Sunday 27 February 2011

Licence to Kill – from the pages of Ian Fleming

Let’s start with the plot. In the steamy tropics off the Caribbean Sea, James Bond ingratiates himself with a thug so that Bond can kill him. Unaware of Bond’s intention, the thug hires Bond to provide security during a deal to set up a syndicate allowing the thug to smuggle drugs into the United States. Someone close to the thug recognises Bond as an enemy and blows Bond’s cover. The thug and Bond fight it out in waste land, but Bond triumphs and kills him. 

I could be describing the plot to Licence to Kill, released in1989 and starring Timothy Dalton as James Bond, but I’m not. It is instead the plot to Ian Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun, published in 1965.

There is no evidence that the writers of Licence to Kill, Michael G Wilson and Richard Maibaum, intentionally based their story on Fleming’s novel. In interviews, the writers maintain that it was an original story mixed with unused elements from Fleming’s stories. One character, Milton Krest, derives from the short story, The Hildebrand Rarity. A scene where Felix Leiter is thrown to the sharks is taken from Live and Let Die.

The similarities between the film and The Man with the Golden Gun appear to be, as film credits have it, entirely coincidental, but they have provoked much recent discussion on fan site message boards, although I outlined the similarities earlier in a letter to Empire magazine in October 2008.

The principal action of Licence to Kill is set in the fictional central American country of Isthmus. This is not, of course, Jamaica, which features in The Man with the Golden Gun, but both locations have coastlines on the Caribbean Sea. To ingratiate himself into Sanchez’s service, Bond presents himself as a ‘problem eliminator’. In the book, Bond identifies himself to Scaramanga as an armed freelance insurance investigator about to contact his company to see ‘if they’ve got any other problems in the area’ (Chapter 6). 

It seems odd that the villain of the novel and film would hire someone he doesn’t know to provide security, but it may be explained if we consider (as Kingsley Amis had with regard to Scaramanga) the subtext of homosexuality. Sanchez and Scaramanga are simply attracted to Bond and drop their guard. We are told by a Secret Service psychologist that Scaramanga has homosexual tendencies. Scenes between Sanchez and his chief henchman, Dario, provide oblique references to Sanchez’s homosexuality. In one scene, Sanchez tenderly strokes Dario’s cheek. It is possible, too, that Sanchez’s pink shirt is intended as a signifier of his sexual orientation. As for the villains’ demise, Bond kills Scaramanga in Jamaica’s swamps, while Sanchez is killed in the desert of Isthmus. Both landscapes are marginal.

There are differences. Bond is on an official mission to kill Scaramanga, whereas in Licence to Kill, he is on his own, having resigned from the Secret Service. Drug smuggling is only one of Scaramanga’s concerns, but it exclusively occupies Sanchez’s business. However, given the extent to which the producers of the Bond films changes Fleming’s stories, often taking only character names and the broadest framework of the original plot, Licence to Kill could be regarded as a reasonably faithful adaptation of Fleming’s work.

When Michael G Wilson and Richard Maibaum wrote Licence to Kill, they were intimately knowledgeable about the world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. At the start of scripting a new Bond film, it was usual to re-read Fleming to identify potentially exciting plot points that hadn’t already made it to the screen. The writers were unlikely to have been aware of it, but the practice may have been responsible for introducing traits or memes from The Man with the Golden Gun into the script of Licence to Kill.

Hibbin, S, 1989 The making of Licence to Kill, Hamlyn, London

Sunday 20 February 2011

James Brand: Is Bond a snob?

Controversially, in his BBC 2 series tracing the development of key character types in English fiction, Sebastian Faulks’ placed James Bond in the category of snob, rather than hero. Bond’s heroic (or even anti-heroic) qualities, it seems, were of less interest to Faulks than Bond’s consumerism and awareness of brand-name products. In Faulks’ view, this makes Bond a snob because such materialism is driven by a desire to gain status through the recognition and admiration of others. This snobbery is different from the kind that leads to disdain and rejection of people regarded as socially inferior, and Bond is instead what Faulks terms a ‘connoisseur snob’. The charge is not a new one – Paul Johnson got there first in 1958, accusing Bond of having the ‘snob-cravings of a suburban adult’ – but is it true?

It is undeniable that Ian Fleming’s novels feature many brand-name products and that Bond is loyal to them. Faulks reminds us of a few – sea-island cotton shirts, Morland Special cigarettes, a supercharged Bentley – and to those we can add a Ronson lighter, Pinaud’s Elixir shampoo, a Chemex coffee maker, Tiptree’s Little Scarlet strawberry jam, to name but a few.

Some of these, like the cigarettes, were Fleming’s own brands of choice, which he simply gave to Bond, since the products were already familiar. Others Fleming chose for Bond to add a measure of reality in an otherwise fantastic world. As Fleming remarked, the use of products made the adventures seem more valid and truthful. Readers not only read about Bond, they could be him by using the same shampoo or consuming the same jam. If a few items were out of the ordinary reader’s reach (the Bentley notably), well that merely reflected the cultural environment in which Fleming lived.

We should be careful, however, not to exaggerate Bond’s dependency on branded goods, which remain in the background of his adventures, or confuse the literary Bond with the cinematic Bond, who is much more particular about the correct products. A staple of the films, the demonstration of arcane knowledge (‘I prefer the '53 myself’ (as opposed to a Dom Perignon '55)), never appears in the books. And the literary Bond recognises snobbery when he sees it – snobbery is, after all, the ‘hairy heel of Achilles’ that traps Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963).

In any case, an alternative interpretation can be offered: Bond is discerning. Products vary in quality. Bond has tried other brands but did not like them. He eats Little Scarlet jam because it is the tastiest, and he uses a Ronson lighter because it is the most reliable. Once the selection has been made, the trial-and-error process has been completed, and the use of the product is maintained by force of habit.

Is Bond a snob? Probably to no greater extent than most of us are. We have all settled on particular products and throw brand names about with no more meaning than to indicate a generic product. Bond is, as Fleming intended, one of us.

Sunday 13 February 2011

From Gold to Golden

As I watched the other month the 1974 film Gold, starring Roger Moore and Susannah York and directed by OHMSS director Peter Hunt, I couldn’t help thinking that Roger Moore should have played Bond the way he played Rod Slater, the lead character in Gold. Slater, the general manager of the southern African Sonderditch gold mine, uncovers a plot hatched by the mine’s owners to flood the mine and drive the price of gold upwards. Moore’s Slater is a forceful and gritty character, and these traits become more prominent as the film progresses. In his determination to save the miners and expose his paymasters, Slater is angry and on the edge of violence. In other words, a dangerous man. Film-goers would have to wait until Licence to Kill (1989) starring Timothy Dalton to get a Bond like Rod Slater.

I must admit, however, that the argument is rather unfair to Roger Moore, as it places too much expectation on the actor’s ability to determine the how a character is to be played. After all, like most actors, Moore acts in accordance with the script and the instructions of the director. Gold was filmed in between Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), and the traits of those films were set on a different path that began before Roger Moore’s Bond tenure.

Live and Let Die was written by Tom Mankiewicz and directed by Guy Hamilton. Both were also responsible for the previous film, Diamonds Are Forever, released in 1971 and starring Sean Connery. The Man With The Golden Gun retained the writing and directing team of Tom Mankiewicz and Guy Hamilton. It is little wonder that all three films, creatively (and memetically) linked, were similar in tone and style – lighter and humorous with family-friendly violence and action. The chances that the Bond of The Man With The Golden Gun would acquire the traits enjoyed by Rod Slater were low.

That said, Roger Moore writes in his autobiography that Guy Hamilton wanted him to toughen up his portrayal of Bond for The Man With The Golden Gun, which, though Moore was reluctant, we see in the scene where Bond slaps Andrea Anders, played by Maud Adams. The influence here, though, is Ian Fleming’s (and probably a measure of Sean Connery’s Bond), rather than Roger Moore’s Rod Slater.

Still, Rod Slater is reminiscent of Fleming’s Bond to the extent that if James Bond had chosen a career in mining rather than spying, then he would have become Rod Slater. Gold is one of Roger Moore’s best non-Bond films. Possibly Wilbur Smith, the author of the original novel, Gold Mine, had Bond in mind when he wrote the character of Rod Slater.

Roger Moore, 2008 My Word is My Bond, Michael O’Mara Books, London

Sunday 6 February 2011

Bond's rivals

James Bond emerged in 1953 as an amalgam of an American private detective, a World War II commando and a British club-land hero, but in turn inspired a range of Bond-like characters that for a time, especially in the 1960s, sought to steal the crown of the toughest, handsomest, and most exciting secret agent. We are more familiar with the cinematic rivals – Derek Flint, Charles Vine, Matt Helm, and latterly Austin Powers – but there was no shortage of pretenders in the literary world. Let’s meet a few of them.

The American spy Nick Carter works for the Axe organisation, an ultra-secret organisation that takes orders direct from the president of the United States. Like Bond, he has a licence to kill, and takes the epithet of killmaster. Nick Carter was heralded as ‘the American answer to Ian Fleming’s James Bond’ and the inheritor of Bond’s mantle in his first spy adventure, Run, Spy, Run, published in 1964. In fact, the character was much older, originally appearing in a crime novel, ‘The Old Detective’s pupil’ in 1886, and subsequently featuring in detective magazines, crime novels and radio stories until the 1950s. Various authors contributed stories, which were all credited to Nick Carter. Run, Spy, Run marked a significant change to the character in an attempt to emulate Bond’s success.

Hammerhead was also published in 1964. Called the ‘toughest of post-Bond thrillers’ by the Spectator, this was the first adventure for Charles Hood, an art dealer and secret agent, written by James Mayo, a pseudonym of Stephen Coulter. Four more adventures followed, the last being The Man Above Suspicion in 1969. Charles Hood is tough (‘Hood freed one hand and before the man could move, scooped a fistful of ash down the open throat’), urbane, fond of the ladies, and a traveller. The fourth novel, Once in a Lifetime (also available as Sergeant Death), takes Hood to Iran in an archaeological-themed story.

James Leasor was a prolific writer who turned his attention to the spy genre in 1964 with the publication of Passport to Oblivion (also known as Where the Spies Are). The hero was Dr Jason Love, a country GP turned secret agent, and ‘heir apparent to the golden throne of Bond’, according to the Evening Standard. He certainly has the right qualities – a love of fast cars (a supercharged Cord roadster), and fondness for martial arts (judo), and exotic places (Iran again). There were nine Jason Love adventures, the last, Love Down Under, published in 1992.

Hugo Baron was another an adventurer who first appeared in 1964 in Diecast. ‘How like Bond and just as good’, said the Daily Express. Like Love and Hood, he combines his secret-agent life with his day-job, this time a barrister. Diecast was written by John Michael Brett, a pseudonym of Miles Tripp. Hugo Baron is less a spy than a ‘man-of-danger’ hired as a tough problem-solver. In Diecast he is hired to extricate a millionaire and head of an organisation called DIECAST out of blackmail trouble.

Not all Bond’s rivals were born in 1964. Philip McAlpine arrived in 1967 in The Dolly Dolly Spy, by Adam Diment. The character was compared with Bond, but the contrasts were also noted. While he likes fast cars, women, and violence, McAlpine is younger than Bond (23), is part of the swinging London scene and smokes marijuana. This updating of the Bond model had its fans, but the character, like many of the others, didn’t last. The final novel, Think, Inc, was published in 1971.

This brief survey of Bond’s rivals raises some points. 1964 was a good year for the competition. It was the year that Ian Fleming died, and with the prospect of no further Bond novels, writers saw the opportunity to bring out their secret agents to fill the niche. All these characters took to various extents James Bond’s traits and were identified with Bond. They were not identical, though, and could be regarded as Bond re-imagined and adapted by writers other than Fleming. In evolutionary terms, the memes from which James Bond developed evolved in a form of speciation. The memes or traits were isolated in other writers’ minds and new species of secret agents – Jason Love, Nick Carter, Charles Hood and others – evolved along different, though similar, trajectories.