So if MGM were to turn their back on what is arguably the most profitable film franchise in history, which is rather unlikely what with the records being smashed by the day by latest outing Skyfall, then what would James Bond leave behind?
It all begins with creator Ian Fleming’s books, written at a very different time from the touchscreen-enabled, information rich world we live in today. To watch through the Bond flicks in sequence (as, in fact, I have been doing) is something of a lesson in social history, conveying the tone and nuances of each passing decade.
The Sean Connery years begin with Dr. No, and a very literary figure of Bond. The racial undertones of the 60s themselves show through here with the occasional comment such as when Bond says “Fetch my shoes” so local CIA contact, and African American, Quarrel (John Kitzmiller).
By From Russia With Love the themes are far more beneath the surface, but it’s interesting how suddenly aware the series becomes, only to go a completely different direction in a few films time.
Connery is quintessentially British in the role (despite being Scottish) and this sets the blueprint against which all other screen Bonds are tested.It’s unlikely the camp 70s era owned by Roger Moore would have got away with having Bond dress up as a Japanese man, complete with wig and eye prosthetics, in what could be the least convincing disguise of Bond’s career.
Bond is best when hiding in plain sight, and this is where the classic Bonds differ from his latest incarnation, played by Daniel Craig. Though the character always loves to say his signature line, by Craig’s era, the world is small and a simple background check can be done with a handy smartphone.
When the likes of Moore and Connery played the spy game they had the benefit of audience’s willingness to buy in. By the time Bond’s car became invisible in 2002’s Die Another Day, the secret agent bubble burst, and Pierce Brosnan’s Bond was hastily retired.
While the re-boot in 2006 with Casino Royale may have claimed to go back to the source material, the film-makers couldn’t resist the odd one-liner or cheeky moment. Bond is undoubtedly resilient, any character would have to be to last half a century on the big screen, but his character has gained and lost more traits than he’s had vodka Martinis.
At the character’s core is a balance of ruthlessness and love.
For Connery some of his best moments come from the juxtaposition of the two, such as electrocuting a goon with a heat lamp just seconds after being distracted by a woman, finally remarking: “Shocking, positively shocking.”
It’s sometimes a struggle to take Moore seriously (hovercraft gondolas and double-take pigeons don’t help), but look again and you’ll see him almost breaking a woman’s arm for a name, kicking an unarmed man off a cliff in a car and ejecting a supervillain into space.
Timothy Dalton, often overlooked due to his short stretch (though not as much as Lazenby, who fails to make any impression), represents the first attempt at taking Bond to the gritty edge, as he sees long-term ally Felix Lighter killed by a shark. By the end of the film his love for the only friend who truly understands him, leads him to possibly the most ruthless murder of a Bond villain – lighting petrol-soaked Franz Sanchez (Robert Duval) on fire with Felix’s wedding gift, a lighter.
For Brosnan his most personal story is also his first, pitted against the sublime Sean Bean as former double ‘O’ Alec Trevalyan. This hits home as he lets him fall to his death not because it’s his job, but for revenge.
In this way, Craig has hit the mark in all three of his films so far, with a strong connection to first Vespa and then M (Judy Dench), interspersed with less casual violence, more determined eliminations than random killings.
For Bond to continue to be relevant for the next 50 years, there will – no doubt – need to be changes, but the base set up at the end of Skyfall sets the scene with the best of both worlds, the romantic past and the realistic present, all Bond needs now is an adversary who has a very real chance of taking him down.
James Michael Parry