‘Before he lived it, he wrote it’? Final thoughts on Fleming
By Nicholas Rankin
The real Ian Fleming died on 12 August 1964, a month before the premiere of the third James Bond film Goldfinger. Ian’s thrillers, and the films based on them, were already rising towards their phenomenal worldwide success, although they were still sniffed at by the snootier members of his wife Ann’s circle. The following year, when the novelist and critic Kingsley Amis published his zestful literary appreciation of Fleming’s writing, The James Bond Dossier, Evelyn Waugh remarked to Nancy Mitford: ‘Ian Fleming is being posthumously canonized by the intelligentsia. Very rum.’
Fifty years on, the Fleming icon is being desecrated on television. As a biopic, the fourth and final episode of Fleming is preposterous. It’s early 1945. Boyish Ian Fleming (Dominic Cooper) demonstrates some Q-style gadgets — a poison-gas pen and a cigarette-lighter camera whose film fits in a golf ball — to the cigar-chomping American Colonel William Donovan (Stanley Townsend) and says they will win the war. Donovan dismisses his toys because he’s after bigger fish: Hitler’s atomic bomb program! Where are the ‘Nazi nuclear secrets’? Ian Fleming draws four lines of retreat on a map of Germany. They intersect at Tambach Castle! That’s the hiding place, and he must race there before the Americans or the Russians. ‘Leave it to me!’
Taking with him a lone sergeant and a couple of Sten-guns, Fleming drives in a jeep through southern Germany, looking for ‘Nazi documents, nuclear secrets’. The snowy woods are full of last-ditch ‘Werewolves’ with scars on their brutal, stop-at-nothing faces. At the castle, a German admiral is protecting the secret stuff – ‘my life’s work.’ The Werewolves attack; the sergeant holds them off till he dies, actorishly; Fleming murders a Nazi with his bare hands, puts on his uniform and escapes in a truck with the admiral and all the papers. Russian troops stop them; the German admiral is shot, but with one bound (‘I am a British officer!’) Fleming escapes with the precious documents.
This being Fleming, it goes without saying that none of this happened. Or if anything like it did, they get it wrong. In Ian Fleming’s real life in the Second World War, he killed no-one, never fired a submachine gun, invented no gadgets, met no Soviet troops. William Donovan, Director of the Office of Strategic Services, was a Major-General at the time, not a Colonel. The real-life ‘Werewolves’ were mostly a fantasy of Joseph Goebbels, enacted by a few kids. Tambach Castle held nearly 500 tons of the German naval archives (far too big to fit in one small truck) and they were captured intact without any shots being fired.
The true story is completely different. Commander Fleming worked for British Naval Intelligence and he was directing his ‘intelligence commando’ teams towards naval targets, not ‘nuclear secrets’. As well as capturing the archives, Fleming’s commandos, 30 Assault Unit or 30AU, hunted down the first German miniature submarine and seized the hydrogen peroxide technology powering both Nazi rockets and a new generation of U-boats that were faster than anything the Allies had. This is the real background to the later James Bond books like Thunderball and Moonraker. At the Walterwerke in Kiel, 30 Assault Unit uncovered a genuine ‘lethal toyshop with its jet-driven explosive hydrofoils, radio-controlled glider bombs, remote-controlled tankettes, rocket-propelled ‘sticky bombs’, silent steam cannons, mine detonators and a new kind of big gun with a fuel injection system in the barrel to extend its range.’ The TV Fleming is like being trapped with a crassly compulsive liar who can’t tell truth from falsehood, and doesn’t want to try.
Ecosse Films have subjected other famous people to screen dramatization, including Queen Victoria, Jane Austen, and Princess Diana. Now John Brownlow (who scripted a biopic about Sylvia Plath) has sold them this pastiche Fleming, which they have made in Hungary. Does truthfulness matter in entertainment? When Darryl F. Zanuck was criticized for altering some events of D-Day for his 1962 epic movie The Longest Day, the producer’s defense was that: ‘There’s nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic.’
Inaccurate Fleming isn’t dramatic, simply unbelievable. The credited consultant is John Pearson, the veteran journalist who knew Ian Fleming and wrote the first biography, The Life of Ian Fleming, in 1966. But John Brownlow seems to have mashed up that shrewd book with the jokier ‘fictional biography’ that Pearson wrote in 1973, James Bond: The Authorized Biography. The mix doesn’t work. Whatever else he may have been, in real life Ian Fleming was literate, amusing, inventive, and intelligent. The television Fleming has reduced his life and work to the puerile silliness of what the authentic spy and traitor Kim Philby once dismissed as ‘James Bond idiocy’.
Nicholas Rankin is the author of Ian Fleming’s Commandos: The Story of the Legendary 30 Assault Unit which is publishing in paperback in March. Follow him on Twitter @RankinNick.