You Know His Name: A History of James Bond

Editor’s note: The James Bond series (VINTAGE 007) is running from 27 April – 17 May in New York City at the Film Forum located at 209 W Houston Street, between 6th Avenue & Varick. Check out these classics on the big screen.

When Daniel Craig was announced as the latest actor to portray Agent 007 in October 2005, a handful of Bond fanatics (it’s never been made clear just how many) were outraged. Craig, they insisted, didn’t have the right physical attributes to play Bond. Instead of archetypally “tall, dark, and handsome,” Craig was blonde, craggy-looking, and at 5′ 11″, the shortest actor ever to inherit the mantle of England’s famed superspy.

The controversy might have amused author Ian Fleming, whose own descriptions of Bond were ignored when the film series began in 1962. The novels are remarkably stingy when it comes to details about Bond’s appearance (in sharp contrast to Fleming’s exhaustive descriptions of female beauty), but they let on that he’s merely a better-than-average looking man and nothing more. Bond has a “cruel smile,” a long nose, and a vertical scar on his right cheek. He doesn’t have much charm or wit; he’s just a smug killer, an anonymous “blunt instrument” wielded by the British government. I was almost astonished to read in From Russia with Love a personal file containing Bond’s weight: only 76 kilograms, or about 167 pounds. Far from being a muscular beast, James Bond is practically scrawny.

Ian Fleming

This is less surprising when you realize that Bond was based on Fleming himself, who did intelligence work in the OSS during World War II and wrote the novels first and foremost as wish fulfillment. But the classic Bond movies — celebrated by the Film Forum’s series, VINTAGE 007 (27 April – 17 May) crucially adjusted his image from a elitist spy to a pop culture hero. When Sean Connery was cast in Dr. No, Fleming was mortified, thinking the Scotsman too handsome and too lower class for the suave sophisticate he had in his mind’s eye. “He looks like a lorry driver!” he told the producers. When Dr. No was released, Fleming was as impressed with Connery’s performance as everyone else and changed Bond’s ancestry from British to Scottish in the books as a tribute.

Fleming’s Bond risked all for Queen and country, cultivating Epicurean tastes (a fondness for martinis, for one). He was the perfect hero for Great Britain of the 1950s, still licking its post-war wounds and eager for a champion who defended old-fashioned values like upper-class snobbery. But in order to expand the popularity of the film series, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli infused Bond with Connery’s unfailing charisma and the pop culture of the ’60s. The movies featured outlandish set designs by Ken Adam (like Dr. No’s subterranean lair), and Maurice Binder’s psychedelic credits sequences, which married pop songs with dreamlike, dancing beauties. These might seem ripe for parody today, but in 1962, two decades before MTV, nobody had seen anything like it before. Far from a conservative defender of British ideals, this new Bond as redefined by Connery staked his claim as a part of the swinging ’60s.

While Fleming’s Bond pursued one girl per book (and failed on occasion to win her), Connery’s reflected changing sexual mores. Not only did he bed multiple women in each movie, but even the main Bond girl who melted into his arms in the finale was conveniently gone by the next installment. The Vatican issued a formal statement disapproving of Dr. No‘s immorality, but President Kennedy confessed that reading From Russia With Love was keeping him up late at night.

Almost as shocking as Bond’s unrepentant womanizing was his capacity for violence. In Dr. No, a potential assassin sneaks into Bond’s bedroom, emptying his gun into what he believes is the sleeping secret agent. When Bond emerges from the shadows, he sneers, “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.” He fires a shot at the man’s chest and then a second into his back after he falls. Heroes in the movies were supposed to be morally superior; they weren’t supposed to kill for fun. But Bond wasn’t coy about using his license to kill.

In the ’60s, studios were disastrously out of touch with viewers, and many lavish, star-studded spectacles, such as Camelot or Cleopatra, were huge flops. Unimpressed by mainstream films, audiences were turning to edgier fare like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Though the decade’s Bond movies are rarely credited as being part of this new American cinema, they also challenged audience preconceptions and explicitly commented on changing moralities. Easy Rider‘s heroes indulged in heavy drug use; Bond brought promiscuity into the mainstream.

But, like any iconic figure, James Bond had to keep up with the times or become a relic. Connery tired of the role (rumor has it that the final straw came during a nightmarish publicity tour in Japan for You Only Live Twice when he was repeatedly hounded for interviews in the bathroom), and the producers’ first attempt to secure a replacement — a male model with no acting experience — was rejected by viewers. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Lazenby’s effort to emulate Connery only reminded audiences what they had lost.

The series, never especially concerned with realism, was moving farther and farther away from Fleming’s stylized espionage and towards campy superhero-like spectacles when Roger Moore was cast in 1973’s Live and Let Die. He couldn’t project bloodlust to save his life, and he wasn’t much of an action hero either: at his insistence, his stunt doubles covered for any scenes in which Bond ran at a fast clip. (Indeed, heavy smoking was probably the most dangerous risk taken by Moore’s 007.) Still, he didn’t repeat Lazenby’s mistake of trying to be Connery. Instead, he excelled at the deadpan humor and double entendres that were a requirement of the character. Connery may have defined Bond, but Moore subtly parodied him, winking at the audience over the sheer ridiculousness of a man who repeatedly saved the world with a girl on each arm and a martini in his hand.

The ’70s film industry was also changing. Character-driven art films were on their way out, replaced by high-concept blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. While 1963’s From Russia With Love was content with a few small action scenes (such as a claustrophobic fight scene with Robert Shaw aboard a train), by The Man With the Golden Gun in 1975, the Bond movies were wall-to-wall with sight gags, like the villain’s escape in a flying car and a showdown inside an amusement park-style shooting gallery. Bond wasn’t above jumping on the latest crazes either: after the astonishing success of Star Wars, he went into outer space in Moonraker. For the futuristic finale, Bond led a massive assault on a megalomaniac’s space station, his small army of marine commandos apparently trained to fight in zero gravity.

Moore hung onto the role of James Bond until A View to a Kill (1985), at which point he was nearing 60. He passed the tuxedo along to Timothy Dalton, who reinvented Bond as a daredevil in pursuit of his next adrenaline rush. “The most dangerous Bond ever,” declared the posters for The Living Daylights in 1987. He was playing catch-up to the Reagan era action heroes, those blue-collar, street-smart guys like John McClane of Die Hard and Axel Foley of Beverly Hills Cop. In response, Dalton wore a leather jacket more often than a tuxedo and seemed strangely monogamous, eschewing one-night stands in favor of getting romantically involved with a single Bond girl per movie. Even more shocking, he once ordered a Bud Light instead of his usual martini “shaken not stirred.” (It’s not quite shot-gunning dollar Pabst Blue Ribbons in a dive bar, but it’s still beneath a man of Bond’s class.) But without Fleming’s elegance, Connery’s magnetism or Moore’s sense of humor, Bond was in danger of becoming just another anonymous action hero. When Licence to Kill tanked at the box office in 1989, the spy went on a six-year hiatus as the producers plotted their next move.

By the time Pierce Brosnan was cast as the fifth James Bond in 1995’s Goldeneye, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Cold War was finally over. Although Bond had rarely fought Communists in the film series (the villains of several of the early films were switched from Russians to an apolitical terrorist organization called SPECTRE to avoid controversy), the constant tension between east and west provided the backdrop for most of his adventures. The threat of open war between the two superpowers was often used as a worst case scenario should he fail in his mission.

Brosnan returned Bond to his roots as a cultured superspy after decades of self-parody and reinterpretation, thus rehabilitating the franchise’s popularity. But he was caught between eras, with producers unsure how much realism to inject into his implausible world. His final film, Die Another Day, featured an uneasy mix of current events and unwieldy fantasy elements: a power-mad North Korean despot threatened to use a diamond-encrusted space laser to destroy the minefield that protected South Korea from invasion. Late in the movie, Bond escaped from his lair, a palace constructed out of ice, with the help of a new Aston Martin equipped with a cloaking device.

The sort of mass destruction plotted by fictional criminal masterminds was overshadowed by 9/11. Action heroes, always barometers of cultural anger and fears, were transformed. Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer now fight terrorist cells and double agents by getting their hands dirty, secretly worrying about their own loss of humanity while sacrificing everything to protect governments and agencies that frequently betray them. Being a hero never looked less glamorous. Now it’s a painful, exhausting ordeal with few rewards and no end in sight.

Against this new landscape, the two stewards of the 007 film franchise, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, went back to the beginning, Bond’s first mission as a 00 Agent in Casino Royale (the rights to the novel had been tied up for decades thanks to legal wrangling among various studios). Fifty years after he wrote it, Fleming’s dark tale was unnervingly contemporary, featuring torture, sadistic violence, and heartbreaking betrayal. And the counterintuitive casting of Craig was exactly the shot of adrenaline Bond needed. He matched Connery’s charisma, and even better, he had a murderous glint in his eye that made you take him seriously. The series has finally found a leading man who could thrill audiences and do the emotional heavy lifting required by a more complex story.

Craig begins as the Bond of the novels, again a thuggish “blunt instrument.” His experiences transform him from an antisocial lone wolf into the charming killer we know and love. The film traces his evolution from snobbish grunt to swinging spy, in two hours moving from the repressive ’50s through the liberated ’60s to our own desperate moment, asking why our cinematic heroes endure at all. The new Bond is more than capable of keeping up with the changing times, but he remains as compelling today as he was when Fleming was a young man.