This week’s U.S. premiere of SPECTRE marks the twenty-fourth installment in Eon Productions’ James Bond series. The Sam Mendes helmed Spectre has opened to strong reviews, grossing $80 million worldwide in just seven days–including a record breaking $37 million in the United Kingdom. In the States, Spectre is expected to mirror Skyfall’s opening weekend haul of $88 million. The franchise is the third highest grossing film series behind Harry Potter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But while those franchises debuted within the past fifteen years, the first installment of Bond, Dr. No, was released an astonishing fifty-three years ago.
The consistent popularity and cultural resonance of the Bond franchise is an unparalleled achievement in filmmaking. Today’s culture is constantly criticized for seeking instant gratification and having a short memory, yet this does not seem to apply when it comes to Bond. The suave, deadly MI6 agent with the impeccable suits and beautiful cars has excited and entertained audiences for over five decades. The character has been a barometer of cool since Sean Connery lit up a Morland and introduced himself to Sylvia Trench over a game of baccarat.
But why? Why has Bond been so popular for so long and why are fans already debating on who should replace Daniel Craig? The origins of the character see him as a misogynistic, alcoholic assassin. Yet he’s as popular as ever because of one essential component: in addition to drinking cocktails, driving supercars and dropping well-timed one-liners, Bond has an uncanny ability to adapt to the popular consciousness of the time.
So how does each Bond actor fit within this paradigm? And how does each iteration of the character still resonate in some way today? To find out, we must, of course, start at the beginning…
Sean Connery (6 films)
The original Bond. The Edinburgh born actor was thirty-two when Albert Broccoli cast him in the role of Ian Fleming’s debonair intelligencer. Connery is responsible for shaping the filmic character of Bond that every actor since has had to follow. Like the best Bond performances, which have always been equal parts charming and deadly, Connery’s is both a well-mannered gentleman as well as a ruthless killer–a balancing act he pulls off with convincing ease.
Connery’s Bond is defined by the ideal conception of the 1950s/60s gentleman. Retroactively speaking, he is Don Draper with a gun. The Bond of the 1950s and 60s existed in an era where men were expected to keep their problems to themselves and power through any type of psychological crisis. This type of man is buttoned up and dislikes anything that upsets tradition. Early on in Goldfinger, Bond likens drinking a lukewarm bottle of Dom Perignon to “listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” Such a sentiment is almost laughable today, when even the crustiest of baby boomers will admit to the Beatles’ merits.
Connery’s Bond is also well tuned to the 1960s mainstream conception of masculinity through his treatment of women. The early Bond’s have been heavily criticized for their depiction of Bond’s patriarchal attitude towards women, and Connory’s Bond is no exception. In From Russia With Love, though Bond is working in tandem with Tatiana Romanova he consistently treats her with a patronizing air, and nearly every interaction ends with him coming-on to her. Romanova is not cast as a professional spy but a clerk coerced into spying on Bond because of her beauty–a reflection of the subservient and superficial attitude that the heavily male-dominated 60s culture held towards women. The shift in this attitude towards women becomes readily apparent in the Bond series, but not until The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), when Anya Amasova serves as a KGB agent who is presented as an equal to Roger Moore’s Bond–and proves to be a dangerous rival at every turn.
George Lazenby (1 film)
Lazenby was a twenty-nine year old model when cast as Bond for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service after Connery declined to return to the role. Lazenby’s Bond is mostly forgotten now due to the Australian’s shortcomings as an actor. His take on Bond is much lighter and sillier than the character cultivated by Connery. The producers seem to have been trying to tap into the more liberal cultural atmosphere present in late sixties England and America. Lazenby hammed it up too much and reactions to his performance were mostly negative. However, Lazenby’s portrayal is still more in line with Roger Moore’s take on the character four years later than Connery’s version. The film itself marks a turning point from the more detective-based Bond of the early and mid sixties towards the gadget filled action epics that would later define the franchise. For what it’s worth, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a pretty solid installment of the Bond canon, yet would have faired much better with a dose of Connery’s dark charm.
Roger Moore (7 films)
Unlike Connery or Lazenby, Roger Moore was rather well known when cast in Live and Let Die, having portrayed Simon Templar in the popular ITV spy thriller The Saint. Moore’s Bond is defined by the ample amount of playfulness he brought to the role. While they might feel hokey now, Connery’s Bond films generally had a more level, subdued tone which matched the more conservative era. But post Watergate and Vietnam, British and American audiences might have chaffed at a more somber, serious spy flick. Western society’s attitudes towards men were also changing. In 1973, when Moore debuted as Bond in Live and Let Die, it was more acceptable for men to be sillier, to not always maintain a stone-faced facade.
Moore’s Bond is still a cold-blooded assassin, but he plies his trade with a healthy dose of joie de vivre. Still absent is the ability for the character to examine his own psychology. This time period was still very much the time of Dirty Harry, and praised the physically strong, mentally unflappable alpha male; any display of true vulnerability would have been viewed as a crippling weakness by audiences of the day. Moore’s Bond still retains the stiff, closed off persona displayed by other action stars of the time such as Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen.
Timothy Dalton (2 films)
Dalton is by far the most underrated Bond. Dalton, after being approached twice by the producers to take up the mantle of Bond, finally agreed and debuted as 007 in The Living Daylights (1987). The later Moore films had become too bloated and fantastical, and were made even more outlandish by the fact that Moore was pushing sixty by the time he appeared in his last Bond film, A View to Kill (1985). Dalton, a fan of Ian Fleming’s Bond stories, endeavored to bring more of the literary character to the screen. The literary Bond was darker, grittier and more realistic than how he was portrayed on screen up until that time. Dalton’s two films as Bond, The Living Daylights and Licence Kill, offered more realistic conflicts and villains such as drug and arms dealers rather than the fantastical schemes of someone like Hugo Drax in Moonraker (1981).
Audiences responded. The Living Daylights was more profitable than the previous two Roger Moore films and outperformed both Die Hard and Lethal Weapon at the box office. Furthermore, Dalton’s Bond was not a steadfast company man but had a streak of internal rebelliousness not seen in previous installments. This more serious, realistic Bond was a hit with audiences who were coming to expect a bit more grit and lethality from action movies. Regrettably, Dalton ended his run as Bond after only two films because of legal issues between MGM and Eon Productions.
Pierce Brosnan (4 films)
Irishman Pierce Brosnan was actually Albert Broccoli’s first choice for The Living Daylights but Brosnan had to decline due to commitments to the NBC procedural Remington Steele. Brosnan’s portrayal of Bond came at a time of radical change in the global political landscape. Throughout the series, Bond was constantly in conflict with agents of the KGB. By 1995, the year Goldeneye was released, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the spectre of Russian communism was no longer a threat. Goldeneye played with this development and the plot revolved around a former Soviet general and his sinister plans. Brosnan’s first turn as Bond was a massive hit and many hailed it as a successful reboot of the franchise. It also spawned the legendary Goldeneye 007 video game for Nintendo 64, one of the original first person shooter games. Brosnan’s Bonds also followed the other popular action series’ of the time such as Mission Impossible and presented itself as a visual spectacle along with a mystery. Perhaps this was a result of the pressure from the video game industry, which was stretching the limits of what audiences were coming to expect from their entertainment.
Brosnan’s take on the character is perhaps the most similar to Connery’s: equal parts charm and lethality. Though Brosnan pays homage to Connery in his performance, he was able to update the character for modern audiences. This iteration of Bond works with his female counterparts with less overt irony, as seen in The Spy Who Loved Me or From Russia with Love, yet he remains quite close overall to Connery’s portrayal. Not to mention, he had a hand in making Die Another Day, which almost killed the entire franchise.
Daniel Craig (4 films)
Veteran character actor Daniel Craig was cast as Bond in 2005 amid much controversy. Pundits and the public chafed at the “blond Bond” and some even took to referring to Craig as “James Bland”. Yet Casino Royale became the highest grossing Bond film in history and Craig turned in the most layered, multidimensional take on 007 to date. There is really no Bond, until Daniel Craig, that portrays the character with any sort of empathy or capacity for change. His ability to depict the character with a component of vulnerability is facilitated by changes in which Western society no longer equates male vulnerability with weakness.
A running theme of the Craig films is Bond’s struggles with the consequences of his actions. A key example is Quantum of Solace’s homage to Goldfinger. After Bond enlists the help of consulate employee Strawberry Fields in his investigate, she is found murdered and covered in oil on the hotel bed. Bond, with pressure from M, feels guilty about leading an innocent woman to her death. In Goldfinger however, Bond’s reaction to Jill Masterson’s death by gold is merely a shrug and a cheeky quip. Craig’s Bond does not stand on ceremony and has a blunt honesty in him that previous Bonds did not posses. The filmmakers’ construction of the world of Craig’s Bond is similarly realistic, specifically with the use of gadgets restricted to existing technologies. The early aughts saw the Bond franchise threatened by the hyper-realistic Bourne franchise. Audiences responded to the more stripped down spy thriller and both The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004) were big hits. The Bond filmmakers had to adapt the world of the franchise to the evolving tastes of their demographic but still retain the same traits that made Bond legendary.
Craig’s new take on 007 breathed fresh life into a floundering franchise. He took the facets that made 007 legendary and added a healthy dose of the modern man along with the commitment to create a true character. Spectre is getting solid reviews and is tracking to be the biggest Bond film ever. With Craig having recently said that this will be his last Bond film, it will be intriguing to see how the new Bond chooses to take on the role.
John Drain | Contributor