Saturday, 19 March 2016

Is James Bond really a paid assassin?

There's a piece of dialogue in Spectre that slightly disturbs me. In the scene in the restaurant car of the train, Madeleine Swann asks Bond, “Why, given every other possible option, does a man choose the life of a paid assassin?” Bond replies that it was either that or the priesthood. It's an amusing line, but it does concern me that Bond seems to accept the view that he's an assassin, which he isn't, at least not according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, which defines the verb to assassinate simply as 'murder (a political or religious leader)'.

Even if one takes a wider definition of assassin (Wiktionary defines assassinate as 'to murder someone, especially an important person, by a sudden or obscure attack, especially for ideological or political reasons') or, say, that of a hitman ('a contract killer'), he isn't really those things either. While the Bond of the cinema has occasionally been ordered to kill an identified target – Pushkin in The Living Daylights (1987), for example – Bond generally kills in the course of a mission, and usually when his own life is threatened; the killing is an unpleasant, though justified by-product, rather than the primary goal.

And yet, Bond the scriptwriters have insisted on labelling Bond as an assassin. Octopussy, as with Madeleine Swann, calls him a paid assassin, and Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), who is undeniably a hitman, equates himself with Bond. “We are the same,” he tells Bond. In this instance, it's a charge Bond refutes. “When I kill it's under specific orders of my government, and those I kill are themselves killers.”

Similarly in the novels, Bond's missions are not to kill an identified target, although admittedly, on occasion, Bond is given this role. In 'For Your Eyes Only', Bond talks himself into killing Cuban hitman Gonzales with M's tacit approval, and in 'The Living Daylights', Bond is ordered to kill a Russian sniper, although in this case, it's in order to protect the life of a fellow agent.

The identification of Bond as an assassin is deep-rooted. In a review for the volume of For Your Eyes Only (1962), the Times Literary Supplement refers to Bond as a licensed assassin. In the anthology of spy stories, To Catch a Spy (1964), the volume's editor, Eric Ambler, writes in his introduction to one story, 'On Slay Down' by Michael Gilbert, that it could be subtitled, 'The recruitment of 008'. In the story, Mr Calder, an agent of an unnamed organisation (presumably MI5 in this case) travels to Slay Down near Salisbury Plain in order to kill a Maria Lipper, a clerk working in the Air Ministry who has been passing information to the opposition.

By labelling him 008, Ambler equates Calder, a cold killer (and therefore in some measure an assassin), with Bond. The story, published in 1962, is reminiscent of Fleming's short stories, 'Property of a Lady', in which Bond disrupts payment by the Soviets to a double agent (curiously the double agent is also called Maria), and '007 in New York', in which Bond is sent to New York to warn a former Secret Service employee that she's living with a KGB agent. Given the similarity, 'On  Slay Down' could be a Fleming short story, but in neither of Fleming's stories, is Bond ordered to kill.

The Bond-as-assassin meme is a long-lived and persistent one, but one that doesn't quite fit Bond's role, either in the books or the films. It's a pity that Bond isn't allowed in the films to defend himself against the accusation more robustly.


  1. A brilliant piece. It shows how it is often the scriptwriters who err in their interpretation of the James Bond character despite an important literary base in the original Ian Fleming Bond novels. Thank you Edward!

    1. Thanks - glad you liked the piece. I gather from The Spy Command that the first page of the script for Spectre has in its scene-setting 'James Bond, an assassin'. Not good.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.