In Memoriam: James Bond (1953-2006)
Despite the name of the film, Bond has died many times in the past. He died when Sean Connery decided to move on to other projects after You Only Live Twice, forcing the producers to find a replacement to the most emblematic 007 in the franchise’s history. He died when long time series runner Albert R Broccoli passed the baton to his daughter Barbara and stepson Michael G Wilson in 1990. In lesser manner, Bond has died every time a new actor has taken the mantel, but never as much as when Daniel Craig reinvented the character, playing a more stoic and less sex-obsessed spy.
The Craig-era has been one of change for Bond, and while a lot of it has been welcomed, it has of course had its detractors. In the entries of the saga before he took over, the franchise had landed on a formula: the film had to start with a past mission that set up a new problem for Bond to solve, a quick meeting with M and a comedic series of gadgets courtesy of Q; a femme fatale had to be there, perfectly fitting the beauty standards of the time, which would inevitably fall for Bond and lead him to the designated bad guy; a car-chase, some explosions and of course, a martini, shaken not stirred. In other words: 007 had become predictable. 2006’s Casino Royale promised a different movie from its first scenes. 2002’s Die Another Day began with a montage of Bond being tortured in a North Korean detention camp resulting in his release before the audience could manage to form an idea of how traumatic this situation must be. Casino Royale opened with 007 drowning someone in a sink, making up for the more intimate set- ting by forcing us to sit still till the victim’s last spasm. It was violent and gritty, showing off its grain, and brutal deaths, and unapologetically serious. The designated Bond girl, Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, is not just a woman passing through his bed, but someone that Bond is willing to give up his career for, only to end up having to bury her. Q is completely absent; M does not congratulate him for his service but blames him for his bombastic methods. The car chase ends with an Aston Martin flipping in the air and Bond still inside. Die Another Day was a trip through an amusement park of set pieces and explosions, Casino Royale was an inquiry about love and trauma and how terrorists are funded which was released at the height of the War-on-Terror.
It is not that Craig and the team behind were reinventing the wheel, but rather becoming self-aware of how obsolete action spy movies are after the Internet, and how a character that embodied the spirit of manliness of the 50s and 60s is no longer tolerable.
In a lot of ways, Bond development has acted as a form of denialism for British nationalism during the 20th century. Created by Fleming and based upon his own experience in the Navy’s Intelligence Division, the first Bond book was released in 1953 and it took nine years for the character to make a jump to the silver screen. Sandwiched be- tween the two dates, Britain suffered a major political and military defeat at the Suez Canal Crisis which marked the beginning of the end of Britain as the world’s biggest power. As the country became less of a player in the global stage, 007 became more ingrained in the social consciousness, especially those of men, who were promised the world and were left with a socially turbulent and economically unstable country. As Sean Connery walked along the streets of Amsterdam looking for precious stones in Diamonds are Forever, the IRA was blowing up cars in Belfast; as Roger Moore was in California with Grace Jones, miner’s labour rights were being violated by Thatcher’s government. The success of Bond movies in the UK and its cultural significance can be read as a desire to remain relevant, maybe not at the forefront of global politics, but in its coveted underbelly. The continuous womanising, casual racism, the British pride, and arrogant style are a comfort keep- ing one from the unpleasant job that is figuring yourself out in a world that rightfully demands you to change. But it is nothing more than a fantasy, and it doesn’t matter how pretty and stiff the mast is, the ship is still sinking.
Nowhere is the self-realisation more apparent than in 2012’s Skyfall which I take to be the best film in the franchise. It had become apparent after Craig’s reboot, that all this character would have to be fleshed out over several movies, and for the first time ever, we had a continuous series where one movie’s ending lead into a new movie. If Casino Royale was a rebel teenager, Skyfall was an early adult, becoming aware of his own limitations, without fully understanding the why’s, and still avoiding direct confrontation with them. No Time to Die feels like the obvious climax to this Bond character-arch as for the first time an actor playing the titular role knew it was going to be his last time playing it. The film picks up from the work of Spectre with a character that has obvious trauma and trust issues, but now, for the first time, wants to grow.
Note: The following paragraph contains spoilers for No Time to Die.
Lea Seydoux plays Madeleine Swann, Bond’s partner, a constant reminder of his vulnerabilities, which is appropriate considering she is a psychologist. The best moments of the film are when we see the cracks in Bond’s armour: his suppressed insecurity as he puts Madeline on a train taking her away from him; the love he feels for his CIA colleague Felix Leiter, the sorrow when looking at Vesper Lynd’s grave. In the best scene of the film, Bond is interrogating Ernst Blofeld, played by Christoph Waltz, the bad guy in Spectre. We can feel the hate slowly crawling up his face, his inability to get the information he needs, and his frustration, which he only knows one way to deal with: violence. It is a shame then that the second half of the film is mostly composed of action pieces, more like a classic Bond film, leaving the character development on hold till the last minutes of the film. Thankfully it does continuously build up with each fight leaving a new scar on 007’s face. The Bond that bled, truly suffered, for the first time in 2006 is now weaker, older, and must give pass to the following generation. His shortcomings, physical and psychological, are obvious, and while he still fights to remain stoic and unflappable, it becomes obvious that he cannot longer hold on to the image he has created. With his last breath he manages to say “I love you” with tears in his eyes. In a metaphor for the change that Daniel Craig has brought to this character, the first time that Bond manages to express vulnerability is also the time he dies. What should 007 be now, if any- thing? We have seen a lot of speculation about who might be best suited to carry the mantle. There has been equally as much discussion about what should be the gender and ethnicity of the new Bond. The power that a cultural icon like this has is undoubtedly a staggering opportunity to promote inclusivity and a black female Bond would be very inspiring for the next generation of filmmakers, actresses and actors. We should however not forget the upraise caused by the announcement last year that Lashana Lynch would be playing a new 007 now that Bond had retired, under claims that James Bond should remain an icon of white masculinity, and that Black actresses should look for other roles to play. While the motivations are obviously racist and misogynist, there is one good point in this message.
A couple of weeks back, Daniel Craig said in an interview that: “There should simply be better parts for women and actors of colour. Why should a woman play James Bond when there should be a part just as good as James Bond, but for a woman?” I was reminded of Brit Marling’s beautiful piece “I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead” where she argues that change isn’t writing a white man and putting breasts on him so that straight men won’t feel guilty about feeling sexually attracted to. Diversity is not simply a matter of hav- ing different genders and ethnicities before or behind the lenses, but one of telling stories that haven’t been al- lowed to be told. To a certain extent, it would be helpful to have a black woman subverting a role that was initially meant to be hostile towards her, but this is no substitute for real change.
The Daniel Craig era has been the realisation that too many things need to change for Bond to be relevant again. For everyone seeking what Bond represents, there are 26 movies to watch and rewatch obsessively, but we won’t—and shouldn’t—be getting that experience again. Whatever happens we should remember that, as Q and Bond put it: “Age is not a guarantee of efficiency. And youth is no guarantee of innovation.” Times are thankfully changing, and movies will change along, both hopefully for the better and whether 007 will be along for the ride doesn’t really matter.
Bond died in 2006 with the release of Casino Royale, and he is not coming back. The question now is what we should do with his remains.