Friday, October 05, 2012

James Bond: A universal export

It was a Sunday, October 14th to be precise, in 1962, when a U-2 spy plane piloted by one Major Richard Heyser took more than 900 pictures of construction work taking place at San Cristóbal in western Cuba.

The following day, analysts at the CIA poured over the photographs and discovered what they believed to be ballistic missiles. The kind of missiles that could reach - and annihilate - cities as far west as San Francisco and as far north as Washington DC, New York and Boston.

And so, the world was plunged into a 13-day crisis that it didn't know it would come out of alive. It was only 17 years before that America had ended one world war by using nuclear bombs for the first time; it was now possible that human history itself could come to an abrupt end by the appropriately constructed acronym MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction - as Washington and Moscow squared up in a game of nuclear brinkmanship. It was the closest the Cold War ever came to becoming a decidedly hot one, then or since.

11 days before Heyser's U-2 took off, a movie made its premiere, introducing a character who, over the next 50 years, would come close on many occasions to preventing the sort of global catastrophe that almost happened for real that October. The film was Dr. No and the character was Bond, James Bond.

When Dr. No premiered on October 5, 1962, Bond had appeared in 10 novels by Ian Fleming, an Eton and Sandhurst-educated writer who had worked in British naval intelligence during World War II and knew a thing or two about the high life and the low life. His Bond books - he'd go on to publish five more - became best sellers.

However, it was the film series that would turn Bond into one of cinema's most iconic characters and an icon for Great Britain, with Dr. No being followed by 22 official sequels, an unofficial sequel, one official spoof and countless other parodies, rivals and homages, plus a starring role in the London Olympics.

Today there will be little you and I don't know about Bond. He's been a part of our upbringing, his films seeped so deeply into our collective consciousness that the character is as familiar as our own family members. In the days before satellite television and DVD, Christmas and bank holidays revolved around the TV premiere of a Bond movie.

We may not remember each individual plot, but the 22 'official' films released to date have each contained standout moments that we all will associate with: Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder emerging from the Caribbean in Dr. No, Goldfinger's Aston Martin DB5 with its ejector seat and machine guns, the Union Flag-unfirling ski jump in The Spy Who Loved Me, John Barry's dreamy theme tune to You Only Live Twice, and countless stunts involving rocket packs, boats, mini submarines and even space shuttles.

When you look back over the 50 years of James Bond as an undoubted screen symbol, the formula has rarely changed. And yet as enjoyably predictable as each Bond has been - there will be corny seductions, there will be underwater scenes, Bond will visit the Caribbean at least once per film, M will get frosty with his/her star agent - we have always wanted and expected more.

Unlike no other movie series, the legend "James Bond will return in…" in the closing credits has been enough to keep the appetite whetted for whatever length it takes to bring the character back to the screen. And even though the original canon of Fleming novels and short stories has long been exhausted, for the most part, the story creativity has been maintained to a very high standard.

The Bond series has been maintained by expectation. There are few - if any - other franchises (how I loathe that inappropriately applied plop of marketingspeak…) that can draw excitement merely by being announced as a production. You're unlikely to hear someone exclaiming "They're going to make another American Pie!", and trailers for a further instalment of Resident Evil will, I assure you, illicit nothing but groans when played in a cinema.

But Bond? When 'Bond 23' - which we now know is Skyfall - was announced in November last year, its premiere was marked in more diaries than just those of the Bond geeks and film nerds. A Bond premiere is an event. Actually, it's a royal event, the tradition being that Bond movies make their debut in London with a charity premiere attended by members of the British royal family. One wonders whether the Queen herself will attend Skyfall's premiere, now she's on parachuting terms with 007…

However, let's turn the clock back 50 years for a moment. Before this day in 1962 there had been films and film heroes that featured international intrigue and daring, be it Casablanca or The Third Man, North By Northwest, The 39 Steps and Hitchcock's two versions of The Man Who Knew Too MuchDr. No introduced something else. And for that, credit must go to producers Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and their choice of director, Terence Young.

Hollywood had flirted with putting Bond on the cinema screen some years before Broccoli and Saltzman acquired the rights to Fleming's books (with the exception, bizarrely, of Casino Royale - later to be made into a semi-comic film starring David Niven and Woody Allen). Hollywood seemed to hard to convince: Bond's playboy lifestyle wasn't exactly compatible with chaste American tastes - this was the early 60s after all, and the sight of Doris Day's ankle was almost too much to bear, And there was the British factor - would American audiences care for a secret agent hailing from that little island in the North Sea that, barely a decade and a half before, Uncle Sam had saved from Hitler?

Eventually a distributor - United Artists - was found, and Dr. No was picked to be the first Bond story proper to be transferred to cinema. After staging a beauty contest to find their James Bond, Broccoli and Saltzman - now under the auspices of Eon Productions - selected a 32-year-old unknown Scottish actor, former Edinburgh milkman and body builder, Sean Connery, having considered more well known candidates like Cary Grant. Grant, being British by birth (one Archie Leach of Bristol), had offered both suaveness and Hollywood bankability. However, with Eon optioning Fleming's Bond books, they wanted their star to commit to a series, which Grant would not do.

Connery, on the other hand, was an actor of little note. But he had a roughness which the producers liked. With David Niven another early candidate, Broccoli and Saltzman - together with Fleming's input - decided that their screen Bond should be tough and debonair, and not just an aristocratic playboy with a gun.

Most Bond fans, in fact most people, would now agree wholeheartedly that Sean Connery made Bond. Roger Moore, oddly, was another early candidate, and although he played the character longer than any other actor - too long for some - Connery shaped the role. The spoofs and spinoffs have all been based on Sean Connery. And his eyebrow.

Connery may have made Bond, but Connery's Bond was largely made by director Terence Young. Young's fastidious approach to colour, to set design and clothing - even down to the cut of Bond's suits (he felt that a Savile Row suit could not be spoiled by the silhouette of a gun carried in a shoulder holster, so Connery's jackets were made just a little too big for him) - created a film unlike any others in 1962.

The world was a somewhat gloomy place on October 5, 1962, but Dr. No with its opening of a colonial MI6 agent being gunned down in Jamaica by three blind assassins, not only launched James Bond into the world in the brightly colourful, turquoise-skied setting of his literary author's adopted home island, but set the slightly off-kilter tone that would come back again and again with characters like Oddjob, Rosa Klebb and the camp duo of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd.

50 years on, Dr. No might seem a little wooden, but compared with the convoluted CGI mess of Die Another Day many years later, it was a compelling prototype. From Russia With Love, which followed, developed the Bond concept further, introducing Q and his exploding briefcase, but not veering Bond away from the fact he was a spy first, action hero and ladykiller second.

Some might say, and I wouldn't disagree, that the Daniel Craig era of Bond owes more to From Russia With Love than any other film in the series, being slightly darker - greyer, then - and more claustrophobic.

After their misgivings at the casting of a short, blond Liverpudlian, Bond fans have rightly warmed to Craig. His Casino Royale - the first 'proper' film adaptation of Fleming's first Bond book - was a brilliantly balanced 007 outing.

Yes, there were some preposterous elements of modern film-making - not least the overt product placement from Sony, Richard Branson appearing in a Miami airport scanner to plug Virgin Atlantic, and Bond driving a Ford Mondeo, God help us. But the movie, and Craig in particular, very quickly brought the character into tight alignment with the edge created by Sean Connery in the very first Bond film of all.

Dr. No made its debut on an auspicious day and at the beginning of an auspicious period for Britain. That same day, October 5, The Beatles released Love Me Do, launching a global phenomenon that would match Bond. After decades of war and economic austerity caused by war, the 1960s started to swing. London in 1962 had already seen the Rolling Stones make their live debut. Music was emerging from the underground.

There was an awakening of youth culture. Teenagers were finding their voice and learning to play guitars.  And with James Bond, amid the spy stuff and crazed bald villains threatening world domination or world destruction (Kruschev, anyone?) from beneath volcanic craters, cinema created the perfect icon for an era acquiring glamour. Bond joined the jet set on behalf of everyone else: via Bond, those of us who couldn't afford exotic holiday destinations flew to them first class thanks to the British taxpayer. We have visited parts of the world we could only dream of, places that, even now, represent glamour and intrigue combined.

Bond has also been one of Britain's best exports. It took two distinctly American film producers to turn him into one, mind. He's been through a lot over the last 50 years, from being sliced in two by a diamond-cutting laser to the studio MGM going bankrupt and, potentially ending the entire series forever. As with all of his scrapes, Bond survived to fight another day. That day being October 23. When Bond will return...

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