Happy Birthday James: Fifty Years of Bond

Skyfall pays homage to classic Bond films whilst adding a touch of the modern.

Fifty years, twenty-three films, twelve official novels, six actors and an inflation adjusted total gross of 12,713,060,216: those are some pretty impressive statistics. So what is it about James Bond that has given him such longevity? What has changed about Bond and what has stayed constant over the years? And, crucially, why do we keep watching?

Since Sean Connery appeared on screen in Dr No (1962) audiences have been captivated by Bond. The name “Bond” was designed to be cold and dull in contrast to the exotic and larger-than-life aspects which populate the series. In an era of post-war drabness, Connery kick-started the idea of a globe-trotting, ass-kicking, womanising spy; with 1966 seeing twenty-two spy films trying to capitalise on this success. Most of these films have been forgotten, but Bond has survived thanks to the brilliance of the Bond formula:

  • The iconic theme plays and the gun barrel/red wash over the screen fades into the title sequence, complete with seductive silhouettes and the ‘Bond Song’, the more iconic ones being Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger”, or Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die”, with Adele’s “Skyfall” fitting perfectly.
  • Bond flirts with Moneypenny; gets gadgets from Q; and a mission from M.
  • He then leaves to go around the world meeting allies, most commonly CIA agent Felix Leiter.
  • He seduces a slew of beautiful women with some of the most ridiculous and sexually charged names around, most notably Pussy Galore; Plenty O’Toole; and Mary Goodnight.
  • We have a charismatic villain with an absurd plan, generally involving a nuclear bomb.
  • Insert a chase scene or two (cars, running, cello case).
  • Season with one liners (a ‘Bond, James Bond.’ is almost obligatory).
  • Stir in the odd human death trap in the villain’s lair (be that a volcano, island base or ice hotel).
  • The villain then dies, probably in an ironic way.
  • We end with Bond riding off into the sunset with the girl (unless you’re George Lazenby or Daniel Craig).

So now, having described every Bond film to date, we might wonder why there are twenty three of these films when they’re as formulaic as any episode of a television soap opera; the reason is that they work. Bond has so deeply entrenched himself into the public consciousness that everyone knows how he likes his martinis, what cars he drives and what gun he carries; he even appeared in the Olympics with the Queen. There is some undeniable quality about Bond that people love – the guys want to be him and the girls want to be with him.

Yet Bond has changed quite a bit in terms of personality, character and tone whilst keeping the core intact: Connery was the original model and arguably the best, balancing the suaveness with the fact that Bond is a killer who gets the job done. This was the creation of an icon and generally when people think of Bond their first thoughts are of Connery. Moore’s Bond is very different beast – camp and silly in equal measure with some of the more ridiculous missions, offering the 70s a version of escapism from the cold, grey political landscape. Moore’s turn was characterised by slapstick and puns that were so painful that some of his films may as well be ham and cheese sandwiches. Timothy Dalton’s Bond during his two film stint in the suit was pretty close to the colder Bond of the books, aside from the drinking and smoking, which are conspicuously missing in an attempt to fit with the political correctness of the era. It is important to note that Bond in the novels is undoubtedly an alcoholic (46 drinks in a single novel), takes the definition of “heavy smoker” to the extreme (70 a day), and is a violent, misogynistic, cold-blooded killer. The films rarely portray him to such an extent, softening the edges, turning him into the very pinnacle of suave, sophisticated cool whilst keeping the womanising edge. Yet Dalton’s approach divided audiences and critics, prompting a six year gap between Dalton leaving after License to Kill, the first and only R/15 rated Bond, and Pierce Brosnan’s return in Goldeneye, a gap that almost killed Bond.

Brosnan was quite similar to Connery in terms of Bond – suave, debonair and cool, he had the comic timing that Dalton lacked but he rarely verged on the silliness of Moore. Funny that Daniel Craig’s more down-to-earth Bond should replace Brosnan’s after audiences could no longer stomach the absurd antics of Die Another Day – with invisible cars, massive diamond lasers and poor CG windsurfing – when before they couldn’t stomach Licence to Kill’s brutal shark scene, which has nothing on the superb black and white beginning of Casino Royale. Bond has also strayed too far away from the ‘Bond image’ the other way by making him too relatable – audiences didn’t accept George Lazenby’s performance in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; seeing Bond cry at his wife’s death invited ridicule which forced studio execs to rush back to Sean Connery and beg him to return once more. In Casino Royale, Craig’s Bond does cry, and this was highlighted as a humanising moment in a cold and steely performance. Not only has Bond shaped the public consciousness and the film scene, but the franchise has been shaped by other films of the era, as well as the era itself.

When the Casino Royale trailer hit, it was derided as being a copy of the Bourne films (which did undoubtedly influence the film), but audiences were ready for a darker, grittier Bond, whereas they hadn’t been with Dalton. Sam Mendes (director of Skyfall) announced that he was influenced by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight; a film which was influenced by Bond, the 1995 film Heat, and was looking at terrorism in a post 9/11 world, threads that can be seen later in Skyfall. The recent Batman trilogy, the Bourne trilogy, and of course the recent Bond films have all made audiences more accustomed to ‘darker’ films which weren’t as prevelant in the 80s; even big action films weren’t really that dark, merely over-the-top or simply violent. Audiences wouldn’t have watched a Bond too similar to Brosnan; a change was needed, and Craig’s more plausible and brutal Bond was the solution.

So where does that leave Bond now? It seems that despite becoming middle-aged Bond couldn’t be better: Skyfall looks to reinvigorate the series after the plotless Quantum of Solace, with a memorable villain in Javier Bardem’s Silva; a real and personal story; and a great supporting cast (old timer Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw), harkening back to the Bonds of the 60s whilst clearly being a plausible and modern day film. The film even questions whether Bond and spies are still relevant in a day when a computer can destabilise nations. Recently Craig signed for at least five films, so the studios clearly think that Bond is relevant; and with Mr Moore himself stating that Daniel Craig is the best Bond yet, I suspect that the franchise could be as strong as it has ever been. So let’s all have a Vesper Martini, toast to ‘Bond, James Bond’ and wish him another fifty years of success.

Leave a Reply