I have no interest in mathematics except for one equation: 23 films + 6 lead actors divided by 50 years = 1 incredible film franchise. Admittedly, I’m no Pythagoras but I could tell you more about Britain’s favourite secret agent than Blofeld, M, and Miss Moneypenny combined. Certainly the hype surrounding Skyfall’s recent release suggests that Bond is even more popular and relevant now than when he made his debut on the Silver Screen in 1962. Move over Jason Bourne, George Smiley and erm… Johnny English; there’s only one spy worth his licence to kill. His name is Bond, James Bond.
Since Ian Fleming’s hero was created in 1953’s Casino Royale, sales of Vodka Martini, Aston Martins and Tuxedos have surely soared. Yet who would have thought a womanizing thug could be so universally popular? If anything, Bond’s brutality makes him even more alluring. Indeed, the sight of seeing 007 beat a villain to death is ingrained in the national consciousness like Jane Austen or a Shakespearean sonnet. Moreover, the ingenuity of these executions is played out in a macabre glory akin to gladiatorial combat. In From Russia with Love, Bond’s tussle with Grant in a compact train compartment is nothing short of the greatest fight scene in cinema history.
007’s other defining trait is no less disgraceful. For Bond, women are a means to an end. His sexism is so blatant it would make Andy Gray look like Mary Wollstonecraft. However, there is one occasion where a heroine is presented as the serial womanizer’s true equal. Diana Rigg’s portrayal of Tracy Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the most sophisticated of any Bond girl. In stark contrast to the usual brainless beauty, Tracy is an ambiguous, conflicted, and complicated character. The love she and Bond share seems real. As such, it becomes genuinely heartbreaking when tragedy eventually strikes. Lazenby’s last words as Bond, “We have all the time in the world”, cry out with a bittersweet melancholy that has never been replicated by Connery, Craig, Moore or Brosnan. The image of the flawed and arrogant agent, cradling his wife in his arms, remains the only downbeat conclusion to a Bond film.
Although I love the many regular features of the series, it is these anomalies that truly mark James Bond as an iconic and engaging character. For instance, Q’s gadgets are always entertaining but it is often better when a vulnerable Bond is left to fend for himself in tough situations. In Dr No, Bond must escape from the eponymous villain by crawling through a ventilation shaft that plays host to a variety of deadly hazards. His only gadget is the shirt on his back which he wraps around his hands to prevent severe blistering.
Ultimately, the Bond franchise stays relevant because of the constant refreshing of cast, plots, and directing styles rather than high-tech gizmos. His reinvention under different guises usually reflects a change in tone of the stories. Connery was the macho Cold War hero; Moore enjoyed himself as a swashbuckling Lothario, and Dalton was a merciless tool of ‘hard’ diplomacy. Each actor to have stepped into 007’s intimidating shoes has their own merits. Nevertheless, it is a terrible tragedy that a young Michael Caine was never given the role. Alas, I can only dream about what could have been.
Happy birthday Commander. Let’s hope another 50 years brings just as many thrills.