I was sitting at my desk, immersed in the role of the Calvinist church in Dutch history, the steady single flame of my concentration holding impressively steady, when it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t seen From Russia With Love for a few months.
I hopped up from the chair to fix this.
The main credits sequence, with its famous theme music booming around the house, alerted both sons from their different rooms, and we were all happily in position well before our favourite line, when the Spectre trainer speaks fondly of the killer, Grant: “Homicidal paranoiac – superb material.”
I think that a convincing case can now be made for James Bond having become a religion. You would have to be retired to remember a world without Bond films, and very long retired to remember a world without the books. When the new film, Spectre, opens later this month, millions of people (mostly men) all over the world will almost without thinking drift into cinemas to see the same kind of sequence of explosions, drinks, exotic locations, glamorous dresses and cars that their fathers and their fathers’ fathers experienced in an event on a scale, if not a level of profundity, that can only be compared to the Kumbh Mela.
There is almost no aspect of this religious formula that has changed since the 1960s, beyond perhaps, with Craig, an ignorable attempt to pretend that the immortal Bond has bruised feelings. It is not as though the films are interchangeable – in fact they are fascinatingly varied and different – but the changes are in feather-colouring, not genus. The arc of threat, redemption and reward is unmoving and understood as such by millions of people – because it is not the individual film that matters, but the entire sequence or, in a classic religious paradox, the unending cycle.
The religious links spread in every direction. Most importantly, faith is impervious to failure. Several of the Bond films are dreadful, or have specific scenes that should disqualify them from ever being shown. Everyone will have a different list of these – the boat-chase in Quantum of Solace, everything on the oil-rig in Diamonds Are Forever, almost everything involving Pierce Brosnan. But, just as the obscene, drunken priest waving to his bastard children from the pulpit demeans only himself and not his religion, so a producer’s decision to follow, say, a gigantic African-American henchman in Live and Let Die with an absolutely tiny Franco-Filipino henchman in The Man with the Golden Gun somehow just washes away. Any specific film may fail, but the series carries on regardless.
Why this should be the case is insufficiently thought about. There is no other film series that even comes close to Bond’s longevity. Obvious contenders such as the series begun by Superman, Star Wars, Doctor in the House or Die Hard all foundered. Every studio, every investor would desperately love to have something similar – a film on average every two and a bit years from 1962 to the present, each with staggering profitability, and with a religious pantheon that allows every actor, even the principal, to be replaced at random intervals while generating just as bulky a congregation as ever. If this was a formula that could be copied, then it would be.
Perhaps the best explanation for the phenomenon is that, while the films are sprawling multinational entities, at the heart of all of them has always been the Broccoli family: for many years Albert R “Cubby” Broccoli, and in the 19 years since his death, his daughter Barbara and stepson Michael G Wilson. The nature of their control effectively makes them the unchallengeable keepers of the shrine. They have exclusive access to Ian Fleming’s books, and it remains their right to interpret these texts as they see fit in order to squeeze out further films. Around the Broccolis there have been similarly overlapping generations of specialists – musicians, stuntmen, people who can source massive yachts, script-writers (most importantly the late Richard Maibaum), people who can do excellent explosions – who have worked together on film after film and made enjoyable, well-rewarded lives for themselves. It is hard not to assume that many of them have had fun, sunken bar areas built into their homes. But it is the Broccolis who take all the key decisions and their role as Fleming’s high priests is a fascinating one.
Perhaps the single most important aspect of the films’ longevity has been Fleming’s inheritance. For many years there was always another film to be made using an authentic Fleming book title, however much the plot ignored its source. But even right at the beginning, when Fleming himself was still alive, there was a significant element of interpretation by the Broccolis. So in Dr No (1962), for instance, it was very important to the film’s credibility that it did not feature the climactic fight in the book, which pitted a badly burned and exhausted Bond against a giant squid. Similarly, one of the novel’s wonderful elements is Dr No’s death, as the villain is suffocated under tons of dried bird faeces. In the book this is unimprovable, but as cinema spectacle it would have ensured that the handful in the incredulous audience who had stayed after watching the giant squid fight would have walked out, gagging almost as badly as poor No.
Over many years, the Broccolis sifted through those Fleming stories that broadly worked (From Russia With Love) and those which needed to be put aside. For example, Moonraker, one of the early novels, is a book with many pleasures (not least the immortal scene where Bond and a policewoman are tied together and doused with a steam hose) but which essentially ends up as pulp nonsense about an old Nazi with atomic weapons on the South Downs. It was kept back until there were simply no other novels left to film (1979) and then only the villain’s name made it into the adaptation – but that was enough to suggest spiritual truth. This sense of guarding, managing and eking out the authentic Fleming works has been obsessive – even down to the absolutely meaningless Quantum of Solace (2010), named after a humiliatingly neither-here-nor-there short story in which Bond barely features.
The Broccoli family has suffered moments of despair, when George Lazenby left, for instance (at which time there was serious discussion of making the new Bond American). The eventual arrival of Roger Moore as saviour was not preordained – and then he was clung to for so many years that the last of his films, A View to a Kill (1985), appeared to be a surreal rumpus in an old folks’ home. Enough decades have gone by that the Bond series’s struggle for purity, the wish to wash off illegitimate accretions, can be seen very clearly. After the titanic sets and endless boiler– or ninja-suited extras of You Only Live Twice (1967), we get the blue-grey austerity of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969); after the sprawling absurdity of Moonraker (1979), the somnolent realism of For Your Eyes Only (1981); after the CGI ice palace, invisible car and generalised, seeping sense of shame in Die Another Day (2002) the return to scriptural truth with Casino Royale (2006), and its patently religious need to reconnect with Fleming even down to the fate of Bond’s testicles.
Also comparable to the behaviour of a church has been the Broccolis’ obsession with remaining contemporary without sacrificing core meaning. Sometimes you get the feeling that they are relying on poorly informed younger daughters of cameramen for their tips (A-ha doing the opening song for The Living Daylights) but there is a Lampedusan wish to preserve the past through change, which means that the films have become now a sort of library of the new and the potentially new. You had to be there (as I was, aged 10) for the moment in Live and Let Die when Bond, lying in a darkened room, glances at his watch – and it shows an LCD face! For some, a thrilling harbinger of the future, but for a thousand Swiss watchmakers an ask-not-for-whom-the-alarm-beeps flash of horror. Hovercraft, sideburns, cars manufactured by Sunbeam, safari-jackets, waterbeds filled with tropical fish, jet-packs – these have all come and gone. A fast-forward through Sean Connery’s films alone would encapsulate all male fashion, from the tailored, pantherine figure of the early 60s to the frankly squalid lecher of 1971 in a freakish, short pink tie. Broccoli panic at new movie trends led to low-self-esteem attempts to sway in the direction of Shaft (Live and Let Die), Star Wars (Moonraker) and Die Hard (Licence to Kill). No doubt the Daniel Craig films, which are too close to see in perspective, hold inside them elements that will become embarrassingly characterisitc of their era. The uninvolving scenes of computer hacking may, for instance, provoke laughter in the 2020s.
Sex, as in any religious organisation, has the capacity to tear everything apart. In the books Bond is, in a 1950s way, fairly chaste and in one (Moonraker) manages to sleep with nobody. In the films, there is a more permissive element, but even here the producers panic helplessly about Bond’s “turning” the lesbian Pussy Galore in Goldfinger and somehow they keep intact in You Only Live Twice the appalling scene from the novel where Bond, in order to establish a bizarrely implausible cover, marries a Japanese fisherwoman. Indeed, although everyone will have their own favourites, it could be argued that the marriage scene in You Only Live Twice, otherwise a film that has aged beautifully, is the very worst in the entire canon. One of the many ways in which Timothy Dalton’s films are so unwatchable is the desperate wish by the producers to show how concerned they are about Aids, but without having Dalton actually roguishly snapping and flicking a condom. The wider issue – Dalton was an unlikely person to want to sleep with – got lost in the general panic.
One aspect of the sexism of the films is the male-to-female ratio of killings. For every girl covered in gold paint, eaten by fish, drowned or dipped in oil (the last another Quantum of Solace fiasco), there must be a near infinity of oddly loyal male guards and sidekicks coming to sticky ends. The issues around the films’ cynicism, violence, greed and consumer fetishism rather sweep up sexism as part of the general avalanche. Having said that, Robert Brownjohn’s still-extraordinary opening credits for Goldfinger do feature what always strikes me as one of the most disturbing of all sex-consumer images: where the gold-painted model’s face has a car licence plate substituted for her mouth. If you were looking for a religious idol to encapsulate the postwar west this might be it.
The nature of Bond’s relations with women has changed little over the years, as laughable attempts at sensitivity or female feistiness go all the way back to the 1960s, most nakedly in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) where Tiffany Case’s character in the space of only two hours actually mutates, from hardboiled wisecracking gangster at the beginning to bikini-clad simpleton at the end, as though the sheer pressure of audience expectation simply breaks her down. The character of Sylvia Trench, who features in the first two films, Dr No and From Russia With Love, is meant to be Bond’s regular London girlfriend (a sexual counterpart to Miss Moneypenny). As played by Eunice Gayson, she seems to link Bond to cheap British movies of the 50s, starring such people as Dirk Bogarde and James Robertson Justice, with her heaped-up hair, punting and indoor golf. But the character was then dropped – suddenly she just isn’t there any more, as she passes the baton on to the demented blondes of Goldfinger and the 60s really begin.
Regardless of whether it is a good film or a bad film, the millions flocking to Spectre may have been through any number of disappointing predecessors but, as with bad hymns or a dull sermon, they understand that there are always sturdy fundamentals that link them to earlier generations. My personal links with Bond antedate my actual birth. My mother said that I was born prematurely because of her reaction to the exploding helicopter towards the end of From Russia With Love. So there is one Ealing cinema that always will have a special meaning for me. My mother is now long dead, and the people sitting in that cinema in November 1963, some of whom could have been adults during the Boer war, now seem incredibly remote, and yet they were no less rapt than we are now. I cannot count the number of times since I became a devotee in the early 70s that I have been, like millions of others, let down. I could swear that even at the age of 11 I knew that something had gone really wrong with The Man With the Golden Gun – a film that has now matured rather well thanks to Christopher Lee and the last of the truly great John Barry scores. But we pick ourselves up, brush away the tears and wait patiently for next revivalist meeting, just as so many did before us.
• Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal History of James Bond, first published in 2006, is out in paperback.
This article was written by Simon Winder, for theguardian.com on Saturday 3rd October 2015 08.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010