By Cornelia Haase
Premiering today, 23 October 2012, Skyfall is the 23rd film in the highly successful James Bond film series. It has been 50 years since the release of the first Bond film, Dr. No, in 1962. Over the decades, there have been many Bond adventures and we have seen six different actors portraying the MI6 agent, as well as many Bond villains, and the famous Bond girls who don’t seem to be able to resist Bond’s charms. With roughly one new film coming out every two years over the past fifty years, generations all over the world have grown up with this quintessentially British export, who has repeatedly rescued the world from evil, including power-crazy media moguls, gold smugglers, and mad scientists. Like it or not, James Bond has become a British cultural institution and is probably the most famous fictional secret intelligence agent in history. To celebrate this achievement, let’s have a closer look at who James Bond is and what it is that makes him ‘Bond, James Bond’.
From paper to screen – James Bond in the making
Ian Fleming (1908 – 1964) created Bond as a fictional character in his famous spy novels. Before working as a writer and journalist, Fleming had himself served as a Naval Intelligence Officer in the Second World War and was involved in the planning of several operations, including ‘Operation Mincemeat’ and ‘Operation Golden Eye’. It’s rather obvious why only the latter was used as a title for one of the films in the Bond series. Fleming’s first Bond novel was Casino Royale, published in 1952, followed by another 11 Bond novels and two short story collections. Fleming, a keen birdwatcher, named his hero after the leading American ornithologist James Bond (1900-1989). Some sources cite Fleming as saying that he picked the name because it sounded particularly dull and boring, which is what he was looking for. True or not, James Bond has developed into more than just a name, and is now a brand in itself. Other authors later followed in Fleming’s footsteps and penned further Bond novels: Kingsley Amis (as Robert Markham), Christopher Wood, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks, and Jeffery Deaver.
Originally using Fleming’s plots in full or in parts, the film franchise has had to develop its own material in the past years. The highly successful film series is produced by EON Productions, which was founded in 1961 by Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and is still owned by the Broccoli family. It is based in London and operates from Pinewood Studios, where most of the indoor scenes for the Bond films are shot. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult to finance the production of the lavish Bond films. The production of the new film Skyfall actually had to be put on hold for financial reasons, and filming could only be resumed after securing sponsorship deals with high-profile companies like the Dutch beer producer Heineken.
But who is this MI6 agent on Her Majesty’s secret service? Let’s start with his code name, 007. This indicates Bond’s status within the Secret Intelligence Service MI6. Like all the other 00 agents, Bond has the famous ‘licence to kill’ in the field as he sees fit – and anyone who has seen a Bond film knows that he makes ample use of this privilege. It is never revealed how many 00 agents exist in total, but several have been featured in the films, including 006 Alexander Trevelyan, featured in the 1995 film Goldeneye.
James Bond has been portrayed by six actors within the Bond film series. Sean Connery was the first to play 007 in the 1962 film Dr. No, returning to the screen as Bond five times (six times including the non-EON production Never Say Never Again). He is still considered by many to be the best Bond. George Lazenby, Australian actor and model, gave a one-off guest performance as Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and Roger Moore holds the record of starring as Bond seven times between 1973 and 1985. He was followed by Timothy Dalton (twice) and Irishman Pierce Brosnan, filling the role four times before Daniel Craig took over as Bond in 2006. Craig will play Bond for the third time in Skyfall. Every actor has given his own touch to the character, but the proverb ‘old habits die hard’ certainly holds true.
Bond wouldn’t be Bond without some constants within the series. One of the most famous lines in the Bond films and cinema history in general, is Bond’s introduction. When asked for his name, Bond’s usual response is a very cool and nonchalant ‘Bond, James Bond’. Connery uses this line for the first time in Dr. No, and it has been a characteristic feature of the series ever since. Apart from that, Bond is truly a man of pleasure, not only with respect to women, but also in terms of alcohol and cigarettes. ‘Shaken, not stirred’ is how he drinks his martini, and this line has developed into a catchphrase over the years. Sean Connery was the first Bond to utter the phrase on screen in Goldfinger (1964). Casino Royale stands as a notable exception to this: when asked whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred after having lost millions in a poker game, Bond sulkily snaps at the waiter ‘Do I look like I give a damn?’.
Being the adrenaline junkie that he is, Bond has made cars into a stylish accessory. This is of course helped by the fact that his cars come with various clever modifications like state-of-the-art weapons and anti-pursuit systems. It seems that a suave secret agent like Bond needs to travel in style. Thus, Bond has driven many fashionable cars, including brands like Aston Martin, Bentley, Lotus, Rolls-Royce, and BMW. Other more unusual modes of transport featured in the Bond films include a moon buggy (Diamonds are Forever, 1971), various motorcycles, a space capsule (You Only Live Twice, 1967), a space shuttle (Moonraker, 1979), a hot air balloon (Octopussy, 1983), submarines (You Only Live Twice, 1967; The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977), and an alligator boat (Octopussy, 1983). All of these are of course highly instrumental in the famous battles between Bond and the villains.
One of the perks of Bond’s dangerous and life-threatening job is that he gets to travel. Bond is a true globetrotter and he has taken us on adventures to all parts of the world. Ranging from the ordinary to the exotic, featured locations include Jamaica, Turkey, Mexico, Egypt, Lebanon, Italy, Brazil, Morocco, Pakistan, Russia, China, Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, Cuba, Uganda, Madagascar, and Bolivia. But, naturally, the world is not enough; in Moonraker Bond even travels to outer space to rescue the world from evil.
‘I expect you to die’
Speaking of evil, every heroic spy needs an evil antagonist and James Bond has certainly fought plenty of them. After all, a good villain is just as important as a good Bond. Memorable villains include Dr. Julius No, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Auric Goldfinger, Francisco Scaramanga, fellow MI6-agent-turned-villain Alec Trevelyan, and LeChiffre. Some of them are power-crazy, others just crazy, and yet others are just pure evil.
In terms of the missions Bond is being sent on, it is notable that every Bond film is very much a product of its time and a reflection of the political, historical, and cultural events of a certain period. Thus, earlier films are set during the Cold War and the plots often revolve around topics such as the space race between the US and the USSR or nuclear weapons/bombs. Other themes include gold and diamond smuggling, drug trafficking, deadly viruses, opium trade, and more generally the manipulation of world politics.
Bond’s interference with their evil plans, makes him the villains’ number one target, but Bond wouldn’t be Bond if he didn’t manage to rid the world of all the Goldfingers, Blofelds, and LeChiffres out there. Over the years, we have seen action-filled fights and stunts, usually ending in defeat for the villains. And let’s not forget that – to add momentum – villains need to be disposed of in a spectacular fashion. Accordingly, Goldfinger (Goldfinger) gets sucked out of a depressurising plane, Dr. Kananga (Live and Let Die) inflates and explodes after Bond forces a compressed gas capsule down his throat, Hugo Drax (Moonraker) is ejected into outer space, Max Zorin (A View to A Kill) plummets from the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, and Renard (The World Is Not Enough) is impaled by a plutonium rod.
Killing naughty villains isn’t Bond’s only speciality; he is also very well-versed in the seduction of women. His rather promiscuous lifestyle and general attitude towards the female sex have often met with criticism. ‘Sensitive’ and ‘respectful’ are not adjectives that come to mind. Bond girls are typically young, thin, and beautiful, and, whereas they may try to resist Bond, they eventually give into the temptation and fall prey to the rogue charms of the strong, attractive, and apparently irresistible secret agent. Although often independent and intelligent women with a (criminal) career on their own, they have repeatedly been turned into sex objects. This isn’t helped by the fact that some of them have rather suggestive names, such as Pussy Galore or Plenty O’Toole.
You could even say that Bond is the epitome of a man with commitment issues. He only falls in love twice within the whole film series. Thus, he gets married to Countess Tracy de Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but his wife is killed shortly after, conveniently freeing him for the next non-committal affair. In Casino Royale, Bond even gives up his work at MI6 to be with his girlfriend Vesper Lynd, only to find that she’s betrayed him. The only female constant in his life seems to be M’s secretary Moneypenny. Albeit flirtatious, her relationship with Bond is purely professional. With Judi Dench taking on the role of M in 1995, another female character has entered Bond’s on-screen life. Their relationship is somewhat ambiguous in that they seem to despise each other. She is the first and only female authority figure in Bond’s life and openly shows her hostility towards his attitude, calling him a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur; a relic of the Cold War’ (GoldenEye, 1995).
‘Got a Licence to Kill’
Almost as famous as the films themselves are the Bond theme songs. “The James Bond Theme”, composed by Monty Norman and first performed by John Barry, features in all the films, but famous artists have lent their voices to the opening credits of each Bond film. Welsh singer Shirley Bassey sang the theme songs for Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker, Paul McCartney performed Live and Let Die, Duran Duran contributed A View to A Kill, and Nancy Sinatra performed You Only Live Twice. Other notable performers include Louis Armstrong (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), A-ha (The Living Daylights), Tina Turner (GoldenEye), Garbage (The World Is Not Enough), and Madonna (Die Another Day). The theme song for Skyfall, recorded by Adele, was released on 5 October 2012 and is the highest charting James Bond theme song in the history of the UK Singles Chart.
The hype around the release of every new Bond film suggests that the film format still appeals to cinema-goers out there. It certainly is a franchise of superlatives being both one of the longest-running film series in history (50 years) and the second-highest-grossing film series behind Harry Potter (let’s just ignore the fact that there are significantly fewer Harry Potter films), with Casino Royale (2006) being the highest-grossing film of the series at $594 million. It remains to be seen, however, whether Skyfall will be able to meet expectations. Sorry Bond, but in this case we’d prefer to be stirred, not shaken.
Cornelia Haase is an Assistant Commissioning Editor for General Reference at Oxford University Press.
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Image credits: (1) Skyfall movie poster from 007.com used for the purposes of illustration. (2) Dr. No movie poster used for purposes of illustration.