Saturday, 21 January 2012

Bond in the Sixties

I know I'm posting about nothing other than Bond right now. Sorry about that. It's not as if there isn't other stuff going on but this is the first time in many years I've given the series very much thought and, having done so, it's taken up residence, lodged in my mind. There's so much of it to work through! Maybe by November, when Skyfall comes out, I'll be able to clear my bonce of Bond for another long while.

In the meantime, we're making progress! Connery and Lazenby done and dusted; seven films down and only, gurgh, fifteen to go! We'll be fine! Sure we will! What's the story so far?

Let's quickly put poor George out of his misery as there's only OHMSS to judge him on and I've done that already. But it's a good Bond film (albeit one that rather sticks out from the others - before Daniel Craig rolls up), proving that James could be romantic, vulnerable and played by someone else.

Connery himself is the subject of a globe-spanning consensus: regarded by millions, if not billions, as the definitive and the best Bond of them all. It's probably impossible to destroy that conventional wisdom and I'm not going to try (I am) but I do have to disagree. His 007 is mostly a thoroughly unpleasant bastard who does some truly terrible things and doesn't manage to be particularly charming whilst he does them. Unlike the Bond of the novels, his misdeeds are not accompanied by an internal monologue of guilt and contextualisation, so he just comes across as a shit. Still, he looks super-cool and Connery must get the credit he deserves for launching the most successful movie franchise of all time.

His films vary from dull to thrilling, from slick to slapdash. The worst, despite the AMAZING NINJA-FUELLED FINALE, is the messy and meaningless YOLT. The pick of them - and it really is one of the very best Bond films - is FRWL, a cool spy thriller with great baddies. But nothing can compete with the glory that is the pre-credits sequence to Goldfinger and sees Bond operating at the outer-limits of optimum coolness.
Keeping tally is a terribly nerdy thing to do, but entirely appropriate of course under the circumstances. Here's the reckoning so far.

Bond007 KillsDeathsShagsHelicopters

So, Bond has killed 62 people. In serial killer terms that's already very high. The total number of fatalities - mainly service men/women and hired security - doesn't amount to much (Wikipedia doesn't include death tolls for wars unless they're greater than 1000) but that says less about the Bond films, I think, and more about how desensitised I am by the unimaginable disasters and calamities of the real world.

Speaking of the real world, it's interesting how the Bond films have dealt with the geo-political nightmare of the 1960s. Very quickly indeed (about half-way through DRNO) the franchise deliberately becomes lurid escapism from the existential crisis of nuclear armageddon. But that doesn't mean that the Cold War is being ignored. Repeatedly it is there: American rocket tests, SMERSH, China's dirty bomb, Vulcan bombers, Soviet/US space race tensions and finally in DAF the idea of forced disarmament by orbital space laser (in fact it is only OHMSS that doesn't have some reference to the Cold War.)

It's impossible to ignore, like a wobbly tooth. But, very much unlike a wobbly tooth, it is a terrifying concept threatening the existence of a whole civilisation. Of course, this was merely the reality that both the film-makers and the audience had to deal with. Unable to leave it alone, the films end up playing around the edges of the Cold War, using SPECTRE as a proxy with which to explore the threat of nuclear catastrophe. This in itself is an interesting divergence from the books where it is the Russians that are the puppet-masters of, for example, No, or Goldfinger. Is it just that an independent organisation like SPECTRE is sexier than the KGB? Or is it an attempt to make things more comfortable for the audience, to push the real world threat beyond a wall of fantasy that makes it tolerable to consider?

Either way, the Cold War shaped these films without receiving much direct attention and this all happened during a distinct phase of US/Soviet relations. DRNO opened just a few days before the Cuban Missile Crisis but, by the time DAF was in cinemas, both sides were moving towards d├ętente in a world where crises were more likely to be caused by individuals and terrorists. The next time the Soviet Union makes an appearance Bond will find Mother Russia's agents to be unusually cooperative.

Apart from the mania for space exploration there's not much else that is particularly evocative of the Sixties is there? It's not as if these films 'swing' - there's no contemporary music, no reference to culture at all, in fact (counter or otherwise). No thought of Vietnam or political assassinations either. The Bond films are very straight-laced and are only interested in a very narrow slice of high life.

And what of the other great matters of the decade: gender equality and race relations? Maybe looking for signs of feminism in James Bond films is the definition of a fool's errand, but there is some improvement isn't there? By the end of the Sixties, women like Tracy and Tiffany demonstrate independence and bravado that would have been impossible for Tatiana or Tilly. Tracy, at least, is presented as a complete equal to Bond - but for a woman this means 'taming' Bond and becoming the perfect wife for him. What we haven't seen yet is a female character who is entitled to behave the same way that 007 does without being adversely judged for it.

As for race relations? It's not covered at all - perhaps unsurprisingly given that in Britain this was much less of a issue than it was in America. What we have instead is an accidental depiction of the end of empire. DRNO is a colonial story, with the man from London sent to sort out some trouble with the natives, whilst in FRWL Kerim represents the traditional imperial espionage network of local influence and amateur spies. This world fades away over the rest of these films to be replaced by a wholly American sphere - but even in the casinos of Las Vegas we see very little of black America: Sammy Davis Jnr's cameo would have been notable in more ways than one if it hadn't been left on the cutting room floor.

Perhaps the producers sensed an imbalance in their output - or maybe they were desperate to keep their films up to date. Either way, the up-shot was that James Bond's next adventure would be an all out, bad ass blaxploitation movie - albeit one where (uniquely?) the leading man and woman were both white and all the baddies were black.

Racial imbalance redressed!

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