James Bond: Licence To Kill And Divide
Bond, James Bond. Grab yourself a vodka martini, shaken not stirred, and I’ll tell you why a misogynist, suave, super-spy that’s been going for over half a decade still captures the imagination.
So…what’s it all about?
Who’s your favourite James Bond?
This has usually been the question that will spark any discussion of Bond I have in this day and age. For most people it’s a simple question that they can answer pretty definitively. It seems like the perfect place to begin with a film franchise that’s been going for 56 years, spread across 24 films (soon to be 25) in which 6 actors have played the iconic British spy. Over time he’s become as synonymous as the British Empire itself; by this I mean he’s been all around the world, meddled in all manner of things that didn’t concern him, and stuck his flag in anything that’s not nailed down. What could be more British than that?
When it comes to trying to answer the favourite James Bond question, most people will usually go for the option of the actor who was ‘their Bond’ when you first watched, or got into, the franchise. If I follow this approach then I can’t really be certain who ‘my Bond’ is. I can’t tell you what the first Bond film I ever watched was. Having being born in the early 80’s, it may have been one of the Roger Moore films that appeared on TV one Christmas. Or maybe it was an old Sean Connery one that I saw on VHS that my dad had brought home. You can see my problem here, and why I’m struggling remember the exact details of who is ‘my Bond’.
If I broaden this out further then it gets a little bit more confusing. If you go by the rule of the Bond film you first watched in the cinema then I’m a member of the Pierce Brosnan club, when I visited the cinema to see Goldeneye in 1995. If you go by which is my Bond film is my favourite then I’m a Daniel Craig fan as I’ll happily watch Casino Royale over and over again.
The only definite fact I can state in this matter is that the Bond franchise has just been an ever-present part of my home TV, and subsequently cinema, viewing history since I was a young boy. They filled the aforementioned schedules at Christmas time, they were and still are a distraction on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and they became a cinematic event that I started to look forward to. They even became an indelible part of my computer game history with the amazing N64 Goldeneye game. You can’t imagine the joy I felt at being able to play as James Bond through every scene from the actual Goldeneye film, even if it was a flatter-faced James Bond.
On paper the Bond franchise is a juggernaut. It’s the fourth highest grossing film franchise in history, behind the giants of Marvel Studios, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. Good company to be in, really. What this doesn’t reveal is the historic ups and downs (innuendo is second nature to this franchise) that has enveloped the character and how close it has come to being ended for good. A bitter dispute over rights to the character between Cubby Broccolli and Kevin McClory brought us one of only two independent Bond films; Never Say Never Again (1983). This was one of the biggest challenges faced by the Bond franchise across its history, although threats also rose out of the occasional lukewarm reception from fans and reviews of some of the films released.
If you look at the entire franchise as a whole we’re left with 24 (or 26) films of varying quality that come with over- elaborative plots, occasionally middling special effects, and some patchy acting. In my opinion they’ve got a genuine appeal, but sometimes you wonder how it’s endured as long as it has.
What’s good about it?
There’s something for everyone across all of the Bond films that will undoubtedly appeal to all generations. When you think of Bond, James Bond there’s usually three things that are most memorable; maniacal villains, beautiful women, and gadgets.
The Bond films provided us a multitude of villains who appear to revel in engaging in overly-convoluted schemes which they love to reveal to James Bond at the drop of a hat (or a throw of a hat if we follow Oddjob’s lead). Not all of these villains work. They can range from the weasly anaemic (Dominic Green, Quantum of Solace) to rather unpleasant (Franz Sanchez, Licence to Kill), and vary in quality from the film-stealing brilliant (Auric Goldfinger, Goldfinger and Francisco Scaramanga, The Man with the Golden Gun) to the completely terrible (Gustav Graves, Die Another Day). Bond films attracted a mixture of some of the best actors around (Christopher Lee, Christopher Walken, and Robert Shaw), notable character actors (Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Mathieu_Amalric, and Mads Mikkelsen), and imposing henchmen/women who made their mark (Grace Jones, Richard Kiel, Benicio Del Toro). There are obviously some quality actors within this list, and yet the making of the most memorable villains actually seems to develop from the combination of a decent story, over-the-top villain, and interesting interactions with whoever is playing Bond.
There’s no better illustration of the variable quality of Bond villains than a brief consideration of the character who has gone toe-to-toe with Bond most often over the entire franchise; Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The cat-stroking (you can’t believe how hard it was to not use another innuendo here) Blofeld has appeared in various guises in seven of the Eon produced films, ranging from being a voice and a pair of legs to being played by an Oscar winning Christoph Waltz in Spectre, the most recent Bond film. It seems that acting quality doesn’t always lend itself to being remembered as the most iconic version of a character.
Blofeld has appeared on screen significantly in five films (including the independent film, Never Say Never Again) and has been played by a different actor each time. Yet it is Donald Pleasance’s portrayal that is the most fondly remembered as it originates from the mostly excellent You Only Live Twice (Sean Connery’s Bond being turned into a Japanese man stretches believability beyond anything else in the franchise…yes, even the stuff that happens in Moonraker). The combination of Pleasance’s performance, along with the Roald Dahl screenplay and large volcano lair, went on to shape many of the clichés that became the norm for many of the Bond films that followed, and were the clear influence for Mike Myers’ Dr Evil in the Austin Powers films. The other Blofeld performances could never really hope to match this prominence, and you often find that many of them are eclipsed by other villains with considerably smaller backstories found in much better films.
If I’m being honest, the first time I watched a Bond film I wasn’t particularly fussed on the efforts of Ursula Andress, Britt Ekland, or Diana Rigg. I’ve subsequently learned to appreciate these parts of the Bond franchise as I’ve ‘matured’, but when I was a child I couldn’t grasp what was so interesting about girls when there were submarine cars, magnetic watches, and exploding key chains to get excited about. I used to love the bit when 007 visited Q’s lab and we got to see all the ridiculous inventions his assistants were working on in the background. These included decapitating tea trays, rocket launcher plaster casts and ghetto blasters, and a revolving sofa that appeared to serve no actual benefit.
There’s a legitimate criticism to be labelled at Bond gadgets appearing to offer a solution to a problem so specific that they could only be created if Q has already read the script beforehand. The most popular gadgets that persist in the memory usually fall into two categories: the first are undoubtedly cool and useful in a variety of scenarios. These include various cars/vehicles; watches with lasers, saws, screens, explosive controls; and other small gadgets designed to enable Bond to get through doors/windows and escape underwater situations. The second group of gadgets seem to be
so ridiculous and specific in their design that they would launch an investigation into the misuse of taxpayers’ funding if the general public became aware of them. These include the titillating third nipple (The Man with the Golden Gun), radio broom handle (Licence to Kill), the crocodile submarine (Octopussy), hovercraft gondola (Moonraker), and the fake horse behind (Octopussy). It’s only when you write them down that you realise how truly stupid some of these gadgets were.
It should be noted that the majority of the ridiculous gadgets noted above featured in Roger Moore films. It could easily be said that the period of the late 70’s through to the mid 80’s was the period in which Bond was at its most camp, and the resulting films played more for laughs than what had preceded them.
His Bond was a more sophisticated or smooth character, that relied more or puns than his physicality, especially compared to the two actors that came before him. Sean Connery brought a swagger and charming element to Bond that was paired with a brute physicality. He looked like he knew how to handle himself. George Lazenby, in his one film as Bond, brought a similar physicality but not the acting ability and confidence that Connery brought to the role.
Timothy Dalton suffered in his two appearances as Bond due to the film coming at a time when the franchise was at its lowest ebb, and had to endure attempts to move Bond out of its camp Roger Moore phase. Some consider him the best actor to play Bond but his performances are, somewhat unfairly, considered too serious and overly-dramatic for the role. I’ve always had a soft spot for his two films (The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill) but it’s not unfair to say that this was a difficult time for Bond.
Pierce Brosnan should be given credit for reinvigorating the Bond franchise and he brought a coolness to the role that was transitioning to the modern world. It’s unfortunate that after a fantastic start in the role, in the excellent Goldeneye, that he succumbed to the creeping bland CGI-filled nonsense that infected many films in the late 90’s and early 00’s.
Daniel Craig was brought in to reboot the series again, and he proved to be controversial for various reasons. Some ridiculous early criticisms (blond hair) gave way to other more legitimate concerns about the serial nature of his films. Craig’s Bond grew out of world where other action franchises, such as the Bourne films, were gaining prominence and Bond’s suave coolness was replaced by a more gritty physicality. Daniel Craig’s time as Bond has undoubtedly been a success, but his cold and intense version of the character has occasionally been divisive.
Unsurprisingly, when you consider the Bond franchise stretches over 24 films, there is considerable variations in quality and opinion on all of the actors that have played Bond. You may struggle to appreciate Roger Moore’s gradually aging lothario, Timothy Dalton’s serious monogamy, and Daniel Craig’s moody indifference, but the variety offered could be considered a strength of the franchise. There is a Bond that will suit everyone, and most people will defend their favourite version of the character to any challenger.
What’s not so good about it?
Bond films could be given some leeway by acknowledging that they are a product of their time. It’s the only way I can rationale the casual racist elements of the Roger Moore era, most notably in the unnecessary inclusion Sheriff JW Pepper and some of the parts in India during Octopussy.
However, it’s the aforementioned issue surrounding women that legitimately remains a stick with which to beat the Bond franchise. Beautiful women have become as big a part of Bond as gadgets and villains. Bond girls for each film are typically revealed with as much a fanfare as the title of the films these days. Much like the villains, these Bond girls vary from being memorable part of the franchise or a forgettable name that you will eventually look up on IMDB. Their place in the Bond hall of fame will, as with the villains, seem to be determined by the strength of the entire film.
Ursula Andress is given iconic status for being in the first Bond film when she came out of the sea in a white bikini, with a knife strapped to her waist, singing the song ‘Underneath the Mango Tree’. Diana Rigg’s Tracy is remembered for being the only women who married James Bond. Eva Green comes closest to this playing Vesper Lynd, the woman Bond was willing to leave MI6 for. The most iconic, however, remains Honor Blackman’s portrayal of Pussy Galore, a pilot who is ‘turned’ in a couple of ways by Bond, most notably when he forces himself upon her in Goldfinger.
Pussy Galore’s status should be assured by her willingness to turn against Goldfinger preventing him from irradiating the US gold supply in Fort Knox. However, it’s Sean Connery’s ‘seduction’ of Pussy Galore that sticks most in the memory. Bond actually launches at her, holds her down and forcibly kisses her, before she ‘inevitably’ gives in to his charms. Clearly she wouldn’t have been able to change her mind about the killing thousands of people unless Bond had forced his tongue down her throat in the hay. Unfortunately, the problem of Bond’s poor treatment of women is not an isolated incident in the Bond films. For every Pussy Galore there seems to scores more of beautiful women instructed to find Bond irresistible, run into his arms, and utter the occasional “Oh, James!” The Guardian offered a good critique highlighting Bond’s misogynistic treatment of women across all of the films.
It would be easy to suggest that Sean Connery’s Bond forcing himself upon women, slapping their arse when dismissing them with the expression “man talk” is symptomatic of what was happening between men and women in the 60’s. But, as noted in the video, there remains question marks over his behaviour in 2012’s Skyfall when Daniel Craig’s Bond grabs a former sex slave and uses her past abuse at the hands of men in order to get her to reveal the location of the Bond villain. It will be interesting to see how producers and writers of the 25th Bond film will approach the female roles in the age of #MeToo and Times Up campaigns.
The misogyny of Bond is further reinforced in the simple act of naming Bond girls across the franchise. I’m not sure if you noticed but Pussy Galore is a ‘subtle’ risqué name. She is not alone. Xenia Onatopp, Plenty O’Toole (named after your father, perhaps?), Octopussy, and Dr Goodhead appear in other films. For that last name, Roger Moore’s Bond even seemed surprised that the astrophysicist doctor he was expecting to meet ended up being a woman. It seems having a rude sounding name was just an added bonus. Women are not only sex objects for Bond to sleep with, they are also sources of cheap laughs. You can legitimately evaluate Denise Richards performance and believability as a nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough, but she is not exactly helped by being given the name Dr Christmas Jones for the benefit of a sex joke about coming once a year.
Some films have attempted to address the treatment of women in some Bond films with differing results. Consider Pierce Brosnan’s last outing in Die Another Day when he was paired with Halle Berry’s Jinx, a NSA agent. She’s set up to be Bond’s equal, someone with a similar high level of self-confidence and affinity for puns. The resulting films’ interactions where Bond and Jinx trade innuendo laden puns between each other becomes so unbearable that it feels like some sort of terrible Carry On film. This move shouldn’t be as surprising as it seems when you consider that Moneypenny (Samantha Bond), M’s secretary, throughout the entirety of the Pierce Brosnan’s time as Bond began a running battle of innuendo puns with 007 at every opportunity. It seems that women would only allowed to match Bond in these films if they could master his art of the double-entendre. The HR department at MI6 really needs to get on top of this epidemic.
The introduction of Dame Judy Dench as M in Goldeneye brought an interesting change to the Bond franchise that briefly gave us a hope that things would change. The previous films hinted at an ‘old boys club’ feel in the relationship between Bond, M, and the Minister and you definitely get the feeling that they have engaged in a number of drunken escapades across the world on their travels. A collective cheer went out when the new M turned to Bond and told him something that many women have wanted to say to him since his first appearance on film.
I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you.
This was to be a new relationship. A female M telling Bond to get on with his job professionally and that she had no problem sending ‘a man out to die’ for his country. Bond probably didn’t care as he had already got his end away. This M was going to be different. She wasn’t going to put up with Bond’s know-it-all bollocks. She’d already said that his charms wouldn’t work on her. This stand would been more admirable if the writers/producers didn’t immediately undercut Judy Dench in the very same scene by having her tell Bond as he leaves her office to “Come back alive.” *Sigh*…it seems that she must have fell for him too.
- Bond, James Bond – the first scene with James Bond in Dr No. Effortlessly cool and an icon is born.
- Daniel Craig’s Parkour Chase – fights on a crane, runs through a wall, and single handily takes on an embassy army in Casino Royale.
- Pierce Brosnan’s Tank Escapades – Bond steals a tank to chase a Russian General around Moscow destroying buildings, cars, and statues in Goldeneye.
- Goldfinger’s Giant Laser – Bond spread-eagled on a table with a laser slowly heading towards his meat and two veg. Think of what might have happened if Goldfinger had successfully neutered him.
- Gritty Roger Moore – Bond sends a henchman to his death by kicking his dangling car off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only. This went against Moore’s often comic and camp Bond and was all the better for it (also check out the preceding chase in which time seems to slow down as an aging Bond climbs up a massive amount of steps).
Finally….why is it in The Rotation?
Bond may have its problems over its long history, but how could I resist when there are cool gadgets, fantastic cars, beautiful women, terrible one-liners/puns, and the meeting of some fantastic actors? Bring on the 25th film…