Esquire: Of Human Bondage
By Richard Rayner
On the eve of 007's return in GoldenEye, let's admit this: There's no man alive who has never wished he were the suave, violent bastard who saved Western civ.
IT WAS 1963, AND I WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD, when I first dreamed of being James Bond. My parents had separated, and I was living with my father in a seaside resort of faded Edwardian splendor. Together we went to a double bill of Dr. No and From Russia with Love at the local Gaumont, an art-deco movie palace from the 1920s. Ursula Andress burst from the surf in a white bikini with thighs that went up and up and up, and Robert Shaw, a SPECTRE assassin posing as a fellow Brit, brayed, "old man, old man" and gave himself away in the restaurant car of the Orient Express by ordering red wine with fish. Tut-tut. Such mistakes in life can be fatal, as Bond soon demonstrated. This was also the time of Beatlemania. At the same theater, I hid under the seats between shows and watched A Hard Day's Night four times in one day. Somehow, it didn't seem remotely possible to be John Lennon. He was so funny and fresh, a one-man revolution plus great voice and songs. I didn't quite twig then that he'd nicked half of it from Elvis, whereas, even aged seven, I knew Bond was all that I'd been brought up to revere and emulate, an upperclass toff, but better looking and much nastier.
He was a bastard, that's to say, but not a shit, and therefore an admirable role model, and so I myself became a suave and ruthless little secret-agent man, dodging in and out of the lobbies of the crumbling white-fronted hotels, where I fantasized about running into Ursula Andress, who I'd decided would pretty much do. To my mother, meanwhile, I wrote letters in invisible ink, which presumably tickled my dad no end. At any rate, he shelled out cash not only for repeat viewings of the movies but for a toy Walther PPK gmm, a Bond briefcase with a dagger that popped out the side, and a Corgi toy replica of the Aston Maron DB5-with the bulletproof shield at the back, the ejector seat in the middle, and the machine guns in the front-that Bond drove in Goldfinger, whose Shirley Bassey theme song with the quack-wah-wah horns I played until the record's grooves wore out.
The book I toted everywhere was my future stepfather's copy of Moby Dick, purchased on a stopover in New York while he was in the merchant marine. Melville was way too deep, but the boards of that Modem Library edition were wide enough to conceal a paperback Ian Fleming. Ishmael and Ahab provided cover for Le Chiffre, Graf Hugo von der Drache, and Tracy, the Corsican countess Teresa de Vicenzo, Bond's only true love, done to death on their wedding day by superfiend Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
I didn't know then that Fleming--a pushy opportunist, a racist, and a snob-more closely resembled his vulgar villains than the suave Bond. I was undeterred by the fact that he was a quite appalling writer, all too capable of following the sentence "Bond grunted dubiously" with one that went "Bond paid negligently." Even adverb mania seemed the height of daring and sophistication, and when in From Russia with Love I read, "Her legs shifted languidly. She was wearing nothing but the black ribbon round her neck and black silk stockings rolled above the knees," I experienced my first remembered erection. This stuff, clearly, was okay.
The stories all followed, and down the years continued to follow, the same formula. Lone-wolf Bond, on leave or recovering from some dire wound, is called in by his boss, M, head of British Secret Service, fitted out with spiffy gadgets by spiffy-gadget man Q, and sent on a mission against a mad, evil genius intent on destroying/controlling the world and making gazillions of dollars. Bond survives the first of many attempts on his life, has an early skirmish with the evil genius, most often in the context of a game-baccarat, maybe, or bridge or golf-and meets a Bond girl, who will fall into one of two categories, good or bad. Good Bond girls tend to be Ph.D.'s in particle physics or reluctant Soviet spies posing as concert cellists, and don't sleep with Bond until the end of the flick, whereas bad Bond girls dress in leather, do kung fu (sometimes good ones do this, too), slap around NATO jet pilots and then fill them full of junk from a hypodermic, and snuff out their enemies or no-longer-useful allies with rockets fired from between the legs as they ride giddily on powerful motorcycles. They get into bed with Bond at the first opportunity, only to be killed soon after, betrayed by their own sexual hubris or so swept away by Bond's Cemtex performance between the sheets that they fatally question their fundamental bad-Bond-girl nature and turn against the evil genius, who's kicking into a higher gear at this point, foiling and even laughing derisively at the careful counterplan Bond has put together with M and his plodding American allies. In the act of torturing Bond, moments before Bond is to be castrated by a laser beam or bound and immersed in a tank whose custodians are a husband/wife team of grinning great whites, the evil genius chuckles, “Ah, my dear Bond, it is so rare I get to meet a man of your taste and intelligence, and since you are about to die. . .” and reveals his own scheme, guaranteed to be of Lex Luthor dottiness; i.e., instead of stealing the gold in Fort Knox, he aims to irradiate it all with a nuclear explosion, thus rendering his own private stash all the more valuable. Bond escapes, stops ticking clock, offs villain with a couple of corny asides and whatever weapon is to hand-gun, knife, piranha, exploding fountain pen-and then, after ignoring the drooling praise of prime ministers, presidents, and even M, escapes with surviving Bond girl to a consummation devoutly to be wished.
all, a plot structure of which Aristotle would have spoken highly. Sometimes,
during the course of the film, the bad Bond girl became the good one, but
this wasn't so much fun and anyway called for Jane Austen-like sophistication
of character development. Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger
a lesbian pilot with a team of dyke stunt-girl underlings before, in a
haystack, she found out what weapon Bond had between the legs.
YET THE GENRE has endured. By 1964, when Ian Fleming died, Bond was already on his way to becoming the most lucrative film franchise ever. Even with his creator gone, Bond was far too valuable to be allowed to follow. First Kingsley Amis and then John Gardner were drafted to write new stories through which Bond could stroll, automatic invisible beneath his white tux, in search of spectacle, humor with a touch of camp, pretty girls, a high body count, and set-piece action that need have no connection with the story line.
It's not only commerce, of course: Fleming, for all his flaws, still has a visceral appeal-he makes it swing on the page; and those early movies were hip, adventurous, and knowing. In many ways, Hitchcock was behind it all. His early English movie The 39 Steps gave us, in Robert Donat, the best screen version of John Buchan's Richard Hannay, Bond's literary progenitor. And from a later American one, North by Northwest, Sean Connery plucked details from both Cary Grant, the hero, and James Mason, the villain, to create Bond's early screen persona-well-mannered, impeccably dressed, and witty, but also insolent and suavely cruel, a young blood whose first question to himself when a stranger walks through the door is, Do I fuck you or kill you?
Just as filmmakers have never stopped trying to redo Hitchcock, so there have been all those Bond movies that aren't prima facie Bond movies at all. Raiders of the Lost Ark took the character back to his roots in 1930s adventure; Die Hard gave him a packet of Marlboros and a grimy undershirt; and True Lies was a flawed new-age stab, giving the guy a problem in his humdrum, nonsecret life. And if it's Pulp Fiction that feels like the truer, deranged version for the 1990s, with Travolta as Bond the slacker, Sam Jackson the demented Felix Leiter sidekick, Ving Rhames the all-controlling M, and Uma Thurman the dreamiest Bond girl ever, then that's because we believe in characters who kill for fun or money, but we can applaud no longer the idea that they do it out of some higher moral or national purpose. These days, only out-and-out wackos claim that high ground.
Bond has become a man with a motivation problem; we don't buy what a Hollywood script editor would call his "need." He harks back to a simpler, if not a more innocent, time. JFK knew the difference between Saul Bellow and Irwin Shaw but preferred Ian Fleming to either. Kennedy was the Bond of presidents and didn't-couldn't-last.
a perfect blend of British and American fantasies. He carried the public-school
ethos into the Playboy era. Snobby sadomasochism met swimsuits with gadgets
thrown in. It all sounds very sixties, and of course it was, and for an
actor taking on the character now; the problem is simple but immense: to
make Bond contemporary, to make believable that corniest of lines-which
I admit with no particular shame that, sometimes, after making what I tell
myself is a suave spin on the heel, I still find myself saying "My name
is Bond, James Bond."
Traveling to join her again, in 1964, he left Ireland on a gray Thursday morning with holy water in an aspirin bottle in one hand and in the other a set of rosary beads with which he still travels. The first film he saw in London was Goldfinger. "There was this gold lady, naked," he says. "A man with a hat that decapitated people and statues. And this amazing cool dude who just kind of strutted through the fair, beat the shit out of anybody who got in his way, and got the girl. I kind of liked it."
As an eleven-year-old, he says, he connected with the imagery rather than the character. "The first guy I ever thought, He's cool, I want to be him, was Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns. But there was something about the gold naked lady that really got my attention."
He studied acting, worked with Tennessee Williams on the London stage, and made his first screen appearance as the IRA assassin who never says a word but finally gets to do away with Bob Hoskins in John Mackenzie's splendid The Long Good Friday.
The new movie is called GoldenEye, after Ian Fleming's Jamaica retreat. In it, Bond's boss (played for the first time by a woman, the English Shakespearean actress Dame Judi Dench-M as Lady Macbeth) sends him out to save the world, saying, "You're nothing but a sexist, misogynist dinosaur."
In the face of such, can Bond carry on the way he always has? Brosnan says, "He is sexist and misogynist, but I don't think he feels he's a dinosaur. If you think about this man who is forty-two who has done this job for many years, if you give that fact credence as an actor-and you have to-he's adrift, he just goes through and kills people and he fucks the women. Anything that comes across his path, he just goes through it. And where does that leave him? What's it like for him, day after day? He's weary. He's a hard and dark character."
There you have it. Bond in the mid-1990s is reborn an existentialist, though of course the success of GoldenEye will depend not only on Brosnan's reading but on whether a balance has been struck between character, action, and the camp humor that turned people on in the first place (all the Moore films were too silly and gadget-dominated), and whether the action itself measures up. to standards expected by an audience that's very sophisticated about such things these days. GoldenEye is directed by Martin Campbell, who did No Escape with Ray Liotta and, for the BBC, the classic late-1980s conspiracy series Edge of Darkness, which made a star out of Bob Peck. While sticking to the tested formula of chases, casinos, death-defying shoot-outs, a demon foe, and earth-threatening skulduggery (it's safe to bring in the Russians again), he's contrived to give the film a grittier feel and found, in Famke Janssen, a sexy bad girl who ranks with the best, suitably cruel and fetching in black leather. Brosnan says that if GoldenEye does work, they might well try to get Quentin Tarantino for the next movie to shake things up even more. A dandy idea: Let's hope he doesn't kill Bond coming out of the toilet.
IN DUE COURSE, the Gaumont cinema was knocked down, my father died, and I wised up to the realization that it was not only more desirable but actually easier to become a man after the style of Lennon or McCartney. Even so, I still remember and even hanker after Bond. Every now and then, I'll reach for one of the novels or fondly fondle a suit that reminds me of that which Connery wore while wrapping a poker around the neck of SPECTRE agent Colonel Jacques Boitier (pronounced Boiuard) in the opening sequence of Thunderball.
I try to be postmodern about it. I tell myself it's all to do with that tricky area of reading and watching fiction where empathy crosses a line and becomes identification. This happens more often-I hope-in childhood. Perhaps it's only then that books and movies have deep influence. Women I know tend to identify with their own early heroines, Scarlett O'Hara, or Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who is not only the sexiest chick in the village, a model of wit, independence, and caring thoughtfulness, but a nifty musician and dancer to boot. Yet they don’t consider themselves unreasonable. Somehow, I'm the immature one for having ever wanted to be this debonair and totally believable cat who merely gets to live a life of more or less constant danger while eating and drinking the best, driving cool cars, killing bad guys, and scoring at least two gorgeous women per hundred minutes of screen time.
Ian Fleming, in sitting down to write, found that his dreams corresponded to those of a teenager. Adolescent fantasies modify themselves but at base don't change that much. Bond might have qualities of the dinosaur, but he's an archetype nonetheless, a character whose face and name might change but will never go away.
A few years back, I got friendly with an earnest liberal fellow of my own age, an award-winning documentary-film maker who confessed that he still had in his possession two of those Corgi toy Aston Martins, one for general use and one that had never been taken out of its own box. Now, this was excessive, I thought, but then I had to admit that a guilty part of me still looked in the mirror and dreamed of Bond looking back.