Please note that for anyone intending to watch ‘Skyfall’, there are some serious spoilers herein…….
Being a fan of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies is one thing, but being a compulsive James Bond watcher is an obsession on a whole different level.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film – ‘Dr No’ – and this year’s Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’ is the 25th film to be based on the Bond character, though the last of Ian Fleming’s original Bond stories was published in 1966 and the last movie to have any vague connection with the Fleming era was 1983’s ‘Octopussy’.
Leaving aside the 1967 spoof version of ‘Casino Royale’, 007 has been portrayed by 6 different actors and despite huge variations in style and quality, most of the Bond movies have done seriously good business at the Box Office.
Everyone has their favourite James Bond and to some extent which Bond you favour seems to revolve around your age-group. For old gits like me, the only Bond worthy of his ‘double-oh prefix’ is the original Bond, Sean Connery; everyone else is strictly second best compared to the SNP’s biggest fan. Younger folk may prefer Roger Moore and his elevating eyebrows or Pierce Brosnan’s urbane charmer, whilst the Princess is a big fan of the current incumbent, Daniel Craig.
Still, whichever Bond leaves you shaken not stirred, it’s almost impossible not to notice the massive shift between the worlds inhabited by Sean Connery’s Bond and Daniel Craig’s latest version.
To prime myself for ‘Skyfall’, I ventured down into the LTSN Vaults to locate and view (for the first time in at least 20 years) a copy of 1962’s ‘Dr No’, the original template for all that has followed since. The story concerns your average megalomaniac, the eponymous Doc of the title, half German & half Chinese, who is messing with radioactivity and radio waves on a small island just off the Jamaican coast. His aim is to destabilise American rockets launching from Cape Canaveral but he soon finds himself under the scrutiny of the local British MI6 station. Once he eliminates them, Bond is soon on the plane to Kingston.
When we first encounter Bond, it is in some high-stakes gambling club in London. He is wearing a tuxedo, smoking cigarettes from a silver case and flirting across the chemin-de-fer table with a striking brunette. All the flunkies at the club treat him with the utmost deference and as he is summoned for a briefing with ‘M’, the brunette can barely conceal her frustration – Bond’s status as a sophisticated denizen of London’s night-life is clearly established.
On his way in to see ‘M’ he flirts again, this time with Miss Moneypenny, but it’s all business with Bernard Lee’s ‘M’, looking the epitome of the overworked civil servant and barely able to conceal his irritation with Bond’s maverick lifestyle. As if to emphasise this, he calls in the ‘Armourer’ and forces Bond to swap his favoured (but effete) Beretta pistol for a brutal but businesslike Walther PPK – and is not fooled by Bond’s sleight of hand as he attempts to leave with the Beretta as well.
Once in Jamaica, Bond looks hot and bothered but still manages to repel no less than 3 attempts to kill him before he shrugs off his Savile Row threads for some funky beachwear and heads out to Crab Key to deal with the Bad Doctor.
Here the movie shows its age, especially in the way it deals with the character of Quarrel, a local fisherman who Bond pays to take him out to Crab Key. Played by John Kitzmiller, the Quarrel of the ‘Dr No‘ movie is the worst kind of black stereotype. He is not particularly bright, he’s rather superstitious and is also overfond of rum. He rolls his eyes, refers to Bond as ‘Cap’n’ (might just as well have been ‘Massa’) and meets a grisly end when he is incinerated by a flame-thrower. In the book, by contrast, Quarrel has been Bond’s friend for several years, having trained him to swim long distances underwater and deal with potentially hostile sea creatures in the pages of ‘Live & Let Die’ – a novel which preceded ‘Dr No’ whereas the ‘Live & Let Die’ movie wouldn’t appear until 1973. Ian Fleming may not have been the most enlightened of English colonialists, but he would surely have recoiled at the crude stereotype of Quarrel in this movie.
The best-remembered scene from ‘Dr No’ is undoubtedly the point where Bond encounters the shell-hunting Honeychile Rider, who emerges from the sea like a Teutonic goddess in a white bikini. As Honeychile’s name might suggest, in the novel she has strong links to Jamaica’s past and far from being the blonde bombshell of the movie, was in all probability partially Jamaican (creole). Even so, it was the Swiss-German Andress who went down in movie folklore; the irony being that her English accent was so heavily Germanic that her lines were over-dubbed by another actress.
So much for ‘Dr No’; the rest of the movie follows a predictable course. After Quarrel’s death, Bond & Honeychile are captured and taken to Dr No’s elegant underground complex with hot & cold running everything and all mod cons. The Doctor and Bond do some verbal jousting after which Bond is beaten up and locked up whilst the evil Doc prepares to destabilise another US rocket. The technology of the ‘control room’ is quite hilarious – rather like something Gerry Anderson might have cooked up for ‘Thunderbirds’; lots of big dials and goldfish bowl helmets. In the end, of course, Bond escapes, frees Honey, destroys the control room and kills Dr No, escaping just before the whole complex goes up like a two-bob (nuclear) rocket. The two survivors float off across the Caribbean with no fear of fall-out and consummate their relationship in the bottom of a sailing dinghy. For 1962, it was probably pretty revolutionary stuff.
So what do we learn about the world through James Bond’s steely blue eyes? We learn that it’s cool to travel the world (which not many Brits did in 1962) and to be a British secret agent at the end of the colonial era. We learn that women, like cigarettes and alcohol, are a resource to be consumed. We learn that native Jamaicans, if handled properly, will show you the utmost deference that is the Master’s due. We learn that having a taste for obscure cocktails and knowing a little about wine is an instant sign of sophistication. We learn that even the mighty USA has to play second fiddle when 007 is in town. We learn that showing emotion is a weakness and that there comes a point where the talking has to stop and brutal force must have its day. Bond sails through the corridors of Whitehall and the plantation club culture of pre-independence Jamaica like a man who is utterly certain of his place and the place of his country in the scheme of things. He is one of the good guys and the bad guys like Dr No are just out there waiting for him to take them down.
Jump forward 50 years to ‘Skyfall’ , the latest Bond adventure to take to the big screen. As has become customary with recent Bond films, everything kicks off with a spectacular set piece. Daniel Craig’s 007 is in Istanbul, attempting to track down a computer disk – carelessly mislaid by ‘M’ – which contains the names of every Western agent working under cover in any one of the world’s hotspots. Bond arrives just too late to prevent the wholesale slaughter of a roomful of friendly agents and the theft of the disk. He is then driven by Naomie Harris at high speed through the narrow streets of the old city, before continuing the chase by motorbike across the roof tops of the Grand Bazaar and ultimately on the roof of a passenger train. Finally, Harris, in contact with ‘M’ by radio, unwittingly shoots Bond and the villain escapes.
Craig, Dench and Aston Martin in the background – old technology
Just this 10 minute sequence is worthy of a little closer attention, showing, as it does, that things have changed greatly for 007 since that Pan American jet from Miami touched down in Kingston back at the start of ‘Dr No’. For one thing, Craig’s Bond is never in control in the way that Connery usually was – he is playing catch-up from the very beginning.
As for technology, this is something that Bond movies have always embraced, both in terms of the way they were shot and in terms of plot devices – cameras follow the speeding motorbikes, swooping across the roof of the Grand Bazaar in a series of breathtaking tracking shots – the Connery-era movies look very static by comparison. Within the plot, Dr No’s radio beams and Goldfinger’s lasers have now become ‘Skyfall’s ‘ hard drives and GPS trackers and suchlike. Perhaps the only surprise about ‘Skyfall’ is that it isn’t in 3D, though that will presumably come.
‘Skyfall’ – the opening chase sequence across the Istanbul rooftops
The next thing is that Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is the driver of a souped-up Land Rover that hurtles through the Istanbul streets in pursuit of the bad guys. Despite a fairly obvious joke about her driving when she shaves a corner a bit too closely, Harris is about as far from her 1962 counterpart as it’s possible to get. Not only does she drive at high speed through crowded streets and use firearms, perhaps most tellingly of all, she is black. Wonder what Quarrel would have made of that? It’s pretty much for certain that Connery’s Bond wouldn’t have coped with it at all; in his world, women were either maternal or seductresses and black women were usually maids or housekeepers.
Poor James. he has had to adapt his dinosaur ways to a vastly different world – even at work, things are changing; the reassuringly gruff and headmasterly Bernard Lee has long since been replaced by Judi Dench – a woman as ‘M’! What is the world coming to? And ‘Q’, the armourer/quartermaster – initially played as an old buffer by the genial Desmond Llewellyn, who then handed over to the noticeably more eccentric John Cleese – is now a mere youth (Ben Whishaw) who barely looks old enough to shave and seems to deal more easily with computers than he does with human beings.
Ben Whishaw’s ‘Q’ – definitely new technology
The issue for Bond as he recuperates from his Istanbul outing in some anonymous eastern beach resort (rather like Jason Bourne in Goa at the start of ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ ) is of course ‘M’. She is the mother figure for whom he harbours both love and hate – something that she reciprocates. Bond catches a TV news report giving details of an explosion at MI6 HQ and knows that he must return to rescue ‘M’ from another of her former protegés, Silva (Javier Bardem), who is the real villain of the piece. He has started to publish names of some of the agents from the missing hard drive on the internet (with fatal results for them) in an attempt to discredit ‘M’ who betrayed him to the Chinese years beforehand. He also stages the explosion which kills a number of MI6 employees.
Bond returns to find things in a chaotic state with ‘M’ under growing pressure to step down and the subject of parliamentary enquiries. She even addresses the Parliamentary Select Committee with a few mouthfuls of Churchillian rhetoric – “Ask yourself; ‘How safe do I feel?'” Bond, meanwhile, is subjected to a series of physical and mental tests to determine whether or not he is fit enough to resume active service and fails most of them but is cleared by Mummy ‘M’ to take up the 007 mantle yet again.
Craig and Bardem get up close & personal in ‘Skyfall’
Connery’s Bond would have found this battered, flawed, post-modernist 007 a very difficult pill to swallow. The certainties of 60’s ‘realpolitik’ when we knew who the good guys were and who the baddies were have all disappeared for Daniel Craig’s Bond. Silva is a maverick villain who has sprung from the very service that Bond represents, rather than being some doctrinaire Commie from the Soviet or the Chinese bloc. Also, the confrontational scene between Bond & Silva where Silva comes on to 007 would have reduced Connery’s Bond to apoplexy. Craig just takes it in his stride – and maybe, just maybe it isn’t his first time….
With Judi Dench’s ‘M’ fatally injured in ‘Skyfall’s’ climactic shoot-out and his Aston Martin similarly blown to smithereens, it might be tempting to see Bond as a relic for whom time has finally run out, yet at the movie’s end, 007 is up on the roof again, brooding over London’s skyline like some crabby guardian angel.
Moneypenny – who has given up field work after her Istanbul experiences – comes up to retrieve Bond and take him down for his appointment with Ralph Fiennes, the new ‘M’, who promptly asks whether 007 is ready to go back to work. The franchise must go on…..