School children are touring the throne room of Buckingham Palace when a taxi enters its enclosure. The youngsters watch as a tuxedoed James Bond (Daniel Craig) steps from the cab. He confidently passes through palace corridors until an attendant, in medals and tails, ushers him into the queen’s chambers. Her Majesty continues to work for a moment.
“Good evening, Mr. Bond.”
“Good evening, Ma’am.”
Moments later, the Queen and Mr. Bond board a sleek helicopter, much more worthy of 007 than a London taxi, and after flying through—not above—Tower Bridge, the aircraft hovers over Olympic Stadium. As the familiar guitar chords of the Bond theme ring out, James and his royal companion (or, at the very least, their stunt doubles) parachute into the crowd, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland takes her place in the long, long line of Bond girls.
This scene is not one from an official Bond film, but from the opening ceremony of this year’s Olympic Games in London. Danny Boyle, the film director who masterminded the opening ceremony, wanted to celebrate all that the world considers quintessentially British. Like Bond aiming his Beretta from some incredibly difficult posture or position, Boyle couldn’t have been more on target.
This year marks 60 “happy and glorious” years upon the throne for the queen and 50 years of service by Bond “for queen and country.” And while it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the queen’s role, five actors have preceded Craig in the role of Bond: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.
Preceding all of them, of course, was Ian Fleming, creator of the world’s greatest spy, and, like his creation, a most established Brit. Fleming’s father was a member of Parliament and a close associate of Winston Churchill. Fleming attended Eton, where he excelled athletically. Next came Sandhurst, Britain’s Royal Military Academy. During the Second World War, Lt. Cmdr. Fleming served as personal assistant to the director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey. He accompanied commandoes who pricked Hitler’s Fortress Europa, raiding the port of Dieppe. As a novelist, Fleming hosted the likes of Noël Coward and Prime Minister Anthony Eden at his Jamaican winter home, Golden Eye. And it was he who invented the now classic Bond martini—shaken, not stirred.
Unfortunately, Bond has also inherited his creator’s misogyny. In a conversation with a friend, Fleming once compared women to pets or dogs, and Bond does not hold back either. In Casino Royale, the first of the Fleming novels, when Bond is told that he will be assisted by a woman, he sighs and thinks to himself, “Women are for recreation. On a job, they get in the way and fog things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carry around. One has to look out for them and take care of them.”
Fortunately, the distance between the 1953 novel and its 2006 movie adaptation left room for women to progress in Bond’s world. In the movie, Judi Dench plays the head spy-master, M. In both the novel and the movie, Bond falls hard for Vesper Lynd, his female partner. In both she is still attached to a previous lover and her involvement with nefarious powers leads to her death. In the film world, James is still mourning Lynd when “Quantum of Solace,” the sequel to “Casino Royale,” opens. But in the novel her death elicits from Bond only the chilling line,“The bitch is dead now.”
Although the movies of the Bond franchise improve on Fleming’s view of women, they never fully expunge the misogyny. In “Dr. No,” a waitress is caught eavesdropping, and a goon asks James, “Shall I break her arm?” Sean Connery’s Bond laconically responds, “Maybe later.” The violence toward women in the Bond storylines perhaps reflects Fleming’s own interest in sadism. It is difficult to find a Bond film in which a woman is not physically assaulted. In “From Russia With Love” (1963), Bond slaps his lover on the hand and asks if she finds his technique too violent. The movie includes two wrestling gypsy girls, intent on fighting to the death over a man.
Fleming once summed up his Bond novels as “straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety”— male adolescent fiction. Neither the end of the cold war nor the rapid pace of globalization has frayed demand for such fare. Cars and high speed chases still stand in for male potency, and British scientists continue to equip Bond with exotic gadgets, though, in a few of the most recent movies, James seems to rely on nothing so much as a cell phone with extraordinarily fine apps.
Bond is presented as the epitome of masculinity, an aspiration apparent in the opening sequence of the first movie, “Dr. No.” A camera lens focuses upon a man, strolling in a fedora. The figure suddenly pivots to fire a pistol. The message, still repeated in the newest iterations, is clear: this seeming everyman—suave and debonair, intensely athletic, irresistible to women and morally muted—could be you.
Born in and of the cold war, the Bond character continues to protect the world from those who have no moral scruples, even as he himself is never weighed down by them. What Bond admires about the Russians is that they “have no stupid prejudices about murder.” In his current incarnation, Daniel Craig, who is “licensed to kill,” has never been more blue-eyed or cold-blooded. Judi Dench’s M truculently tells Bond in “Quantum of Silence,” “If you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be deeply appreciated.”
He answers, “I’ll do my best.”
She retorts, “I’ve heard that before.”
Of course, as champion of the West, Bond kills with reason. He neither enjoys nor deplores the violence. He is a flesh-and-blood version of the drones still flying over Pakistan, an impassive predator, appointed to do what we would rather not admit is done in our name.
Over the past 50 years, Bond’s struggles and enemies have echoed the concerns of the times. In 1962 the eponymous Dr. No tried to divert American satellites launched from Cape Canaveral. In 1979 Hugo Drax stole the American space shuttle, “Moonraker.” In 2002 the villain of “Die Another Day” was a North Korean terrorist. Behind the evil masterminds are secretive cabals, armed with seemingly endless resources—a model of attack all too real to us today. In “Skyfall,” the most recent film (see pg. 29), Bond’s opponent takes technology to another level, employing a cyber attack on an unsuspecting MI6.
At his core, Bond is—must be—British. Fleming’s Casino Royale was first filmed as an American-made TV special in the 1950s. In it, Bond was an American spy. It didn’t take. American action heroes are not known for being suave and sophisticated. Our on-screen espionage is either handled by gamins like Tom Cruise and Matt Damon, or we turn to the testosterone-pumped: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis or Chuck Norris. None of them know their way around martinis or mating. But somehow, as a Brit, Bond convinces us of his cool. As long as the world is a dangerous place, he can be counted on to remain in service. And with any luck, given the caliber of the women with whom he now consorts—Her Majesty the Queen and Dame Judi Dench among them—unlike Peter Pan, that other British export, he may yet grow up.