Few cinematic characters solicit nostalgia in the hearts and minds of viewers like James Bond. Apart from Superman, Batman and the crew of the USS Enterprise, seldom do pop culture icons have fans still clamoring to catch the newest installment after a five-decade run. But what is it that makes so many modern fans pine for the Bond of old? The suave, cunning spy is every bit as devilishly misogynistic and overtly masculine as always, but something of the past magic cannot be reclaimed. A changing world, along with the values inherent in our evolving society, certainly account for some of the bygone glory of a man overpowering attractive females as easily as he does the grotesque henchmen of his toughest villains, but why then have filmmakers found it so difficult to find modern relevance in the latest iterations of their debaucherous Cold War hero?
Thunderball (1965) finds James scrutinizing the funeral of SPECTRE Number 6 from the overhead choral wings of a French cathedral. Discovering the real Number 6 — who is disguised as his own widow in a black dress, funeral veil and heels — Bond engages in some gripping hand-to-hand combat, killing the crossdressing villain. He escapes via a jetpack conveniently left for him on an exterior walkway, hovering to an awaiting DB5. Octopussy (1983) opens with the British hero escaping his would-be captors via a micro fighter jet concealed behind a robotic horse’s ass in a trailer. Flying said fighter jet through a heavily-armored military hangar for seemingly no other reason than revenge/coolness, Bond soars into the melting colors of Rita Coolidge’s balladic opening theme. Jump forward 30 odd years and Spectre (2015) begins with the adept super-spy tracking down a group of terrorists plotting a stadium bombing. After locating and eliminating three men, Bond chases the organization’s leader through Mexico City’s Día de Muertos Parade and throws him out of a helicopter. Done with sci-fi props, needlessly complicated gadgets and screwball scenarios, modern Bond is all business.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 (and likely in part due to the critical derision surrounding 1985’s A View to a Kill), the Bond series parted ways with the science fiction leanings of the 60s, 70s and 80s, ushering in a new 007 steeped in action-studded realism. Continuing advancements in both camera technology and computer-aided effects meant that producers and filmmakers could push Bond further and further, and — in so doing — make much of what he was up to feel more real than ever. The chintzy cut-and-paste effects of films like Moonraker and You Only Live Twice were replaced with the massive action set-pieces in Goldeneye and Skyfall. This isn’t to say, of course, that amazing chase scenes such as in The Man With the Golden Gun were any less “massive” at the time of production, or diminish any of the incredible stunt work that went into each and every film, but the gravity with which Eon and various filmmakers dealt with 007 after the 1980s is undoubtedly more consequential.
It is largely the limitations — special effects, melodramatic acting and narrow worldview — that have gifted early Bond with its staying power. Because so much has to be left half or unsaid, Terence Young, Guy Hamilton, Lewis Gilbert etc. relied on standard directorial techniques to persuade audiences into believing what they were trying to get across on screen. Sean Connery and Rik Van Nutter plus the bouncing front end of a helicopter on a soundstage plus shots of an actual helicopter in flight equals exciting aerial coverage of the beautiful Bahamas with a twist of international intelligence cooperation. The artifice of the studio shot is clearly apparent in these early films, so the audience must choose to believe what they are seeing because of how it is presented.
007 is only as good as he is made out to be, as no human could realistically encapsulate all he has to offer, so his prowess dwells solely in the imaginations of the consumers of this narrative spin. Surrounded by worlds so unimaginably overinflated by Soviet-era fear and blind stabbings into the future of technology, Commander Bond is more comic book hero than gritty, world-saving spy. Driving a motorized gondola through the canals of Venice that, at the crucial “end of the line” moment, magically converts into a strange hybrid hovercraft (an incredible scene from Moonraker) lends an absurdity to the film that blunts the sharpness of the overly masculine and womanizing leading man. These early films carry with them a similar ambiguousness wherein you can either believe that James Bond is a shining example of the British Secret Services, and of being a “real man,” or you can see it as a massively impressive and heavily-coded farce.
When brought to the big screen, Ian Fleming’s problematic literary figure found a visual representation steeped in sexuality that had (and still has) a wide, gender-indifferent appeal. The emblematic catchphrase of Bond girls old and new — “Oh James!” — turns, over the years, from a coy wink to his preposterous antics into an orgasmic cry at his sexual prowess. Where the old films needed to convince their audience of their hero’s incredible abilities, the newer canon has relied on them already knowing what to expect — but only if they go in expecting a two-dimensional man showing off his masculinity, disrespecting women and killing anyone who gets in his way. The ambiguousness, and therefore the magic, is gone. The honey-potting spy has lost his duality, transforming from an amorphous representation of 50s masculine values into an outdated and solidly misogynistic reflection of how far, even in 2016 (especially in 2016), we still have to go.
During his nearly 55-year cinematic run, James Bond has gone from a science-fiction super-spy to a human being capable of some incredible feats of bravery and killing. Actors aided by Soviet Montage in order to symbolically defeat Soviet Union strawmen (there is a think piece to be written on that alone) have been replaced by hyper-real scenarios in which violent government-led retaliation is our only hope against international terrorism. No longer tasked with putting the missing pieces of action, intrigue and effects together in our heads, the artifice of Bond is gone forever — and with it, any room for playful interpretation.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.
Categories: 2016 Film Essays, Featured, Film Essays