*Many, many spoilers alert*
On Wednesday I went to the very swish and very expensive PictureHouse central cinema and watched the new James Bond movie, Spectre. As a side note, the bar staff at PictureHouse didn’t know how to make a Martini, and had to look it up. The end result was predictably unpalatable. Poor effort. Everything else about the cinema is great.
Spectre starts with a terrific action sequence during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico city. Blofeld is re-introduced, along with his fluffy white cat, in a new incarnation. There’s a car chase in Rome, and a winter snow chase, involving vehicles other than the usual skis. There’s both fighting and sex on a train, and an unstoppable henchman.
There was plenty of humour in this movie, and the direction was exciting, but I felt the script was a bit lacking. Monica Belluci made a wonderfully glamorous, dignified and tragic Bond ‘girl’ at age 51. So icily brilliant was she, that I couldn’t help thinking she’d make a terrific Bond villain, and I also expected her to re-appear. It seemed a missed opportunity. The main Bond girl is so poorly characterised that she really could have been anyone at all. Bond gets surprisingly sentimental about her, but for no real reason. I honestly couldn’t have cared less whether she lived or died. Blofeld turns out to have a strong connection to Bond’s past, but this revelation was rather glossed over, instead of being turned to proper effect. Christopher Waltz is not a great Blofeld. When he first appears, hiding in the shadows, whispering instructions to his yes-men, he is terrifically mysterious and menacing. But then we see rather a lot of him, and he appears silly, rather than scary. The reactions of Bond and Blofeld don’t actually seem to fit their past relationship. In fact, the whole thing had an air of the Hollywood bingo school of scriptwriting about it. Some writers seem to think that vaguely alluded to past tragedy = characterisation. It doesn’t. Spectre, then, is long on exciting spectacle but short on emotional engagement. In fact, the only time I was really concerned for a character was when geeky little Q – the adorable Ben Whishaw – is menaced by some tough guys. He was all on is own and really wouldn’t have stood a chance – and who would have fed his two cats if he had died? Spectre is a decent Bond movie and good entertainment, but not nearly as good as Casino Royale or Skyfall.
Bond is one of longest-running franchises in movie history, with 24 films made over 63 years. This presents unique challenges for film makers. Bond is rather like Mills and Boon in that the audience has certain expectations that must be fulfilled – there is a distinct formula for a Bond film – but at the same time, it has to be kept fresh, relevant and surprising, or boredom sets in. Balancing tradition and innovation can be difficult. Umberto Eco sets out the Bond formula in ‘Narrative structures in Flemming’. It’s one of the most simultaneously wonderful and ludicrous literary essays I’ve ever read. I have a masters degree in English literature, so I’ve read a few. Eco breaks down the Bond books into a series of eight possible actions or scenes, and shows how they recur, sometimes in a different order, in each story. He summaries the Bond stories thus:
‘Bond is sent to a given place to avert a ‘science-fiction’ plan by a monstrous individual of uncertain origins and definitely not English who, making use of his organisational or productive activities, not only earns money, but helps the cause of the enemies of the West. In facing this monstrous being, Bond meets a woman who is dominated by him, and frees her from her past, establishing with her an erotic relationship, interrupted by capture by the Villain and by torture. But Bond defeats the Villain, who dies horribly, and rests from his great efforts in the arms of the woman, though he is destined to lose her.’
We might add to Eco’s desription of Flemming’s books a few things that are unique to the films:
There must be a pre-title action sequence, followed by a bombastic theme song accompanied by iconic imagery of dancing girls etc. Bond has to drink a Martini and the phrase ‘Bond, James Bond’ has to be shoe-horned in. There must be a really cool car, a gadget from Q that saves the day, at least two car chases and a selection of exotic locations. Because each movie is always the same, yet always different, they present a fascinating picture of British social history over the past 63 years.
The portrayal of women in Bond films has certainly changed. The early 1960s movies like From Russia with Love, feature beautiful women who appear helpless and feminine, but turn out to be surprisingly smart and capable. They are treated respectfully, and the amount of sex and scantily-clad-ness is quite low. In the 1970s the Bond girl went downhill and practically entered Benny Hill territory. The women are usually underdressed, thick, and useless. They exist to be simultaneously perved over and laughed at. This was obviously a reaction to the feminism of the era: women didn’t need to be portrayed as moronic until they were a threat. The 80s had some amazing Bond girls like Grace Jones: wild, crazy, and spends most of the movie wearing a thong leotard and high-kicking people. The 90s was all girl power and ladism: the women fly fighter planes and fight and shoot people, but everything has a jokey tone.
Then we come to the Daniel Craig era Bonds of the naughties. Vesper Lynd is my favourite Bond girl. Not just because I love the wonderfully goth Eva Green, but because she actually has personality. We can see why Bond falls for her. Their flirting on the train has to be one of cinema history’s greatest flirting scenes, along with Bogart and Baccall in To Have and Have Not. Vesper is an accountant and therefore smart but deeply unused to violence, fighting and killing. She’s horribly traumatised by seeing Bond beat a man to death. That doesn’t make her weak. It’s not a cause for humour. It just makes her more realistic, and deepens their relationship. I love that this Bond girl doesn’t have to be a supergirl to be treated with dignity and respect in the film.
The villains and the threats they represent have also changed, responding to contemporary world events and technology. As Eco points out, the villains are usually ‘foreigners’ of uncertain or mixed racial origins, and frequently disfigured or disabled – there are plenty of facial scars and mechanical arms. Eco suggests Flemming was not an outright racist, but simply a conservative with a black-and-white view of things, cynically creating stories to appeal to the instinctive fear of the ‘Other’ that most people have. In other words, he was happy to exploit racism to make a buck. The early Bond movie villains – Dr No, Goldfinger, Blofeld – are loosely connected with the USSR but are primarily out for personal profit. The agents of destruction are nuclear missiles, germ warfare, submarines, space rockets, diamonds, microchips, and heroin. In the 1990s the baddies are associated with China or Korea – though still really after the cash – and their evil technologies of choice are satellites causing financial breakdown (Goldeneye), oil, and a solar powered laser-thingy (Die Another Day). In the naughties Bond movies the motivation is simply money (Casino Royale), and thereafter personal vendettas against Bond, M, or MI5, through the mediums of surveillance, hacking, and causing an artificial drought in Bolivia. That one comes from Quantum of Solace – a really terrible movie, and painfully obvious that it was cobbled together in the midst of a screenwriters strike!
Like Die Hard the Bond movies give us terrifying villains, who appear ideologically driven but in fact only want exactly what we all all want – to be rich. They would be impossible to defeat, and far more scary, if they were genuinely after communism, an Islamic state, or a more eco-friendly world. This way the threat is moved away from any uncomfortable or nuanced political discussions – Bond is just a game of cops of robbers. A simple tale of good versus evil. This is an essential feature of the Bond films – it really wouldn’t be a Bond film if at any point we felt ‘well, that Blofeld may have a point actually…’.
In the 90s Pierce Brosnan made a great Bond. Those movies were charming, totally tongue-in-cheek and completely ironic. They are fun, silly, and impossible to take seriously. Which was the point. But after a long break, it was obvious Bond could no longer be re-booted like that. Audiences had changed, and values had changed, and Bond had to change too.
Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale was a triumphant comeback for the naughties. Bond is wounded, haunted, emotional and fallible – he’s actually human after all! The Bond girls are clearly traumatised victims of circumstances. They may be beautiful and scantily clad, but their fate is horribly clear, and no-one would want to be one. Bond’s callous disregard of the women is no longer something to aspire to. At best, his attitude to women shows that hardening yourself against collateral damage is part of the job. At worst we feel that Bond is a bit of a psychopath. The job itself – killing people for money – seems grotesque and thuggish, rather than sophisticated. There’s still glamour to Bond, but audiences can no longer buy into Flemming’s black and white view of the world. We are morally compromised, as is Bond, and it’s impossible to view his antics without ambiguity. That makes it harder to write a simple moral fable, and may explain why the villains all have ties to Bond’s past, or turn out to be one of us. People are less worried about ‘foreigners’ stealing all our money, and more worried that their own governments are siphoning off our cash to prop up the bankers. No amount of vodka martinis can help us there.
Craig is signed up for one more Bond movie. He’s said he doesn’t want to do it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes back for one more outing – a re-make of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by the looks of things. There’s plenty of controversy about who might take over. Will there be a black Bond or a female Bond? that would shake things up a bit! One thing’s for sure – I’m really looking forward to seeing how Bond develops in the future, and it’s one franchise I hope will run and run. Imagine sitting down to watch a Bond movie in 2062 – 100 years of Bond! Then we can all say – and I know you’ll want to – ‘We’ve been expecting you, Mr Bond. What took you so long?’