“Christ, I miss the Cold War,” Judi Dench’s spymaster M mutters at the beginning of “Casino Royale,” the 21st James Bond picture and the most raw, intense film of the franchise.
Just as the superspy was created as a product of his times and thrived at the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions, so too is the latest Bond in the series. In his debut in the iconic role, Daniel Craig functions as a post-9/11 007, the enemies being terrorists from throughout the world.
Dastardly commands are given by cell phone text message, one of which involves blowing up a plane. And the ultimate showdown between Bond and the biggest bad guy of all, a crafty financier who invests terrorists’ money, takes place at a multimillion-dollar Texas hold-’em poker match — like something you’d see over and over on ESPN. (In Ian Fleming’s 1953 book “Casino Royale,” the game was Baccarat; the filmmakers changed it to poker to make the movie more contemporary.)
The foes may sound vastly different from the ones Sean Connery fought in 1962’s “Dr. No,” when moviegoers first met the sexy secret agent of Fleming’s novels. (Though “Casino Royale” is a prequel that introduces us to the character as he receives his double-0 status, orders his first martini and drives his first Aston Martin, it takes place now.)
But even from the beginning of the series, Bond (with the frequent help of the CIA) never battled traditional enemies of the West “but rogue, aberrant, maverick villains who don’t represent communist governments, but often seek in their own way to make the Cold War worse for both sides,” said Stephen J. Whitfield, author of “The Culture of the Cold War.”
“Even though Bond is a Cold War hero, he transcends the official conflict by dealing with villains who are even more salacious or devious than the KGB or communist China,” said Whitfield, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University. “In my take of the films — the earlier films, the films that Sean Connery starred in — what they’re really trying to say is, they tend to make the actual communist adversaries seem less hostile and less dangerous.”
In 1963’s “From Russia With Love,” for example, Lotte Lenya’s character is a former KGB agent who has broken off on her own, which makes the KGB seem less menacing by comparison. In that sense, Whitfield added, the longtime enemies in the Bond world are similar to the bad guys in the real world today.
“Osama bin Laden, he is the realization of what Ian Fleming had imagined of the billionaire who is both a crackpot and truly dangerous in the scale of his ambitions of violence,” he said. “It’s very, very different from a Khrushchev or a Brezhnev, different certainly from the conventional communist foes that America was supposed to be very, very wary about.”
The evolution of Bond
Glenn Yeffeth, editor of the essay collection “James Bond in the 21st Century: Why We Still Need 007,” said the enemies during Connery’s years tended to be ruthless supervillains. Under Roger Moore’s subsequent tenure, the bad guys grew sillier and had ridiculous plans to kill everyone on the planet, as in 1979’s “Moonraker.” During the more recent Pierce Brosnan movies, they fell somewhere in the middle; their schemes were elaborate but the figures themselves weren’t as interesting.
Yeffeth argues that villains and themes changed with each actor playing Bond not necessarily because of anything happening politically but rather to reflect shifts in the cultural landscape.
“If you look at Sean Connery, the original James Bond, he was completely ruthless. He was misogynistic, he was almost sociopathic. He was happy to throw a woman into the path of a speeding bullet, he was happy to kill, he had the license to kill,” he said. “The context was the Cold War and the stakes were very high but James Bond was always about internal morality. Sean Connery was fairly emotionless when it came to wreaking havoc on the men and women around him, good or evil.
“If you look at how he evolved moving into the feminist movement of the ’70s, the producers decided he was too intense, too serious. We can be heartless but you have to have a smile on your face, and that was Roger Moore,” he continued. “Roger Moore could also be fairly misogynistic, he could also be heartless, but he was tongue in cheek. He wasn’t playing it so seriously and as time went on he became more of a self-parody.”
George Lazenby played Bond in just one film, 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” between Connery and Moore. Timothy Dalton, who only made two — “The Living Daylights” (1987) and “Licence to Kill” (1989) — “was a flop but I thought he was actually quite good,” Yeffeth said. “But he was very intense, very gritty, he had some of the self-hatred that belonged to the original James Bond and that really didn’t fly. It wasn’t a good fit for our times.”
But the next Bond, Brosnan, was just right because “he was a little more serious than Roger Moore, but what was different with Pierce Brosnan was that he was not a misogynist anymore. Women were taken seriously in those movies.”
Yeffeth pointed to Michelle Yeoh in “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997) and Halle Berry in “Die Another Day” (2002) as examples in which the women were Bond’s equals, or close to it.
“With Sean Connery, that wouldn’t have worked. Sean Connery lived in a man’s world and women were props,” he said. “You couldn’t see (Brosnan) throwing a woman in front of a bullet.”
Craig to fans: ‘wait and see’The sixth and latest Bond, Craig, has met his intellectual match in French actress Eva Green as the smart, stunningly beautiful Treasury official who arranges the money for his “Casino Royale” poker match. She’s no Bond girl strutting around poolside in a bikini, and while she does fall for him (and he for her, in a rare, early example of the spy being consumed by his emotions) it takes awhile.
But from the minute Craig was announced as the next actor to wear that famously tailored tuxedo, he’s been slammed for everything from his blond hair and looks (which are rougher than those of the elegant Bond to which we’ve grown accustomed) to his filmography (“Sylvia,” “Layer Cake,” “Munich”).
“I always said when the criticism started coming through, wait and see what the movie is about because I knew from the very beginning we were going to try and do something,” the British actor told AP Television News. “I wouldn’t have set in on this if we weren’t trying to make a great movie. That was the intention. I was always going, ‘See the movie. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but wait and see.”’
Regardless of who’s playing Bond, some things have remained constants — the elaborate sets and fashionable costumes, the lavish, jet-set lifestyle and the aura of sexuality, said longtime documentary maker Laurent Bouzereau, author of “The Art of Bond.”
“There’s an element of fantasy in the movies that has been a challenge to juggle,” Bouzereau said. “Aside from Bond, action movies have become more realistic — ’Die Hard’ and such. I think Bond still has to have an element of fantasy, whether it’s sexual fantasy, whether it’s with humor, it’s always there. Even when he kills someone there’s that sort of edge that makes it uniquely Bond.”
Throughout the changing faces of Bond, Bouzereau believes the actor that’s your favorite is the one you saw first.
“With my case it was Roger Moore because the first Bond I saw was ’Live and Let Die,’ and I had a really hard time approaching Sean Connery afterward because I was stuck on Roger Moore,” he said. “I grew up in France and they didn’t have these movies on TV, only in the theaters. It has an influence on the way you perceive the character and sometimes it’s hard to make that leap when they change actors.”
Whitfield, meanwhile, is a fan of the Connery and Dalton films, but said the ones Moore made are a blur.
“They’re wonderful male fantasies, and you don’t really see blood, you don’t see cruelty, you don’t see torture,” he said. “They’re good, clean sadistic fun.”