The Oscars over for another year, and this time it seemed strangely just. Affleck’s omission neatly left a gap for Ang Lee to swoop in for the Best Director prize. And justly deserved: Life of Pi is a marvellous piece of work. But Ben’s redemptive speech at the BAFTA’s and then the Oscars is also enough to make you forget all the neverweres and cannothaves – those films that were just plain ignored by Oscar and his chums. Yes, yesterday was also that day in the film year… When the Academy’s ignores lots of great films! Imagine how they feel – I did! FIGHT!
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Following the complete #Bondathon that marked the enduring super-spy’s 50th birthday on film, the first of a closer look at a facet of Bond lore… And this time it’s about time. We know the world is not enough, but Bond has shown little respect for chronology either… And it#s something that may have ensured his longevity.
Nb. This article refers to the ‘modern day’ at points – that will always refer to the time contemporary to a book, film or videogame’s release. Also: includes spoilerific references to recent films.
ONE THING THAT ASSURES BOND’S CONTINUED ENDURANCE IS ITS REVERENCE FOR TIME; as well as its complete lack of respect for it. Beyond the villains, gadgets and girls, think of a Bond film and it’s likely that the first one you think of is defined by a certain time. Just as Connery is very 1960s, so Brosnan is very 1990s. Right? Well, no – not really. Four of the six screen actors have crossed decades, each extolling the excess of various decades at points. Still, the decade-a-Bond-idea remains the general consensus through Q Branch multi-tinted sunglasses.
Any long-running franchise is liable to become an indicator of time – and by doing so it’s at risk of parodying itself. In a wise series that will trigger a responsiveness to the contemporary and while that will extend its life it will also increase its date-ability. It’s difficult to say when the Bond franchise became conscious of this, but it’s likely that it was 1971’s Diamonds are Forever. Not only does that film look wholly early 1970s compared to Connery’s 1960s films but, not coincidentally, it was the start proper of the post-SPECTRE films. In the Bond universe, that equates to post-Cold War. In less than a decade, Bond had removed itself from 1960s espionage and when the Cold War later returned to the franchise it was in a far different form of détente. Just two years and one film after Connery’s swan song, Live and Let Die was happily picking up on contemporary exploitation cinema trends; Bond had become a hero out of time and was far more defined by culture.
Not all franchises lend themselves to both a chronological and random retrospective but with Bond all bets are off. Any way you look at the 23 canon films, different facets of its simultaneously dated timelessness are clear.
Of course, any franchise lasting 50 years struggles to sustain continuity let alone consistency, so if there are any hopes for longevity you might as well not start with any. It was that hope of longevity that led the Bond producers to opt for Sean Connery over a more established actor like Cary Grant in the early 1960s. That and, perhaps, a spot of money.
Despite those optimistic intentions and no doubt thanks to the rapid production of the initial four films between 1962 and 1965, the first five Connery films are fairly consistent. Cast, structure and logic suggest a chronology. Where there are exceptions – such as the constant recasting of Felix Leiter – it adds a neat trick: although accent and manner changes, as you never knew who the American in the sharp suit was film-makers could repeat the same ‘is he a villain, oh not it’s just Felix’ ruse each time. Very early on, Bond was a franchise very aware of itself and its pulp strengths.
Reboot on the other foot
The only time consistency and chronology can be said to have been a real concern was Bond on film’s most substantial reboot: Casino Royale(2005), which brought Daniel Craig to the role. In the film we not only saw Bond claim his requisite two kills to gain his Double-O status, but also the origin of the iconic barrel sequence. To think all those years… We were looking at a toilet.
Having established Craig’s as ‘brand new Bond’, learning the ropes became very much a part of the story. The internal logic led to the first semi-sequel in the franchise, the not entirely successful Quantum of Solace (2008), which was effectively a (very) long coda to Casino Royale.
But Casino Royale, for all its self-conscious reboot, was hardly risky nor unexpected. After the Brosnan era broke through the 1990s into what looked like the ridiculous 21st century of Die Another Day (2002), there were shaken and stirred calls for a strong shot of realism. Bond’s issues were many, but a clear one seemed to be the popular and gritty Bourne franchise. Bourne was darker and ‘realistic’, chucking convoluted plots at the audience from the shadows while Bond was… Surfing CGI icebergs. At the time, as I completely omitted in my overview of the Craig years, there was some weight to the idea that Bond’s appropriate course of action was to reset to the 1960s. This would create a neat Bond-esque universe, where the superspy could flex his dinner jacket in both a heightened fictional, stylish and dramatically constrained environment.
The early 21st century was not, of course, the first time that the franchise had found its authority threatened at the cinema and each time its response was the same. There was the aforementioned exploitation cash-in of the superb Live and Let Die, but also the Star Wars cash-in of the utterly brilliant/truly awful Moonraker. Later, when 80s actioners had taken a fair amount of 007’s market share, Bond produced the harder edged utterly brilliant/truly awful License to Kill. In the event, it was perhaps no surprise that Bond once again took to mimicking aspects of his closest competitor at the time.
The results of this Bourned-up Bond were rather good. However, it did mean the chance for a 1960s period Casino Royale were gone – for some decades at least. Quite why the 1960s felt synonymous with Bond rather than the 1950s I don’t know. I presume it’s down to the still romanticised fug of the 1960s; a heyday of optimism as much of it seemed, between the war-shocked latter rationing of the 1950s and three day weeks of the early 1970s. It was also shorthand to both de-modernise and evoke the heyday of Connery. But those people who thought Connery was a way to escape gadgets clearly hadn’t seen Thunderball (1965) or You Only Live Twice (1967) recently.
Bond. Period. James Bond
Considering Bond as a period creation is interesting. It’s partly the antithesis of his continuing (and now actually growing) popularity. Period settings are a difficult concept to define, particularly for literary characters very much created by the film age. It seems obvious, but it’s a cultural paradox: When Bogart first played Marlowe it was contemporaneous, and ultimately definitive. If Chandler’s books hadn’t been filmed for 20 years, any attempt to recreate noir would have been as ostensibly period as they are now. Despite the rather good 70s-set Long Goodbye, an adaptation of a 1950s book, anyone seeking to bring Marlowe into the early 21st century would find a good many people choke on their Camel cigarettes. Watch when it next happens.
It’s worth noting that there are technological concerns, but only to a point. The arrival of the internet and mobile phones should simply lay down new challenges for writers to overcome, not necessitate a cheap and cynical reboot. It’s a situation many franchises, including Die Hard have had to accommodate. Harry Potter (which in the book world concluded in 1997 – he’s slightly older than me, yes!) – was written in a pre-universal internet and mobile world, but of course had a rather nifty and magical get out in any event. A huge swathe of Hitchcok’s ouevre wouldn’t work structurally post-1995 – but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t make the same genre now.
The rather nice snobbery between literature, theatre and film has a microcosm in films that modernise Shakespeare. He was a bard not afraid to modernise any number of stories himself, but repeat the trick and there will be guaranteed umbrage to some degree. While such a comparison is overstated, it serves to show that Bond has never really been modernised, nor Fleming by association. Arguably since the beginning, and certainly since 1971, Bond has existed in roughly the year that each film was released. Oddly, this is slightly skewed by the franchise’s penchant for instantly seizing on new tech and placing it in any given film, such as jet skis or Little Nelly. That part of the franchise almost made it super-contemporary and again, ripe for parody.
The Spy Immortal
Bond’s main gift to himself in abandoning reality is his unique and earned quality to either respect or completely abandon chronology as it sees fit. This is so sewn into its fabric that it’s almost pointless to show us any kind of Bond Begins. It’s a set of circumstance that would be hard to repeat in a franchise today – unless the many comic book reboots development at the moment signal an attempt. Bond’s real schism came in 1969 when producers decided to quite blatantly abandon continuity in response to the arrival of George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Having foisted the world’s largest film set on the world in You Only Live Twice, producer Harry Saltzman took control of the reins for Lazenby’s debut – and what proved to be his finale. The result was one of the most faithful Fleming adaptations ever put on film. As with Casino Royale 36 years latter, the respect to Fleming paid off however, it also distorted the chronology. A film series that had been relatively faithful up to that point had now shown the first meeting of Bond and Blofeld in two successive films.
Along with Lazenby’s rather self-aware opening one-liner, avid Bond audiences must have been rather non-plussed in ’69. Perhaps even more so when Connery returned in 1971 and, despite his single-minded pursuit of Blofeld, M and Moneypenny keep giving the recent widower short shrift for his ‘time off’ (of course, this is because the producers had decided to quietly remove the under-performing OHMSS frm history). A decade later, Moore would gain his revenge on (presumably) Blofeld and lay flowers at the grave of his deceased wife Tracy (d.1969, “we have all the time in the world” – of course, by now the producers had to acknowledge just how bloody good OHMSS was). In the last 20 years, there hasn’t been such obtuse chronology, but the last three films do suggest that Bond has also had two fiirst meetings with Dench’s M.
The changing audiences of the past 50 years raise another interesting point. There are no doubt very few people who have avidly attended each Bond screening since Dr No(1962). When that film arrived in cinemas however, there’s a good chance that a large proportion of those cinemagoers had at least leafed through a Bond book. Conversely, of the many who contributed to Skyfall’s (2012) billion dollar haul, I suspect very few of them have sampled Bond on page. Bond has steadily become a predominantly cinema-based beast in a way that the far more photographed Sherlock Holmes hasn’t. In some ways that’s opened up a new facet in the Bond universe. While Bond has seen many successors take on his character on the page over the years – Kingsley Amis and John Gardner are notable – recently prestigious single- entry authors have taken up the mantle with a noticeably freer rein than was previously possible. Sebastian Faulks wrote as Fleming for his 1960s set Devil May Care, while Jeffery Deaver’s Carte Blanche found Bond spying in the modern day. For his upcoming addition Solo, William Boyd has chosen 1969. The latter is described as the ‘classic Bond era’; though marking the 60th anniversary of CasinoRoyale’s publication, it seems that the 1960s remain definitive.
That has also been a safe assumption on the videogame side of the franchise. Having taken over the Bond videogame rights in the late 1990s and achieved a rather lukewarm reception, EA turned back to the 1960s in 2005 – just a year before Casino Royale rebooted in the ‘modern day’. The result was an interesting experiment, a videogame adaptation of From Russia With Love (with added jetpack and DB5) which achieved the rather spectacular feat of enticing Sean Connery back for voice-over duties. As with the film, my namesake Matt Monro was sadly absent from the main theme. The game sold over 250,000 copies and then the franchise rights moved on to Activision.
A later #Bondathon microfilm will focus on four particular video games in the Bond canon, but there is one example that is worth mentioning here. It shows a notable blending of Bond’s disregard for time and also how he is characterised in it. In 2010 Activision remade the legendary and oh-so Brosnan GoldenEye videogame, this time utilising Craig’s Bond and with a new script by original film writer Bruce Feirstein. Despite being made just 15 years after the original, certain plot changes were deemed necessary. Boris the hacker was completely removed as hackers were considered… Well, there’s probably one looking at you right now. Also, villain Trevelyan no longer had a Cossack blood vendetta – the Second World War was just too far past. Feel old now. Into this came Craig’s take on Bond. there were no one-liners as such and most tellingly, while Brosnan’s Bond bungee jumped from a dam, the hard as nails blonde version just jumped off it.
In essence, the reason cinematic Bond endures is that early on he was positioned as a caricature. Rarely dwelling into past or personal life beyond broad and blunt character points – Orphan, Oxford, SAS – he is simply a set of spy ideals. It helps that he was rather conflicted creation from the beginning, sitting on the cusp of Empire (resolutely un-historic on screen: Jamaica actually gained its independence between the production and release of Dr No – a film where Bond is neither a member of OSS nor Mi6, but Mi7); 50 years on he is still a fulfilment of traits that responds in an expected set of ways. Yes, the old archetypal superman. While each Bond adds a different facet, it’s just like watching Bond at different points of time, irrespective of the plot, location or actor. Viewed this way, Bond is more than capable of both earning his Double-O and being stripped down as a Cold-War throwback by Dench’s M. This broad stroke ‘type’ is of course also true of the franchise’s supporting characters, from Q to the gender-shifting M to the never gender-shifting Moneypenny. It’s something the film creators are certainly not afraid to play with. When Craig repeat’s Connery’s ‘You must be joking’ to Q in Skyfall it’s an in-joke and continuity tool, much as the same as it would be between Doctors in Dr Who.
So where are we with Skyfall? The answer is just about anywhere you want.
Retreating back to Whitehall, Bond has reclaimed the shadows that Bourne so successfully borrowed, but in a strong and terribly British way. For me, it’s tempting to think that Bond has just started working for Bernard Lee’s M, just in the form of Ralph Fiennes (it’s the horse painting). Of course, Bernard Lee’s M would never have been held captive by the IRA in real continuity. Similarly, the modified DB8 seen earlier suggests that Goldfinger took place before Skyfall and far enough back in time that it could be just after Quantum (it adds a slightly different nuance to Bond’s discovery of golden girl Jill Masterson if he found Strawberry Fields oiled-up – too crude!? – just months previously) . In any event we still have a Bond under the shadow of Vespa rather than Tracy. That kind of broad theme swap is about as complex as we could hope for… Or want. In the Bond universe, time remains a movable and conflicting feast, but all the characters and what they represent remain consistent within it.
Currently I’m adding the earlier part of GoldenEye, Dr No and probably From Russia With Love in between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. SPECTRE and Quantum be damned; they can fight about it amongst themselves. A Bond villain remains a Bond villain whether they’re collecting stolen nuclear warheads from beneath a volcano, remotely hacking the head of Mi6 or operating a dubious newspaper from a stealth boat.
And long may it continue.
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The Sixth Storified set of ‘Tweet notes’, concluding a complete (canon) Twitter #Bondathon up to and including SkyFall, the film released on the franchise’s 50th anniversary – whether that’s at the cinema (UK) or on DVD (USA). Typos as guaranteed as a pulse-stopping savage battering. Spoilers very much guaranteed.
ANY EVALUATION OF THE EVER ALIVE AND HEALTHY CRAIG TENURE MUST CAST A RATHER SAD SHADOW IN PIERCE BROSNAN’S DIRECTION. Surely in this new realistic universe, the reputation of his films will fall the furthest? It’s hardly any fault of the man himself, often talked about favourably for his portrayal despite his over-reliance on one-liners. In truth his tenure took the same number of films to jump the laser-equipped-shark as Roger Moore’s. Brosnan might have expected to have been given the same chance as his predecessor, and indeed suggested Casino Royale as his For Your Eyes Only style reboot… But he may also have expected to receive the boot when he was quite so passionate about Quentin Tarantino taking the reins.
Now it’s easy to dismiss Brosnan as the Bond who, when eventually laying his hands on an Aston Martin, made it vanish in a diamond haze of post-90s excess, while Craig brings us a serious and palpable Bond for a never ending recession.
Still, in the mid-2000s, Brosnan was loved. Despite his last film arguably being the nadir of the series up until that point, his roguish charm contributed greatly to the rather unfair reception Craig received when he turned green on the way to his reveal. Then, in the midst of what seemed like one of the longest film shoots, speculation ran rife – mainly about some blue swimwear. Signs were good, but there were worries – and four year breaks in Bond are never good… But… When it arrived; bloody hell, it was fantastic.
Casino Royale. To think a 20 film old franchise still had the option to film the original book. It was an incredible opportunity and one they seized. An oddity of the film, effectively three distinct parts rather than acts, it hangs around the sturdy spine of Fleming’s novel – a massive strength which showed up its flimsy recent predecessors. It was excellently cast and shot in the returning and capable hands of Martin Campbell. While his CV may show that he’s not infallible, he certainly knows how to steer a Bond reboot.
Much was made of Bond’s survival in the post-Bourne age. While Casino Royale certainly acknowledged it, again the luxury of a much older franchise meant that there was no need to rush Bond Begins. Having stripped out the most recognisable, and therefore parodied, elements, they could reintroduce them at their leisure. While parts of Casino Royale, such as the stupendous Quantum organisation – an excellent successor (predecessor) to SPECTRE – deserved further exploration, the choice to run it through a Vesper red mist proved a mis-step.
Quantum of Solace, though a stunningly beautiful film, suffered badly in almost every respect. A weak plot, dull delivery and no sense of threat amid inexplicable references (Oilfinger?) left the masses cool. It made a tremendous amount of money, but it seemed that Craig had quickly followed Moore’s lead of delivering a poor follow-up to a fantastic debut. Of course, Quantum was hit by the writer’s strike in the late 2000s. There were excuses, good excuses. But nonetheless, the honeymoon was over and there wouldn’t be immediate reassurance.
No. Once again money issues hit the franchise as its major stakeholder MGM struggled to maximise its assets amidst debt and litigation. It would prove once again to be a four year wait. Craig however, never seemed worried, despite a history of such waits taking leading scalps. At least this time the franchise had a valuable MGM stable mate in the form of The Hobbit. There was actually plenty of activity keeping the franchise afloat. Prominent literary additions by Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver were voiced by high profile video game entries. Craig not only lent his voice and likeness to a new Bond game, but even replaced Pierce Brosnan in a remake of the legendary GoldenEye. It’s a lesson to us all how out of date the then 15 year old GoldenEye game was. No, things were moving slowly. And as the rights to the Blofeld character fell back to the stable, plans grew for the franchise’s 50th anniversary. It became clear there would be a film. And so it arrived.
A recent summary described the plot of SkyFall, the villain’s motives as: ‘humiliate and kill M’. That’s it. Simple, effective, playing to the strengths of the existing cast and supplementing them with the strongest roster of acting talent a Bond film had yet seen. that it also had an Oscar winning director no doubt helped with the casting. And what’s better: the director was British and a James Bond fan. The result was a film well done; beautiful and neat in its simplicity. It made over a billion dollars worldwide, knocking its nearest high-grossing prequel into a steel-rimmed hat. For once, a four year wait had really done the trick.
SkyFall is not the best Bond film, as subjective as that is. It’s too simplistic and too reverential to take that crown but it does get a lot right. There’s little coincidence, a strong line in cause and effect and the return of two Bond staples (characters). Mostly, the script is witty and fluid without nearing parody. Bond had previously begun, then it had begun again in a forgettable coda. Now, it returned to its basics. By exploring Bond’s personal origin, the franchise could simultaneously nod the hat while releasing itself from nostalgia. With SkyFall Craig found his swagger. I may not quite buy into Bond’s educational history through the characterisation, but he had finally arrived at his definitive Bond. In the distance, Brosnan shares plunged once more.
It’s most important perhaps is to look at Craig’s films as constituent parts. Perhaps it’s no surprise in the complicated and interconnected celluloid worlds of spies and superheroes, Bond has become similarly inter-contextual.
For the first time since 1981, when people had been allowed to discuss On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond was not emotionally defined by his lost wife. That reached a peak in License to Kill and then the rather depressing The World is Not Enough. Now that young Bond was pre-marriage, the films would be shaped by his first love Vesper instead. There was no marriage there, just the only comprehension blunt Bond could lend it: the bitch is dead. Just as Fleming wrote – in fact, as the end line of his first book. Aside from this, several other changes to the Bond formula looked set to stay. The key was not watching Bond learn, but how he was shaped. In this, Craig’s performance ramped up the turmoil of Bond the hollow assassin that had been relatively ignored since Fleming put pen to page.
Extraordinarily, it took until SkyFall for Craig’s blunt instrument to actually kill a main villain. And that’s no innuendo; the three films have similarly taken him near the beds of (possibly) only four women. A line of humour runs increasingly through all Craig’s films, though seemingly undetectable to some as realism holds the most sway. Villainous henchmen are no longer caricatures. They are all similar: professional, competent and deadly. Patrice in SkyFall was a good example, but the airport assailant of Casino Royale was exemplary. Often prolonged foot chases show Bond to be far less competent than his adversaries but with raw grit and stubbornness. This deficit often leads to a finite outcome and a running joke involves Bond’s inability to get a job done without killing an important witness. This often leads M to inquiries and minister debriefings where she has to defend her protégé. ‘What’s today’s excuse?‘ asks Tim Pigott-Smith’s Foreign Minister in Quantum of Solace, ‘That Bond’s legally blind?’. However, there are consequences to unleashing this Bond of mass destruction. It is Bond’s inability to complete a mission in SkyFall – although admitedly, not solely down to him – that leads through meetings, inquiries and retirement to fatality.
But she would always defend Bond, and he her. Was it mutual admiration for each other’s skills? Was it a natural familial affinity? Well, it was nuanced, and formed the main driver of Criag’s films; something that SkyFall played on to the hilt. The mother/son relationship of M and Bond. Other Ms had fathered Bond, granting him leeway; Silva may well be right that he was previously M’s favourite. In any event, it formed the lynchpin of the recent trilogy and looks to inform the future.
It’s tempting to think that at the end of SkyFall Bond has just stepped into M’s office for a posting to investigate the disappearance of the Jamaica section chief. Yes, the ’64 Aston Martin messes that continuity, but what’s inter-contextuality without a little fun. Signs are good and the franchise is booming. With Craig signed, Mendes seemingly about to and the phenomenal John Logan supposedly scripting two films with that gun barrel firmly bolted to the back, I’d say Bond will be beginning for some time.
To start, just give it a one word title and have Adele sing the theme.
Casino Royale (2006)
Quantum of Solace (2008)