Written by: Jord Schaap
“It’s lost its chill”
What's wrong with the 21st century Bond
The scent of smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.
James Bond suddenly knew he was tired. He shifted himself unobtrusively away from the roulette he had been playing and went to stand for moment at the brass rail which surrounded breast-high the top table in the salle privée.”
It was this setting where mankind met with James Bond for the first time. The quotation is the opening of Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, published 49 years ago. It’s the story Ian Fleming decided to wrote after he married, and after he found in the author’s name of a book called The Birds of the West Indies – written by ornithologist James Bond – a name that sounded “exactly flat and colourless enough” to serve for his literary hero-to-be.
Time for a little test. When reading the fragment, which picture rose in your head when you encountered the words “James” and “Bond”? The picture of Roger Moore? The face of Pierce Brosnan? Or even a vague, distant shape, turning out to be George Lazenby?
Let me predict the outcome: I’ll bet that the majority of you were thinking of Sean Connery. Or were thinking of nobody at all.
Because during the 40 years that the Bond franchise is running right now, there was only one film sequence that knew to catch that tense, sensitizing atmosphere that Fleming recalled in Casino Royale. It’s the famous Dr. No sequence wherein we see Sean Connery in a smoky casino, lazily introducing himself after lighting a cigarette, with that unique arrogant and somewhat tired expression on his face. This sequence breathes Fleming all over; the appeal to the senses, the tiredness, the boredom of Bond, not being on active service. We can almost smell the sweat, the greed, and the fear.
But nowadays, the name of James Bond isn’t attached with terms like “sweat”, “greed” and “fear” anymore. Let alone that the James Bond of the 21th century would let the “soul-eriosion produced by high gambling” become “unbearable” for him. Nowadays, the cinematic James Bond is – to freely interpret the title of a recent Bruce Willis film – “unbreakable”: No sweat, nausea, or tiredness for the creation of Ian Fleming these days, who doesn’t even smoke anymore, and got his Walther PPK replaced by a gun that would not be unbecoming Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Am I being a cynic? Yes, of course I am, for I believe Pierce Brosnan and the Broccolli family have the best intentions in keeping Fleming’s heritage alive and up-to-date. But their efforts have more to do with shaking off action-filled competitors like Mission: Impossible, breathing in the neck of the Bond series, than with sincerely reviving and renewing the true spirit and meaning of the character presented so thoughtfully in Casino Royale.
I am sure Ian Fleming would have turned around in his grave when he learned that Bond doesn’t smoke anymore and drove a German car for three films. And the fact that the Bond producers consider to make his character “more American” to keep the attention of the American public for the coming years, would surely be nauseating for him.
What’s wrong then with Bond, apart from the fact that he should start smoking again?
It is the fact that every time many Bond fans see the new Bond film, they still walk out of the theatre with a vague nostalgia for the Orient Express, Ursula Andress and the industrial laser of Auric Goldfinger. Why? Because Bond lost it’s chill.
It is a bloody shame that nowadays, Bond fans and film critics have to feel pleased when they learn that James Bond will become physically hurt again for the first time in ages – as he indeed was for five minutes in The World is not Enough, wearing a small sling that even matched his suit. For God’s sake, Bond is a secret agent with a license to kill – sometimes not much more than a executioner on her Majesty’s secret service – not Superman!
In spite of Pierce Brosnan’s praiseworthy efforts to release Bond from the one-dimensional image Roger Moore gave him – an effort which Timothy Dalton took a bit too seriously – the current cinematic Bond lacks the attractiveness the character once had, the attractiveness of the Fleming novels and the early films.
Instead of truly trying to capture the spirit of Fleming, the current Bond films seem to seek their depth in moralistic themes, such as the emotional brother-like relation between Bond and Trevelyan in Goldeneye, the reflection on the dangerous powers of the media in Tomorrow Never Dies, and the presence of a melancholic, vulnerable, almost piteous villainnes in The World is not Enough.
Clearly, the present-day Bond has to set the good example. That this “new moralism” is totally out of perspective, is showed by the fact that Bond suddenly became anti-smoking: since he still shoots people, and hasn’t handed in his license to kill, I’m wondering how the producers want to explain that as a good example.
The Fleming Principle
So what was the attractiveness of James Bond? Kingsley Amis described it very well in The James Bond Dossier:
“Bond is lonely, melancholic, in some way ravaged, of similarly fine but ravaged countenance, dark and brooding in expression, of a cold or cynical veneer, and above all enigmatic, in possession of a sinsiter secret.”
In his review for the New Statesman, Paul Johnson called Fleming’s novels
“the nastiest books I have ever read. All unhealthy, all thorougly English: the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult. But the three ingredients are manufactured and blended with deliberate, professional precision.”
Both Amis and Johnson refer to a paradox that I’d like to call the Fleming Principle; it is the paradox of the good, moral secret agent who has to use filthy methods to fight his enemies. In Bond’s business, it is kill or get killed. So the Bond of Fleming isn’t the western hero we see in the Die Hards and the Lethal Weapons; in the Bond of Fleming we see a man like ourselves, who, longing for adventure, has walked into the trap of her Majesty’s secret service, and never managed to get out. So what does he do? He adopts some characteristics of his opponents. Bond fights the villains using pieces of villainy, but does that with a wink, and above all with style.
The rough with the smooth
Dutch television showed a documentary on the work of CIA in Afghanistan last week. In the documentary, an anonymous CIA-officer said: “If you want to live with the rats, you have to accept the smell from the sewer. If you want to fight the rats, accept that you have to go into the sewer.” Bond couldn’t have said it better. The essence of the charm of Fleming’s and Connery’s Bond was that little coat of political incorrectness. The smoking, the sexism, the roughness, the drinking, the killing. The novels and the early films didn’t deny that the world of Bond, although stylish and smooth, was in the end also the world of the sewer. This is the key to the success of the series: the paradox of Fleming, the rough with the smooth. It made the secret agent real, it gave him character, and through that people could imagine themselves in his situation: the true essence of Bond’s lasting attractiveness.
The opinion of the great group of Bond fans seems to reflect this idea; a recent poll of the American ABC-network showed that the early, ‘real’ and more Fleminguish films with Sean Connery are still the most popular Bond films; Goldfinger came away as most popular Bond film with 27% of the votes, the only double-digit score of the poll. From Russia, with Love followed with 9,4%, The World is Not Enough and Tomorrow Never Dies landed in the rear of the row with respectively 3,3% and a slim 2,8%.
The series almost never refer to Bond’s original cinematic and literary character as a cold, cruel and bitter secret agent anymore. The few references we do see, are vague and unnatural, like Tracy’s grave in “For Your Eyes Only”, and the totally improper use of the term “Goldeneye” as film title. Fleming would have laughed himself to death when he knew that the name of his summer-house was now used for a sophisticated arms system.
For the series’ producers, the question which unorthodox vehicle Bond should drive in the next film seems to be far more important than the question who Bond truly is, and what the consequences are of his profession. Because with every crazy vehicle he rides and every unrealistic gadget he uses, he becomes more remote from the flesh-and-blood character he once was.
Are the Bond producers afraid of travelling after the dramatic events of September 11th? Let them make Casino Royale into a film, and show us that Bond hasn’t lost its chill. A film without location changes, basic, Bond back in the casino where Sean Connery started the series forty years ago. Smoke and tiredness. With a nauseating scent of smoke and sweat. With a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension. With a James Bond who combines the rough and the smooth again, and therefore gets human, a true hero. Then, Bond will truly be back.
Jord Schaap © 2002