Sunday 28 November 2010

Bond meets his match - every time.

The release of a James Bond film is traditionally accompanied by huge press interest, promotion of featured products, magazine and TV specials, and the leading actress’ claim that her character is different from the Bond girls that preceded her – this time, she’s Bond’s equal.

With Quantum of Solace (2008) in the cinemas, Olga Kurylenko said of her character, Camille, ‘She very strong and independent, but at the same time vulnerable’. Eva Green thought that, in Casino Royale (2006), Vesper Lynd was ‘an equal match’ to Bond. Die Another Day’s (2002) Jinx, played by Halle Berry, was ‘very intelligent, she was Bond’s equal’. Denise Richards thought Dr Christmas Jones in The World is not Enough (1999) ‘very smart’ who ‘plays well off of (sic) Bond’. For Michelle Yeoh, starring in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), it was important that ‘Wai Lin was as intelligent as Bond’, and not ‘another of his side-kick floozies’. Izabella Scorupco’s Natalya Simonova in Goldeneye (1995) was ‘so intelligent’ and ‘without her Bond is not going to be able to accomplish his mission’.

Many claimed that the strong, intelligent woman appeared in the earlier films, too. Honor Blackman relished her role as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964). The academic Camille Paglia viewed the character as ‘one of the most commanding, authoritative women in popular culture of the time’. It was especially the physical aspects of the role that, like Cathy Gale, Blackman’s character in The Avengers, meant that she ‘fought like a man, fought better than a man’. Diana Rigg, playing Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), thought her character ‘much more dimensional than most of the other women who’ve ever been in the Bond pictures’. Lois Chiles regarded Holly Goodhead in Moonraker (1979) as being ‘capable of doing everything that Bond could do’. Octopussy, played by Maud Adams in 1983, was billed as Bond’s equal: ‘We’re two of a kind’, Octopussy tells Bond. In interviews, Adams stressed her character’s role as an adventurer, smuggler and businesswoman.

The implication of the emphasis that the principal actresses give to the intelligence, emotional and physical strength and resourcefulness of their characters is that the Bond girls before them were regarded as having none of those qualities. The previous-Bond-girls-were-bimbos meme has been very successful. It is widespread, being reproduced by the press and commentators wherever the films show. It is cyclical, being propagated with the release of each film and, because it carries the weight of the entire series, has greater survival value than the memes (the criticisms, reviews and quotations) accompanying each individual film, which generally last only the long as the film plays in the cinemas. And, without the need to refer to specific cases, the meme replicates faithfully.

But the meme also adapts well to the changing cultural or memetic environment. The notion of what constitutes equality between men and women now is different from that during the 1960s. The sexual revolution of the Sixties paved the way for improved opportunities for women in the Seventies. In the Eighties, concerns about HIV/AIDS influenced the way sexual relationships were depicted, and the Nineties onwards have brought, at least in most Western countries, full(er) equality in pay, opportunities, pensions, and law. The Bond girl character has reflected those changes, but yet the ‘the-previous-Bond-girls-were-bimbos’ meme survives.

Monday 22 November 2010

Was James Bond religious?

Recent years have brought a number of books and articles on Bond’s religious beliefs and the morality of his adventures. These include Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass by Benjamin Pratt and the paper, ‘Christian culture, morality and James Bond’ by Frank Smith. The authors tend to be religious themselves and seek to give Bond a Christian mission. A fair reading of Fleming’s novels, however, reveals no obvious religious belief.

What little evidence religious writers present to advance their case is at best ambiguous and at worst subject to biased interpretation. One passage central to the argument for a religious Bond is his discussion with RenĂ© Mathis in Casino Royale on the nature of good and evil. Bond says, ‘Now in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we have manufactured two images representing the extremes...and we call them God and the Devil’ (Chapter 20). Benjamin Pratt refers to the passage, but describes God and the Devil as personifications of real presences, rather than what Fleming may have been implying – human inventions.

Then there is Bond’s feelings of revulsion after a rich meal with Mr Du Pont in Goldfinger, which Bond attributes to the ‘puritan’ in him (Chapter 2). The use of the word puritan is interesting, and Pratt cites its as evidence of Bond’s Calvinist beliefs. It could, of course, be nothing more than a figure of speech, coming to mean, more generally, someone who is strict in morals and looks upon kinds of pleasure as sinful. Given that Bond ‘takes ridiculous pleasure’ in his food and drink (Casino Royale, Chapter 8), the use of the word hardly identifies Bond as a fire-and-brimstone bible-thumper.

Ian Fleming suggested that Bond was a latter-day St George, slaying the dragon and rescuing the maiden. But to extrapolate from this, as some have done, that Fleming intended his novels to be modern parables for the Christian reader, is wishful thinking.

Fleming’s church attendance is not recorded in the various bibliographies or his correspondence to his wife Ann, suggesting that religion did not play a significant in his life, if at all. He admitted in a letter to a Reverend Leslie Paxton that he was ‘some kind of sub-species of a Christian’ (if Fleming is professing religious belief, then this is a strangely mealy-mouthed expression of it), but this follows Paxton’s sermon against James Bond. Fleming was curious about what had been said, and the admission could be little more than a friendly gesture. Much is made of Fleming’s Calvinist grandfather, Robert, but this alone is not enough to give Fleming – and Bond – a religious identity. If Fleming occasionally alludes to religious words and concepts, then their use is a product of his cultural environment and the ideas – the memes – he inherited from his parents and social network. Naturally, Bond gained a similar background.

That's not to say that Bond is not moral (his musings in Casino Royale show otherwise), but morals are not evidence for religious belief. If Bond is a Christian, then he is a cultural Christian. He may look forward to the carols in the church at Christmas, or hobnob with the vicar at a summer fĂȘte, but he’d only be reaching for his bible when he wants to retrieve the gun hidden in it.

Sunday 14 November 2010

The men who would be Bond - Ian Fleming's choice?

Ian Fleming’s Bond was ‘hard, ruthless, sardonic, fatalistic’; in short, ‘a bit of a bastard’. The producers of the Bond films felt that Fleming’s Bond was too much the English Gentleman. Cubby Broccoli found much to admire in Fleming’s work – the ‘virile, resourceful hero, exotic locations’, and the sophisticated sex – but Bond, for him, still a lacked a certain hardness. This view was not altogether unreasonable. After all, Fleming’s Bond does not slap women, unlike Marlowe, but feels protective towards them; he thinks about marrying Vesper Lynd, Gala Brand and Tiffany Case, and succeeds with Tracy di Vicenzo. So, Broccoli sought to give Bond ‘a coarser shading’ and more masculinity that downplayed the kinder, paternalistic aspects of the character.

Stories linking names with Fleming’s preferred choice, Richard Burton and James Mason, for instance, are largely apocryphal. Fleming’s own preferences for the actor to play Bond would appear to confirm the producers’ view that Fleming’s Bond was not tough enough. Fleming supposedly favoured David Niven or Roger Moore for the role. Niven in particular was well-known for playing upper-class, suave, charmers, and his post-war output up until 1961 had consisted largely of romantic comedies or melodramas. As Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Niven strayed into the world of the globe-trotting adventurer, but this was a rare excursion out of his usual sophisticated urban territory.

We must be careful, however, not to read too much into Fleming’s preference. Fleming was, after all, a friend of Niven’s, and his suggestion can be taken in the spirit of amiable duty. It did not necessarily reflect how he thought Bond should be played. It was in this sense of friendship that Fleming suggested Noel Coward for the role of Dr No, and gave starring roles alongside James Bond to many of his acquaintances in his novels. Indeed, David Niven appeared in the novel, You Only Live Twice, though as a cormorant belonging to Kissy Suzuki, one of the fisher folk of the Ama tribe. These were minor in-jokes that gave a knowing thrill to Fleming’s social circle. But these references demonstrate a generosity that would have put Niven at the forefront of Fleming’s mind for the role of James Bond.

Ian Fleming had other names in mind. According to his friend, Sir John Morgan, he admired Edward Underdown, a character actor usually seen in supporting roles. Underdown was born in 1908 and first appeared on the stage in 1932. Curiously, Fleming dismissed the possibility of Trevor Howard as Bond on the ground of age. This was despite Howard being Underdown’s senior by five years.

Underdown usually took roles in a range of melodramas, thrillers or wartime pieces. Fleming might have seen him as Inspector Johnson investing a murky London murder in Street of Shadows (1953), or as Harry Chelm in the African-set adventure, Beat the Devil (1953), also starring Humphrey Bogart. Perhaps fresher in Fleming’s mind was The Camp on Blood Island (1958), a tense drama following the fortunes of prisoners of war – including Underdown as Dawes – at the hands of a sadistic Japanese camp commander. Or there was Information Received (1961), a crime drama.

Despite his appearances in a range of exciting films, Underdown was regarded as a rather dull leading actor: worthy, but lacking the sex-appeal that Broccoli and Saltzman sought. Indeed, his subsequent casting in Thunderball (1965) as Air Vice Marshal only serves to demonstrate his fate to play secondary authority figures.

Sunday 7 November 2010


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James Bond's library

If we want to live the James Bond lifestyle, then we could go skiing, drive Bentleys, consume foie gras, drink champagne, and wrestle a giant squid. Or we could read the books on Bond's bookshelf.

Kingsley Amis (writing as Bill Tanner) thought that Bond's bookcase was sparse. Bond was not a great reader. This assessment seems a little harsh. Why should Fleming include a catalogue of Bond's bookcase in the novels? And we surely do not expect Bond's adventures to involve trips to the library or descriptions of Bond getting through a couple of chapters each night before lights out. If Ian Fleming wrote a novel about Bond resting between missions, then we might have seen a different side of Bond – reclining in the armchair, feet resting on the pouffe, engrossed in the latest blockbuster.

But from the few references we do gain from the novels, we know that Bond did have a varied library. Bond liked a good thriller. He read Eric Ambler's The Mask of Demetrios on the plane to Turkey, and turned to the hard-boiled detective stories of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlow and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Bond read key sporting manuals – Ben Hogan’s Modern Fundamentals of Golf, Tony Armour’s How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time, and Scarne on Cards. Politics are covered by JFK’s Profiles in Courage and Allen Dulles’ The Craft of Intelligence. For travel, Bond reads, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Traveller’s Tree (although this was on M’s recommendation). Bond’s copy of The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature may have provided Bond with spiritual comfort, but really it was simply a place to hide his gun.

Inevitably, James Bond’s choice in books mirrors that of Fleming’s. Some of the titles were undoubtedly shared, and it is a fair assumption that Fleming had read all the books he gave to Bond. He had certainly read The Traveller’s Tree. Fleming quoted extensively from it in Live and Let Die and, in a footnote, regarded it as one of the great travel books. We know that Fleming had read Philip Marlowe’s adventures, because Fleming admitted that the style of Raymond Chandler’s thrillers influenced his own.

Fleming also had a copy of The Craft of Intelligence; Allen Dulles sent him a draft. By referring to Profiles in Courage, Fleming was able to return the compliment that Kennedy gave Fleming when the president put From Russia with Love at number nine in the list of his ten favourite books. Fleming was a keen golfer (obvious from the battle of golf between Bond and Goldfinger) and we would expect Fleming to be up on the latest manuals.

It may seem asinine to say that Ian Fleming was well acquainted with the books that Bond reads, but there is an important point. If Fleming used books to create character, then the character was Fleming himself