27 August 2021 2197 Views

#FLEMINGFRIDAY: Can James Bond ‘do’ reality?

by James Murphy

As in: can you send 007 into actual, real, current affairs based, situations? 


Is he best kept as pure escapism? 

Or is there a ‘third way’ (literally)?

I cannot pretend to evade or avoid the news. None of us can. The shocking events unfolding in Afghanistan should give every observer pause for thought, fear and prayer.

As a civilian? I can only sit back and speculate as to outcomes. But when I say ‘thoughts and prayers’ I mean exactly that. They are earnest, considered, deeply felt.

Braver, Bolder, Better men (and women) than I/me have been and continue to be deployed across war zones, worldwide. I have the honour of calling some my friends and relatives. And whilst I cannot match their heroic efforts on the civilised world’s behalf? I can seek some relevance in territories I do understand.

What can I add that is not being said, already? Not much. 

Trump was up for leaving Afghanistan. ‘We are here to KILL TERRORISTS not nation build’. Fine. Except that Donald was prone to a volte face, too. Notice that he took an initially isolationist stance when presented with the Syria issue.

Then Assad used chemical weapons. Kids in line of fire. Trump, (for all his adolescent flaws and insane twitter-rhetoric), did not hesitate to retaliate with a cruise missile. So, had he seen the current situation, I suspect, were he still POTUS, that the Donald might have reversed any notion of negotiations or full pull out. Just MIGHT.

Biden reversed a number of Trump’s decisions and used Exec orders every time. It was within Joe’s power to prevent this mess and his USP of being kind/warm wanes somewhat when he is so determined to retain an ill advised policy.

Too late now, anyway. The Jihadi Genie is out of its bottle. Our enemies are emboldened. China, Russia, North Korea, Iran: all laughing. And every iteration of Islamic fundamentalism now awakened and mobile.

Joe: You cannot talk John Wayne tough stuff and then give them all a hug and a cuppa tea in the same speech. Much like movies: mix genres, ok. But tone must be clear and concerted and unwavering.

And Boris Johnson: If you all but declare an end to the ‘special relationship’ then do not be surprised when there’s a deficit in collaboration. Just make sure our troops have all the gear they need, please. They are heroes, every bit as much as the NHS personnel who valiantly saw us through Covid 19. The PM has a strategic duty to protect the interests of those he deploys to the field. And if you do have notions of being another Churchill, Boris? Now’s the time to test and prove your worth as a champion of the defence forces. 


That’s all I can add. Which brings me back to film.

Hence, James Bond. Much like Jack Ryan, he’s a gateway character to geopolitical interest. Chances are, if you love (and I mean LOVE rather than simply appreciate) cold war / analytical / defence policy based thrillers? Then your knowledge expands as your curiosities extend to real world counterparts beyond the movies. Film is a a kind of unofficial propaganda tool / branch of strategic importance in cultural commentary. 007 plays a vital role in that dynamic.

The Bond books and movies are not meant as political lectures. They are escapist adventure thrillers; romantic, colonial idealism via pulse racing international pulp to appeal to the adolescent in us all. Indeed, one could make a case that Fleming simply took Bulldog Drummond and gave him a 00 number? That’s another thesis, though.

The point is that no Bond novel should be read as a directly didactic diatribe on Communism or any other -ism. The geopolitical background is there to advance an adventure plot, rather than vice versa. Yes, you get some exposition regarding SMERSH/SPECTRE/whoever. And office politics to match. That’s because it’s a SPY genre piece. Not morality play. Fleming and indeed most continuation authors adhere to that formula.

Bond movies take a similar approach. They have never been about divisive politics or any grim examination of real world issues. From Russia with Love happened to coincide with the Cold War at its height. President Kennedy loved the novel, too. And the movie was released in 1963, sadly, the year JFK was killed.

But neither book nor film are fixated on Russians as baddies. Red Grant is a renegade escapee from a British prison, as I recall? It’s all a Hitchcockian race to the finish to secure a decoder device. If anything, that’s the stuff of boys’ own ww2 /Biggles adventures, updated for a 50s/60s idiom.

That same ethos of transferring (c)old wars to new has helped Bond survive as a franchise. If you set them in the present then you must at least cite, in passing, the context they reflect, culturally. Hence, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service mentions foot and mouth outbreaks; The Man with the Golden Gun references the energy crisis and so on.

That trend expanded as our defence and foreign policies changed. The later Roger Moore Bonds see him in actual conflict rather than friendly competition with Russian counterparts. For Your Eyes Only is particularly brutal and brilliant in that regard, although even there, a last moment of hopeful reconciliation is retained.

Timothy Dalton is of course, labelled the ‘gritty’ Bond; the ‘realistic’ one; and so on. Truth is his movies are as exaggerated and camp as anything in the previous or subsequent iterations. He might not go into space or drive invisible cars. But his adventures remain ultimately heightened reality: escapist entertainments.

Yes, the action is more violent, visceral and urgent. Ok: the politics are a little more credible as premise to the action. But the sense of fun is still there and anything en route is a means toward that end.

Dalton’s Bond does indeed team up with a proto Taliban to evade a Russian baddie. They also make it VERY clear that his choice of ally is a civilised sort, who does not condone extremism or running opium. The whole affair is about preventing a renegade General selling drugs for arms.

The balance of tones and clarity of character definition as well as epic scale in action is a credit to Director, John Glen and to Timothy as Bond. 

The Brosnan era is something of a curiosity in that it coincided with relative peace and prosperity on the geopolitical stage. This was post Cold War and pre 9/11, for the most part. So the trick was to somehow anticipate threats and exaggerate their impact for the purposes of the fantasy.

At the same time, Britain was indeed proactive in defence and foreign policy while Pierce was 007. So it feels both ‘real’ and ‘reel’ when the character was deployed to save the day: the James Bond /St George slaying a dragon of terror or corporate monopoly or international crime.

The power of media, reliance on oil and even danger of emboldened China/ North Korea all get a look in during Pierce’s tenure, without ever losing the fairy tale comic book glossy fun and charm amidst the context of grit, ahead of its time.

No accident then, that the Royal Navy pushed a wonderful recruitment drive which coincided with Tomorrow Never Dies. Bond was and is their best poster boy to the civilian seeking adventure via patriotic, gainful trade in HM Forces.

DANIEL CRAIG was launched as the Bond series’ answer to a less flippant, ‘war on terror’ world. But his 007 rarely, if ever, fights a specific terror threat or nation state, even via expository chat or pre title adventure. It is once again, a fictionalised and corporatised menace being faced with ‘terror’ sometimes mentioned as backdrop.

In that sense, very true to the spirit of Ian Fleming, who sought ways to find an enemy somehow personifying crime and espionage without having to explicitly have Bond v Mafia / a n other group.

The drawback to that asset in Bond films today is in the liability of tonal shift. QUANTUM became SPECTRE and with that, the realism disappeared somewhat, as did any distinct sense of stakes or genre signature.

NO TIME TO DIE offers a chance to even that out a bit, with a possibly save the world style, old school Bond plot, but rooted in the aesthetic and pace of the initial Craig outings.

SKYFALL had the balance right, too. There was a nod to Assange and Snowden et al but a relatively timeless and bloodless, 50th anniversary Bond film with the patriotic heart of Jubilee, Olympic Britain at its cultural 2012 core.

As to the next version of Bond, onscreen? There is talk of Henry Cavill. Makes sense, given Henry does an admirable job in promoting armed service charities and is related to a number of top army officers. He also looks the part and could credibly be the Brosnan Junior here, thereby even inviting, perhaps, a 007 version of the DC/Marvel trend of recalling the founding actors of still current film series.

Think period piece. Fun. Escapist. Glossy. Young Cavill Bond, with elder Brosnan at start and end? Patriotic and relevant but neither dependent on nor focused solely on whichever geopolitical threats and opportunities present themselves. Just a thought. 😉

Fairy tales for grown ups. Helping us both escape from and face the reality beyond the film. THAT’S James Bond’s invaluable, ongoing contribution in an uncertain world. Forever. 







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