Fiction sometimes has a way of transcending its most ardent limitation, which is that it is fiction. Just ask Eric Holder, who probably never thought he’d be cast as the villain in a Vin Diesel flick.
Fiction’s most successful transcending phenomenon, though, is probably Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007, haberdasher’s muse and the world’s most famous secret agent (never mind the oxymoron). Ever en vogue, Bond this summer made a cameo during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics—an impressive feat for any actual man, let alone a made-up one. But then transforming from fictional character to Olympic ambassador is probably an easier task for Bond than his other real-life obligation: defending the West against itself.
Kingsley Amis’s Bond
Two things struck me while recently re-watching “The Spy Who Loved Me,” the tenth James Bond film and the one that the 12 year-old in me still remembers as having starred Caroline Munro. Roger Moore’s turn as 007 may not have been as literary as Timothy Dalton’s or Daniel Craig’s, but he still interpreted the role as something far edgier than Beau Maverick in a tux, even if he doesn’t get credit for it.
More importantly: even though I’ve always seen very little attenuation between Ian Fleming’s novels and Cubby Broccoli’s screen treatments, I could never explain why. Until now. I’ve finally realized that Fleming’s Bond (often brooding, sometimes sadistic and occasionally cruel) and the cinematic incarnation (often quick to quip and far more obsessed with sex) exist in the same world, one that shares very little with the world that you or I inhabit. But it’s not the metal-jawed giants, volcanic lairs, and poisonous gardens that differentiate Bond’s world from ours. It’s the politics.
Bond doesn’t have a political agenda in the usual sense. In fact, much has been written about the apolitical context within which Bond is usually framed. The Soviets were seldom the primary antagonists, often giving way to politically nonaffiliated madmen who hate East and West indiscriminately. Domestic issues are rarely evoked: there’s some tangential racism in Fleming’s Live and Let Die (attributable to the mores of the time and a Tom Wolfe-like attempt at recreating some urban dialect); there’s a nondescript energy crisis that has everybody—even stiff-collared Tories—up in arms in Guy Hamilton’s underrated “The Man with the Golden Gun;” “Quantum of Solace” portrays an ecologically savvy terrorist. But other than that, and some similar peripherals, the only extent to which Bond has ever been accused of being political has been the occasional complaint from the enlightened left that the world of espionage entails a far greater moral ambiguity than all the girls, gadgets and martinis suggest. (Which is fine. But Jason Bourne is still a whiny bore.)
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t any political appeal to James Bond. In fact, the more I revisit the world of Bond, the more I find that there is a consistently recurring political subtext to Fleming’s novels and the soon-to-be 23 films. Kingsley Amis thought so, too. In his extended essay The James Bond Dossier he wrote:
The England for which Bond is prepared to die, like the reasons why he’s prepared to die for it, is largely taken for granted. This differentiates it, to its advantage, from the England of most Englishmen. … Negative virtues are even more important in escapist than in enlightening literature, and not the least of the blessings enjoyed by Mr. Fleming’s reader is his absolute confidence that whatever any given new Bond may contain, it will not contain bitter protests or biting satire or even witty commentary about the state of the nation. We can get all of that at home.
… Politically, Bond’s England is substantially right of center. As the title of the eleventh volume uninhibitedly proclaims, royalty is at the head of things. … An unwontedly emotional passage near the end of Doctor No shows Bond … conferring in the office of the Governor of Jamaica and thinking of home. … ‘His mind drifted into a world of tennis courts and lily pads and kings and queens, of London, of people being photographed with pigeons on their heads in Trafalgar Square…’
The films largely share this trait, portraying Bond as “Her Majesty’s loyal terrier, defender of the so-called faith.” But why is royalty at the head of all things? British institutions, after all, don’t matter so much to real-life Britons. Consider the Queen’s Jubilee earlier this year. All pomp, but what of the circumstance? What the Queen timelessly stands for—empire, class, obligation, responsibility and even Britannia herself—are things today’s British, unlike Bond, reject.
This—and not the sex, sadism, and snobbery—is the allure for the Bond fantasist. 007’s Britain is antiquated. It’s not the Britain of Cameron and Clegg. It’s the one with a penchant for staying tyrants—of either the mustachioed or the vertically-challenged variety—and the one that gave us pocket calculators, steel warships, jet airplanes, and loads of other cool stuff. Bond’s Britain is relevant, wealthy, and influential, still a beacon of Western ingenuity. This as opposed to the more accurate depiction of the sterile, cynical, stymied Britain of, say, George Smiley or Harry Palmer. Amis preferred the Fleming mold:
I also find a belief, however unreflecting, in the rightness of one’s cause more sympathetic than the anguished cynicism and the torpid cynicism of Messrs le Carré and Deighton. More useful in an adventure story anyway, and more powerful—so powerful that when the frogman’s suit arrives for Bond in Live and Let Die, I can join with him in blessing the efficiency of M’s “Q” Branch, whereas I know full well that given postwar standards of British workmanship, the thing would either choke him or take him straight to the bottom.
The next time you roll your eyes at the implausibility of invisible Aston-Martins, consider this possibility: it’s not that Bond’s adventures are completely inauthentic, as opposed to the realistic yarns of le Carré—it’s just that in Fleming’s universe, Europeans didn’t stop being industrious once they were introduced to paid leave and exuberant pensions.
It’s been said that Bond’s Britain is okay with American superiority. This is preposterous. We “cousins” are well regarded in the Bond realm, but make no mistake, our purpose in a Bond adventure is to be told what’s what by our former colonial masters. Bond may well hold “individual Americans with the highest respect,” says Amis, but “in the plural they’re the neon lit, women-dominated, conspicuous consumers of popular sociology.” Of course, the movies are far more Americanized than the novels. But even there, Amis has a point: has Felix Leiter, Bond’s CIA ally, ever done anything other than take “orders from Bond, the Britisher [while] Bond is constantly doing better than he, showing himself not braver or more devoted, but smarter, wilier, tougher, more resourceful—the incarnation of little old England with her quiet ways”? Answer: No.
A Sexist Dinosaur
Britain’s postwar doldrums remolded Englishmen into something less than their former selves. This was the real-world environment into which James Bond was born. Bond, Sean Connery told Playboy back in 1965, was a refreshing change of pace for the “predominately grey” Britain of the mid-20th century. 007 displayed characteristics that were then rare and appealing, chief among them: his “self-containment, his powers of decision, his ability to carry on through ‘til the end and to survive. There’s so much social welfare today that people have forgotten what it is to make their own decisions rather than to leave them to others. So Bond is a welcome change.”
Yet Bond wasn’t really a change so much as he represented an inherited idea of high-minded masculinity—inherited, I think, not from Ian nor from the commandos and officers the author knew from Naval Intelligence, but from Ian’s father.
Major Valentine Fleming was a Tory MP from Henley and an officer of the Oxfordshire Hussars during World War I. He died near Picardy, France, in the trenches, in May 1917, after which he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Incidentally, a fellow named Winston Churchill wrote the major’s obituary:
[Major Fleming] had that foundation of spontaneous and almost unconscious self-suppression in the discharge of what he conceived to be his duty without which happiness, however full … is imperfect. That these qualities are not singular in this generation does not lessen the loss of those in whom they shine. As the war lengthens and intensifies … it seems as if one watched at night a well-loved city whose lights, which burn so bright, which burn so true, are extinguished in the distance in the darkness one by one.
It’s no coincidence that James Bond, like his creator, is an orphan. And if you read carefully between the lines—or listen closely to the give-and-take on screen—you’ll notice that Bond’s relationship with his superior “M” always plays much like the relationship between a headstrong adolescent and a stern, hard-of-praise father, as if both Fleming and Bond are straining for fatherly guidance. (That give-and-take, by the way, is something that Bernard Lee and Robert Brown always get right on-screen and that Judi Dench, by definition, cannot; in fact, the brilliance of “GoldenEye” lies in Pierce Brosnan’s discontent with having a female chief, while the shortcoming of subsequent entries lies in his acceptance of female superiority.)
Ian Fleming always denied that he shared character traits with his creation—he said that Bond was merely a composite of his war colleagues. But it’s hard to say that he shared no traits whatsoever: Bond’s penchant for scrambled eggs, short-sleeve Sea Island cotton shirts, and liquor, women, and gambling are reflections of Ian. And Bond’s operational prowess is definitely drawn from the commandos Fleming knew during World War II.
But Bond’s intangible virtues are Valentine’s—and, no, these virtues may not have been singular then, but they are quite un-plural now. Where Valentine’s contemporaries took to the trenches, the young men of today’s Britain riot in the streets. That’s what a half-century of self-entitlement does to a society: it takes the backbone out of people while simultaneously giving them notions of grandeur. This makes them malleable. Make enough people malleable and you can make them, en masse, believe in any fancy or whim. Want to know why gay marriage is inevitable? Because today’s man, coerced into believing in his own emasculation, would introduce himself to a lesbian named Pussy Galore by saying: “I respect your lifestyle choice.” When James Bond met a lesbian named Pussy Galore, he slept with her.
James Bond: the opposite of self-entitlement.
Pieties, Shaken and Stirred
The New York Times’s film review of “Live and Let Die” noted that the Bond movies hold a “certain insolence toward public pieties.” This certainly seems true. But why then are the films—like the books before them—so incredibly popular? The answer is that, like with any good spy, Bond has proven adept at creating a little misdirection here and there.
Raymond Chandler famously suggested that Bond was “what every man would like to be and what every woman would like to have between her sheets.” This is generally perceived to mean that men want to be Bond because he daringly saves the world from megalomaniacal madmen while bedding women who lust after him because he’s dangerous. But what if all of this were just cover? What if men wanted to be Bond because secretly—or maybe not so secretly—they wanted to be less neutered, more decisive, more graceful under pressure, more accountable, and less postmodern?
Until now Bond’s been a consistent character. The films sometimes have bordered on self-parody, but he’s always been the same decisive, sometimes cruel, woman-dominating Briton, believing in duty, obligation, and the Crown. Daniel Craig’s incumbency guarantees us that this will continue (with much less of the self-parody), but I worry for how long. I detected a hint of Jason Bourne-like cynicism in the last entry, “Quantum of Solace,” where, in a first for a James Bond flick, the CIA gets into bed with nefarious types and Her Majesty’s government willingly complies. Craig, though, is not only a good Bond, he’s a smart actor. He knows his character. I therefore wonder if he’s ever read Fleming’s original version of “Quantum,” which bore no relation to the movie. It was a short story, in the Somerset Maugham mold, in which Bond reflects that the dramas of ordinary people may be greater and more meaningful than his own. He’s right, of course. Men like James Bond are expendable for a reason. Take away that reason and you take away the nobility—and the purpose—in their expendability. If audiences thought of that, I wonder if they’d see past Bond’s sex and gadgets and superficiality, wonderful and fun though they may be, and realize what really makes James Bond appealing.
The reality for ordinary men and women is that we need to reassert some dignity in our ordinary lives. But that reality can’t overcome the pieties of modern discourse: we claim to like our men less assertive and less masculine and less accountable, and we claim to like our governments mired and enabling.
James Bond may be unflappable. He may bed women like Caroline Munro, and he may be MGM’s saving grace. And above all he is durable—come this fall his latest big-screen adventure, “Skyfall,” hits theaters almost 50 years to the day after Sean Connery debuted as the suave super spy in “Dr. No.” But the one thing 007 can’t do is save us from ourselves.
Stephen B. Tippins Jr. is an attorney practicing in Buford, Georgia.