The Suez Crisis in the fall of 1956 broke British prime minister Anthony Eden. It was the clearest sign yet that the empire’s time in the sun had come and gone. Decline that began during the Boer War of 1899-1902, perhaps earlier, had a steep, sudden drop that autumn under Eden’s watch. Exhausted, the prime minister retreated from London to one of the United Kingdom’s remaining outposts, the Caribbean island of Jamaica, and to the vacation home of a World War II naval commander. The house itself was squat, with thick walls of crushed limestone. Sparsely furnished, it was more in the mode of a bunker than the opulent plantation style that, by then, was nobly decaying elsewhere on the island. There, on Jamaica’s northern coast, Eden swam and sunned. After several days he returned to London somewhat rested but, nonetheless, to an empire further diminished in power. He would resign his office within weeks.
The home’s owner was not there during Eden’s visit, but he had been there most years since 1946, indulging in a hobby he had adopted after the war. He wrote novels that his wife would dismiss as “pornography.” He was Ian Fleming and he wrote about the British spy James Bond, a character whose popularity was ascendant just as the British Empire’s power was going the other way.
Geopolitical danger in a foreign land, solace sought in a tropical paradise—it all too perfectly captures the anxieties and escapism that underwrite Fleming’s entire series. Of course, Britain and Bond are linked by more than by just Eden’s 1956 visit to Fleming’s home. This deeper link is something that has been overshadowed by the modern, global, mega-franchise of Bond returning this month with the movie Spectre, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Daniel Craig. Fifty odd years ago, Bond wasn’t global. Before the first major Bond movie Dr. No premiered in 1962, before U.S. president John F. Kennedy listed From Russia With Love among his ten favorite books in 1961, Bond was almost exclusively a British phenomenon. His early adventures are largely unintelligible outside of 1950s British politics.
Several recent books have sought to reaffix Bond to the 1950s from which he has come unstuck. Matthew Parker’s Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming's Jamaica looks at 007 through Fleming’s time on the island and that nation’s path toward independence (reviewed recently in the National Interest). British Spy Fiction and the End of Empire by Sam Goodman, a lecturer at Bournemouth University, puts Fleming among other postwar spy novelists Graham Greene, John le Carré and Len Deighton (Goodman recently wrote an essay for the Guardian). A third, Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain is a cultural history of postwar Britain mixed with a personal history of 007 fandom.
One quickly realizes from these books and from Fleming’s novels that, even in the 1950s, Bond was a dinosaur. His preferences, pastimes and the company he kept were stodgy from the start. Even his car was twenty years old. Not only dated, he’s dour. Fleming’s Bond is routinely melancholic that the empire’s best days are behind it. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he ruminates in the head of MI6’s office:
“Bond looked round the walls at M.’s treasured collection of naval prints. Everywhere there were mountainous seas, crashing cannon, bellying sails, tattered battle pennants – the fury of ancient engagements, the memories of ancient enemies, the French, the Dutch, the Spaniards, even the Americans. All gone, all friends now with one another.”
In fact, an astounding amount of time in the novels sees Bond in meetings with M. Not only in meetings, but also preparing to meet M, traveling to meet M, thinking about what to say to M and reporting back to M. There is in this an element of the hierarchy and deference traditionally associated with Tory conservatism of the time. Only partly tongue-in-cheek, Winder goes so far as to say that M, in his “patrician omnicompetence,” “incarnates in its perfect form the Conservative ideal.” In the 1950s and early ‘60s, Fleming and his work appeared, Winder writes, “as the Conservative with a vision of how things might be better.”
Fleming’s wife had direct Tory ties and Fleming himself, it appears, had sympathies. In what might as well be a description of the author himself, a main character in the short story “Octopussy” moves to Jamaica, believing it “a paradise of sunshine, good food and cheap drink and a glorious haven from the gloom, restrictions and Labour Government of post-war England.” Fleming’s political sympathies also come out directly in Bond, and like so many of the thoughts shared between author and creation, they are usually tinged with melancholy. In Thunderball, Bond meets a young British cab driver: “He was born into the buyers’ market of the Welfare State and into the age of atomic bombs and space flight. For him life was easy and meaningless.” In You Only Live Twice, as Goodman and Parker note, Bond laments of England, “our welfare state politics may have made us expect too much for free.” Fleming’s creation, his description of London and the country, is a “quintessentially Conservative view of the British Isles,” Goodman concludes.
It is a sentimental conservatism more than anything, a conservatism adrift after the war and Churchill, unconfidently looking backward and in the midst of a series of forgettable, pre-Thatcher leaders in Eden, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath. It is also a conservatism that is uniquely British. As the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn points out, such conservatism emphasizing hierarchy and deference “has always occupied an equivocal, if not embattled, status in America.”
That was Britain then. America, we are told, is now where Britain was. The Iraq War has been described as “America’s Boer War” and commentators intent on declinism see “America’s Suez Crisis” in each new global disruption. Since Fleming’s Bond was a product of the newly post-British world, is there a post-American equivalent now? Perhaps Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series or the recent spate of superhero movies?
Here is one option: America has, instead, imprinted on Bond.
Each of the qualities that Fleming’s 1950s Bond is legitimately criticized for—misogyny, racism, snobbery—is at its core about confidence. Each appeals to a desire to move through the world free of uncertainty, complexity or indecision. Each ally, ingénue, enemy and dinner menu is met with a firm, unequivocal response. As Winder writes, “This sense of ‘knowledge,’ of always knowing where to go, whom to tip, how to behave is central to Bond’s success.” Indulging in this break from messy reality makes for compelling escapism, especially at a time when Britain’s confidence was, well, shaken.
A half-century removed from Fleming, modern Bond maintains many of these qualities. But he has added another, and one that feels distinctly American. Modern Bond gives confidence to the suspicion that modern institutions, especially governments, are compromised, misguided and corrupt only when they are not otherwise inept. One can and should be awed by the power, influence and personnel that can be amassed by these institutions, but, we are led to believe, they are ultimately redeemable only through the actions of a bold individual who upholds the institution’s ideals better than the institution itself.
What does this look like on the screen? In short, Bond goes rogue. He has been at odds with MI6 in all of the Craig-era movies from Casino Royale through Skyfall. Modern Bond has made a habit of violating M’s orders and being ousted from his job, albeit temporarily, and he has done so rather consistently since Timothy Dalton became Bond in the 1980s. (Dalton’s second outing was originally titled License Revoked for exactly this reason.) The trailer for Spectre in which M berates Bond for having “no authority” hints that this trend will only continue. Sean Connery, for comparison, never went rogue as Bond; his transgressions against MI6 were largely limited to being late to meetings and destroying a Q-branch gadget every so often. Roger Moore’s Bond, too, largely toed the line.
This may be so obvious as to seem unremarkable. Institutions are disreputable lately. Less than a third of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in banks, organized labor, big business, the media, the Supreme Court, Congress or the presidency, Gallup polls show. It is no surprise, then, that all of the current 2016 U.S. presidential candidates are running as change agents rather than as upholders of the status quo. In The End of Power, Moisés Naím wonderfully catalogues how this phenomenon is playing out across much of the developed world. True, but it is a uniquely American invention to do something creative with this phenomenon, to reconcile the awe and distrust of an objectively powerful entity of one’s own nation—the CIA, for example—with the romantic notion of a decisive, history-shaping individual. We see this starting as early as the 1970s—in 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, for example, in which Robert Redford stars as a CIA analyst who goes up against a mini-CIA within the CIA. We see the same thing now, consistently, with Bond. Needless to say, Bond’s 1950s Tory inclinations are now passé.