Friday 27 January 2017

Mightier than the sword: the trick pen in the Bond films and beyond

The humble pen makes an ideal gadget for the spy. It's small, it can be discreetly concealed in the pocket, but arouses no suspicion when taken out, and can be modified to house all sorts of devices. It's no wonder the pen-based gadget has been seen a few times in the James Bond films.

In Moonraker (1979), we learn that a deadly-tipped pen, which Bond finds on Holly Goodhead's hotel dressing table, is standard CIA issue. In Octopussy (1983), a fountain pen made by Mont Blanc is multi-functional, containing a highly concentrated mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acid ('wonderful for poison pen letters') and an earpiece to a listening device. Coincidentally, Never Say Never Again, the rival Bond film released in the same year, also includes a fountain pen among its gadgets; that one is able to release an explosive charge.

The explosive pen was reinvented for GoldenEye (1995) and used to great dramatic and comic effect. The film featured a Parker Jotter ballpoint, which contains a class-four grenade that is armed with three clicks of end button and disarmed with three more. (I've never looked at a ballpoint pen in quite the same way since, and on idly clicking the end of one, often wonder whether it's about to go off.)

Q demonstrates the 'pen grenade' in GoldenEye
Curiously, a very similar device featured in Wild Geese II, released ten years earlier. In that film, Michael (played by John Terry, who would become Felix Leiter in The Living Daylights), a member of the organisation that has hired mercenaries to spring Rudolf Hess from prison, is given an explosive ballpoint pen. Like GoldenEye's pen, it's armed by clicking the end, though has a longer fuse (40 seconds, as opposed to four seconds).

Mercenary John Haddad demonstrates the 'pen grenade' in Wild Geese II
These gadgets may seem fantastic, but there's a long tradition of adapting pens for secret use in the real world of espionage. The Second World War saw teams of boffins create an ingenious array of gadgets from ordinary objects. Charles Fraser-Smith, often claimed to be the inspiration for the character of Q (which seems fanciful, given that there was no such character in the Bond books), was responsible, among many other devices, for a fountain pen that could conceal documents.

One of Charles Fraser-Smith's gadgets

The use of trick pens continued into the Cold War. In an interview with Ian Fleming published in 1965, Bernard Hutton, an expert on Soviet espionage, revealed how Soviet spies used dynamite-filled fountain pens for the purpose of assassination.

The gadget-filled pen is so well established in espionage lore that today the idea might seem hackneyed. This may explain Q's comment to Bond in Skyfall (2012): 'Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that any more.'

And the idea of trick pens has been subverted in other films. During the tank sequence in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery) shakes off a German soldier – who then stumbles and knocks himself out – by squirting ink from his fountain pen into the soldier's face. More recently, in The Bourne Identity (2002), Jason Bourne uses a biro as a stabbing weapon.

In a way dismissing the notion of the sort of gadgets seen in the Bond films, both cases demonstrate that the ordinary can become extraordinary; you don't need to fill a pen with explosives to turn it into a deadly weapon.


  1. I must say though, EB, that I found it a little irksome in SPECTRE when we see Bond use an exploding wristwatch just a few short years after he was told that Q branch didn't go for exploding pens anymore.
    Nice write-up!

    1. Thanks! Glad you liked the post. That's a good point about the exploding wristwatch. Of course, Spectre was a conscious return to the spirit of the early Bonds (Daniel Craig seems more comfortable delivering those quips now), so it was inevitable that we'd get a few old-school gadgets. Still, I know what you mean. The scriptwriters obviously forgot what Q said in Skyfall. Either that, or Q branch reviewed its policy on gadgets.

  2. It is a very funny and nice movie. I have seen it multiple times and every time it does not fail to make me laugh. I highly recommend watching this movie.


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