Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Bonds of time

The problem with being on a different schedule than everybody else is that your timing is always wrong. If you work the night shift, you are wide awake when everyone else is asleep. Or asleep when everyone else is awake. If you work weekends, you are ready to go out for a good time on nights when everyone else is turning in early. And, if you have my life, you want to talk about James Bond in February, when everyone else got their fill of the topic back in November.

But that’s all right. It’s not like I’m interested in talking about whether the newest James Bond film is cool or not. (It is, and everyone pretty much knows it.) I’m actually more interested in how, if at all, it has been updated to reflect the world since the Bond movies debuted back in 1962 with Dr. No. (Yes, I know, there were novels even before that and even a television version of Casino Royale but this is, after all, a movie web site. So let’s keep things simple.) Of course, the 007 movies never really reflected any world that actual people live in. Sure, they had a basis in the Cold War intrigue of the post-World War II era, but one was pretty hard-pressed to find any actual politics in what were ostensibly political thrillers. But they did have one aspect that was slightly prescient. Whereas many spy thrillers of the era logically focused on the tensions between the West and the Soviet bloc, in the Bond movies the adversaries were more likely to be nation states versus non-nation-state actors, i.e. private freelance operations (effectively, terrorist organizations) with names like SPECTRE. This is a fact that was noted by The Sunday Times of London in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Of course, the heads of these organizations (typified by recurring Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld) were less like bearded religious fanatics hiding out in caves than like the CEOs of massive corporations. This probably reflected the fear, among people in the entertainment business, of the seemingly unchecked power of large international corporations, which thrived in the post-war era. These organizations never seemed to be motivated by fanatical ideology or religion. The ultimate aim was always power and wealth. In a way, the menace to be fought in the Bond films was always the West’s capitalism, or at least rogue elements within it—as opposed to people trying to tear down the West and its capitalism. If the Bond movies’ portrayal of worldwide threats really did seem prescient, it had less to do with any insight into the nature of political and religious forces awakening in the latter part of the 20th century than with the coincidence that one particular terrorist leader was personally worth billions of dollars and had a penchant for living (literally) underground. Like a lot of popular Hollywood political thriller entertainments of the past few decades, the villains in the Bond films have rarely been identifiable as Arab or Moslem—even if that stereotype was prevalent in other mass media. To the extent that the Bond villains were ethnically identifiable, they always seemed to be European or, sometimes, American.

So, has any of that changed with the latest 007 outing? In a word, no. The first question for the viewer of the movie: just what era are we in anyway? Those forearmed with the information that this was an origin story of sorts for the James Bond character might have thought we would be going back to the 1940s or 1950s. This impression might be immediately reinforced by the opening sequence that is filmed in black and white and takes place behind the (former) Iron Curtain. But wait, an onscreen title informs us that we are in the Czech Republic, which places us, if not in some long ago era when there might have been such a thing before the creation of Czechoslovakia, then firmly in the post-Soviet era. Any possible remaining doubts are erased when Judi Dench’s M grouses about her “blunt instrument” Bond, “In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have the good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.”

The Bond franchise reached a crisis in 1989, and in more ways than one. Roger Moore having become a joke, the Bond role was passed to Timothy Dalton. While a perfectly respectable actor, Dalton didn’t have the charisma we longed for in the character ever since Sean Connery originated it on the big screen. But a more fundamental problem was that, as M finally noted in the latest movie, the Cold War was over. Did James Bond still have any relevance? The Broccoli bunch churned out new movies, with Pierce Brosnan, as if nothing had changed, even up to and including Brosnan’s final outing, a year after 9/11, in Die Another Day. If the Bond films were going to ignore the end of the Cold War, were they also going to decline to acknowledge the post-9/11 era? With the release of Casino Royale, the question was: would the world in the Bond films look any different than it had befoe? Now that we are in the Osama bin Laden era, would the filmmakers go topical and up-to-the-minute with, say, a villain motivated by religious fundamentalism? Not a chance. The main villain in Casino Royale, Le Chiffre (played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen), appears to be European, and his moniker suggests that he is, if not French, then at least a francophone. This may play into neo-conservative stereotypes but few others. Le Chiffre’s associates seem to come from an array of national backgrounds, suggesting that there is not some underlying national purpose to their activities. Rather, they seem to have recruited the best and brightest from around the world, not unlike, say, an international corporation.

Okay, so not much has changed in what passes for political subtext in the Bond films. Depending on your point of view, the Bond movies posit threats to the world that are either 1) totally imaginary and dreamed up for a couple of hours of escapist entertainment or 2) a subversive tract that suggests that real threat to the world actually lies in the West and its rapacious capitalist system. Bolstering the latter view is the fact that Daniel Craig’s British agent is the sort of character who is usually the villain in other spy movies. He is a ruthless professional killer. His only potentially morally redeeming values are 1) the fact that he is doing his killing for queen and country and 2) he lets down his guard and falls in love—once. Wait, no there’s one more thing. Something happens to Bond in this movie that potentially transforms him morally. He becomes a torture victim. Now, I am given to understand that the torture scene was famously in the source novel, so we can reasonably chalk up its inclusion in the movie version to literary fidelity. But was there a conscious effort on the filmmakers’ part to synch with reverberations from the real world? And, if so, which ones? Is it turning the tables on the known abuses at Abu Graib and alleged ones at Guantánamo? Or was the scene informed by videotapes of torture (inevitably ending in murder) of Western victims at the hands of Al Qaeda? Somehow, given the tone of the rest of the movie, I don’t think either possibility entered the minds of the creative team. It all had to do with the Bond mythos and the formation of his character.

No, in all the ways that matter, despite the updates and modern touches, James Bond has stayed still in time. He still operates in a world in which a terrorist financier is dealt with by engaging him in a high-stakes poker game and taunting him by beating him at cards, while making sarcastic remarks, and having a prettier girlfriend. It is a world where geopolitics is played out on the most extreme personal level with male egos at the fore. It is a world where the agents in the field act as virtual rogues, calling their own shots and settling personal vendettas, depending much on their emotional state on a given day—inevitably to the mild disapproval of the formerly fatherly, now motherly, M. And it is a world that is fraught not with monumental clashes of ideologies but with clashes of greedy, megalomaniac men trying to accumulate the biggest bank account.

-S.L., 15 February 2007

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