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James Bond: from man to mythical defender

by
24 September 2021

What do the James Bond films teach about human nature and struggle, asks Stephen Brown

Alamy

Daniel Craig in No Time To Die (2019-21)

Daniel Craig in No Time To Die (2019-21)

AFTER many delays, the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, will soon arrive in cinemas. Since the creation of Bond, the books and then the films have evoked strong reactions among Christians. Are these parables for modern times, or shallow tales of sex, secrecy, and sadism?

More so in the films than in Ian Fleming’s novels, there is a gradual shift from the “real” into the “marvellous”. In Dr No (1962) — the first movie — Sean Connery’s Bond primarily displays quite ordinary human characteristics. The sequels gradually transform 007 into a character verging on what the literary critic Northrop Frye described as “mythic”: someone superior to their world, with godlike qualities and accoutrements.

Some of this is achieved through Bond’s accessories. There is a mounting heightening of reality in the chases and properties of Bond’s cars. In Diamonds are Forever (1971), he escapes by driving the Ford Mustang on two wheels down a narrow alley — improbable, but possible — whereas the Aston Martin V12 Vanquish, in Die Another Day (2002), sports an invisibility cloak.

Alongside these nods to the future, Bond’s adventures owe much to the earliest known story in history, The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating from c.2100 BC. Christopher Booker, the author of The Seven Basic Plots, labels the unfolding plotline “Overcoming the Monster”. The world is under threat; the hero armours himself to defeat an antagonist; after arduous journeying, he confronts and crushes his nemesis.

Fleming’s work also makes several nods to the St George legends. Bond’s golf match in Goldfinger was modelled on the Royal St George Golf Club, fictitiously renamed after St Mark. Dr No’s flamethrower tank is thought by the terrorised local community to be a dragon. Moonraker’s villain, Drax, is derived from the German for dragon.

It is easy to compare the all-devouring destructiveness of a monster to megalomaniacs such as Blofeld in Thunderball (1965), who “looks at this world and wants it all”. Bishop Stephen Verney, a one-time Canon of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, argues in his book Into the New Age that the dragon symbolises the human condition: a roaring savage beast, and yet also divine. We vainly try to project our instinctive, emotional, and undifferentiated raw nature on to the world outside, and then try to kill it.

 

EQUATING Bond and his Walther PPK gun with George and his spear could be too fanciful. We may be on stronger ground making connections between the maiden who is often rescued in tales of George and the dragon, and the various women in the films. For all the macho posturing of George/Bond, it is the female of the species who has successfully incorporated the transfigured dragon into her being.

Fleming’s extremely popular hero still represents, for some people, much that is reprehensible — “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” whose boyish charms are lost on Judi Dench’s M in Goldeneye.

AlamySt George and the Dragon, a 15th-century icon from Novgorod, now in the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg  

In the 2006 Casino Royale remake, Bond genuinely falls in love. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he even gets married. On both occasions, it is till death do them part. That said, one cannot ignore the womanising tendencies of other films. Roald Dahl, commissioned to adapt You Only Live Twice, planned (as in the novel) to restrict Bond’s sexual adventures to one woman. The producers said that three would be better.

We do get glimpses of sexual continence in some productions. Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill) is more of a “one-woman man” than Connery was. Roger Moore, in For Your Eyes Only, refuses to sleep with an all-too-willing Bibi.

And female characters are rarely just pawns in the game. They co-operate with Bond in restoring world order, and not always in a subservient role. Wai Lin, handcuffed to Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies, is his equal. Escaping on a motorbike, they have complementary parts to play. It is typical of an evolution in the series. Likewise, “Jinx” Johnson (Halle Berry, Die Another Day) is more than a match for 007. In No Time to Die, a woman (Lashana Lynch) finally achieves 00 status.

 

ASSIMILATING vestiges of political correctness does not make Bond a “new man”. If living, as personified by him, is all about danger and adventure, then few of us match that definition. And is it an existence without need of God? In the films, religion is often depicted as superstitious nonsense.

Voodoo is belittled (Live and Let Die) as ineffective against the powers of rationalism and weaponry. The trappings of conventional Christianity are the stock in trade of villains, used by them to disguise their wickedness.

In Diamonds are Forever, Mrs Whistler comes across as a fervent Christian, while her husband passes over stolen goods. His accomplice, Mr Kidd, quotes scripture: “Ask, and you shall receive.” Mrs Whistler then hides the loot in a hollowed-out Bible.

Whether acting alone or with allies, Bond is the saviour of a world that exults in conspicuous consumption. Yet there is a realisation in Bond that such a world is not enough. Daniel Craig said of Casino Royale in 2006 that he wanted to explore the dark side of Bond. The character Vesper Lynd makes sure that he does, psychologically skewering him by guessing that he’s an orphan, compensating for having been raised on other people’s charity.

This is confirmed in Skyfall, where he ends up (of all places) in the chapel of his adopted family home. In John Gardner’s novel Win, Lose or Die — part of a contemporary series continuing the Bond stories — Bond prays: an activity still to be portrayed on screen. It’s an intriguing counterpart to the presentation of Bond in the mode of Nietzsche’s Übermensch: an elitist, hedonistic winner, sharply contrasting with Christianity’s supposedly otherworldliness.

In reality, the Bond character is rooted in at least some Judaeo-Christian values. Like us, he struggles to understand the bigger picture. Craig’s incarnation gets nearest to this sense of “when we are weak then are we strong.” In Casino Royale, he is tied naked to a chair and tortured. It is not through his own efforts, but by a deus ex machina, that he is saved.

It has been argued that 007’s Christian name derives from the first verse of the Letter of James, “a bond servant”. The epistle advocates that we be “doers of the word, and not hearers only”. While Fleming’s books can devote pages to the nature of evil, a film will explore this through plot, characterisation, and cinematic techniques.

Larger-than-life villains act as Jungian archetypes, making visible in human form the mystery of evil. The spy also represents a kind of symbolism for our times. Can we ever know the truth, what is really going on? Whether the threat is nuclear annihilation, plagues, or terrorism, it remains comforting to know there is at least one man for ever restoring order to a troubled world.

 

THE cool glamour of Fleming’s creation contrasts sharply with John le Carré’s world of espionage. As Alec Leamas says in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: “What do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me.”

It’s not that Fleming — who died in 1964 — or subsequent screenwriters are unrealistic about the state of the world, or humanity’s disposition towards evil. The sin that Fleming considered deadliest was accidie: a kind of spiritual apathy that lies at the heart of the Bond oeuvre.

Mr Big, Blofeld, and other villains do their evil deeds out of a sense of boredom. Michael Apted, who directed The World Is Not Enough — and whose brother is an Anglican priest — brings out this sense of ennui among the unscrupulously powerful, who are crying out for more worlds to conquer. For Bond, accidie occasionally debilitates him (as in Skyfall) before a restlessness rouses him back into action.

At a deeper level, it is our own accidie — which the playwright Arthur Miller described as periods of stupefying spiritual and psychological stasis — that is under scrutiny in the books and films.

The spy is there to reassure us that, whether or not it is apparent, the universe is unfolding as it should. Nobody does it better than 007. We may feel powerless to eradicate evil and lapse into inertia, but Bond comes to the rescue.

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