Friday 27 June 2014

Jules Verne introduces the Bond villain

If you thought the Bond villain was born in 1953 with the appearance of Le Chiffre in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, then think again. Reading Jules Verne's 1904 novel, Master of the World, I was surprised to encounter an antagonist who had many of the attributes we closely associate with the villains of the Bond novels and films.

'Master of the World', an illustration from the French edition by George Roux

Jules Verne, the French novelist best known for his novels of 'voyages extraordinaires', among them Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, sets his 54th novel in the United States. Police detective John Strock is sent by his chief to investigate mysterious sights and sounds emanating from the Great Eyrie, a seemingly inaccessible peak within a mountain range. Strock's attempt to scale the peak fails, and he learns nothing. Returning to Washington, he hears about a road vehicle that's quicker than the fastest automobile (reaching speeds of up to 130mph), a boat that zooms across the water, and a third machine that travels under water. With instructions to find the owners of the vehicles, Strock gradually discovers that all three machines are in fact one, and that there is a connection between them and the mysterious Great Eyrie.

Naturally on reading about a car that turns into a submarine, my mind went to Bond's Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me. But the vehicle had one more surprise – it could also fly. Like Scaramanga's AMC Matador coupe in The Man With The Golden Gun, and perhaps more befittingly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the car is converted into an aircraft by means of wings which fold out from the base of the vehicle. Just as the Potts find out that Chitty can fly when the car goes over a cliff, Strock, having been captured and held prisoner in the vehicle, then in boat mode, learns of its ability to fly when it plunges over the Niagara Falls.

The brilliant inventor responsible for this four-in-one machine is Robur the Conquerer, a character Verne had introduced earlier in an 1886 novel of the same name. As with all mad geniuses, Robur is eager to reveal his plans to Strock, claim past injustices, and seek his revenge against the world, traits that we would recognise in Dr No or Hugo Drax. Verne's description of Robur recalls Fleming's descriptions of Blofeld, Goldfinger or Mr Big:

“...the robust neck; the enormous spheroidal head. The eyes at the least emotion burned with fire, while above them were the heavy, permanently contracted brows, which signified such energy. The hair was short and crisp, with a glitter as of metal in its lights. The narrow beard was the same also, with the smooth shaven cheeks which showed the powerful muscle of the jaw."

It's while he's inside the airborne Terror that Strock learns the secret of the Great Eyrie. As the aircraft flies over the top of the peak, it descends into a crater and comes to rest inside it. The Great Eyrie is Robur the Conquerer's hidden base, pre-dating Blofeld's volcano hideout in the film of You Only Live Twice by 63 years. Robur even has henchmen to help him prepare the vehicle and travel with him.

I don't know whether Jules Verne's villain served as a model for any character in the Bond novels or films, but Master of the World nevertheless reminds us that the defining qualities of a Bond villain existed before Bond and represent some universal fears, for example the use and misuse of emerging, and potentially harmful, technology, and the thin line between genius and insanity. It is in the world of James Bond, however, that those qualities have perhaps had their most successful, and sustained, expression, to the extent that they and Bond villains have become synonymous.

Sunday 22 June 2014

David Beckham in Sky Sports' James Bond-inspired advert

I caught David Beckham's latest advertisement for Sky Sports the other day. As I watched it, I thought that it had a certain Bondian quality, particularly the laboratory setting, the futuristic technology, and Beckham's cool style. I wasn't the only one. A headline on the Daily Mail website ran, “Sky Sports 5 to launch as new channel dedicated to European football ahead of new season... and David Beckham will appear in new 'James Bond-style' advert.” The Digital Spy website featured images of the advert with the caption, “David Beckham in James Bond-style Sky Sports advert.” What's so Bondian about Sky's advert?

The advert begins with a view of the Sky Sports research centre, a modernist construction set into a remote hillside that reminded me of Piz Gloria, Blofeld's mountain-top base in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Inside the research centre, work spaces filled with gadgets, and lab-coated researchers testing their inventions (with amusing results) must allude to Q's laboratory, especially its appearances in The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, Octopussy or GoldenEye, where viewers see bespectacled boffins test prototype gadgets and deal with malfunctioning technology, leading to the inevitable quip from James Bond (“Having problems keeping it up, Q?”).

The design of the research centre, though, is pure Bond-villain's lair from Ken Adam's drawing board. The open space, the unconventional structural curves and angles, the viewing room, and the elevated walkways could be taken from the early drafts of the Liparus, Stromberg's supertanker in The Spy Who Loved Me. And with the research centre viewed more as villain's base than Q's laboratory, the researchers, wearing identical blue lab coats (high-collared with a touch of the Bond villain's Nehru suit), recall the uniformed workers or private army of Blofeld, Stromberg, or Drax.

David Beckham, I think, exudes Bondian style (as he did during the London Olympics opening ceremony), although the memes used to introduce him are again more closely associated with Bond villains than James Bond. When we first see Beckham, his identity isn't immediately revealed to us, as he's sitting on a chair with his back to the camera. Then he rotates his chair. Beckham remains silent, but I wouldn't have been surprised to hear him say, “Ah, Mr Bond, I've been expecting you,” and clutch a white cat.

Sky Sports' latest advert appears to have taken the James Bond films as its main inspiration. It demonstrates the importance of the Bond films in popular culture, of course, but highlights that traits or memes associated with Bond villains and Q are just as culturally prominent as those associated with James Bond.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Steve Cole's other secret agent book

When the next Young Bond adventure, Shoot to Kill, is published in November this year, it won't be Steve Cole's first book about secret agents. This month saw the publication of Secret Agent Mummy, the first in a series of children's novels about an ancient Egyptian mummy who fights crime in the modern world. Inevitably I wondered whether the book showed any Bondian influences, and so read the book to look for James Bond memes.

The book begins with a visit by schoolboy Niall Rivers (geddit?) and his mother to a spooky-looking house on top of a hill to collect bric-a-brac for a fête. Niall notices a small figurine drop from a box. Picking it up, he is suddenly infused with some ancient power and can see things others can't. What he does see is a strange man wrapped in bandages and wearing a trench coat and hat spying on the house. Later Niall notices a pyramid in the garden next door, which he enters and meets the man in the bandages – Secret Agent Mummy. The mummy's mission is to capture the occupant of the spooky house (the sorcerer Azmal Sakra) and return him to Ka-Ba, the realm of the Egyptian gods.

I'm guessing that Steve Cole wrote the book before he began work on Shoot to Kill, and certainly there isn't any obvious reference to Young Bond. Indeed, references to James Bond appear to be absent, although there are allusions to general spy tropes which nevertheless recall aspects of the James Bond books and films.

One of these is the use of gadgets. Niall is something of a gadget-master, inventing all sorts of devices to spy on his annoying sister. Later he uses Secret Agent Mummy's workshop to repair the agent's part mechanical/part real dog, damaged after a run-in with Azmal Sakra. Secret Agent Mummy also carries gadgets, such as a pit-amids, a pyramid-shaped device used to create instant deep pits.

Secret Agent Mummy becomes known as Sam, but his code name is SAM 117. Thanks largely to 007, every spy in usually humorous espionage tales has a code name, although Sam's perhaps owes more to OSS 117, the code name of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, the fictional spy created by Jean Bruce in 1949 and recently portrayed by Jean Dujardin in the films OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009).

The villain, evil sorcerer Azmal Sakra, has a few lines that wouldn't be out of place in an early Bond films (or at least a Bond parody). “We meet again, Niall Rivers,” he says at one point, bringing to mind the sort of lines attributed to Bond villains, such as “I've been expecting you, Mr Bond.” And after Sam stumbles into Azmal Sakra's hideout, Sakra says, “So you have found my secret lair at last.” The line is Bondian, as is the idea of a secret lair, which has become widespread and long-lived in popular culture, thanks to a large part to the Bond films, especially You Only Live Twice.

Steve Cole's Secret Agent Mummy is an enjoyable, entertaining read, and has made me all the more eager to read his Young Bond novel (and indeed his next Secret Agent Mummy book). Shoot to Kill is likely to be very different from Secret Agent Mummy, although both contain aspects of Ian Fleming's creation to lesser or greater extents.

Sunday 8 June 2014

The greatest James Bond movies of all time

The July edition of Empire magazine features the results of a readers' poll to find out the '301 greatest movies of all time'. Three Bond films make the list: Goldfinger (number 221), Casino Royale (number 160), and Skyfall (highest-placed at number 45). Any poll of the greatest films is a subjective exercise likely to spark as much debate as agreement. Bond fans, for example, might be wondering why The Spy Who Loved Me, From Russia With Love, You Only Live Twice, or indeed others are absent, or why the three films that do appear were chosen and why they are so placed. Some explanation is provided under each entry, but we also need to look at the rest of the results to see whether the selection of Bond films follows wider trends.

Of the three Bond films that make the list, one is 'classic' Bond, and the other two are the most recent Bond films (excluding Quantum of Solace). There is no argument from me that all three deserve a place in any list of greatest films, and it is easy to imagine why they appear in this one. As Empire magazine states, Goldfinger (1964) marks “a series high point.” It is the film that defines the series, bringing us the whole package – the gadgets, the car, the humour, the charming but mad villain, the henchman, the razor-sharp lines, and Bond at his most assured and sardonic. If Bond films are formulaic, then the formula they (and many other action/spy films) follow is that set by Goldfinger.

Casino Royale (2006) is highlighted by Empire as “Martin Campbell's radical reboot.” It put Bond back in the race after the series had lost ground to seemingly superior thrillers and actioners, among them the Mission: Impossible and Bourne films. And it gave us a Bond, played by Daniel Craig, that removed the spectre of Sean Connery's Bond that had loomed over all previous portrayals. Skyfall (2012) brought rare emotion and depth to the Bond series, while still retaining the action and other familiar elements of the Bond films. And it was a huge hit.

As worthy as these films are, though, is it fair to say that Casino Royale and Skyfall are better than, say, the best of Roger Moore's outings, or that Goldfinger is the best of Sean Connery's efforts? Is EON simply making better Bond films today than they were in the past? Looking at the distribution of release dates among the entire results, we might have predicted that two of the most recent Bond films would have been selected. The histogram below shows that the distribution is heavily skewed in favour of recent films. Some 35% of films in the list were made after 2000, and almost half were made within the past 20 years.

As it seems unlikely that films today are generally better (however that may be measured) than they were of 30, 40, 50 or more years ago, I suspect that recent films have been favoured in part because they are fresher in the mind and more familiar to Empire's readers. The distribution may also reflect the demographic of those readers; a similar poll conducted by the BFI had starkly different results. The Bond films of the Moore, Dalton, and even the Brosnan eras are unlikely to have made the list of 301 films, because the individual films are too old and perhaps remembered only in vague terms.

Should Casino Royale and Skyfall have been placed higher? Possibly, though not because of their age. The scattergram below, which plots year of release against poll position, shows no clear trend (for example, for more recent films to be generally higher placed than older films, although there is a hint of that in the chart, with the oldest films having a relatively low rank).


As for Goldfinger, the film retains a level of general familiarity that other Bond films lack. Think Goldfinger, and one's mind immediately goes to the Aston Martin, or Oddjob's bowler hat, or the laser beam and the classic line, “No, Mister Bond. I expect you to die.” Think Thunderball or From Russia With Love, and the casual cinema-goer might struggle to remember the key moments or lines, at least immediately (“Isn't that the one with...?”). That is not to say, however, that Thunderball and others are the poorer films against Goldfinger. Part of Goldfinger's continued familiarity stems from the film being packed with memes – the gadget-laden car, the theme song, the golden girl, and so on – that have become very successful in popular culture, being frequently referenced and imitated in film and TV. It could also be suggested that Goldfinger stands proxy for all the earlier Bond films, representing a genre, rather than a specific film.

Nevertheless, I would have liked to have seen other Bond films in Empire's list – The Spy Who Loved Me, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and GoldenEye, for instance. To me, three Bond films out of 23 seems a poor return for a series that has continued to entertain audiences, make huge profits, and had a significant impact on the cultural environment. I await Empire's next poll with much interest.

Sunday 1 June 2014

James Bond references in Muppets Most Wanted

A Bondian poster for Muppets Most Wanted

The other week I managed to catch the latest Muppets film, Muppets Most Wanted (2014). In the film, the Muppets are persuaded by an agent to the stars, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), to embark on a world tour. Unbeknown to the Muppets, the tour is a cover for a string of museum and bank heists perpetrated by Dominic Badguy and his partner-in-crime, an evil frog called Constantine. Having escaped from a Siberian prison, Constantine assumes the place of his doppelgänger, Kermit the Frog, who in turn is mistaken for Constantine and is 'recaptured' and sent back to Siberia. Given the film's European settings and use of a master criminal character, I was half expecting a few references to the James Bond films, and I was not disappointed.

An obvious link to the Bond series is made fairly early in the film when the relationship between Badguy and Constantine is being established. Constantine is clearly in charge, referring to himself as Number One and Badguy as Number Two. The reference is reinforced through an accompanying song, 'I'm Number One'.

The idea of numbers to identify members of a criminal group was introduced (or re-introduced; it is possible that the idea was not entirely new) in Ian Fleming's novel, Thunderball (1961), and popularised in the films From Russia With Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965). In the novel, Blofeld is Number Two, while Largo is Number One. The films introduced an element of rank, with Blofeld being Number One. Over time, the meme has gained sufficient cultural traction to survive outside specific novels or films, and today generally brings to mind, usually for comic effect (for example in Austin Powers), a hierarchical criminal organisation led by a Bond-style meglomaniac.

Between cities, the Muppets travel by train, and one cannot help feeling that there is an allusion here to the rail journeys in From Russia With Love or The Spy Who Loved Me, though films such as Murder on the Orient Express or The Lady Vanishes could equally have provided the inspiration. However, it is one of the train scenes that provides a much more certain reference to the Bond films, as Constantine, in an attempt to deal with some inquisitive and suspecting Muppets, wears a set of sharp metal teeth, à la Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me.

There was another clear Bond reference towards the end of the film, when Kermit gains entry through a restricted-access entrance to the Tower of London by disguising himself as a member of staff delivering flowers and other goods in preparation of a wedding. “You're like James Bond there,” says an admiring fellow Muppet (Fozzie, I think). The scene recalls the sequence in The Living Daylights when Bond, disguised as an Afghan tribesman, carries a sack of opium (and a bomb) on to a Soviet plane, but the line might simply have been meant more generally to underscore Kermit's surreptitious, spy-like, action.

The Bond memes in Muppets Most Wanted show, of course, how deeply the Bond films are engrained in popular culture, but also reveal how well adaptable aspects from the films are to different genres. This may reflect that the Bond films are not seen exclusively as spy films, but more broadly as crime, action and adventure tales with a global scope.