“Bond is a daydream of absolute irresponsibility. A world where nobody civilises you. None of the girls is annoyed; none of the girls has a baby. He can even get married without having to get married. There are no repercussions. A dream of power without responsibility.”
Thus, the journalist and one-time friend of James Bond author Ian Fleming Lady Mary Clive described our hero in the James Bond movies. And that was very enjoyably the case until after Goldfinger was released in 1964.
As the two of us watched all the Bond movies in sequence during the COVID-19 lockdown, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. But even during the interminable underwater battle scenes in the ghastly Thunderball from 1965 – we were nearly ready to drown ourselves – I knew that something had been lost.
What was it about the earlier Bond movies that caught my immature imagination?
Quite simply: James Bond existed in a self-contained fantasy world with great stories that had a beginning, middle and end, peopled by taboo-tinged mythological figures.
- Moneypenny’s Jocasta may not be sullied
- M’s Laius, the forbidding, all-knowing father-figure
- Dr. No with his biblically severed hands
- Goldfinger is Midas
- Jill Masterson … I am still figuring out if her golden corpse was more Marigold or Lot’s wife Edith
- Scaramanga is Achilles’ nemesis Paris
- Stromberg is Odysseus as opposed to Largo’s Neptune
Fleming, while no classics scholar, had spent enough years at English boarding school that, even while dozing during Latin and Greek, he was bound to pick up on the bold and beautifully drawn characters in the texts. And, as anyone who has slogged through The Iliad can tell you, the heroes are very like the early Bond: flawed, anachronistic, violent, inconsistent and fascinating.
Nobody is proposing that Fleming was recreating The Golden Bough with a series of spy thrillers. But, if you are going to tell fantastic stories, at least make sure your cardboard-cutout characters are rooted in something classic.
In that respect the definitive James Bond movies – and I’m referring to just the first three, Dr. No, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger – have more in common with Indonesian wayang, Punch and Judy, Grand Opera or the folkloric oral history that some say are the basis of Homer’s oeuvre.
Judging by the continuing popularity of the movie franchise one cannot simply point the finger at the producers. Clearly, the audience for James Bond has changed over nearly 58 years, too. But I have not.
Don’t even think about writing a dissertation to explain M becoming a woman in 1995. It’s nothing more than a muddled metaphor. At about the same time the scripts imploded into soap opera, where the plot is primarily about MI6 itself or, worse, James Bond’s childhood.
The spell is truly broken when Bond actually beds Moneypenny in Skyfall. And the audience does not even care. (Teresa chiming in here: We never see Bond in bed with Moneypenny, and she does rebuff his attempt to unbutton her shirt. I disagree that they had sex.)
And ultimately, with SPECTRE (the final movie when our marathon was complete), we discover why the long series of nasty anodyne villains since Goldfinger had such a familiar sneering curled lip. They were – surprise! – all related in one big crime family.
In the search for relevance and authenticity, not to mention ticket purchases by spotty teenage gamers, the iconic characters of the earlier movies were gradually replaced by ubiquitous and extended chase scenes. True, even my normally quiet heart was racing while watching them, but my mind was wandering back to Honor Blackman and, yes, even Gert Fröbe’s portrayal of Auric Goldfinger.
While it’s not manna from heaven, Goldfinger was, as the enthusiastic reviewer for the Manchester Guardian once coined it, “Garbage from the gods.”