“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.” This sentence from Goldfinger (1959), encapsulates the essence of the Bond novels, according to Jeremy Black in the updated edition of his work The World of James Bond: The Lives and Times of 007. It is a sentence that suggests a certain sense of depth and melancholy introspection to Bond’s character, in addition to the lifestyle defined by opulent decadence we have come to expect of 007 as encountered in the many films in which he is the main protagonist. As Black argues in his excellent work, where we may see a contrast, if not a contradiction, there is, in fact, harmony and symbiosis. The apparent antagonism between the films and the novels is illusory. The darker, colder, self-reflective spy haunted by existential dilemmas and doubts in the novels, and the more cheerful, affable connoisseur of high fashion and vintage champagne, unashamed seducer of beautiful women and permanently blessed with luck at the casino table in the films, are one and the same. Both of these sides are very much integral parts of Bond’s personality, but the films and books tend to over-emphasize one or the other.
Black, an eminent historian, goes even further than what is already a comprehensive yet fascinating analysis of the character. Black’s book eludes a more rigid classification which should not be treated as a defect. It is a work that incorporates fields as diverse as social history, twentieth century British history, the history of the Cold War, film criticism and history, literary criticism, and even some philosophical exposition. This is a competent, multi-layered analysis that would be of interest not just for admirers of Bond and Fleming, but for anyone interested who has an interest in the aforementioned subjects. Although Fleming’s original novels are discussed, much greater detail is dedicated to the films and the works written by other authors after Fleming’s death. Fleming’s books are, however, implicitly recognized as a veritable “Bond canon,” which is regularly deployed by Black as a higher authority against which all other works are judged.
As a character, Bond is as quintessentially British as Sherlock Holmes in his identity and peculiarities. With the intention of Bond being his “blunt instrument,” Fleming named the agent after a now-obscure ornithologist. 007’s origins, however, are as diverse as they are fascinating. Black traces Bond’s background to the phenomenon of the British “Clubland heroes” who are “gentlemen and decent chaps,” best exemplified by Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond. Bond is also an amalgamation of different British Second World War spies and commandos whom Fleming personally knew or had read about. In particular, Black singles out the secret agent Sidney Reilly, whose exploits Fleming learned about by reading from then secret archives. Reilly had taken part in the preparation of a coup against Lenin in 1918 and was assassinated by Soviet agents in 1925. However, when not engaged in nefarious plotting and spy-work “Reilly was an enthusiastic gambler, liked the high life, and was keen on women.”
Thus, the modern, daring spy of the world of total war and the decadent Romantic British imperialist were merged. However, the historical context of Bond’s appearance adds further layers of complexity. 007 is, without a doubt a child of the Cold War, with the Second World War still fresh in mind, though in the background. Bond, as well as his creator, express many of the worries, doubts, and prejudices that a Briton of a pro-imperial, Tory, disposition would have done in the 50s and 60s: concern with Britain’s place in a world quickly changing with America on one side and the Soviet Union on the other, not to mention an emergent China reclaiming its lost territories from a century of European colonialism, as well as worry about ex-Nazis.
Germany (and the German-speaking countries in general) is strongly associated with the Second World War, still more or less defined by residual, if currently inconspicuous, Nazism. It is not surprising that many a villain of the Bond franchise is an ex-Nazi, or somehow a Nazi associate. The Soviet Union is a fear-inducing, though rational opponent, worthy of both respect and contempt in equal measure. Britain is a proud, though diminished empire, which remains eminently superior to her rivals in terms of competence, know-how and values. However, her decline is undeniable with the disintegration of empire and militant trade unionism at home being its most visible symptoms. France, on the occasions it is mentioned, suffers from the same illness as Britain, though in far more terminal stage. The United States, in contrast, is a fresh, new, vigorous entity, lacking in wisdom and time-tested competence, yet rich in power and money which more than compensate for any perceived defects.
Britain’s ambiguous relationship with the United States, in the time period of the Second World through the Cold War and beyond, is a major theme of both the books and the films. Black suggests that this relationship, as Fleming saw it, is best exemplified by the casino scene in Casino Royale. Felix Leiter, the CIA agent, is incapable of winning at baccarat against Le Chiffre, the trade unionist villain and master gambler. Leiter quickly sees that Bond can win this all-important game, though lacks the funds. Recognizing Bond’s superior skill and competence, Leiter provides Bond with funds on a scale post-war Britain could not fathom. Thus, the myth of the “special relationship” was born and one that pays homage to America’s role in funding the British (and Soviet) war effort during the Second World War (it is often forgotten by partisans of “Rule Britannia” and teenage Soviet romanticists on the internet that while the US didn’t engage in the same degree of fighting as they, American money and material helped Britain and the Soviet Union hold back the Nazi onslaught; it was a team effort as the relationship between Leiter and Bond signifies). With American money, power, and connections, and with British wisdom, knowledge and competence, Britain could now punch well above her weight as America’s junior partner. As Black explains, Britain “wished to be treated by the United States as a dependable, but independent, ally,” a position “far easier for Bond to negotiate than for British governments.” Thus, Bond became the embodiment of that dependable but still uniquely British ally.
So where does Bond stand as an individual in this radically new context? He is a committed servant of MI6 and the state, but again, in a fashion that is uniquely British, positioned somewhere between the American and continental European attitudes towards institutional loyalty. The typical American hero tends to be a conditional servant of the institutions of the state, always suspicious of them and at the ready to turn against them in righteous rebellion, should they turn out to be corrupt or criminal. He is always prepared to forego the benefits he receives for the greater good, or to simply do the right thing, thus becoming an outlaw by moral necessity. One only need consider the different film incarnations of John Wayne, or figures such as Rambo and John Spartan, which are a case in point. In contrast, the French Inspector Maigret is totally loyal to the French state, which can do no wrong. He is happy to be a salaried employee for life in a France whose institutions are beyond reproach.
Bond, in comparison, is a salaried employee who also enjoys an independent income from his private investment portfolio, making him an “independent man of property.” MI6 and the British Empire are clearly on the side of goodness, honor, and order. All threats and enemies are external, and they seek to undermine these almost katechon-like preservers of order in the world. If Bond ever takes independent action or disobeys an order, it is because it has become necessary to do so, and he is certain of MI6’s forgiveness and post-factum consent. As Black points out, Fleming’s vision of MI6 and post-war Britain is a romantic one. In reality, MI6 was beset by scandals and treason, with high-profile defections to the Soviet Union being a regular occurrence. The British Empire was not the indispensable guarantor of world stability as Fleming would have her, for she was in a state of disintegration and slow descent into comparative insignificance as a world power.
Bond is, therefore, a “blunt instrument” infused with both historical realism and nostalgia, a romantic hero of a colder, less certain, sort which can plausibly descend into irony and self-reflection. And herein lies the secret to Bond’s seemingly timeless success: he is a “clubland,” an aristocratic hero, a suave gentleman forced by the merciless sands of time to operate in the distinctly unromantic Cold War era of rational conflict.
Bond is the “Last of the Mohicans” of an empire in the twilight of its days, an out-of-place adventure hero at the end of history, finding consolation in sensual indulgence. As a hero, 007 finds himself loyal to a dying world in a time of tectonic transition to a new age, which fills him with a sense of foreboding and dread. Bond fears, as did his creator, that the post-Cold War world will be that of the stateless, totalitarian organization SPECTRE, defined by the rule of a bland, asexual, managerial bureaucracy, staffed by ex-Nazis and renegade Soviets and communist (collectivist) sympathizers and sycophants, inimical to pleasure, refinement and heroism. A world that is clearly not (good) enough for a true hero.
Despite the Cold War context, most Bond villains are not servants of the Soviet state, with the notable exception of SMERSH. Regardless of their origins and backgrounds, the villains tend to serve transnational secret organizations, whose aim is to destroy or remake the world along collectivist but managerial lines that blur corporate and communist ideologies along the lines of what James Burnham identified as the “managerial revolution.” The Soviets are, more often than not, allies of convenience, or at least an adversary that is rational and not nihilistic in intent. Figures such as Dr. No, Drax, Goldfinger, Stromberg and above all, Blofeld are either self-seeking or nihilistic in disposition. They reject both East and West, instead seeking a position of civilizational “convergence” or “rebirth” centered around themselves and their post-national bureaucracies. Ironically, this has become a mainstream aspirational position in the real post-Cold War world, and not just the one of spy fiction. One only need look at the Davos elite of the World Economic Forum.
Bond’s adversaries “believe in planning, almost obsessively so, and, indeed, represent a conflation of plutocratic and bureaucratic man, the last understood by Fleming as a characteristic of Communism.” Contrastingly, “in Weberian terms, Bond is, not represents, but is, the persistence of charisma against the iron age of rationalism and bureaucracy. The villains are ‘control freaks, seeking order even as they pursue disorder.’” Bond is a romantic aristocrat in an age when romanticism and aristocracy have vanished and the rational corporate manager, scientist, and bureaucrat has replaced him as the individual of supreme importance in the new world.
By defeating these villains, Bond is not only defending the order as represented by the British Empire, but the spirit of old world which he represents, as well as the concept of the state itself. He is also, metaphorically, defending what is left of pleasure and sensuality. His opponents are described as sexually perverted, hateful of pleasure and utterly lacking in joy or feeling. For these reasons, Bond finds himself more than justified in dispatching these villains and their henchmen. Harking back to his roots as an adventure hero, there is no moral ambiguity when it comes to killing a true villain. This position is best described by Bond, then portrayed by Roger Moore, in the film The Man with the Golden Gun. When Scaramanga tells Bond that they both gained fulfilment from killing and were not that different after all, Bond retorts: “when I kill, it is on the specific orders of my government, and those I kill are themselves killers.” Bond is justified in his actions not only because of the morally evil character of his opponents, but also because the killings have been ordered by MI6—the arbiter of right and wrong.
Bond’s line of work, combined with the sense he is the last of a dying breed among lesser men in a pre-apocalyptic age of decay, serves as the primary cause behind his womanizing and affinity towards luxury foods, drink, his habit of smoking up to 60 cigarettes a day as well as his sarcastic sense of humor for which he has become known. These activities provide a “necessary relief from a world of kill and be killed.” However, “opulence is to be enjoyed, but not at the expense of the mission.”
Bond’s relationships with women are never deep or lasting. True love and marital happiness evade him consistently, though it is difficult to see how the character would be compatible which such a settled, peaceful life. His fleeting encounters with women are either treated ironically as an occupational hazard or, more frequently, “cold.” Bond’s rare attempts at finding a lasting relationship necessarily end in tragedy. However, the inability to find love and companionship, though a burden, does not lead Bond to despondency. To him, any form of regret is an unacceptable “death-watch beetle in the soul.” He is defined by his job and his loyalty to the British state and the old aristocratic values he felt it represented. This is where he found meaning. Foregoing personal happiness is an act of sacrifice, a worthy offering for this higher purpose.
Although the films endeavor to be more or less faithful to the “fixed” personality provided by the novels, as Black shows they were rather flexible in their attempts to court the prevalent zeitgeist. The classic Connery films sought to be faithful to Bond as envisaged by the novels, and Connery’s performance found approval with Fleming. Connery was chosen, above all, to be a more physically imposing Bond, more likely to appeal to American audiences addicted to cowboy-style westerns. Lazenby’s sole portrayal was an attempt to continue where Connery had left, though he offered a somewhat less humorous Bond and more of a bruiser.
Roger Moore, the Bond of the 70s and 80s, presented 007 as a comedy character, more of an affable playboy than a cold-blooded killer or a bruiser. Despite being the most quintessentially English of the Bonds, Moore’s adaptation was geared towards American audiences interested in a more light-hearted, yet action-heavy characters. The pandering to current affairs and cultural zeitgeist is far less subtle in the Moore years. In his films, détente is very much the norm, and Bond even ends up in space around the time the United States landed on the moon and the Star Wars franchise was conquering cinemas worldwide. His womanizing is as excessive as it is comical, often more comical than it is excessive.
The Dalton years saw Bond as a dark assassin at the end of the Cold War, killing sadistic drug dealers and exacting vengeance on organized crime. As Black points out, the Dalton films were intended as a response to Die Hard and Rambo. Much more-so than before, the notion of the “end of history” is much more strongly felt. Gone are the megalomaniacal, flamboyant villains of the past and the ideologies they served. All that is left are petty criminals and renegades that will be swept away by the forces of history marching towards utopia making Bond’s role an auxiliary one. There’s something off about this Bond, which probably explains why they were poorly received by audiences and critics alike.
The Brosnan years sought to address this crisis of Bond’s purpose, as well as the vacuum left at the end of the Cold War with the demise of the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear holocaust averted. Though returning to form, Brosnan’s portrayal of 007 is that of a more “global” Bond, whose aim was to appeal to global audiences for the first time. The villains he fights are threats not just to Britain and her interests, but to the world as a whole. The Chinese and Russian states are no longer enemies, but active and reliable allies in the fight against supra-national evil which may include Chinese or Russian individuals but the films make clear they are rebels to the Chinese and Russian states. Ironically, the only “evil” state left at the end of history is North Korea, which is given a similar status to international terrorists and sinister media moguls. The Craig era ushered in Bond’s transformation into a truly global character, a violent action hero seeking to challenge and displace Jason Borne. The love of luxury is incidental, and smoking and drinking are next to non-existent. Bond is an introspective, sadder and lonelier figure than ever before; this makes Craig’s Bond appealing to the pandemic of lonely men around the world.
Significantly, both Brosnan’s and Craig’s Bond see MI6 both under attack and infested with traitors. This is not a mere deviation from the novels, but a mortal blow to Bond’s identity and one which would have been anathema to Fleming. MI6, the erstwhile secular arbiter of good and evil, shows perilous vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It is no wonder that in the latest Bond film, No Time To Die, 007 is a rogue agent who is hired by the CIA only to return into MI6’s service because of sheer necessity rather than conviction or loyalty. The world of the “end of history” has brought about uncertainty and a loss of confidence. There is no more absolute right or wrong, the hero can very easily be mistaken for a villain. The bureaucrats and plutocrats are in power in Britain and abroad, and, in Skyfall they even seek to abolish MI6 itself. As M puts it in the film, MI6 is now being treated as “a bunch of antiquated bloody idiots fighting a war we don’t understand and can’t possibly win.” The new, morally grey, global world of ambiguities and chaos is no country for a charismatic, romantic hero driven by established certainties and purpose.
A historical reading of the character sees 007 complete a full circle, especially in the context of the sexual revolution where Bond starts off as a transgressor only to end up as a reactionary figure. He was described as a transgressive influence by the forces of reaction in the 50s and 60s, most notably by the late leftist-turned-conservative Paul Johnson, who dismissed the world of Bond as one of “Sex, Snobbery and Sadism.” In contrast, the post-Cold War Bond is described as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur…a relic of the Cold War” by M in the first Brosnan film, Goldeneye. The culmination of this process can be found in the Craig films which show a fully #MeToo-compliant Bond where the aggressive masculinity of Connery has faded away and Craig, playboy though he is, asks for consent and his romances are reflective of the ideology of equal partners rather than domineering male (a la Connery).
Throughout the book, Black endeavors to place Bond in an ever-evolving historical context, and asks, with some force, whether Bond is a timeless character, or one that will be forever constrained by current events, world history, international relations and the fickle tastes of global audiences. Most pertinently and controversially, Black appears to be somewhat despondent about Bond’s ability to survive and thrive in the modern West.
With the Craig era now at an end, in a world evermore defined by the emergence of new great power competitions where Britain is “increasingly inconsequential,” Black asks whether Bond can retain his status as a global hero, or more strikingly, if he has a future at all: “if Russia, China, and their allies have become far more hostile to the West, and may become even more hostile, then the problem of Bond as a global force and product will become acute. If relevant to the world, he will not be welcome in such a world.” Interestingly, Black suggests that Bond’s may yet survive, but as a hero of the East:
Russia and China may produce their own copies and it is through them in part that Bond’s influence may become readily apparent. Indeed, the ‘classic Bond’ may in future be more readily glimpsed in such Bond-like heroes, rather than with a Bond from the politically correct West.
Black’s prediction should not be treated as fanciful, especially in light of the spectacular box-office success of the Wolf Warrior franchise, where a Chinese Special Forces Operative liberates African countries from bloodthirsty American and European mercenaries. Still, Wolf Warrior has more in common with Rambo than Bond, and there may be a way to go before we see a Chinese Bond. We must not forget that Bond emerged as a final iteration of a romantic hero at a time of decadence and decline, whereas China sees itself as a future global power whose ascent has only just begun.
Black’s book is certain to be treated by posterity as an authority on Bond as a historical and cultural phenomenon, and this reviewer has no hesitation in recommending it in the strongest possible terms.
Nonetheless, the final word on Bond’s future remains unsaid and uncertain. It could be the Bond survives in some form, whether familiar or more exotic, or it could be that the forces of sterile bureaucracy have finally expelled the last true hero from this vale of tears.
After all, true heroes only live twice.
The World of James Bond: The Lives and Times of 007
By Jeremy Black
Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021, updated edition; 225pp
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