Home > Uncategorized > Learning from James Bond 2: 70s, 80s, the War on Drugs

Learning from James Bond 2: 70s, 80s, the War on Drugs

I’ve been collecting together all the James Bond movie plots, to try to figure out if there’s anything interesting in them, starting with the 60s. If you want to know about 1995-2021, look here.

….so In 1973 Roger Moore took over, and the mood of the films swung away from anxiety toward comedy and self-parody. If I were writing about the Bond movies as literature, I would group 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever here, but I’m not – instead I’m all about the villain plots, and Diamonds is still very much in the 60s destabilizing the Cold War mould. So for my purposes Moore’s creaky performances and unconvincing distant stunt-double scenes are less relevant than the types of enemies he faces, who are mostly a bunch of pop-up, low-level criminal bosses. Nixon announced the War on Drugs in 1971 and Moore got right to it in 1973. The big anxieties throughout the 70s films involve loss of central control of societies, whether that’s through drugs, crime, or the rise of non-state actors. This is the era when President Ford dismissed New York City as a drug swamp and said it could “go to hell.” Meanwhile, the US promoted (mostly military) coups, frequently funded by drug money or in support of drug production, in Bolivia (71), Chile (73), Argentina (76), Nicaragua (78), Afghanistan (1980), Paraguay (89), and Panama (89). I’ve probably forgotten a few. So…

Live and Let Die (1973) is often called Bond’s most racist film – it’s a blaxploitation romp with honkies and hookers and pimps and Nawlins jazz funerals. Caribbean microstate dictator Dr. Kananga has a dastardly plot to get America addicted to free heroin, then jack up the price – a move familiar to any historian of the 19th century Opium Wars. The twists are (a) he’s black, (b) it’s being done to Americans. This is a big come-down for Bond, after saving the world from WW3, but it’s also a departure in other ways: a black villain means a black character of some importance. Among Drug War films, it’s both remarkably early and atypically thorough – Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) was praised for addressing both foreign supply and US demand as inseparable sides of “the drug problem.” Live and Let Die does the same thing, but destroys any larger social point by having both ends of the supply chain be the work of one man, who wears a foam latex mask when in Harlem. Exoticizing Tarot/Hoodoo stylings muddy the waters further, although maybe if you squint you can see a zombie critique of opioids.

The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) has freelance assassin Frank Scaramanga stealing a revolutionary solar power machine (the Solex Agitator) to… sell it to the highest bidder, again. Honestly, in 2022 this just sounds like great news: viable solar power! So viable you can make solar lasers from it to shoot down planes! It was a science-fantasy over-reach in 1974, but it points to the Oil Shocks and OPEC as major worries of the decade. The US was used to controlling world oil and Americans were deeply disturbed by the prospect of foreigners throttling their gas guzzlers the size of Lincoln Town. It’s hard to imagine now, but I think at the time a large part of the US reaction was just indignation that they had to pay any attention to some faraway desert like Saudi Arabia. So here we have Scaramanga, a nobody with no connections to any major world powers, holding the world to ransom just because he stole the next big widget. I suspect the big anxieties on display here are (a) the energy crisis, obviously, but maybe even more than that (b) a loss of faith in big institutions: the great world governments were shown to be helpless against industrial oil suppliers. Unlike Goldfinger, this gold-fetishist is a non-institutional, outsider hustler holding the world to ransom because apparently that’s a thing that can happen, now. I’m gonna say that’s a stepping stone in popular consciousness that paves the way for dot-com billionaires.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) looks superficially like a return to form, with Karl Stromberg studying the SPECTRE playbook and planning to engineer WW3 by stealing US and USSR nuclear missile submarines. But Stromberg doesn’t work for SPECTRE, he’s a Captain Nemo knock-off with unclear, fluidly changing motives – on one hand, he’s ransoming a submarine tracking device for money, on the other, he has visions of ruling a New World Order after the US and USSR have destroyed each other. His goals are incompatible – what money could he ransom the subs for, that would survive his post-nuclear brave new world? Especially since he hates humans and the land: with whom would he exchange money? He comes across as a nutter who watched Dr. Strangelove and liked the ending – and therefore as an existential threat to organized society – something even the Rooskies can agree is a bad thing. So Bond teams up with a (sexy) KGB agent, suggesting that Russia isn’t the enemy, it’s the nukes themselves that are the enemy, and KGB General Gogol makes his first appearance as a reluctant ally – he’ll be back 5 more times, twice as an enemy. Jaws also makes a first appearance, his name tipping us off that it’s not coincidental that Bond is back underwater. Spielberg’s shark anxiety movie came out in 1975 and… grabbed the movie-going public and shook. Bond responds with scary-comedy – his Jaws is a man with metal teeth – and then veers full comedy two years later in a Star Wars response film. I bet someone in the production was really cracking up at these intertextual jokes.

Regarding anxieties, missile subs really are the perfect engines for producing them. First, they’re genuinely the preferred vector for delivering nuclear holocaust because nobody knows where they are, not even the people who are supposed to tell them to kill us all. Sudden death, no appeals… what if that fell into the wrong hands? (Are there any right hands?) – that’s a newly non-partisan kind of despair for Bond. Perhaps that’s why it’s necessary to dress it up in so much ridicule, with a Jules Verne throwback villain.

While Bond was responding to Spielberg, Lucas dropped the next big craze: Samurai WW2 capers in spaaaace. Therefore Moonraker (1979) was rushed into production, bumping Fleming’s spy plots (or at least their titles) into the 80s.

So: evil industrialist Hugo Drax invents the space shuttle! And wants to use it to deliver a nerve gas, to kill all humans so he can repopulate Earth with his perfect master race from his space station. That last bit is pure postwar comic book… which, now I think about it, was probably also self-conscious competition with Lucas, who had updated Flash Gordon, and Spielberg, who was working on a reboot of Northwest Smith.

But the combo comes out weird. On one hand you have the US Space program’s latest innovation – the space shuttle – ripped straight from the headlines. Shuttles were the actual future of man’s greatest adventure, unveiling right then at Bond’s premiere! Moonraker offers a glimpse of the spaceplane two years before its first orbital test flight. The shuttle promised to build giant space stations over the next 20 years that would dwarf sad little Skylab: the whole thing was a huge US swagger item. On the other hand, you have all this space future promise packaged up as the bad guy’s plan – these Bond shuttles are not built by the US government, nor is the space program a basic good, being threatened by bad men. It’s actually a vehicle for Nazi-style eugenics bad. Which plugs into anxieties about space-based eugenicists… which had been around at least since the 60s, when Wernher von Braun and NASA published plans to colonize Mars and build giant, armed space stations “for freedom.”

So how does Bond square all this?

With comedy, of course. These space Nazi ideas were already pretty nostalgic and campy by 1979 and the film plays them as such. Former scary-man Jaws goes funny-cuddly, turning into a FrankenChewie gentle monster in the tender hands of a little girl. Any anxiety Moonraker could summon was played for Halloween laughs – which is not to say that anxieties were unimportant to it: claiming a fear is ridiculous is one of the great tools of propagandists. But the shuttle winds up goofily defeated, consigned to obscurity in Bond’s trademark villain-base escape.

I wonder if the true anxiety here was how lame real space exploration looked compared with Lucas’s seductive fantasies. And how lame Bond looked compared with a new generation of science fantasy action movies, which replaced Bond’s near-future gadgets with rayguns and Bond’s aging besuited karate chops with bodybuilders. Back in 1969, Kubrick’s Space Odyssey was the hard SF foil to Blofeld’s trashier, more free-wheeling, spacecraft-eating Bird One. Now Bond was playing the more-realistic position against unfettered spectacle… and his fetters were showing.

For Your Eyes Only (1981) gets the series back on a familiar track. Aris Kristatos is a mafioso and KGB asset. Another boat sinks, another military gadget is stolen (the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator – I would laugh at the acronym ATAC but that’s exactly how the US names stuff, like EAGLESREVENGE and USA-PATRIOT ACT and FUCKUPDAROOSKIES). But this time it’s really the KGB! For the first time in Bond history! And this time the previously helpful General Gogol is a bad guy. If that seems like a whiplash reversal from 1977, just wait for 83.

I’m not exactly sure why the 80s saw such a ferocious return to anti-USSR propaganda movies, but it did. Reagan, obviously, was a giant red-baiter and belligerent, and I suppose there was a sense that it might be time to finally win this damn Cold War. Perhaps it was that Gorbachev signaled a thawing in relations and suddenly Americans felt that it might make a difference, to apply some persuasion? In any event, it was the easy move for Bond, to restore his relevance. So while the 60s maintained a superior aloofness to the whole fighting the Cold War thing, the 80s got determinedly stuck into it. And the 80s movies are really defined by just what sort of a threat the USSR poses.

Octopussy (1983) was a new low in titling but a classic offering in themes and content – including violent lesbians just waiting to be tamed by a Real Man. General Orlov, a rogue USSR army man, wants to start WW3 by nuking a USAF base in West Germany. His vector for this is Western Capitalist greed and also exiled Afghan greed: he is selling priceless Russian treasures (Faberge eggs) that explode! There’s some sort of critique there but it’s a little ambiguous who the butt of the joke is supposed to be – the wrongheaded fanaticism of the bomb-maker or the foolish cupidity of the bomb-buyer. The important thing is, it’s not that the empire is evil, but rather that it allows evil men to rise to the top. Perhaps it requires policing. Gogol reinforces this point by (this time) being the good KGB officer who, nonetheless, cannot stop the rogues. The whole lesbian assassin thing is, by this time, a Bond staple – I think it was supposed to be titillation rather than anxiety back in the 60s. Here it’s safe titillation, which is pretty much telegraphed by sticking -Pussy right up on the billboard.

Never Say Never Again (1983) is a double pun, because it brings back Sean Connery… to replay Thunderball. It’s an off-brand Bond film, by Taliafilm instead of the usual Eon Productions, and it has no ambitions to start a new franchise: it sets out to retire Bond at the ending credits.

As before, two nukes have been stolen in order to hold the world to ransom – from the US, this time. The villain, Largo, has changed his first name from Emilio to Maximilian. The big difference is that this time, SPECTRE actually gets one bomb into place, in Washington DC. the other… was maybe being kept in reserve? Bond finds it with Largo at an oasis in Ethiopia. Largo is weirdly into domination and electric shocks, and has a dominatrix assassin working for him. He’s prone to jealous rage and sells his girlfriend into slavery for kissing Bond. She eventually kills him.

Honestly, all the anxieties in this one seem to be about sexual deviancy. And, I guess, slave-trading Arabs. And maybe mistaken identity, since stealing the bombs requires spoofing a retinal scanner. But this Bond gets to retire with a sexy girl, so I guess it works out better for him than the rest.

A View to a Kill (1985) is an obscure hunting-song title for a movie that’s scared of the computerized future. Zorin is another rogue KGB guy, but this time he’s made a fortune in microchips. The last Roger Moore film, this highlights one of the main killers of the Cold War spy caper – inhuman enemies. The anime series Spy Family understands that the computer-as-magician simply makes newspaper codes and Q Branch obsolete, and consequently sets its capers in not-Berlin in the not-60s. Back in ’85 there was a uncomfy realization that the jig for traditional spy capers was probably up, but maybe a sufficiently creative scriptwriter could still make use of the genie. Maybe cyberpunk spies? Or maybe just declare war on the machine? It is telling that Zorin wants to destroy Silicon Valley, the hellmouth of computer hardware. It’s also telling that his method for doing so is to engineer the Big Earthquake – an old humanist anxiety that threatens granny and little Timmy as well as thinking engines.

….remember how I was going on about Flash Gordon? Well, Prince Barin replaces Roger Moore in 1987. Apparently Eon Pictures had been considering Dalton for Bond since 1970, but Dalton thought he was too young, or too busy, or not good enough to follow Connery, or too good to follow Moore. In 1987 he ran out of excuses.

The Living Daylights (1987) baits-and-switches KGB General Georgi Koskov’s defection from a victory over the Soviets to a con job. Because – surprise surprise – Koskov’s real scheme is to embezzle money from the KGB, together with (obviously American) arms dealer Brad “yes, Brad” Whitaker. Tim Dalton is the new Bond, General Pushkin is the new friendly General Gogol, Gogol is a new diplomat, and private greed plus drug dealing is the reassuring old enemy. The movie leans into the Bond series’s established “truth” that the USSR is a leaky vessel, with well-meaning but ineffective KGB policemen, and then combines that with its 70s Drug War mission: USSR disorder allows drug-dealing rats into the pristine US.

All of which makes the role of the Afghan mujahideen… complicated. Because the mujahideen supply the drugs and receive the money/diamonds from the villain… but then they also help catch the villain in a now-typical Bond-plus-locals base raid, and cheerfully destroy the drugs they’ve sold (after all, they’ve been paid). Bond helps the Soviets stop the embezzling operation but also helps their Afghan enemies. Is this some kind of commentary on the US’s contradictory drug war policies? Particularly the Iran-Contra Affair? If it’s good to fund the mujahideen in their fight against the USSR, then are the villains actually doing good CIA’s work? Given Bond’s role in arming the Afghans, what are we to think of his apparently personal urge to kill the villainous arms dealer, with CIA man Felix Leiter’s help?

License to Kill (1989) brings us to the end of the Cold War and the natural end of Bond’s over-extended career. He can feel it, which is why he goes “off the reservation” on a revenge rampage that strips him of his job and 00 license.

Villain Franz Sanchez’s name is a two-word biography: he’s a shifty sleazo drug lord with a streak of Nazi sadism. He’s from the hilariously-named Republic of Panama Isthmus, right at the not-so-hilarious moment when the US invaded Panama, to oust its quondam CIA tool, Manuel Noriega). Sanchez is a mixture of Noriega and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, who was then at the height of his power. Escobar had just shot to the top of the US’s public enemy list in 1989 by bombing a passenger plane that had 2 Americans aboard, in a failed attempt to kill anti-gangster Colombian politician Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, so he’s represented as wantonly cruel, vain, and destitute of principles. He wants to smuggle cocaine into Asia, dissolved in gasoline (which is just the sort of wild scheme Escobar would come up with). Bond, who is not typically concerned with Asian welfare, is suddenly made to care by Sanchez’s unnecessarily having Felix Leiter half eaten by a shark, and his wife raped and killed.

The theme for this whole plot is excess. Sanchez is excessive in maiming Leiter and killing his wife. M thinks Bond is excessive in wanting to take revenge on him, but Bond has discovered revenge is something he actually wants, making this the first time his principled rage gets him thrown out of MI6.
That seems significant to me – the only thing about this film that is significant. Up to now, Bond has been a playful professional. But now something has offended him so much that he cannot square it with his national duties – a motif that will grow ever stronger. Does this mean that national duty is no longer a vital attribute of the Hero? If he’s no longer institutional but individual, no longer obedient but self-motivating and motivated by passions, has he become Romantic? This is also around the time that we the viewers start to be asked to take his relations with women as something more than simple exploitation.

The Drug War lines are drawn more sharply in this film, mirroring the way Bond sank into the Cold War in the 80s, having surfed over it in the 60s. License isn’t concerned with the whole mechanism of the international drug trade, but with thwarting one evil man. It has good guy DEA agents and bad guy drug smugglers, and the action is the personal, bloody end of a war film.

Shooting drug dealers is obviously the main issue of social order in the film, but there are a couple of other interesting motifs, that suggest related ongoing anxieties. Gasoline plays a major role – its the vector for drugs, Sanchez travels with tankers full of it, and it burns him to death at the end. Relatedly, machines repeatedly fail or are sabotaged, leading to messy deaths. It’s tempting to rad all that as a metaphor for the failure of business as usual – the old habits betraying you. And televangelists are mixed up in the drug-smuggling gang, which is probably a reference to the sexual abuse and fraud scandal that toppled Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker teleministry in 1987 but could also be read as a critique of televangelism in general (not uncommon at the time) or even of the corruption of old faiths.

…all of which makes License to Kill the most topical of Bond films to date. Rather than background themes and riffs on the public’s ongoing preoccupations, License has a CNN Breaking News quality that suggests the instability of an era ending. Bond is too busy to do M’s bidding in Istanbul, he has urgent killing to do in central America. It’s a film where long perspective is (maybe rightly) trumped by immediate reaction. It’s a mood I remember well from the late 80s – the invasions of Panama and Grenada were sudden and suddenly over. Wars were endlessly opening on new fronts. Fracture was in the air.

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