Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A Relic of the Cold War: Why Is Bond Still Popular?

When it comes out on Friday, Skyfall will be the twenty-third official entry into the James Bond series, the most successful and longest running film franchise of all time. Although the previous film, Quantum of Solace, was met with mixed reviews, popular affection for the series remains at an all time high. But, after fifty years of being on screen, what is it about Bond that makes the character, and the series, so enduring? Sure, there are the gadgets, the beautiful women and the wish fulfilment, and those are great for the mid-life crisis demographic, but there surely must be more to the success of a franchise that has endured for fifty years. Moreover, I'm curious as to why audiences have consistently tolerated a series that is often defined by outrageous and dated sexism, terrible puns and atrocious acting.

Indeed, many of the films throughout the series are notoriously risible: A View To A Kill, for example, features a 57 year-old Roger Moore performing such feats of derring do as slowly climbing down a ladder, riding around on obviously fake horses, and spending an evening with Grace Jones. Die Another Day, the final film starring Pierce Brosnan, is a smug, effects-laden shambles with all the charm and sophistication of a fourteen year-old boy screeching about his antics with alcopops and late night soft porn. Die Another Day seemingly buried the franchise for good until it was completely rebooted and rebourne (see what I did there), with Casino Royale. But even the more celebrated entries - Live and Let Die, for example, is teeming with truly offensive and, even for 1971, dated racial stereotypes - are often pretty ropey. The quintessential Bond flick, Goldfinger, features a bizarre plot involving irradiating US gold, a henchman with a deadly bowler hat, and a climax involving a squadron of impossibly sexy pilots. Don't get me wrong (racial and sexist attitudes notwithstanding), I love Goldfinger and I like Live and Let Die, but the point I'm making is that the Bond films - even the Craig ones - are daft, frequently offensive, and often feature plots that are incoherent to the point of shoddiness. Audiences know this - Bond has been lampooned countless times, and most people can cite at least one stupid line or scenario from the series - and yet the series has endured, with consistent popularity, for fifty years. Fifty years! That's longer than Star Wars, longer than Die Hard, longer than Indiana Jones. Hell, it's even longer than the interminable Simpsons, a once brilliant show that refuses to die despite everyone's acceptance that it has outstayed its welcome by about a decade.

If Bond is so silly, so shoddy, so damn offensive to vast swathes of its audience, then how has it thrived for so long? I think there are several demonstrable reasons for this, and for audiences' continued affection for the series. Here are three of the most important ones:

The Formula

You must be dreaming:
Honor Blackman as the quintessential, and best, Bond girl.
The Bond Formula is often cited as a failure of the series, when in fact it's one of its greatest strengths, both commercially, and, surprisingly, artistically. Beyond the usual serving of objectified women, fast cars, and cartoon villains, there is a rigid formula that almost every film sticks to. Even the Daniel Craig versions are no exception, demonstrating that they're not as distinct from the series as they first appear. The bloody gun barrel, the pre-title sequence, and the obligatory song are the most obvious formulaic components, but just as important are Bond's reporting to M, his initial foray into the field and return to MI6, before he goes back out for a massive action scene, a one on one fight with the henchman, and then the finale with the main villain. During this broad, five-act structure, Bond will usually encounter 1) A sexy female who later turns out to be working for either another intelligence agency or is on a mission of revenge; 2) A sexy female who initially works with him but ultimately betrays him, before being killed at about act four or five; 3) A barman or similar, merely so he can order a martini; 4) The henchman, who invariably has some sort of physical defect or attribute that makes him more than a physical match for Bond; 5) The villain. Usually he'll either spot the villain at a distance in the second act, or won't encounter him until after the halfway mark; 6) Q, who at around the second or third-act mark will kit him out and send him back out, with just the specific gadgets needed for his mission. More often than not, the most ridiculous or frivolous gadgets will be the last ones he uses, and will unexpectedly save Bond's life. Other tropes involve Bond 'going rogue', before being inexplicably reintegrated back in MI6, being watched remotely by M, Q and the Defence Minister in an epilogue as he gets it on with the girl from point number 1, and in the earlier films, greeting Moneypenny by caddishly tossing his hat on to a stand in M's office.

Not all of these elements appear in every Bond film, but all of them are integral to what makes up the basic Bond formula, and every instalment contains at least some of them. What makes the formula so important is that the best Bond films actively comment and react to it: In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond tosses his hat to Moneypenny just as he marries Theresa, and in Casino Royale he snaps at the barman for asking how he wants his martini prepared. Without the formula to react against, much of the cleverness and pleasure of these films would be stripped away. Even in the most formulaic examples of the series, the fun is in the ways that audience expectations are played with, met or stretched. Goldfinger, which provided a great deal of the formula, uses audience expectation in its most famous scene: when Bond, strapped to a device with a laser beam between his legs, asks Goldfinger if he expects him to talk (which is what the audience has learned to expect from this type of scenario). The villain, half chortling, replies with the now famous line, 'No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!' It's funny, unexpected and delivered with perfect timing from actor Gert Fröbe. The trick was repeated with different, but equal brilliance in Casino Royale, when Bond, captured by Le Chiffre, is tortured with nothing more than a wicker chair and a length of knotted rope. Le Chiffre explains that elaborate torture machines are unnecessary: only the simplest methods are required to cause someone more pain than they can bear. The reason that both of these examples work is because they subvert our expectations of the situation; like blues music, they play with the details of the structure whilst remaining within its broader strictures.


Much of Bond's appeal is rooted in its (very) heightened sense of reality, and the function of Bond himself is as an escapist avatar for the viewer. Of course, this raises all sorts of problems over assumptions about its audience: that they're exclusively male, heterosexual, and don't have a problem with neo-colonial world policing, to name a few. But there's little denying that the recurring tropes of tuxedos, bowler hats and mountain / volcano / space fortresses are just cool, or that gadgets like the submarine Lotus in The Spy Who Loved Me are intrinsically desirable toys. The Bond series is often attacked for being childish, but that criticism is inaccurate. Bond is undoubtedly juvenile, puerile even, but as a child I found most of the Bond films, with their convoluted plots, over-my-head innuendoes and dated special effects interminably boring. As an adult, I can appreciate them better for what they are: cinematic playgrounds for grown-ups. Even the Craig versions, for all their gritty and realistic trappings, are spaces for adults to imaginatively act out their fantasies. It's easy to dismiss this sort of thing as 'bubblegum for the eyes', but, in moderation at least, I think that Bond-esque escapism is an extremely important component of cinema. Christopher Nolan recognises the importance of fantasy in movies, citing the Bond series as one of his major influences, overtly alluding to the films in sequences throughout the terrific Inception, a film that engages directly with the notion of cinema as dreaming. The Bond films, all of them, are inherently silly. The worst ones are stupid, and push the escapist component too far, as in Moonraker, a film that tries and fails to mimic the success of Star Wars, or Die Another Day, a film with a car apparently on loan from the Predator franchise, not forgetting of course A View To A Kill, a film with a star apparently on loan from Age Concern. In contrast, the best entries tread the fine line between outrageous scenarios and characters, and a world grounded just enough in reality that we can live the adventure vicariously.

As if you don't want one.

It seems as if every iteration of Bond consciously distances itself from the last, none more so than the gritty, Bourne-inflected Craig versions, and it's difficult to overestimate the success of this strategy in keeping Bond feeling fresh. After 2002's ridiculous Die Another Day, audiences had grown weary of the constant barrage of innuendo, Brosnany smarm and over-use of gadgets. So when in 2006 Casino Royale completely rebooted the franchise, giving us an almost unrecognisable Bond, with - shock horror - blond hair and a believable, straightforward plot, the sense of surprise and refreshment was palpable. But while Craig's debut was bold and refreshing, it was merely the lastest example of a strategy that Eon - the studio responsible for all the official Bonds to date - has employed since the 1960s. For example, 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, is a methodical,  relatively realistic and surprisingly violent film, in stark contrast to the previous entry, You Only Live Twice, which involved a giant volcano hideout, a huge spaceship that ate rockets, and unforgettably, Sean Connery disguising himself as Japanese. Moreover, it makes overt references to being a new beginning for the series, with the opening sequence holding back on revealing the new Bond, played by George Lazenby, before he ends the scene by quipping 'this never happened to the other fella'. And of course [SPOLIER ALERT!] having OHMSS end with the death of Bond's new wife, played with surprising depth and complexity by Diana Rigg, provides a shockingly downbeat ending to a film that gave us a sensitive, human Bond. When Lazenby left the series after only one film, Eon quickly rehired Connery for Diamonds Are Forever, a silly and forgettable entry, before the revivified Live and Let Die. With a new Bond in the shape of Roger Moore, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli were able to change things up again, with a far more camp, self-parodic approach to the series. When that direction had run its course they were able to change tactics again, with a realistic, moody Bond in the shape of Timothy Dalton. Without a doubt, Saltzman and Broccoli had an uncanny ability to give their audience what they wanted, especially considering Lazenby's not-unreasonable belief that by 1969 the Bond series had become outdated and would soon lose favour with the public.

The shift from ultra-silly Moore to serious Dalton is essentially the same thing that happened in 2006 with Craig. On its release, Casino Royale really felt as if the film makers were admitting that Bond had become outdated and irrelevant. Craig's rebooted entry felt utterly distant from the other films; almost like it was part of a different franchise altogether. But have you noticed that feeling subside over the past six years? Casino Royale, while still a radical departure from the rest of the series, feels less like a disavowal of its predecessors, especially with Quantum of Solace showing signs of slipping back into familiar territory, and Skyfall introducing Bond mainstay Q whilst utilising the trope of a blond villain with Javier Bardem in a wig. (see also: Christopher Walken in A View To A Kill, Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love, Gert Fröbe in Goldfinger). By the time Craig leaves the series it's almost guaranteed that we'll all be groaning at the dreary grittiness that will have defined his tenure, and I'd bet all the gold in Fort Knox that the producers already have a vision of Bond, radically different from Craig, already lined up and ready to go once his run is over. Incidentally, if that vision doesn't involve either Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, or a female actress (I wouldn't hazard a guess as to who could pull off a female Bond, mind. Oft-rumoured but never delivered, a female Bond would work terrifically as a subversion of the core trope of the series), Saltzman and Broccoli want their heads looking at.

The fact is, Bond gives us something that nothing else does. Given the way that it's constantly spoofed, parodied, critiqued and stolen from, it's astonishing (and not immediately apparent) that there is literally no film property like that of James Bond. No one character has lasted for so long in cinema history, with Bond films coming out on average 4.4 times a decade since the 1960s. And despite the glut of hyper-masculine action heroes from the late 1970s onwards, there isn't really another character that is comparable to Agent 007. It sounds mad, I know, but think about it for a second: who else is there? Indiana Jones is possibly the closest (after all, his dad is Sean Connery), with the globe trotting and the womanising, but Indy's films lack the intrigue, the gadgets and contemporary setting. Bourne is the obvious modern comparison, but even that franchise is a reaction against Bond, as opposed to an imitation or challenger to it. Batman, in many ways, is similar to Bond - the money, the secrecy, the gadgets - and to be sure, Nolan's Bat trilogy made many  references to Bond. But their worlds, stories and and character motivations are wildly different, not to mention the fact that Batman's history on film is far shakier and less consistent than Bond's. It makes me a little sad for the rest, but the fact is nobody has done it better, or, ahem, for longer, than Bond.

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