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Posts Tagged ‘James Bond’

I’m always on the lookout for a chance to do something new and innovative on the blog, not to mention a chance to showcase my freakish ability to identify obscure actors in minor roles. And so, hot on the heels of our look at Lust for a Vampire, featuring David Healy in the small but relatively important role of Raymond Pelley (aka Angry Father of Early Victim), I thought we would move on and examine another Healy movie from 1971 – Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds are Forever, in which the actor treats us to his take on Vandenberg Launch Director (an uncredited performance). (Other movies featuring the work of Mr Healy which are reviewed on this blog include You Only Live Twice, Phase IV, and The Ninth Configuration.)

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s just a coincidence (I’m still quite proud to have spotted him though). When you’ve spent nearly seven years reviewing virtually the entire canon of Eon Bond movies, you do start to run out of ways to start them off, but as this is the very last vintage Bond to cross off my list, that’s one problem I probably won’t have to worry about much in future.

Diamonds are Forever is one where Connery came back, for an enormous fee and for one film only, after an arguably rather overconfident George Lazenby decided not to stick around in the part. Fleming’s original novel provides about a third of what happens on screen, as Bond finds himself mixed up in diamond (well, duh) smuggling in Las Vegas, taking on sundry gangsters including the gay hitmen Wint and Kidd. Fairly soon, however, it all mutates into much more standard Bond movie fare, to wit Bond Plot 2: evil mastermind has nefarious scheme involving satellite-based superweapon. Other points of interest include the scene where Q uses his talents to defraud a casino, the one where Blofeld (Charles Gray) dresses up as a woman, and the one where Natalie Wood’s kid sister gets thrown out of a hotel window in her pants.

In the past I have commented on how the addition of SPECTRE and Blofeld to films based on books in which they did not appear often resulted in the improvement of the story. I’m not sure the same can be said in this case; while the presence of Blofeld in this movie was probably inevitable given how the previous one ended, all that results is a fairly bland piece of by-the-numbers Bond – the boxes of the formula get dutifully ticked, but not much new gets added to the recipe.

You could view Diamonds are Forever as the conclusion of the first phase of Bond movies, which nearly all concern themselves with Connery’s Bond taking on SPECTRE in various ways. From being virtually ever-present in the early films, neither SPECTRE nor Blofeld would really feature again for over forty years after this point, and I have to say that while this may have been forced on the film-makers for legal reasons, making most of the Roger Moore movies standalones with new villains does give them more variety and life. I’m always much more entertained by the blaxploitation or chop-socky stylings of the early Moore films than by anything in Diamonds are Forever.

One way in which Diamonds are Forever does set a precedent for the rest of the series is that it establishes that it is perfectly acceptable for Bond to be an older gentleman. Connery was in his early 40s by this point, and the part wasn’t played by anyone younger than this until the advent of Craig (who was only a couple of years shy of 40). Fleming’s Bond is said to be 37 at one point in an early novel, so it’s not as if this is wildly at odds with the source material. Quite what one should make of Connery’s performance here is another matter – as someone pretending to be a smuggler, he certainly has the ‘smug’ part down pat. One never gets the impression that Sean Connery has a problem with a lack of self-belief, and in this film he’s practically a battering ram of entitled self-satisfaction.

This is not especially good news for a film which has an odd tonal problem – there’s some quite hard-edged violence at a couple of points (there are sequences which trouble the TV censors more than most older Bond films), but coupled to a slightly camp tone. All the Bond films are essentially masculine wish-fulfilment fantasies, but it somehow feels more obvious here than in many other cases, and in a particularly unappealing and slightly sleazy way. Connery gets the dodgy ‘collar and cuffs’ gag (to be honest, I’m not sure he or Blofeld has an interaction with a woman in this film which isn’t basically patronising, although Bond is pretty patronising to most of the men, too), and there’s the very dated and frankly dubious (if not outright offensive) material with Wint and Kidd to consider as well.

One of the dated elements of the movie which occasionally draws attention is the rather peculiar sequence in which Bond, having infiltrated the enemy base, discovers what appears to be the filming of a fake moon landing in progress. This was 1971, after all, when the Apollo programme was an ongoing thing, and it has been suggested that this is a not terribly deeply coded signal as to what was really going on at the time. Quite how Eon got wind of the lunar hoaxes and why they decided to blow the gaffe in this slightly oblique way is never really adequately explained, though.

It would be nice to find more genuinely positive things to say about Diamonds are Forever – I suppose I’ve always enjoyed Charles Gray’s performance, and the theme song is good too. In the end, though, this is Bond as an almost totally mechanical, formulaic spectacle, and entirely lacking in the lightness of touch and charm which the best films of the series possess. A bit of a disappointment however you look at it.

 

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From Russia, With Love is, of course, the James Bond story which concludes with the death of Agent 007, undone by his own hubris, not to mention a spiked toecap covered in nerve poison. Bond crashes to the floor, struggling for breath, and everything fades to black, thus allowing his creator to get rid of a character he’d grown rather bored by.

I refer, of course, to From Russia, With Love the novel, not From Russia With Love the movie, at the conclusion of which James Bond is as unstoppably lively and priapic as ever. (As it turned out, Ian Fleming’s intention to kill Bond off was not followed through in the books, either, and the character went on to feature in several more novels, courtesy of prompt first aid from the French secret service.) There was surely never any intention to retain the ambiguous ending of the book for Terence Young’s 1963 movie version, mainly because one gets a strong sense of the producers realising just how good a thing they might be onto here – there’s an almost cautious quality about Dr No, the film-makers’ message being ‘This is a bit different, we think it’s quite good’, but by the following year they seem much more self-assured: this time round the subtext is ‘This is great, you’re going to love it.’

One thing which I think is too-little commented upon is the way that several of the early Bond movies arguably improve on the plots of the novels on which they are based. I’m not talking about those instances of the two shooting off in wildly different directions – the novel of You Only Live Twice is a dark, introspective tale of the death of the self, while the film concerns Blofeld’s spaceship-gobbling volcano – but those where the movie script adds just another level of complexity and adventure to the story.

I’m thinking of the nuclear bomb angle in Goldfinger (absent from the novel), and the main thrust of the plot in From Russia With Love. Bond himself (Connery, obvs) is absent for nearly the first twenty minutes of the film (well, a lookalike in a Connery mask gets killed right at the start), which concerns the nefarious machinations of SPECTRE, back when the organisation wasn’t run by Bond’s long-lost estranged secret adoptive brother (because the series is so much more gritty and realistic these days). SPECTRE are planning on stealing a top-secret Russian cipher machine and then selling it back to the Kremlin, employing an engagingly labyrinthine scheme dreamt up by a Czech chess grandmaster (Vladek Sheybal). The plan involves traitorous former Russian officer Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), a paranoid homicidal maniac (Robert Shaw), a home-made blue movie, a winsome Russian file clerk (Daniela Bianchi), and – of course – British Intelligence’s most libidinous operative.

The late Kevin McClory’s claim to part-ownership of the entire Bond movie franchise, not just Thunderball, was based on the fact that he co-created SPECTRE, which was inserted into movies based on books in which the organisation did not feature. McClory argued that it is the fantasy of SPECTRE which turns the Bond stories from being slightly dour thrillers into something more accessible and fun. SPECTRE doesn’t feature in the novel, which revolves around an attempt by the Russian secret service to take their British opposite numbers down a few pegs, but Blofeld and his team are inserted into the script with great deftness, arguably improving the story a lot. Bond and M assume that this is a Russian plan from the start, while the Russians themselves have no idea what’s going on either. It’s unusual for the audience to be quite so many steps ahead of Bond as they are for much of this movie, and it works rather well in establishing tension, as well as making Bond less of an annoyingly smug superhero.

We’re still not quite in the realm of Bond movies as the theatre of the absurd, either – From Russia With Love is a little bit out there with its depictions of Blofeld and ‘SPECTRE Island’ (just down the coast from Anglesey, no doubt), but most of it is no more ridiculous than the average Jason Bourne movie. The movie is trying to be credible, not incredible, which is why chief heavy Grant (Shaw) isn’t a cartoon character like the movie versions of Oddjob or Tee Hee, and more interesting and plausible as a threat.

That said, you can see the elements of the Bond formula coming into focus with this movie, many of which weren’t there in Dr No: the pre-title sequence, the catchy theme song, the scene in which Bond is kitted out with handy gadgets by Q (not named as such on this debut appearance, and not showing much personality, either), and so on. The rest of it is the usual mixture of glamorous exotic locations, masculine power fantasy, and action set pieces – though it’s telling that the last few action beats of the film are distinctly low-key to the modern eye: a few motorboats catch fire and Bond has a fight with a middle-aged woman. The film certainly feels like it climaxes with the (really well-staged) fight to the death between Bond and Grant.

Connery swaggers through it all with his customary insouciance – in the past I have occasionally observed that I don’t think he’s an actor with a particularly impressive range, but he is always very good at projecting this particular type of character. The rest of the support is pretty good as well. Notable Bond girl trivia includes the fact that Eunice Gayson reappears as Bond’s girl-at-home (I met her once, 40 years after this film was made, and, do you know – she looked completely different), and Martine Beswick (ahhh, Martine Beswick) racks up (if that’s the right term) another Bond appearance as one of the fighting gypsy girls (she is credited as ‘Martin Beswick’ in the titles, which gives a wholly misleading impression).

It’s 2017, and From Russia With Love is closer in time to the end of the First World War than it is to the present day. The Bond films that are made nowadays are different beasts in terms of size, scale, expectations, and tone, but they still owe a huge debt to this film and a few other early 60s Bonds. The film is so much a product of its time that this in itself is a surprise; the fact that it still stands up as one of the very best films in the series is another. But there you go. The Bond series has long since become a legend, and every great legend hides a few mysteries.

 

 

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Didn’t post, or indeed make, anything approaching a New Year resolution this year, which may be a sign of advancing age, or advancing cynicism, or something, but anyway. Nevertheless, I had a bit of a tidy-up of the garret, did a bit of vague positive thinking, and so on. Yes, I know, deeply impressive, isn’t it?

Well, anyway, this has all put me in mind of finishing off a little project from a few years ago, namely, looking at all of the official James Bond films. My original plan was to get all of these out of the way prior to the release of Skyfall in 2012, but obviously this did not happen, and a few Connerys remain outstanding. (Unfortunately only one of the outstanding Connerys is actually outstanding.) But we may as well pick these off as they become available.

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Terence Young’s Thunderball was released in 1965, and was the fourth Bond movie – but, in a slightly odd way, it was also the first Bond movie, inasmuch as it actually started off as a film script, rather than a novel. This, basically, led to a gravy train for many generations of lawyers, primarily between Eon, producers of the official Bond films, who were of the opinion that they had exclusive rights to all Bond-related material, and Kevin McClory, who helped write the Thunderball script, and was thus somewhat peeved when elements of it started turning up in adaptations of completely different books. (The legal shenanigans arising from this explain why Blofeld and SPECTRE weren’t referred to by name in any of the films between 1971 and 2015, and why McClory was able to remake Thunderball as a non-Eon film in 1983.)

Every version of this story (and, as you can, there have been several) follows more-or-less the same lines: the evil minds at SPECTRE, led as ever by Bond’s arch-enemy Blofeld, have cooked up their most ambitious scheme yet – planting a surgically-modified traitor inside NATO to steal two nuclear warheads, which they will then ransom back to the world’s governments for a huge fee. Unfortunately for the bad guys, the final stages of prep for their nefarious undertaking are based out of a health farm in southern England, which their most indefatiguable foe just happens to be visiting…

Well, at this point in history you can kind of see Eon realising they were potentially onto a very good thing with the Bond franchise, and you could probably argue it’s the first film in the series which is aware of its own identity as something called A James Bond Movie. It’s not quite that they’ve taken their foot off the pedal, although this movie has rather less of an edge than previous ones, nor is it that they seem to be taking particular pains not to mess with what was clearly a winning formula. It’s just that there’s a very slight whiff of perfunctoriness about proceedings, in some respects, a definite sense of the film-makers being more concerned with pure spectacle than anything else.

Of course, with its big set pieces and huge concluding battle/chase, Thunderball certainly delivers, but a lot of that spectacle takes the form of lavish underwater sequences, which are necessarily silent and just a little bit slow. (I believe this was the longest pre-Craig Bond film, probably due to all the sub-aqua stuff padding it out.) The bad guys, primarily SPECTRE bigwig Largo (Adolfo Celi) and femme fatale Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi), are capable but not quite of the first rank – in fact the same can be said for most of the visiting cast. Rik van Nutter delivers the least arresting incarnation of Felix Leiter this side of Dalton’s first Bond film, and casting the rather insipid Claudine Auger as the main girl is a bad move, especially when you consider that the bodacious Martine Beswick was also hanging around the set, being criminally underused as one of Bond’s sidekicks.

So this isn’t a favourite Bond for me, and I find it a long and oddly charmless film compared to the ones on either side of it. But it is interesting inasmuch as it’s a textbook example of the classic Bond formula, not making any effort to deviate from the norms of the series.

Bond, by this point, is basically just a male wish-fulfilment figure who gets to swan around doing and getting whatever (and whoever) he wants. He still functions as a post-imperial fantasy hero on some level, but the wish-fulfilment thing is definitely where he’s coming from. And the odd thing is that this makes him a curiously unengaging and, by modern standards, actually quite unpleasant character. His arrogance has crossed the border into a very punchable smugness, and he’s just not human or vulnerable enough to be interesting. Bond’s sexual politics have always been a bit iffy, but some of the goings-on here are as nasty as anything else in the series – Molly Peters’ physio at the health spa initially wants nothing to do with him, but is basically blackmailed by Bond into being the recipient of a proper seeing-to, at which point she becomes as besotted with him as anyone else – predictably, he seems not to genuinely care for her at all.

Beyond this, Thunderball also epitomises the tendency for Bond films to look like adverts for various different things – cars, exotic locales, liquor, suits, jewellery, and so on. It’s a fantasy world of conspicuous consumption, and when the plot occasionally surfaces (as of course it must) it just means that the film looks like a commercial for things you wouldn’t want or be able to buy in the first place – people being eaten by sharks, impaled by spearguns, tortured, and so on. I suppose you could argue that this is the root of the complaint that the Bond films glamourise violence and immorality, and I suppose they have a point.

Perhaps that’s the thing about Thunderball – lacking a really sympathetic lead, and with a script that’s somewhat short of the usual jokes (there are some quite tired ones here), the dark side of Bond is perhaps closer to the surface than usual in a way that doesn’t usually happen. It’s kind of tempting to blame Kevin McClory for this, given that his involvement is the main change in behind-the-scenes personnel between this and the other Connery Bonds, but the odd thing is that Never Say Never Again, which remakes this story, does so with both grit and humour – then again, McClory was only executive producer on the 1983 film.

I suppose Thunderball isn’t really a bad film, but it’s as big a wobble as the Bond series had in the 1960s, especially when you consider the sheer overall quality of the initial run of Connery films. This isn’t quite the series resting on its laurels and going to autopilot, but it’s a near thing.

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One piece of news which got relatively little attention in the days just after Casino Royale was released, back in 2006, was of the passing of veteran film-maker Kevin McClory. McClory’s name was not widely known but he was in many ways a key figure in the history of the Bond films, for all that his name only appears in the credits of a couple of them: McClory and his supporters, if no-one else, were in no doubt that the massive, decades-long success of the Bond franchise was in no small part due to the work McClory put into reconceiving Ian Fleming’s literary creation as a big-screen hero with global appeal (the most immediate product of that work being the novel Thunderball, based on a film script co-written by McClory and Fleming – McClory’s involvement being the reason why he retained the rights to make his own non-Eon version of the script, Never Say Never Again).

One consequence of the seemingly-endless tussle over rights between McClory and Eon was a decision for the official movies not to use certain characters and concepts to which McClory had been assigned ownership. With all this now resolved, one way or the other, the way has been cleared for something which I and many other veteran Bond-followers would never have anticipated coming to pass.

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Or, to put it another way, Sam Mendes’ SPECTRE. Following up the huge critical and popular success of Skyfall might have been an intimidating prospect, but the new film is loaded with enough tantalising concepts to make one forget about all of that. Things get underway with a bit of incidental mayhem in Mexico City, where the Day of the Dead is lavishly staged (and Mendes shows he means business by opening with a hugely extended Touch of Evil-style opening shot, which so far as I could see only has one obvious cheat in it).

It transpires that Bond (Daniel Craig) is following his own private agenda, rather to the annoyance of M (Ralph Fiennes). 007 has been put on the trail of an international criminal organisation known as SPECTRE and is intent on following it, orders or not. This leads him to Rome and a very well-scrubbed-up widow (Monica Belucci), then into the heart of his enemies’ schemes, before travelling on to Austria and north Africa, accompanied much of the time by a beautiful young doctor (Lea Seydoux), whose father Bond has occasionally made the acquaintance of in the past.

While all this is going on, M and the rest of the Secret Service team back in London find themselves under a bureaucratic assault by a new intelligence agency headed by the mysterious C (Andrew Scott). C believes Bond’s section is obselete and is determined to see him replaced both by drones and near-unlimited surveillance. But could there possibly be a connection between this and the case Bond is working…?

I know the question you are wanting to ask (always assuming you haven’t seen the film yet, or read its Wikipedia entry, or looked at a review with spoilers in it) – is there a cat in this movie? Well, on the tiny off-chance you don’t know yet, I feel obliged to keep quiet. What I will say is that the film-makers seem very well-aware that the return of SPECTRE and its leader (maybe) is a huge deal for dedicated Bond-watchers – the organisation was the main opposition in most of the Connery films, and involved with some of the most iconic Bond moments and characters. In a similar vein, the new film retcons like mad to establish that virtually all of Daniel Craig’s previous opponents have been SPECTRE operatives of various stripes, whether this really makes sense or not (it seems logical that Quantum was SPECTRE operating under another name, but not really that Silva from Skyfall was on the payroll).

Keeping at least the pretence of mystery over the SPECTRE top man’s return (or not) is presumably the reason why the film works terribly hard to wrong-foot the viewer, throwing all kinds of misdirections and double-bluffs into the pot. Is it effective or not? I really can’t say, but I do wonder whether it’s worth the effort.

Similarly questionable is the decision to establish that (and this barely constitutes a spoiler) there is a long-standing personal connection between Bond and senior SPECTRE figure Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). What this brings to the story is really unclear, to say nothing of the monumental coincidence involved – it’s not even as if the script and performances suggest these two men have any kind of shared history together. There seems to have been a belief that the story is improved by giving Bond a personal stake in it.

I’m not sure that’s the case, and SPECTRE‘s attempts (as a continuation of Skyfall) to make a Bond movie into something of a sophisticated psychological drama arguably get in the way of it doing all the slightly outrageous, larger-than-life things a lot of people want from Bond. The dear personal friend and valued colleague occupying the workspace contiguous with mine gloomily observed that he felt he didn’t need to see another Bond film ever again, so dragged down to earth has the series become. (Another friend thought it was basically ‘a kid’s film’, although I must say it contains more eye-gouging and skull-drilling than the usual Pixar production.)

Despite all this, I must say I enjoyed most of SPECTRE hugely, as its attempts to reconcile many of the classic Bond staples with a non-ridiculous sensibility are fairly successful. Craig is by now thoroughly comfortable and convincing as Bond, Waltz is very good as the villain (or not), the stuntwork is imaginative and impressive, and there are some very decent jokes. (Although as top SPECTRE heavy Mr Hinx, Dave Bautista is used in an ever-so-slightly perfunctory fashion.) Ever since Eon first cast Judi Dench, these films have had to come up with things for the distinguished actors playing the regulars to do, and this continues here, with bumped-up parts for M, Q, and Moneypenny, but the performers are good enough for this not to be a problem.

The real problem for me comes at the end of the film. One of the things brought to light by the Sony hacking scandal was the existence of a pile of studio notes worried about the fact that SPECTRE‘s climax was both undercooked and underwhelming – and based on the finished movie, I have to say the studio definitely had a point. What’s more, the end of the film is almost the cinematic equivalent of a suspended chord – you’re not so much invited to expect something, you’re almost compelled to, and yet the film doesn’t deliver what seemed to have been promising. I was almost tempted to sit through the entirety of the credits to see if the pay-off arrived in a post-credits scene, but this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Oh well. I suppose it must be a sign of Eon’s confidence that a further movie is bound to happen (and after 53 years, who’s going to argue with them?). I’m still not completely convinced that the Craig formula, such as it is, is quite guaranteed to meet audience expectations, but it would take a bolder writer than I to say that SPECTRE is anything other than very impressive , even if only as a piece of spectacle.

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…I saw Idris Elba’s name coming up a lot earlier this week in connection with more information released back into the wild as a result of Sony’s current embarrassment. (Sorry palindrome fans, I just couldn’t make it sing somehow.) Apparently, apart from thinking that Angelina Jolie can’t act and possibly thinking about leasing Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios, one of the things that Sony executives like to spend their time doing is thinking about who should be the next James Bond, and – not for the first time – Elba’s name has come up in connection with this.

First and foremost, the thing to remember is that Daniel Craig is still in-post and will be for at least another twelve months: he’s already started shooting Spectre, after all. He’s contracted for the film after that, as well, though Eon do have form when it comes to unexpectedly dumping successful Bonds – just ask Pierce Brosnan. Whether Craig is retained for the c.2018 Bond movie will probably depend on how well Spectre does with the critics, but I’d be surprised if he went. So I doubt the job will be up for grabs much before 2020, by which time Elba will be 47 or so, which would make him the oldest person to take on the role.

But putting this to one side, is colourblind casting an option when it comes to a character like James Bond? There’s no question that Elba is an accomplished and charismatic performer – I thought that this was someone with a lot of potential the first time I saw him, which was in 1998’s Ultraviolet – but, inevitably, issues of ethnicity and diversity raise their heads when this kind of question is asked. The New Yorker, for instance, ran the following impressively subtle and ambiguous cartoon on the topic.

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I wouldn’t have said I was a particularly heavyweight Bond fan, but as this is just about the only major franchise from my childhood I still feel a genuine sense of investment with, maybe I should reassess my position. Certainly, on the ‘could a black actor be plausibly cast as Bond?’ question, a couple of things leap to mind – both regarding exactly who the main character is in the series of Eon films.

The notable thing about Casino Royale is that it is a hard reboot of the Bond series: this isn’t just a new leading man, but a new version of the character, and this is made clear in the movie. This naturally gave Craig and the film-makers a lot of latitude which was, perhaps, denied to Pierce Brosnan. The logical question for those of us who worry too much about trivial stuff is, therefore, one of whether we’re supposed to regard all the preceding films as happening to the same person.

The Bond films are so connected to real-world geopolitics and technology that it’s very difficult to argue that they don’t all happen in or around the year they were released, and this instantly makes it massively implausible that the man who visits Jamaica in 1962 is the same one dropping into South Korea in 2002. Clearly there have been most likely a number of soft reboots along the way, but the question is when this happened.

There is a school of Bond thought that, actually, in the context of the films themselves James Bond is only a codename assigned to a succession of individual agents (in same way Matt Damon’s character is renamed Jason Bourne in that other franchise). It’s an idea, I suppose, but one with virtually zero evidence to support it on-screen beyond George Lazenby’s jokey cry of ‘This never happened to the other feller!’ at the start of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Set against this must be the same film’s painstaking efforts to make the audience believe that Lazenby-Bond is the same guy as Connery-Bond (Bond clears his desk and encounters props from previous films), not to mention various references to Roger Moore’s Bond having been married to the Diana Rigg character from OHMSS.

There are usually so few continuity references between Bond films, so few recurring villains, and such an absence of ongoing plotlines, that you can insert the reboots and rewritings of the character’s history pretty much anywhere you like, although the first seven films all seem to be in continuity with other, while some version of the same events seems to have happened off-screen to Roger Moore’s Bond – hence the marriage references and the brief appearance by supposed-to-be-Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only. (In the same way, the appearance of the tricked-out DB-5 in Skyfall is presumably meant to suggest that Craig’s Bond has been through some version of Goldfinger – rather a shame we didn’t get that film instead of Quantum of Solace, but never mind.)

Anyway, it will be interesting to see if the next change of Bonds triggers another hard reboot. Normally I would doubt it, but casting a non-Caucasian actor would really demand it, I suspect: colourblind casting is one thing, but colourblind recasting another.

This still begs the question of whether casting a non-Caucasian Bond is viable, even following a hard reboot. I suspect it depends on how you view Bond himself – if he’s just a generic tough, wise-cracking, ladykilling, male-power-fantasy-fulfilling cartoon, character then there’s nothing that ties the character to any particular ethnic group. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to see him as a coherent, aspiring-to-be three-dimensional character – specifically, the one created by Ian Fleming – then it may be a bit more problematic.

Fleming himself obviously never conceived of Bond as anything but white – he admittedly describes him as ‘dark’ at one point, but also likens him to Hoagy Carmichael. There’s also the fact that Fleming writes Bond as – by modern standards – an appalling racist. ‘Koreans were lower than apes,’ is a representative insight into Bond’s thought processes in the original novel of Goldfinger. On the other hand, this aspect of the character has understandably been dropped from the movie version.

One bit of Fleming which has been retained is Bond’s heritage as a Scots-Swiss orphan. The question, if Fleming’s conception is to be retained, is really one of whether a Scots-Swiss Bond can also plausibly be a non-Caucasian Bond. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I must confess to feeling dubious about the prospects of this idea.

But, if we’re going to think about this in terms of Fleming’s conception of the character, then we’re talking about a white Bond, a very traditionally British Bond, a son of privilege, an elitist, a snob, an imperialist. The question is not just one of whether an acceptable version of all these characteristics can be brought to the screen by a non-white performer, but whether any non-white performers of note would be interested in doing so.

In short, then, I would say that a non-Caucasian Bond is possible, but it would be a departure, and a version of the character more widely removed from the source material than any other up to this point. You might say that Bond has already evolved a long way away from Ian Fleming by this point, and I would agree, but only up to a point. Much of the success of the Craig version of Bond is, I think, down to the way in which the films have authentically returned to the roots of the character. Stepping too far away would undeniably be a risk.

 

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Here’s something you probably didn’t know: Mr Prez himself, Barack Obama, is a big fan of Conan the Barbarian and has a sizable collection of Conan comics. It’s one of those things which seems so natural once you’re aware of it, isn’t it? The imposing physical presence… the grim personal magnetism… the ferocious code of personal honour… peas in a pod, I tell you, peas in a pod.

I should probably stop being snide about Obama, who is not someone I have serious issues with, and write some more about the Cimmerian himself, who… well, Conan may be a fictional character who’s been dead for many millennia, but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to risk writing snotty things about him. Yes, he’s that hard.

And possibly he doesn’t really deserve it. After reading various Conan stories over the course of nearly thirty years – many of them pastiches written quite recently – not long ago I took the plunge and embarked upon Conan: The Definitive Collection, which contains the original tales written by Conan’s creator, Robert E Howard, back in the 1930s. (The word ‘definitive’ is potentially questionable, given that at least two stories from the centenary edition of The Complete Chronicles of Conan don’t appear – but I will resist the urge to digress, for once.)

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Most people’s view of Conan has been shaped either by the Marvel Comics version of the character so beloved of the Commander-in-Chief, or the movie incarnation so memorably embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger (I suspect we may safely dispense with Jason Momoa’s contribution), so to go back to the original source of the character would probably come as a shock. I am perhaps lucky in that I never really read the comics and didn’t see the movie until after I’d read a few Howard stories, so I always had a sense of how Arnie wasn’t quite getting under the character’s skin.

On paper there’s really not much to be said about the Howard Conan: the stories comprise a partial biography of a warrior living in a prehistoric but still semi-civilised world vaguely recognisable as our own (the geography is a bit different). After a chequered career as a thief, pirate, and mercenary, he rises to the throne of one of the major nations of his day, and… well, Howard never revealed whether his Ever After was happy or not.

The consensus about Howard’s writing is that this is pulp fiction, perhaps of a superior quality, but still ultimately pulp. And this is probably true: there is no great invention or artifice in the conception or construction of the stories. They are formulaic on a number of levels – the plots usually boil down to a confrontation between Conan with his massive sword and an unspeakably degenerate wizard of some stripe, more often than not featuring a fight between Conan and a big monster of some kind (usually an ape or a snake). It’s possible to view some of the later stories as expanded new takes on the earlier ones – Red Nails and The Slithering Shadow share most of their plot elements, as do The Scarlet Citadel and The Hour of the Dragon.

Even the actual storytelling gets quite repetitive: you find yourself playing a game when reading these stories which I used to think of as Conan Bingo, mentally looking out for the stock words and phrases Howard routinely deploys when describing his hero – not a single description of Conan goes by without an appearance of at least one of the following: wolf, thew, massive, square-cut mane, panther, iron, corded, muscles, frame. (Conan’s love interest of the week, by the way, usually snags at least a couple of: lovely, slim, lithe, pale, figure, alabaster.)

As you can probably imagine, the politics, sexual or otherwise, are fairly unreconstructed in all of these stories. Howard’s Conan isn’t the grunting thicko that Arnie sometimes gave the impression of being, but a sharp and wily customer with various talents beyond hacking people to bits – he speaks numerous languages and is a whiz at commanding an army. (He appears to have a solid grasp of neo-con financial management, too, judging from a few hints in the stories, but Howard never got around to writing Conan the Free-market Economist.) Most men he meets are instantly cowed by and jealous of him, while most women… well, you can probably imagine. He is not unlike James Bond in chainmail, in short.

The comparison with Bond is not quite as flippant as I may have made it sound, because I think both Robert E Howard and Ian Fleming were writing about a kind of idealised archetype of masculinity – from their own cultural perspectives, of course. Bond and Conan are both ruthless killers and bon viveurs, as well as being sexually magnetic – fantasy figures, it goes without saying. The difference is that Bond is an imperial figure, intent on preserving a cultural system, while Conan is a more American figure, representing freedom and individual self-reliance (his creator was a Texan, after all).

The parallels run further – both confront evil masterminds with outlandish henchmen, both are worldly polymaths, and both the Conan stories and the original Bond novels are quite staggeringly sexist and racist by modern standards. You quickly lose track of the number of references to shady hook-nosed easterners, yowling woolly-headed negroes, and so on. There’s never any suggestion of Conan himself even considering relations with a woman of a different ethnicity, and one of his few points of honour is his reluctance to let other ‘white women’ be despoiled by the other races.

Considered all together, this is perhaps why Robert E Howard is one of those very influential writers most serious critics are sniffy about. Even those who can find something positive to say about the verve, colour, and narrative strength of his storytelling qualify this by saying it was all a result of inborn natural talent – the implication being he never really thought about what he was doing.

I’m not sure I would go so far, and I do think it’s interesting that Howard is mostly held at arm’s length when his contemporary and correspondent HP Lovecraft is, to a significant degree, feted as a major literary figure. Lovecraft’s best known fiction is as formulaic as Howard’s, albeit in a different way, and it is just as uncomfortably racist, if not in fact moreso. The only thing that keeps Lovecraft from being sexist, one suspects, is the fact that he seems rather reluctant to write about female characters at all.

The links run deeper – there’s a Lovecraftian influence on some of the Conan stories which seems indisputable. One of the first stories, The Tower of the Elephant, has an encounter between the Cimmerian and an honest-to-Gawd extraterrestrial very much in the Lovecraftian mould – this creature is called Yogah, from the planet Yag. Mentions of blasphemous cities inhabited by dreadful, pre-human creatures also crop up in a number of stories (Queen of the Black Coast, for one). While Howard did write what some have classified as Cthulhu Mythos stories, none of them feature Conan (except to the extent that all his protagonists are to some degree interchangeable – wolfish, with iron, corded muscles, etc), which I can’t help feeling is a bit of a shame. What Lovecraft’s stories lack in narrative drive, Howard has by the gallon – and while the mythology and supernatural elements of the Conan stories sometimes feels a bit vague and underdeveloped, that’s the last thing you can say about the Mythos. A full collaboration between the two of them would surely have been a match made in weird pulp heaven.

But I digress. I really don’t think you can dismiss Howard as a guileless hack while continuing to acclaim Lovecraft as a great literary one-off. Many of the stories are formulaic, but that doesn’t detract from the energy and verve with which they are written. And every now and then Howard transcends his own formula and produces something of undeniable quality: the astonishingly vivid sequence in A Witch Shall Be Born depicting Conan’s crucifixion, for instance (practically the only thing from the original stories to make it into the movies), or the atypically bleak and downbeat tone of Beyond the Black River (Conan wins a Pyrrhic victory as an outpost of civilisation is overrun by savages).

And above all the stories have the smack of sincerity about them – their politics may be unacceptable these days, but the politics itself is implicit in what are primarily adventure stories. Provided you bear in mind these stories are the product of a different era and sensibility, there is still much to enjoy here (especially if you pace yourself and don’t splurge on the whole set in a few days). These stories and this character must have lasted for a reason – and, when you consider that, the whole question of exactly how good a writer Robert E Howard was becomes just a little bit academic.

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A few years ago I had the ambition to write about all the Eon Bond movies before the release of Skyfall for the series’ fiftieth birthday. Well, I didn’t quite manage it: I did all the Moore films, as well as George Lazenby and Daniel Craig’s, but a couple of Connerys eluded me, and also The Living Daylights. This was the fifteenth Eon Bond film, directed by John Glen and released in 1987: the twenty-fifth anniversary Bond, in fact, though I don’t recall much fuss being made about this at the time.

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This is a film which has a special place in my memory, for the simple reason that it includes the first change of Bond in my lifetime. A new James Bond is always an exciting prospect; perhaps not quite as exciting as a new Doctor Who, but certainly approaching the same ballpark. Being in at the start of something new is always refreshing.

The movie opens with a rather well-executed pre-credit sequence featuring some Land Rover-based mayhem around the Rock of Gibraltar and Timothy Dalton establishing his Bondian credentials by getting it on with a woman whose yacht he ends up parachuting onto. From the start Dalton takes pains to demonstrate he is not Roger Moore, by taking everything very seriously and doing a rather intense face at every opportunity. I found this rather laudable.

The plot proper gets going with a somewhat-retooled version of the short story which the film is named after. Bond is sent to Bratislava to help facilitate the defection of a senior KGB general (Jeroen Krabbe) by putting a bullet in the sniper who will be attempting to stop him. Bond goes off the reservation a bit by not killing the girl who is apparently the assassin (Maryam d’Abo) on the grounds that she is a) clearly a patsy and b) quite fit.

What follows is actually quite complex, as Bond plots usually go, with the defection not being all that it seems. The villains are not trying to take over the world, nor even stir up trouble between Britain and the USSR: if you look closely it eventually becomes apparent that the plot is actually about another renegade KGB officer attempting to make a pile by engaging in heroin dealing, but I think you have to be on the ball to follow this the first time round. Narrative clarity is not, perhaps, the film’s greatest strength, and indeed it is a little unclear who the main villain of the piece is: is it Krabbe, or an arms dealer played by Joe Don Baker?

On the other hand, the action sequences in the film are numerous and uniformly well-staged, often with a slightly harder edge than was usually during Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond. How much of this was directly down to Timothy Dalton’s influence I don’t know: like most big franchises, there’s a sort of oil tanker effect with the Bond films, and it takes a while for a change in direction to actually become apparent. In many ways The Living Daylights has much more in common with, say, Octopussy than it does with Licence to Kill, but Dalton is playing Bond very straight all the way through.

There’s something very much of its time about The Living Daylights, which makes it more interesting as a historical artefact than most Bonds. Never mind a-Ha or The Pretenders on the soundtrack, nor indeed the villains’ walkman-loving henchman (he only appears to have one song to listen to) – in an attempt to reflect real-world geopolitics, this is the Bond film which partly takes place in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. These days it is rather odd to see a film in which James Bond teams up with, effectively, the proto-Taliban to launch an assault on an airbase in Afghanistan, but I suppose this is a valuable reminder of a historical truth – though quite what that truth is I’m not really sure.

The Living Daylights is a solidly assembled movie that sticks to the Bond recipe quite faithfully and with decent results – the only real problem with it is that, by this point, Bond films had ceased to have any identity other than as Bond films. Is this meant to be a family adventure blockbuster, in the style of Indiana Jones, or is it an actual grown up espionage thriller? No-one seems quite sure, with the result that this is a slightly jokey stunt spectacular about arms dealing and heroin smuggling. Licence to Kill has much a much better sense of what it’s supposed to be, but The Living Daylights is a slightly odd amalgam of frothy Moore-era lightness and Dalton’s muscular intensity. Still fun, though.

 

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