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The Many Decades of Bond
By Carolyn Wells
It had been so long since I had walked down those steps into a poorly lit foyer with low-hanging ceiling tiles, where the scent of buttery popcorn filled the stagnant air, and posters hung limply off the walls. That’s right, I went to my local cinema: I actually saw a film with other people, on a big screen, and wore proper outdoor clothes. After nearly two years of viewings from my sofa, largely in pajamas, this felt unnerving — and exciting. Granted, the seats were still uncomfortable, the chocolate was still overpriced, and a large family walked in late, discussed loudly where to sit, and then chose the seats right in front of me. But there was also surround sound, laughter, and Daniel Craig.
COVID-19 had kept No Time To Die, the latest James Bond film, out of the cinemas for as long as it had me; it was supposed to be released in April 2020, but when cinemas shut down around the world, 007 (or at least Universal Pictures) refused to stoop so low as a streaming platform. And so we waited. It was worth it, it’s a good film, and improbable car chases across dramatic snowy landscapes do lose something outside of the big screen. (I found myself wondering what brand of winter tire he uses, very grippy.)
Although I don’t proclaim to be a particularly ardent James Bond fan, watching an aging Daniel Craig strut his stuff did make me start to ponder the incredible longevity of this franchise. We had waited a year and a half for this film, but that’s nothing to a spy who has been in the field since 1952.
James Bond has always been in my subconscious. Growing up in the UK, there were four TV channels, and I remember the films on all of them around Christmas — the broadcasters having decided we deserved a treat at that time of year. First, it was Roger Moore, arching his eyebrow at me, then he gave way to a smooth Pierce Brosnan, who my mum excitedly ordained “rather dishy.” Moore and Brosnan were my Bonds. I had missed the very start, the era of Sean Connery — and so, my curiosity piqued after my cinema trip, I decided to dig deep into my streaming platforms and watch a Sean Connery classic: Goldfinger.
It’s from 1964, so I was not expecting the production values to be particularly high, and I was duly rewarded in the first scene when Connery appeared with a bedraggled stuffed seagull on his head as a disguise. We quickly move on to him kissing a woman (sans seagull), when he sees someone with a hammer sneaking up on them reflected in her eye — impressive at such close range — and in an incredibly unchivalrous move, he swings the woman round so that the man whacks her on the head rather than him. And this was all before the opening credits.
It gets worse. In one scene 007 is getting a massage by the pool, and, just as he creepily asks the masseuse to “go a bit lower,” a guy comes up to speak to him. Connery, I kid you not, tells the masseuse to shove off, it’s “man talk,” and proceeds to slap her bottom as she exits. He then pulls on a hot pants onesie apparently made out of a used towel — a look he deserves at this point. It gets more troubling later when he pushes Pussy Galore into a hay pile and forcibly kisses her as she tries to fight him off. By the time Goldfinger has him tied to a table with a laser beam tracking toward his penis, I’m rooting for the laser beam.
In contrast, No Time To Die does not even open with Bond, but with a little girl who, when chased by a villain, pulls a gun out and shoots right back. A retired James has also been replaced by a new 007 — a Black woman. While it is impossible to apply today’s values to a film from the early ’60s, I am pretty happy that being dismissed with a quick bum slap is no longer acceptable, and the stark differences between the two films made me again appreciate just how long Bond has been around. When he first pulled out his gun on-screen it was a very different world, and that license to kill still hasn’t expired. How has someone who is a borderline rapist, a murderer, and a potential sociopath endured through all these decades?
We could consider the fact that all the films share the same enjoyable elements — it’s always fun to hang out in an exotic beach location, drive beautiful mountain roads, and then pop home to share some quips in a British government office. Villains with metal teeth, white cats, or dubious accents have a certain timeless appeal; and submarine cars, magnetic watches, or X-ray sunglasses are always cool. And then there is the music — the iconic theme songs have an attraction all of their own. I particularly remember Madonna’s Die Another Day, due mostly to my younger self crashing my dad’s car while trying to dance along to the bizarre techno part. (Do not dance and drive, however fun the song may be.) There are many other classics: One of the few times in Goldfinger where a woman is actually allowed to shine is Shirley Bassey singing the theme song. It’s magnificent. However, the locations, the gadgets, and even the songs cannot be enough to keep this unwieldy franchise going.
So let’s look at how it started — with a rather posh English chap called Ian Fleming. He penned the first 007 novel, Casino Royale, in 1952, and proceeded to write another 11 Bond novels and two short story collections. The timeline in these books is rather vague, but Bond’s penchant for cars, drinking, and women remains consistent. It was a successful formula, and Fleming sold 30 million books in his lifetime — although it wasn’t until after his death that Bond entered a whole new medium, with an American film producer named Albert “Cubby” Broccoli first bringing the character to screen in 1962, under his production company Eon Productions. Unbelievably, Bond never left the tight grip of the Broccoli clan: 58 years after Bond’s first outing the producers of No Time To Die are Albert’s daughter Barbara Broccoli and stepson, Michael G. Wilson. Albert having handed the Aston Martin keys over to them back in 1995. This is a family dynasty that likes control — No Time to Die was originally supposed to be directed by Danny Boyle, who brought along his regular writer, John Hodge. This didn’t work out so well. Hodge’s script was rejected, and Boyle quit, stating “The producers wanted to go in a different direction.” The Broccolis weren’t happy, there was no way he could stay.
I think it is this iron control that is the key to Bond’s success. The Broccolis know what they are doing — after all, the family has been doing it for nearly 60 years. They have been the ones to choose the lead, the director, the locations, and now they have finished Ian Fleming’s material, the stories. A 2015 New York Times interview revealed that the creative process begins with Barbara and Michael trying to decide on a premise and a villain that can embody some topical issue or prevalent fear. This is critical: Their Bond films change to reflect the world they are going to be viewed in. It was a strategy first started by Albert Broccoli: When Star Wars turned space into a trend, 007 also reached for the stars in 1979’s Moonraker. And as Dr. Jaap Verheul, editor of The Cultural Life of James Bond, has said, “Each time a new actor becomes Bond, the series takes the opportunity to recalibrate itself to the ideology of the audience it’s trying to talk to.”
Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli did just that after brutally dismissing my mum’s crush, Pierce Brosnan. In 1997, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery rather wonderfully satirized the movies, making things groovier, but much harder for Brosnan’s rather tongue-in-cheek style to continue working. Then 9/11 happened, and the Broccolis felt the world needed a rougher, darker, Bond: A thug with hidden complexities. Brosnan had to go. They wanted Daniel Craig. With this reinvention, some of the more unpalatable elements of Bond were also tackled — for example, in Casino Royale, Bond’s drinking is portrayed for the first time as a coping mechanism for his internalized guilt.
During this dive into the world of 007, I discovered that one of my favorite writers, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the star of Fleabag, had worked on the script of No Time to Die. She has said of Craig’s portrayal of Bond that he “let us in a bit, which makes the moments he shuts us out even more arresting … Overall he grounded a fantasy character in real emotion, which is what I think we hadn’t realized we’d missed amongst the action and the bravado.” So basically, with Daniel Craig, Bond isn’t all about the arse-slapping. In fact, this Bond actually falls in love, actually cries. What I didn’t realize at first, as I sat in the cinema somewhat confused having missed the preceding film, Spectre, is that the Craig films also follow on from each other in a series — so for the first time Bond even ages as well. But even as James Bond gets older, he is still never diluted — the Broccolis don’t allow any spin-off shows where M is venturing out to run a start-up spy business. It’s always all about 007.
These producers are smart. They know how to handle their baby. No Time To Die is Craig’s last film as 007, and the rumor mill of who will be next has started, with some speculation that it could even be a woman next time round. I don’t think it will be. The Broccolis have a good thing going. Bond is invariably going to be a white guy — there was enough backlash when he went blonde — but they will make sure to always keep shifting him just enough to make sure he is palatable to the audience, whatever decade we are in. And with the next generation of Broccolis already in the business, I suspect there will be many more.
During my research for this post, I came across three particular long-form articles that I enjoyed — so if you feel you would like to dwell a little longer in 007’s company, keep on reading.
What the Future of Bond Movies Could Look Like (Al Horner, BBC, September 2021)
“The world has moved on, Commander Bond. So stay in your lane. Or I will put a bullet in your knee.” — Nomi, No Time To Die.
This article is a fascinating look into how Bond has changed over the eras.
Heart of An Assassin: How Daniel Craig Changed James Bond Forever (Sam Knight, GQ, March 2020)
A thoughtful insight into the franchise through the eyes of Daniel Craig.
The Broken Pop of James Bond Songs (Adrian Daub & Charles Kronengold, Longreads, October 2015)
A look at the messy and glorious world of the Bond Pop song.