by Paul Deines
Everybody, shut up! James Bond is coming back this November!
The Bond pictures have run the gamut from Swinging London camp to Lethal Weapon gritty to post-Matrix nonsense. The narrative timeline of James Bond makes almost no sense, though fans have posited possible explanations for the scores of anachronisms and resets in the films. Nothing works perfectly, but we soldier on.
Though we don’t know how good this 24th entry will be, it will have genuine significance. See, in the last several decades, the writers, directors and producers of these films have been stymied by a real-world legal tussle stemming from one authorial misstep. Ian Fleming, author of the postwar source novels, had many flaws – alcoholism, racism, homophobia, misogyny, a Kiplingesque sense of British entitlement – but the one that haunted his legacy the longest was a single act of intellectual theft.
In 1959 – three years before the first official Bond film – Fleming decided to write his own 007 screenplay and enlisted to help of writer Kevin McClory. It was McClory’s idea to create a diabolical international syndicate called SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) and place at its head Bond’s great nemesis: the saturnine genius Ernst Stavro Blofeld. While McClory worked on this script, Fleming published the same story as the novel Thunderball, failing to credit his ostensible partner. McClory filed suit and eventually won the exclusive copyrights to Thunderball, SPECTRE and Blofeld.
When producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltsman engaged Ian Fleming to adapt the 007 novels for the screen, they incorporated SPECTRE but stopped short of outright infringement. In 1965, they set their sights on adapting Thunderball. After bandying with McClory, the producers settled on a ten-year license of his copyrights, which cleared the way for Thunderball and the three celluloid portrayals of Blofeld (most memorably by Donald Pleasance, but later by Telly Savalas and Charles Gray).
After the copyrights reverted back, though, McClory began a decades-long campaign to produce his own rival series of James Bond films. Sony became interested, and in 1983 they successfully released the Never Say Never Again, an unofficial Thunderball remake starring a past-his-sell-by-date Sean Connery. It was moderately successful but failed to launch a pretender franchise.
Kevin McClory died in 2006, and in 2013 his family announced that for the first time in almost forty years, they would allow MGM to use SPECTRE in future Bond projects:
So, in preparation for this exciting new film, I’ll be posting a series of articles discussing some of the lesser known gems in the 007 franchise.
As a companion, too, I want to recommend the fantastic podcast James Bonding with comedians/actors Matt Gourley and Matthew Myra. It is a great, in depth, exploration of each of the movies (as of today, they have two more to go, not counting Spectre). The hosts are animates, goofy, and they truly love the series. But they don’t praise it intemperately, and listening to this podcast has evoked a few realizations in mind:
1. The Bond films hold a disproportionate emotional poignancy for a particular kind of man. I watched every one of the Bond films, through License to Kill, off taped-from-TV cassettes with my father. These films with him is in the same memory bank as fishing at Kentucky Lake on Sunday mornings or scarfing hot dogs at U of L basketball games. At the risk of over-praising a male-dominated familial tradition - something I'll risk a lot in this series - there’s something formative for a boy who first experiences these movies with his father. They are unmistakably masculine, adult and almost liturgical in their recurring formula. For a certain type of man – myself included – this series is an inheritance.
2. No series has the same staying power to endure extreme and sustained periods of awfulness. There are, at present, 23 official James Bond films. Six actors have played the role, as many as have played Batman (if you include Adam West’s one cinematic outing and the forthcoming Ben Affleck … um, effort). If we follow the Batman comparison, the Roger Moore era of 007 is the equivalent of five Batman and Robins in a row, interrupted by two Batman Forevers. Here’s a test: watch From Russia with Love and Skyfall back-to-back and write down your feelings about James Bond. Then watch Moonraker and A View to a Kill and see how your opinion changes. When a Bond movie is bad, it is tragic. Yet, the studios keep shelling out money. No matter how many bumbling Louisiana sheriffs, Tarzan howls or extraneous moon machines are involved, the movie-going public seems to forgive. I forgive, but I struggle to explain why.
3. The James Bond oeuvre has always thrived on its unsavory qualities. Remember how Mad Men, in its first few seasons, inspired all those idiotic think pieces about how America was nostalgic for the un-PC-ness of the early 1960s? Of course that wasn’t true, because the public is discerning enough to register that Don Draper’s existence was vacuous and doomed. Well, that’s not true of 007. Especially in the first ten pictures, the series is replete with unvarnished misogyny and xenophobia, both historically pointed and outright unhinged (what in god’s name is a Mexican screw-off?). Bond embodies our ideal notion of the clandestine service. He’s utterly ruthless, of course (audiences were shocked when Sean Connery gunned down an unarmed traitor in Dr. No) but he’s also a bon vivant, wining and dining and boning his way through the Cold War. We envy him not only his coolness, competency and finesse. We envy that he never has to apologize.
4. The Bond series somehow makes consumerism feel elegant. Sony, Omega, Lincoln, Tom Ford, and on and on and on. The luxury goods connected with James Bond are as much a part of these films as any actor or plot. Consider how the new Aston Martin DB10 was unveiled in the Spectre press event: this car is a performer as important as Monica Bellucci or Dave Bautista. Products have always been a part of this series. In the Live and Let Die, Bond’s digital watch and espresso machine are doted on like gadgets from Q branch. All well and good, because the Bond film itself has become a luxury good, a rung or two above your normal action faire. Its stock is just a bit dearer than the rest.
5. In the end, we love the James Bond films not in spite of but because of their flaws. The two best episodes of James Bonding are ones that contend directly with the failings of the series. One is the Die Another Day entry, which focuses on the least charming movie, one that combines the excesses of early-CGI action films with the laziest impulses of the franchise. This episode resembles Mystery Science Theater 3000, as Myra and Gourley puzzle through such dubious plot points as parasailing away from a space laser and race reassignment surgery. It revels in the completely misguided exercise that somehow thought it would spawn a spinoff franchise. The other must-listen episode is Goldfinger. Myra and Gourley bring in Allie and Georgia to discuss what many consider the best Bond picture. But these women are not sold, having no reserve of good-will for the series. Bond’s retrograde attitudes toward women and minorities, his conspicuous consumption and penchant for blasé cruelties – these repulsed the Bonding guests. And they aren’t wrong. The James Bond film is a celebration of chauvinism, violence and political adventurism. Yet each entry expects the audience to treat it with outright reverence. Yet even as I write those words, I still want to tender 007 that reverence. His adventures shaped me, and perhaps not always rightly. But he is my inheritance, and I’ll keep returning.