He is, undoubtedly, one of the most iconic characters in the entirety of English literature: the epitome of patriotic, debonair sophistication who has since spawned the third highest-grossing film series, over 30 re-worked novelizations and an introductory line which has become a cultural phenomenon within itself. Indeed, judging from the success of the most recent film, Spectre, the obsession with Bond is still as firmly embedded in our cultural identity as it was following the first publications of the 1950s. Certainly, the appeal for numerous viewers is clear, offering the ultimate testosterone-fuelled, escapist utopia.
However, such a vision is one which seems starkly outdated in the political climate of today. The reckless disregard for death and glorified misogyny embodied by Bond are in glaring conflict with the politically correct values which (if only theoretically) are advocated by contemporary society. Yet, in spite of such enunciated flaws, it seems that our fascination with Bond’s world does not so much stem from an fantasy desire for rebellion and cathartic recklessness but from a need for security. During an era in which surveillance and espionage are continual topics for debate, the persona of Bond is not so much a glorified figurehead as a humble reminder of authoritarian humanity.
Certainly, it seems that the suave, womanising assassin of popular consciousness is a fantasy which has been inspired by – not built from – Ian Fleming’s original character. In an interview with The New Yorker in 1962, the writer remarked, ‘I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be a blunt instrument.’ Initially, for Fleming, the focus of the novels was centred more upon Bond’s profession than on him personally, inspired by a montage of individuals whom Fleming encountered during his time in the Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. The subsequent films – first released in 1962 with Dr No – were far more influential in building his reputation as a sophisticated lothario, more notably by the earlier actors such as Sean Connery and Roger Moore.
the latest Bond films have depicted a more tortured, vulnerable protagonist whose own personal demons are reflected in the fragile state of MI6.
However, as both the book and film series progressed, both Ian Fleming and later directors demonstrated more of a concern, not only with Bond’s humanity, but indeed, the moral stance of the entire intelligence body. Goldfinger, published in 1959, opened not with the slapstick violence depicted in the 1964 film, but a more humanitarian reflection on Bond’s roles both as an agent and an assassin. Indeed, the latest Bond films, Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015) – both directed by Sam Mendes – have depicted a more tortured, vulnerable protagonist whose own personal demons are reflected in the fragile state of MI6. Gone are the light-hearted villains of the earlier films, morphing, instead, into the ruthless terrorists of Javier Bardem and Christoph Waltz: men who not only pose frightening threats to international security but are terrifyingly honest in their reflections about human weakness. Likewise, the transition from the feeble ‘Bond girls’ of the 1960s to the empowered women of Eva Green, Judi Dench and Naomie Harris (to name but a few) do not merely function to decorate Bond’s masculine ego but actively challenge the patriarchal layout of the intelligence system in both wit and intellect.
Although seemingly the masculine ideal, in contrast with the machismo protagonists of numerous action films, Bond is almost brutal in his human honesty. This is not a character guided by an untainted moral compass but one who is undisputedly flawed, all too often blurring the line between duty and temptation. During an era in which espionage has become dominated by surveillance and technology, it is no wonder that this throwback to the 1950s still remains such an ideal today. The charismatic persona of Bond offers a striking humanity to an organisation which, in this day and age, is far more reliant upon the technological anonymity granted by resources such as the Five Eyes Network. Indeed, such villains as Blofeld, Goldfinger and The Man with the Golden Gun all seem extravagantly quaint in contrast with the terrorist and cyber threats prominently manifested in groups such as Islamic State and totalitarian regimes such as North Korea.
Unlike the more macho emphasis of numerous action film and espionage fiction, Bond offers a far more flawed perspective on the nature of contemporary threat. Indeed, this more profound standpoint is exhibited by more recent blockbusters such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005-2012), George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and even Len Wiseman’s Live Free or Die Hard (2007) which confront contemporary issues such as terrorism, internet sabotage and war lords. Be he tackling Russians in the Cold War or cyber terrorists in the twenty-first century, Bond – and all his associated villains – remain undeniably human. In spite of the murkier underworld which they represent, they possess a humanity which seems somewhat lacking in the intelligence systems of the current decade.