the easy route by bringing together what has already been published. The authors haven't ignored those existing sources, but at the same time have assembled a huge amount of information gleaned from their own interviews with actors, production crew, producers and studio executives, and also trawled through some very useful archive material. One voice is notably absent, that of the original film Bond, Sean Connery. The authors made valiant attempts to secure an interview, but the odds were always going to be against them.

Reading the book, the overwhelming impression I gained of the business of making Bond films was that it's a wonder that any Bond film manages to be made at all.

There is the usual game of studio executive musical chairs, with Eon Productions having had to deal, seemingly, with new faces each time at United Artists, then MGM, more often than not a result of the almost never-ending saga of financial troubles, mergers, takeovers, and complex legal arrangements, all of which have threatened production and the survival of the Bond series.

And that's before one gets to the scripts. These days especially, many scriptwriters, most uncredited, have a hand in the screenplays. I hadn't appreciated, for example, that the director will usually bring in his own writers to rework existing drafts, or will even do some rewriting himself. Many ideas never make it to the final shooting script (and looking at some of the synopses of those early drafts, I'm glad they didn't), but often the final script is very different to the first draft. This can work to the film's advantage – Paul Haggis' involvement on Casino Royale (2006) transformed the film – but sometimes the work is a rewrite too far. Die Another Day (2001) began life as a fairly straight Cold War-style thriller with a good dose of Fleming, until director Lee Tamahori upped the fantasy, culminating in the invisible car and the execrable CGI.

More positively, the authors highlight aspects which demonstrate why the Bond series has lasted more than fifty years, among them the top actors, the expertise and dedication of the production crew, the sheer scale of the Bond films, the power of the series to film in places that would have been closed to any other production, and ability of Eon to respond to changing audience expectations and cultural environments. I was particularly impressed to read that screentesting for potential Bonds involves not just a run-through of classic Bond scenes, but a whole re-staging, with full sets, music, lighting and so on. At least for those screentests, the actors really are Bond.

I admit I skipped over the detailed plot synopses; by now I'm pretty familiar with the films, as I expect most readers will be. And despite the size of the volume, there are gaps. Each chapter ends abruptly at the point of the film's release, but I wanted to know more about how the films were received, both critically and by the cinema-going public. There's a chapter on Bondmania of the 1960s, but what of the enduring Bond phenomenon? There are few accompanying images, but then again, this is no coffee table book. The book is slightly marred by an unfortunate typo (probably a 'find-and-replace' that wasn't subsequently checked) that is repeated through the volume, right down to the final line.

But you can't fault the authors' knowledge, scope, tenacity, and story-telling. Some Kind of Hero is some kind of book, and is essential reading for Bond aficionados.

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