'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

You Only Live Twice (1964) reflected Fleming's increasing melancholia about Britain, with the fictional Bond undoubtedly mirroring the author's moods: Britain is in decline, the Americans are refusing to pass on information, in part because they now treat the Pacific as a "private preserve", and therefore the British seek their own intelligence information from Japan. In his 1959 tour to the region, Fleming had noted Britain's greatly lessened influence in East Asia. In the book, a Soviet scheme to use nuclear blackmail to force the removal of American bases from Britain and British nuclear disarmament is thwarted by Kennedy's willingness to threaten nuclear war-a step taken as a result of British intelligence information.

Published posthumously, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) warned about links between the kgb, the Mafia, the Black Power movement, terrorism and drug smuggling. Through Bond, Fleming expresses deep skepticism about the likely success of American pressure on Castro: "If the Americans once let up on their propaganda and needling and so forth, perhaps even make a friendly gesture or two, all the steam'll go out of the little man." Of course, he was right, and the lesson, though now 37 years old, still waits to be learned today.

After Fleming's death, the novels continued. As a character, Bond could not be copyrighted, so the best way to deal with the threat of imitations was for Glidrose, the house that owned the publishing rights to the Bond novels, to commission a sequel. The first of these, Colonel Sun (1968), was written by Bond fan Kingsley Amis under the pseudonym Robert Markham. In it, the Chinese were the villains. Aside from post hoc novelizations of film screenplays, the writing of original novels was resumed in 1981 by John Gardner, who produced a whole sequence. The last of these was Cold Fall (1996), which depicts the thwarting of General Brutus Clay's attempt to stage a fascist coup in America on behalf of the Children of the Last Days (cold). Gardner's successor, Raymond Benson, an American board member of the Ian Fleming Foundation, is still producing Bond stories.

The Celluloid Bond

Fleming's novels capture Britain's sense of pride but also its decline in the Anglo-American context. The Bond films show instead a parade of evils with which America has had to deal, but luckily, always able to call upon plucky Britain to stand by its side. In an odd sort of way, the James Bond of film is like Churchill-brave, bold and utterly appealing. But what Churchill was to reality, Bond has been to a kind of Batmanesque comic book fantasy come to the screen-only in the Bond case the comic book stage has been skipped.

Ironically, the first portrayal of Bond on screen cast him as an American, "Jimmy Bond", in a 1954 cbs hour-long television version of Casino Royale. In contrast to the novel, it was a British agent named Clarence Leiter who assisted Bond. Thus was the Anglo-American relationship depicted in the book reversed for American consumption. But not for long.

Excluding the parody Casino Royale (1967) and the return of Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again (1983), all the Bond films have been the work of Eon Productions. Eon was established by Harry Saltzman, a Canadian, and Albert Broccoli, an American, who in 1961 persuaded United Artists to finance a six-picture set. (Broccoli eventually bought Saltzman out, and his family has retained control since.) Saltzman and Broccoli are the ones who established the tone of the series. Fleming had wanted David Niven, a stylish public-school gent, to play Bond, but Broccoli wanted a tougher, mid-Atlantic image that would appeal to American filmgoers as a man of action without jarring British mannerisms. Bond had to be self-contained, not self-satisfied, and thus, with Sean Connery, a star was born.

Perhaps half the world's population has seen a Bond film, ensuring that billions of people have viewed an image of global struggle through Western eyes. Individual films in the series have not done as well as, say, Star Wars, but the series as a whole has been more profitable than any other. Its influence is harder to gauge. Oleg Gordievsky, the kgb resident-designate in London (a long-term double-agent who defected to the British in 1985), revealed in January 2001 that he had to secure prints of the films for the Central Committee of the Communist Party, who liked to watch them; that the kgb was interested in the high-tech devices used by Bond; and that the films contributed to an impression of British competence that had influenced him. Indeed, Gordievsky's real-life defection to the British rather than to the Americans reflects a long-standing motif in the Bond movies, where Soviet agents prefer to defect to the West via London rather than Washington-beginning with kgb Corporal Tatiana Romanova in From Russia, with Love (1963).

Aside from comforting British viewers about their state's continued role and competence, and lacking any of the doubts expressed, for example, in Fleming's novels (and even more clearly in the novels and films of Len Deighton and John Le Carré), the Bond series also charted shifts in the wider world. However improbable, the film plots, to work as adventure stories, had to resonate with the concerns of viewers. This they did, with themes such as the space race, the Red Chinese "menace", the energy crisis, nuclear confrontation and drug trafficking all played out.

Shifts in the Cold War were also noted. In You Only Live Twice (1967), the United States and the ussr are on the verge of a nuclear war after their spacecraft, siezed by spectre, disappear in orbit. By Moonraker (1979), however, the Americans check with the Soviets when the radar shows the space station from which Drax is planning to fire germ-laden globes at the Earth. In Octopussy (1983) there are good and bad Soviets, and in A View To a Kill (1985), Zorin has escaped kgb control-and the Soviets are horrified at the prospect of the destruction of Silicon Valley, which supplies microchips for Soviet use as well. In The Living Daylights (1987), the kgb head emerges in a positive light as does the Afghan resistance; the villains turn out to be a kgb general and his American partner who plays at being a military commander. In License To Kill (1989), there is no Cold War component at all. Franz Sanchez, a sadistic drug king based in a thinly disguised Panama, is depositing much of his dirty money in the United States. Sanchez takes American orders for drugs and sets the price under the cover of his employee, Professor Joe Butcher, who operates as a television evangelist seeking pledges over the airwaves. Sanchez sees money as the universal solvent, and the "end of history" plays a cameo role through the total absence of competing grand ideologies.

After the longest gap in the film series, Bond returned, in GoldenEye (1995), to the post-Cold War world. The film, set in post-Soviet Russia, revisited themes traditional to the series, not least megalomania and rogue space vehicles. GoldenEye is a space-based weapon that can destroy Western communications through electromagnetic pulses. Its use is hijacked by General Uroumov-head of the Space Division and a would-be strongman-and Alex Trevelyan, an ex-British agent who is head of Janus, a crime and terror group dedicated to exploiting the chaos of post-communist Russia. A satellite-control station hidden underneath a Cuban lake that cannot be spotted by American photo-reconnaissance plays a vital role in the plot. Bond's cia contact tells him that you cannot light a cigar in Cuba without the Americans knowing about it, while Bond's controller "M", now a woman known as "the evil Queen of numbers", is convinced by analysis of the situation that the Russians cannot have a GoldenEye program. As ever in the films, Bond triumphs over even the most sophisticated of bureaucracies, overcoming the limits of his own system as well as the selfish opposition: indeed, there is much that is similar here to the lonely hero of the quintessentially American Clint Eastwood films.

In Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), a billionaire media mogul seeks to catalyze a war between Britain and China in order to provide him with marvellous copy and help his ally, General Chang, seize power in China and open the country to his communications empire. While pretending neutrality, the Americans provide Bond with a likely location for a sunken British warship and the plane from which he parachutes onto the site. Russia is now the ally of the West, and Afghanistan a locus of freelance menace rather than Cold War villainy (as it was in The Living Daylights). At the outset of the film, the options for attacking a terrorist bazaar in Afghanistan that Bond is reconnoitering include a Russian army assault as well as a British cruise missile. Similarly, in The World Is Not Enough (1999), the politics relate very much to the real world, in its setting in the volatile Caucasus and in its concern with the fate of the Bosporus and the control of oil supplies.

Essay Types: Book Review