"Bond, James Bond."
50th Anniversary Special Report
Half a century ago, a movie perfectly captured the Zeitgeist of its time. And, as the upcoming release of the 23rd Bond film demonstrates, we're still not tired of this dashing, unflappable, hero.
The first time a 32-year-old Scottish actor uttered those words was in a small film that opened in London 50 years ago. Based on a popular pulp novel by Ian Fleming, Dr. No cost slightly over $1 million and featured a group of not-yet stars including Sean Connery, Jack Lord (Hawaii Five-O), and Ursula Andress alongside an established character actor, Joseph Wiseman, as the movie's villain.
It was a film that debuted with no expectations whatsoever. Months later, when Dr. No opened in the U.S., The New York Times called it "lively" and "amusing," a "spoof of science fiction and sex." Translation: a cute, entertaining trifle.
Yet, lo and behold, Dr. No grossed nearly $60 million worldwide--fantastic box office for that time--and spawned a film franchise that has produced 22 feature films (the 23rd, Sky fall, is due out in October) with global earnings of more than $5 billion.
In an era when big budget extravaganzas such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Longest Day attracted the largest audiences, Dr. No's success seemed to come out of nowhere. Yet the reasons why it succeeded were easily discernable. "The formula was simple," says film critic and author Irv Slif kin of moviefanfare.com. "A good-looking guy who was lethal yet likable, gorgeous women, nasty villains, nifty gadgets, nice locations, and cool music--all presented in first class fashion with a dollop of violence and sex and, in some cases, politics."
"Bond tapped into a full range of male fantasies and desires that were simultaneously being exploited by popular media and international advertising at the height of post-war consumerism," adds Christoph Lindner, editor of The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader. "There is a great study of the
interrelations--both commercial and artistic--between Bond and Playboy magazine in the early 1960s, showing that both developments shared many values and perspectives, not just on sex and women, but also on conspicuous consumption and the fetishism of technology."
In other words, gorgeous women and cool gadgets--not to mention Cold War paranoia and wackadoodle plot lines far removed from the dour and more realistic spy flicks of the era--were some of the keys to the films' success. And if you were female, well, you might not have liked the casual sexism of the Bond series, but there was always Sean Connery, about as studly as they come, to satisfy your fantasies. As Slif kin puts it: "The women came for James, and the men came for everything else."
And they kept coming back for more. When Sean Connery bowed out of the series, they came for George Lazenby, and then Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and now Daniel Craig. The villains changed, the women came and went, the plots sometimes became utterly ridiculous--like in 1979's Moonraker, which involved a master race, a plot to exterminate all human life, and a battle on a space station--but none of that seemed to matter. Bond was part of the culture. Which meant it became hard to find people who didn't know who Q, M, and Miss Moneypenny were; who weren't familiar with Odd Job and Jaws; and who didn't know that Bond liked his martinis "shaken, not stirred."
In fact, this familiarity worked in the series' favor. One of the reasons 007 managed to survive from the Cold War era into the post-9/11 world is that the more things changed, the more Bond tended to stay the same. According to Glenn Yeffeth, editor of James Bond in the 21st Century, Bond is "good at what he does, and he is an openly heterosexual male, unashamed of his own manhood. Those characteristics seem to be as relevant
as they ever were. If you look at Jack Bauer in the TV show 24,1 think what people like about that character are the same characteristics."
There's also Bond's relationship with his bosses, which remains highly volatile. 007 is an insider who acts like an outsider, and that tension has been constant throughout the series. "At one level he represents a fantasy of government control in a geopolitical world that has lost its grip on western security," says Lindner, "but at another level he also represents a fantasy of escape from the excessive authority and surveillance of government. This tension between control and escape is an important part of Bond's success over the decades."
And then there's the most obvious way in which the series stays current--when it comes to enemies, Bond is always after the villain du jour. "The films have always reflected the times in which they were made," says Yefeth. "In the '60s, it was Cold War espionage and the beginnings of the sexual revolution. In the '70s and '80s, they became more comedic and fantastical in the era of overindulgence. But the fundamental principles of Bond haven't changed. He is intent on trying to preserve world order. For each era, Bond has found his way."
Which means that in the latest reboot of the series, Daniel Craig's 007 has been fighting a gaggle of very contemporary bad seeds who finance international terrorism (Casino Royale) or are out to control an entire nation's water supply (Quantum of Solace).
And there is one more significant way in which Bond has kept up with the times. Even though he's as tough as ever, he has become more emotionally open. "Fleming's original Bond from the novels was a deeply flawed and emotionally damaged character," says Lindner. "Over the years, the films gradually turned Bond into a teflon spy. But now, in the post-9/11 era--and thanks in part to other spy franchises like the Jason Bourne trilogy--Bond has rediscovered his emotions and his imperfections."
So what's not to like? He's macho. He's emotional. He's even become, if the most recent films are any indication, almost--but not quite--monogamous. And in a world that seems even more chaotic and dangerous than the one in which he first appeared, we all know that when evil rears its ugly head, there's one secret agent we can always count on.
Bond. James Bond.
To weigh in on your favorite Bond films, visit saturdayeveningpost.com/james-bond.
When you make 22 successful films over 50 years, you're going to attract imitators.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.: TV series that ran from 1964 to '68 starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as secret agents.
NOTABLE FOR: Parody of the parody. The show was so popular it was referenced in an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show titled "The Man from My Uncle."
GET SMART. TV series that ran from 1965 to '70 starring Don Adams as klutzy agent MaxwellSmart and Barbara Feldon as sexy, syrupy-voiced Agent 99.
NOTABLE FOR: Nutty Bond-like gadgets that frequently malfunctioned. Shoe phone, anyone?
DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE: Bizarro 1965 comic spoof starring Vincent Price and Frankie Avalon.
NOTABLE FOR: Exploding bikini-clad robot women.
DEREK FLINT: In two movies (Our Man Flint and In Like Flint) James Coburn played this super cool superspy, a scientist who seemingly knows everything and is a master of languages (including dolphin).
NOTABLE FOR: Silly spy agency acronym. Flint worked for Z.O.W.I.E. (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage).
MATT HELM: Womanizing secret agent played by Dean Martin in four 1960s features.
NOTABLE FOR: Off-the-charts babe quotient. Female co-stars included Stella Stevens, Ann-Margret, Senta Berger, and Elke Sommer.
AUSTIN POWERS: Swinging lead character and superspy of three films starring Mike Myers that riff on everything from James Bond to Matt Helm.
NOTABLE FOR: Hirsute homage. Austin Powers' ridiculously thick chest hair was based on Sean Connery's.
Ursula Andress and Sean Connery in Dr. No.
By Lewis Beale