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 Casino Royale’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.