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Learning from James Bond, 1: the 60s

Some time in the 1990s I concluded that James Bond, as presented in the movies, is quite boring. Like most superheroes, he’s a very simple character, who exists to provide simple solutions to hard problems. Mutually Assured Destruction? Water shortage? Lost your job to a computer? Superman fixes it with fisticuffs. Bond fixes it by shooting it, blowing up its house, and fucking its girlfriend. As such, Bond doesn’t want anything much, unless it can be shared vicariously by the audience – so his shooting gallery of problems is interleaved with harem- and luxury porn. Left to his own devices, he’s inclined to fade to a discreet veil, with faint naughty giggling from behind the curtain.

His opponents, though – the people with the madcap schemes to hold the world to ransom – they need to want things, and those things have to be explained to the viewers. And those things have to speak to the viewers, to reflect the preoccupations of their times. It occurred to me that the villains were really the heart of the films.

Right around the same time I had this realization, I slid off the franchise, so I was distantly aware that maybe something interesting was happening over there, without really looking at it.

This month, I plan to remedy that and find out if there actually is anything worth learning from the Bond movie series by looking at every villain plot and motivation – mostly to see what audience anxieties are being exploited and whether the plot architecture does anything to frame those anxieties interestingly. And, obviously, to see if there’s anything for GMs to learn about how the plots are constructed.

I’m going to deal with the movies as original productions, without reference to the books – partly because I don’t have any desire to psychoanalyze Ian Fleming (who was probably just envious of his sexier brother, Peter), partly because the movies must necessarily reflect the preoccupations of a larger number of people. They are corporate products, vetted and edited by whole teams, incrementally optimized to attract viewer money. No individual author could provide such inherently social documents.

This first post covers 1962-1971 – Bond’s birth at the height of the Cold War, when his character makes the most sense it ever will. Then the 70s and 80s, and finally the Post-Cold War era and Reboot, and some conclusions about adventure writing. I tell you now, I am actively dreading dealing with the post-Cold War era, even though its desperation was what first intrigued me.  

I hate dividing things into arbitrary category schemes and decades are both overused and frequently stupidly irrelevant… but in Bond’s case, taking it by the decade actually makes some sense. Connery neatly fits into the 60s, Moore a long 70s, Dalton the unstable end of the 80s. So…

The 60s, birth of a genre

By 1962 the Cold War was in full swing, with no end in sight. Mutually Assured Destruction was already well known, the concept of a missile gap already darkly laughable.

Bond’s main job in this hostile world, where you’re dead before you know it, is to reassure – to be a grown-up man, to be competent and reliable, to show that a lone hero can still overcome the Nuclear Machine (and to reassure Britain that it’s still relevant somehow, but that’s more a Fleming question than a Cubby Broccoli one, so I won’t pursue it).

But the villains do something else – something quite interesting. They ask the enfant terrible question: “what if the Cold War is stupid?”

Not like Dr. Strangelove (1964), which is just “MAD? Are you mad??” but rather “what if there’s some other conspiracy behind it? What if someone were clever enough to distract the US and USSR with the spectre of their imminent mutual destruction?”

The 60s films pose this question over and over again, most memorably with a speech about Exotic Fighting Fish, where one fish hangs back to let the other two maul each other, so it can finally maul the victor and then…. we don’t get that far. Bond is there to prevent the mauling. And of course this other conspiracy is called… SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). It’s a club of ultra-rich, ultra-successful lunatics, all of whom have something terribly wrong with them, who do Bad Things out of motiveless malignity and/or for hire, and/or for some Mysterious, Unnamed Oriental Power (China).

The deviation from known Cold War combatants to anOther enemy does two kinds of work for the series. First, it allows for a radical simplification – nobody knows SPECTRE’s capabilities, so Bond can credibly overcome them. Second, since you and Bond learn of this conspiracy, that makes you and him smarter than everyone else. The idea that the intractable issues of the Cold War might be More Complex Than Anyone Thought? What could be better for a Great Simplifier Hero?

Dr. No (1962) wants to stop the US participating in the Space Race by blowing up the Mercury rocket with an “atomic-powered radio beam” (laser). Lasers are sexy, space is sexy, and Dr. No’s Caribbean island is obviously right next to Cuba. In the movie, Dr. No’s motive is simple revenge – he is annoyed at both the US and USSR for rejecting his services and has joined SPECTRE in a fit of pique, so he doesn’t get to say the fish speech. But he does have an atomic flamethrower dragon to scare the natives (5 years before Scooby Doo!), a technocratic answer to radiation poisoning, mutilated hands, and mixed Chinese-German ancestry, which allows him to be a yellow peril whose real villainy is latent Nazism.

Obviously, there’s a lot of Nuclear Fear in this plot – it’s 1962 and we’re in not-Cuba, worrying about space rockets (the friendly face of the missile program). But the film also suggests this nuclear fear is all overblown – you can scrub radiation off, and when Bond blows up No’s base by overloading its nuclear reactor, it’s fine: a rubber dinghy is all the shielding he needs.

In From Russia with Love (1963), Kronsteen (SPECTRE) wants to steal a Soviet code machine (Lektor) and ransom it back to the USSR, for money – a disappointingly venal motive that is strangely typical of early Bond villains. The big neurosis in the movie is probably not the theft plot but the SECRET CODES themselves – bread and butter stuff for 60s spy fiction and paranoia: quis custodiet, etc: who knows what the secret masters are doing? Cracking code machines appeals to British national pride, too, since ENIGMA during WW2. Most of the plot, though, involves personal vendettas of various Russian-adjacent assassins against Bond himself, cementing his reputation as the Top Assassin.

With its cramped sleeper-train fights and puny Q-Branch briefcase, the movie sells Bond as your Commando uncle who can kill a man in 115 ways using a rolled-up newspaper, the everyday superhero who might be watching over you right now – its message might be that Grand Plots don’t have to happen on exotic islands.

Goldfinger (1964) works semi-freelance for SMERSH (not quite the Soviet counter-intelligence agency SMERSH, but the movie doesn’t care about the distinction), but maybe mostly for himself. He wants to steal all the gold in Fort Knox, thereby destabilizing US currency and also becoming even richer than he already is (I think he’s the Richest Man in Britain?). Except it turns out he doesn’t really want to steal it, just make it radioactive. Which raises a super interesting question: is radioactive gold less useful for guaranteeing a country’s paper money than non-radioactive gold? Where exactly is the line of pretend that anyone’s going to sell those reserves, that makes them valuable? And isn’t the whole thing about gold reserves kind of silly anyway? Well… no, it was still taken seriously in 1964, and countries still hold gold reserves today and actively buy gold to control their finances. Anyway it’s not obvious how he would benefit, but he thinks he would. His mafia friends definitely want to steal the gold, but they’re so dumb, Goldfinger kills them before the plot even gets going.

So the film definitely preys on fear of radioactivity, but maybe it’s mostly about the new illegibility of financial markets, which were just then being computerized and turned into specialized technocratic institutions. The US recession of 1960-1 was hard to explain but its effects (unemployment, inflation) were clear enough. Maybe a threat to solid gold was… oddly comforting. Nostalgic. Regarding the role of the mafia – those dirty foreign Italians stealing good American money (while dirty foreign cars were out-competing solid American ones) – it seems suggestive to me that Fort Knox and Goldfinger’s racing stud operation are both in Louisville, Kentucky, a city that segregated dramatically in the 50s through white flight to the car-based suburbs, facilitated by the building of the interstate system. Is it reading too much into a basic film to say that the mafia represent a growing vague “urban crime fear?”

So on one hand, we have greedy Goldfinger’s gold fetish – legible, visceral, erotic, sinful. Bond eventually kills him by forcing him through the eye of a needle, which is a downright Biblical punishment. On the other, the US Army’s defense of the nation’s treasure against Mafia hoods is an excuse to get the old WW2 movie props out. Feel safe: men in helmets are working to protect the dollar in your pocket.

Thunderball (1965) has Emilio Largo (SPECTRE) stealing 2 nuclear bombs from the UK in order to ransom them back – the same idea as the code machine in ’63 but more boomy. As with the code machine, though, the real threat is just to the treasury – pay the ransom and everything will go back to normal. There’s maybe a second anxiety to do with nuclear proliferation: the UK’s nukes are a security threat, apart from the US’s: more nuclear nations means more chance of an accident or sabotage.

But the anxieties in general seem to play second fiddle to the action in this one: a quarter of the film is underwater, with a variety of underwater weapons and gadgets. There’s a major theme of disguise throughout the film – people change their faces, planes are hidden underwater, and a yacht with underwater access turns into a high-speed hydrofoil – but the disguises don’t really threaten anyone: they’re all briefly deployed, their implications contained within their action scenes. The yacht, BTW, is called the disco volante (flying saucer) suggesting some extra layer of hoaxmanship, but if there’s any payoff to it, I haven’t been able to figure it out.

You Only Live Twice (1967) shows Ernst Blofeld (at last!), head of SPECTRE, trying to start WW3 by stealing spacecraft (in space) from the US and USSR and getting them both to think the other is behind it all. Finally, the fish scene. He’s doing all this for “an unnamed Asian power”, which implies this unnamed power hasn’t heard of nuclear winter or the full effects of Mutually Assured Destruction.

This is movie Bond’s first actual Saving The World plot. Fear of Communist China was running high in 1967, what with the Cultural Revolution and Vietnam War. Kissinger was trying to convince people that the Cold War wasn’t just about Russia, so this is Bond actually being on top of the zeitgeist. The film also has a lot of fun with whose side the inscrutable Japanese might be on: there are friendly and unfriendly operatives in the Japanese government, along with trap doors and paper screens and a hollow volcano: is anything solid? It turns out ninjas are, in spite of their criminal reputation, making this a very early expression of the ninja craze that would sweep the 80s.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) pits George Lazenby against Blofeld, briefly making the latter the series’s stable point.

Blofeld’s brainwashing people to distribute bacteriological agents around the globe. He plans to hold the whole world to ransom by threatening to destroy all agriculture, presumably by infecting crops with his engineered bacteria. It’s not easy to see how he could profit by actually letting the agents loose, and it seems likely that any accidental leak would lead to an unstoppable disaster, so this is a suicide bomber threat.

The obvious anxieties are over-population and Malthusian Cycles and Anthrax bombs – the Green Revolution was in full swing at the time and there was lots of talk about coming crises, so this reads as a “hey, it’s not just nukes” pitch. But with its sinister Swiss clinic, it seems more like the film promotes fear of doctors, or maybe of biopower in general – experts taking away self-sufficiency in the name of better living through chemistry.  
Bond again teams up with some shady crime syndicate to undertake a pitched battle against a SPECTRE fortress, suggesting old-fashioned organized crime is reassuring, compared with the technocrimes to come.

…I wasn’t gonna talk abut Bond the character, but. Connery established Bond as a tireless seducer, flirting with Moneypenny, throwing out off-colour one-liners about his schlong, and philosophically shrugging off the inevitable deaths of all the swimsuit models he steals from his enemies. But in Lazenby’s single movie, Bond rescues a woman from suicide, falls in love with her, marries her, and apparently goes into mourning when she is inevitably shot. Bond would not get that involved again until the 21st century reboot.

Diamonds are Forever (1971) brings Connery back for one last job.* Blofeld (yet again), has a satellite that can blow up nukes after they’re launched! This was literally what Ronald Reagan claimed to be working on in the 80s – and it was as fantastical then as in 1971. Blofeld wants to sell it to the highest bidder, Reagan wanted to use the fear of it to bankrupt the USSR. Prescient!

The plot starts with diamond smuggling and counterfeiting, and a hunt for the real Blofeld through a factory of plastic surgery fake Blofelds, which seems pretty metaphorical. So when it veers over to Vegas and a reclusive casino-owner, you might be thinking ohoho, more fake money but actually no, the casino owner’s a fine upstanding citizen – whose place has been secretly taken by the dastardly Blofeld! Then things spool out in a series of increasingly absurd fights until an oil rig gets blown up.

There’s something going on all through this film with real and fake, valuable and worthless, but I’m hesitant to say exactly what it is. Diamonds are symbols of eternal value etc (and the film even has some surviving incineration), but M, early on, points out that the international price of diamonds is fixed by a cartel, and could be easily crashed by a sudden market flood. Meanwhile, diamond smugglers include Blofeld lookalikes, Vegas stand-up comedians, and a comedy pair of gay assassins who – atypically for 1971 – don’t seem to be physical cowards. In this context, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of Plenty o’Toole,** the short-lived femme fatale who picks Bond up at the Casino’s craps table but gets defenestrated before Bond can find out what’s under her dress. He winds up instead with Tiffany Case, who hates men, having been gang-raped as a teenager, until she is cured by Bond’s charms. I feel faintly sick after writing that. The movie script changed the novel by adding the gang rape but taking away Case’s abandonment by her father – in the movie she’s called Tiffany because she was born prematurely at the diamond store while her parents were shopping for wedding rings. Which is some kind of detailed play on legitimate and illegitimate but frankly I’m distracted by the whole rape cure thing.

If the series had ended here, we might be discussing how far it dipped into self-parody in the Blofeld trilogy, but the 70s would blow these early efforts out of the water on that score.

Looking at the films together, it’s obvious that the series’s cohesion does not stem from its plots or threats – nukes are a perennial, obviously, but in different ways each time – as ransomware, as dirty radioactivity, as cleansing demolitions charges… the series does not have a fixed nuke symbology. Overall there’s a strange oscillation between simple greedy crime and grandiose visions for a New World Order. As a world-girdling conspiracy, SPECTRE seems oddly improvisational and its leaders are all pulling in different directions. This only becomes obvious in a retrospective like this because each individual film goes through the same respectable Call of Cthulhu progression of starting with a small incident and then revealing its gigantic implications. Starting instead with what the antagonist wants is deliberately reading the films backwards.

* I can understand Connery hanging up his guns after this one. It’s harder to understand why he came back for it, having sworn never to play Bond again after You Only Live Twice. And yet he did play Bond yet again (although not for Broccoli) in Never Say Never Again (1983), a film actually titled after his refusal to keep Bonding, and he played a non-Bond character in Skyfall (2006). I don’t think any other Bond actor has had such a hard time staying away.

** Why? The actress seems thoroughly feminine; Peter o’Toole, on whom this name is an obvious pun, was according to rumour as big a womanizer as Bond is supposed to be, but was not famous for playing women (until Rebecca’s Daughters, in 1992)… is it just that the name’s supposed to be funny? Alan Moore’s scathing parody, Oodles o’Quim, actually makes more sense.

Next: Bond finally gets an actor with a name as punny as Pussy Galore.

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