Written by Jord Schaap
“Kronsteen, are you sure this plan is fool-proof?”
“Yes, it is. Because I’ve anticipated every possible variation of… counter-move.”
From Russia With Love
A few months after Vladek Sheybal – portraying Kronsteen, a character that can be best described as the SPECTRE-version of a creature like Tolkien’s Gollem – spoke these sinister words in the second on-screen adventure of James Bond, Ian Fleming was interviewed by a reporter from the American edition of Playboy. It would be the last interview before his death in 1964.
The Playboy reporter agreed to meet Fleming in his office in London, nearby Fleet Street. Both men had lunch in a restaurant called White Tower, where they prepared the interview, which, held ten days later, laid bare an important essence of Fleming’s authorship. At the end of the interview-transcript, Fleming says the following:
“When I would force myself to write the War and Peace among the thrillers, when I would lock myself up and decide to do that and nothing else, I’d dare to say I would succeed […] But I’m more interested in action than in profound thinking […] I’m too much interested in phenomena at the surface of life, and I am too eager to tell my stories fast. I’m afraid that I don’t have the patience to lose myself into psychological constructions and historical backgrounds. But all in all, I’m very content with my own way of writing.”
Brings this statement final proof for the thesis that Bond is just a superficial action-hero, as perceived by the average picture-goer, and not the literary, melancholic and psychological character most hard-core Bond fans – including me – want him to be? Can we, the fans, finally say that Roger Moore was right after all and that Moonraker indeed was the best Bond picture ever? Of course not. Because these are questions of taste, and we all know that tastes differ.
No, what makes this statement of Ian Fleming so interesting, is that it tells us something about the way we should approach Bond and his adventures, when we want to know more about its true character.
For every Bond connoisseur, trying to “explain” the character and his adventures, struggles with the same Big Question: can Bond be explained at all? Or is Bond just the leading character in a superficial world, a world without false bottoms, a world that – as Fleming stated – is more interested in “action than in profound thinking”? Is Fleming’s work literature with a big L, or just blockbuster-material?
Well, Ian Fleming raises the question but also gives the answer: he tells us that, apart from his interests in action and “phenomena at the surface of life”, he would very well be capable of writing the War and Peace among the thrillers. He just didn’t felt like it – isn’t that the greatest joke in modern literature history?
What Fleming means to say – and what his writing breathes on every page – is that the world of Bond is an interesting, psychological and realistic world, but that this world doesn’t fit the traditional conceptions of profound literature. Fleming isn’t Wilde. Casino Royale not Wuthering Heights. Bond is not Mr. Darcy.
The essence and draught of the world of Bond can be found at the surface of life, not beneath it, as pointed out in earlier instalments of this article series. The backgrounds of James Bond can’t be found in things like past, youth-traumas, education or personal drama. We find his backgrounds in the in the action, as Fleming said. The melancholy, the psychology and the sadness of the character: it can all be found in the momentum, the action of his job as executioner on Her Majesty’s secret service.
Bond has no past. This is best illustrated by the metaphor Fleming repeatedly uses to describe his character throughout the series: as a silhouette, a man without a shadow. A man who comes, brings death notice, and leaves, like an undertaker’s man.
The next thing Fleming does, is to operate this Bond-whithout-a-shadow character as a chess-man, a chess-man in the game of chess you can call the Spy Game, the Cold War, or, more recently, the War on Terror. Fleming said his world was based on surface-based phenomena and real-time action, which implies the logical conclusion that the world of Bond can be compared with a game of chess. And in that world, James Bond takes the position of Saint George, fighting the dragon: Bond is White Knight – see Tomorrow Never Dies – fighting chess-playing masterminds like Kronsteen in From Russia With Love.
Semiotician Umberto Eco was one of the first to recognize that the world of Bond shouldn’t be approached in terms of traditional literature, but rather as a game of movement and momentum, like a game of chess. In his excellent work The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts he analyzed the narrative structure of both the Bond novels and the Bond films into detail.
His conclusion was not only that Bond’s adventures could be translated into a game of move and counter-move (M moves and gives a task to Bond – Villain moves and appears to Bond – Woman moves and shows herself – and so on), but furthermore into a extensive set of binary oppositions, all revolving around three dominating characters: James Bond, the Villain, and the Woman. Thus, Eco designed the following list of polarities, defining the world of Bond, and constituting the facts of Bond:
Bond – Villain
Villain – Woman
Woman – Bond
Leading from these three major binary oppositions, Eco also distinguished many other important polar relationships, all evolving from or revolving around Bond, Villain, and Woman:
Bond – M
Free World – Soviet Union, or more topical:
Free World – Terrorism
Great Britain – Non Anglo-Saxon nations
Duty – Sacrifice
Love – Death
Chance – Planning
Perversion – Innocence
Luxury – Discomfort
Chess and White Chianti
The Facts of Bond will handle “the chess that is Bond” in three separate articles, whereof this White Knight: Part I is the first instalment. Parts II and III will focus on the relationship between White Knight – Bond – and the two other main characters, as distuingished by Umberto Eco: the Villain, and the Woman.
For now, let us continue to explore the character of White Knight itself and its position within the system of move and counter-move by looking at From Russia With Love as an excellent example of this system.
Not only because this film – being true to the original novel of Fleming – is probably the only film wherein the literary Bond practically melts with the cinematic Bond, but also because this film excellently uses the metaphor of chess – beginning with Kronsteen’s principles of move and counter-move – to shape world wherein Bond is moving.
The film immediately introduces the concept of binary oppositions by discerning black and white – the colors of chess – as the ultimate contrast: not only the contrast between good and evil, between Bond and Villain, but also as two non-colors which fall clearly outside the boundaries of the chromatic spectrum. For the viewer, it is clear that in this story a game is played by two opposite parties, a game out of sight, outside the boundaries of daily life and daylight: the game of spying and Cold War.
This concept is introduced but also immediately twisted, so, that several questions are raised: Bond, dressed black, thus villainesque, moves around a labyrinth – a real-life chess-man on a real-life chess-board! – and is haunted by a murderer – blue-eyed, blonde, thus colored Good. Then, Bond gets killed. The Fake Good Guy finishes the Fake Bad Guy. What’s going on here?
Immediately, the mask is taken off of the fake James Bond, and the binary positions are twisted again: the blonde murderer turns out to be the one we have to guard against, and Bond – wearing the black tux – is clearly the one that is threatened.
The first sequence after the opening titles consolidates this introduction of the metaphor of the black-and-white game of chess: the first thing we see is Kronsteen, playing a game of high-level chess against a British champion. Here, the film ends the viewers’ earlier confusion about the setting of black and white and Good and Evil: the polar relationship between the Free World and the Soviet Union and between Great Britian and Non Anglo-Saxon nations is cleverly connected with Black – Evil, and White – Good.
The binary opposition of black and white plays an important role through the rest of the film, and can even be found in the smallest of details; Bond doesn’t unmask Red Grant – the blonde murderer of the teaser sequence – by his dubious credentials, no, he sees that the man orders red Chianti with his fish, instead of white one – which goes by white meat and fish. Again, the motive of black, and in this case, white, is used to say things about who is Good, and who is Bad.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld himself plays with this motive not alone by keeping a white cat as a pet, but also by introducing his Siamese fighting fish as a metaphor for the game of move and counter-move. The motive of the real-life chess-board in the form of a labyrinth is repeated in the sequence wherein Bond and Kerim Bey seek their way through the dark Istanbul catacombs, rowing in a white boat.
Throughout From Russia With Love, White Knight is confronted with the Villain, who is sometimes disguised in white – the character of Red Grant – and is sometimes cclearly colored black – take for instance the character of Colonel Klebb. In between, there is also the Woman – Tatiana Romanowa – that finds herself in the dusk between black and white, as she is a Russian agent, falling in love with Bond.
The film ends with a climactic confirmation of the chess-theme: Bond and Tatiana are chased by – suprise – black boats, manned by SPECTRE-henchmen, all dressed – suprise – black. White Knight and the Woman themselves are trying to escape in a – surprise – white boat.
So, Ian Fleming didn’t write the War and Peace among the thrillers, but he did turn out to play a good game of chess. And while the Bond films may have floated away from his inheritance in many aspects, in one thing the Bond series are still pure Fleming: in the way the films keep on playing with the theme of black and white, move and counter-move.
In two weeks, White Knight: Part II will continue to explore…
Jord Schaap © 2002