'Oh James': 007 as International Man of History

December 1, 2002 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: Spies

'Oh James': 007 as International Man of History

Mini Teaser: How a fictional secret agent came to epitomize the Anglo-American relationship and interpret the evolving Cold War for the movie-going masses.

by Author(s): Jeremy Black

The Right won the battle of ideas in the late 20th-century, rendering Marxism so rapidly obsolete that states which had openly avowed their communism were happy to embrace the market and seek Western capital. But has the West also won the battle of images? This is an important question in an increasingly cosmopolitan political culture that takes its idioms, aspirations and views from visual sources, particularly television and film. Here there are two challenges: the destructive and sociopathic, or at least anti-social, character of much of the visual material produced within the West; and the decidedly mixed way in which a predominantly Western-dominated media is perceived elsewhere in the world.

This makes all the more fascinating the worldwide popularity of a film franchise celebrating the career of a white male British government agent-named James Bond-who combats and defeats evil challenges to the Western democratic and free-market order. The Bond films-and there are now twenty in the official series-are free of all sociopathic suggestions (unless one happens to share the views of militant feminism), and every one ends in a victory for the West. The series also pays homage to one of the oldest operating bilateral alliances in the world, that between the United States and Britain. The Bond films, and the Ian Fleming novels which were the source of the character and some of the plots, thus offer us an opportunity to see how perceptions of that "special" relationship have changed over the years-from both the British perspective (mostly in Fleming's novels) and the American one (mostly in the films).

As such perceptions go, one might think that, through the thick and thin of it all, it was James Bond (and, by association, Britain) who saved America. As the seconds tick away toward the close of the films, Bond stops Dr. No from "toppling" a crucial American missile test (1962), prevents Goldfinger (and the Chinese) from making the Fort Knox gold reserves radioactive (1964), thwarts Largo's attempt to blow up Miami (1965) and (in 1971) Bloefeld's attempt to destroy Washington, dc (the villain rejects incinerating Kansas, for "the world might not notice"). Bond also foils Zorin's plan for the devastation of Silicon Valley and with it, America's high-technology sector (1985). Other megalomaniacs stopped by Bond, such as Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Drax in Moonraker (1979), would have destroyed America as part of a global cataclysm.

The truth, however, is that it was America that saved Bond. Launched into the world in Fleming's 1953 novel, Casino Royale, Bond was a quintessentially British figure, and as such might have remained a character known only within the genre of spy fiction. But he was translated into a kind of Anglo-American hybrid for the film role, and it is the film rather than the literary Bond that is most familiar to millions around the world. The original intentions of the character's creator are glimpsed at secondhand on the silver screen, and even then only fitfully so after the third film, Goldfinger, which appeared in 1964, the year of Fleming's early death. After Fleming's flame had gone out, the films more or less took on a life of their own. Let us then attend first to Fleming's novels, afterwards to the films.

Fleming's Cold War

Fleming's Bond novels illustrate changing images of Britain, America and the world in the postwar era. The politics of Casino Royale, published in 1953, were located squarely in the Cold War; it was, after all, about an attempt to thwart Soviet influence in the French trade unions. That this plot line bore at least a glancing resemblance to reality is confirmed by the fact that, in 1947, "Wild Bill" Donovan, the former head of the oss, had helped persuade the American government to fund opposition to Communist influence in these unions. In the novel, Bond's attempt to out-gamble his Communist opponent is financed by Felix Leiter, a cia agent, who loans him 32 million (old) francs, with which Bond subsequently defeats the villain in the casino.

Bond's need for American money reflected the pre-eminent role of the United States in the defense of the West, as its arsenal and central bank. Leiter provides material assistance without difficulty and is happy to rely on Bond's skill, suggesting a far smoother working of the Anglo-American intelligence alliance than was in fact the case. The two powers were cooperating in nato and the uk-us Security Agreement covering signals espionage, and had fought together in Korea, but there were serious differences of opinion, particularly over the Middle East. Furthermore, American concern over the British spy system had risen greatly after the defections of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951. In 1952 (justifiable) distrust of Kim Philby, the Secret Services liaison officer in Washington, led the cia to insist that he not return there.

Fleming did not press Anglo-American tensions in his novels, but he was aware of them. At times his plots can be seen as efforts to create an impression of the normality of British imperial rule and action, with Bond as the defender of empire. In Live and Let Die (1954), the sequel to Casino Royale, Fleming presented the United States as the threatened country. Bond remarks that New York "must be the fattest atomic-bomb target on the whole face of the world", and-revealing one of Fleming's less than charming character traits-Black Power is seen as a tool of Soviet subversion. The sinister Mr. Big, who practices voodoo, has Bond seized in Harlem.

In Diamonds Are Forever (1956), Bond returns to the United States, appealing to British interest in a land of wealth and excitement, as well as illustrating America's role as a model for consumer society. Fighting the Mafia provides Fleming with an opportunity to express yet another uncharitable view from his childhood, describing the mafiosi as "not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves", a clear sign of then-contemporary British views on properly reserved masculinity.

In Dr. No (1958), Bond thwarts a Soviet-backed attempt to bring down American rockets; a sense of America under threat is also clear in Goldfinger (1959). The superintendent at Pennsylvania Station tells Goldfinger that travelers from Louisville report being sprayed from the air by the Soviets. If Bond saves the American gold reserves, the old world coming to the aid of the stronger new, he is also all that a post-Suez Britain can rely on. By this novel, Bond represented a shift from British brawn to British brains, resources to skill.

Anglo-American competition also echoed in the Bond short stories. In Fleming's "Quantum of Solace" there is mention of rivalry on the Nassau-New York air route, and in "The Hildebrand Rarity", Milton Krest, a villainous American collector of rare species, treats Bond to an account of British inconsequence:

Nowadays, said Mr. Krest, there were only three powers-America, Russia and China. That was the big poker game and no other country had either the chips or the cards to come into it. Occasionally some pleasant little country . . . like England would be lent some money so that they could take a hand with the grown-ups. But that was just being polite like one sometimes had to be-to a chum in one's club who'd gone broke.

Bond finds this argument naïve and recalls an aphorism about America lacking "a period of maturity", but Krest's words reflect the growing perception of Britain as weak.

Bond's dashing style could conceal the diminished British political and military presence in Cold War confrontations, but only barely. The British need to adapt to America was also an important, albeit subdued, theme in the politics of the Bond novels and the earlier films. In the person of the wife-beating Krest, who is in due course murdered, American wealth and power beget insensitivity and sadism, making for an unsettling account of what British weakness could lead to.

Thunderball (1961) represented a departure for Fleming with the introduction of spectre (the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion)-an evil, transnational network unconstrained by ideology. This shift can be seen as a surrender to fantasy occasioned, in part, by the decline of the British Empire and Fleming's subsequent lack of certainty about, it seems, pretty much everything. Britain, however, is still presented as playing a major role in the world. "M" declares: "We've teamed up with the cia to cover the world. Allen Dulles is putting every man he's got on to it and so am I"-as if the two were equal. Bond is given cia support in the Bahamas, providing an opportunity to probe the unsettled nature of the Anglo-American relationship. Bond fears he will be sent "a muscle-bound ex-college man with a crew-cut and a desire to show up the incompetence of the British . . . to gain credit with his chief." In fact, he again gets Leiter.

Bond is keen to borrow superior American weaponry, while an American nuclear submarine plays a role in helping thwart the villain. Its commander tells Bond, "These atomic weapons are just too damned dangerous. Why, any one of these little sandy cays around here could hold the whole of the United States to ransom-just with one of my missiles trained on Miami." This reflection not only pointed the way forward for a new genre of espionage/adventure novels, but it eerily anticipated the Cuban Missile Crisis. (In 1961, Kennedy had included Fleming's From Russia, With Love in a list of his ten favorite books.)

Essay Types: Book Review