Essay image

The Cinematic Evolution of Her Majesty's Finest

Dec 24, 2004
By: Michael 'Mav' Fenemore


With the shadow of re-casting looming over cinema's greatest espionage icon, perhaps now is the time to reflect on how pop culture, politics and social technology have shaped and influenced the depiction of the character by the five (Eon) actors who have played the role.

"He likes gambling, golf and fast motor cars. He smokes a great deal but without affection. All his movements are relaxed and economical."
-Ian Fleming

Although in literature James Bond debuted in 1953 in the tense and thrilling Casino Royale, it would be a further nine years before the character would make the quantum leap to the silver screen brought to charismatic life by the then 'unknown' actor (Sir) Sean Connery in Dr. No (1962). Producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman recognized that despite Connery's thick Scottish accent and lack of polish, the actor possessed Bond's confidence and animal magnetism. It also helped that he was a cost effective choice. Dr. No was produced for only a million dollars and the money was well invested in creating the 'look' of Bond, including Ken Adam's expressionistic sets and Mr. Connery's wardrobe. Director Terence Young had his tailor Anthony Sinclair cut Connery's 'well turned out' suits and his shirts were custom made by Turnbull & Asser. Add to this a heady mixture of Rolex, Dom Perignon and martinis (shaken not stirred, of course) and you have the foundations of a new screen presence. James Bond was a civil servant that operated in a world of nuclear threat and cold war diplomacy, all camouflaged under an imagined world of opulence and sophistication. This is a key enduring element to the Bond series. Unlike other action heroes, Bond has always maintained a high standard of living, fashion sense and social grace, an element that would later endanger the franchise. The post war boom years had increased the living standards of many in the United Kingdom and the United States, and the advent of commercial jet transport made exotic locations suddenly attainable. This idealized lifestyle was reflected in advertising, television and even music (Frank Sinatra's Come Fly With Me). Connery could effortlessly project this lifestyle despite his impoverished beginnings. He succeeds and even excels in the role because of his rough diamond heritage. A working class soul with a physically seductive and intimidating exterior made it impossible to label Bond a society snob. Despite the travelogue locations and sexually dangerous company, one gets the feeling that Bond, as played by Connery, is not trapped but enjoys the spoils of the ride, be that women, alcohol or challenging circumstance. Connery's honest portrayal in the first two films is a testament to his acting chops as much as his charisma. The growing success of the film series coupled with the audience's lust for bigger stunts and increased gadgetry led to the far-fetched tone adopted by the later Connery installments which the actor incorporates into the role with a knowing wink and smile. By 1967, the height of Bond-mania had reached its zenith with You Only Live Twice. Connery was weary and frustrated with his association with the role and was openly dissatisfied with the financial return for his involvement. He decided to hang up his holster. The Connery era perfectly captured a playful mood of 60's optimism, which found a synergy with audiences wishing to immerse themselves in Bond's over the top escapism.

"When George walks through the office, the secretaries fall off their chairs."
-Cubby Broccoli on George Lazenby

Broccoli and Saltzman encountered two mammoth obstacles in their realization of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. One was how to replace the monolithic brand identification of 'Sean Connery IS James Bond.' Secondly was the issue of 007's relevance at the end of the decade. Counter culture was infiltrating every walk of life including cinema and the public were flocking to see 'anti-heroes.' In 1969, the Bond films had reached a sociological saturation point invading all areas of commerce including toiletries, toys and clock radios. This marketability not only set the character up as part of the old-guard corporate institution that the youth of the day were trying to topple but also distanced the audience who were shunning the materialistic rewards the previous generation had strived for. Despite the franchise's global following there was a very real worry that Bond was beginning to appear a dinosaur in the contemporary climate. Enter George Lazenby. Once again the producers gambled on an unknown with some similar Connery traits (an accent, unrefined ruggedness and a self-assured attitude). Debate still rages on the merits of Lazenby's performance as Her Majesty's master spy. I for one believe Lazenby, perhaps through sheer acting inexperience and confident audacity, creates the most truthful and sincere interpretation of the character, which is supported by a faithfully transferred script and Peter Hunt's magnificent direction. Although not the crushing defeat many journalists paint it today, On Her Majesty's Secret Service failed to reach the dizzying box office heights of its predecessors despite embracing elements of the time (Bond's initial resignation from H.M.S.S. / the psychedelic hypnotism scenes). One can blame the early negative press generated by Lazenby's pre-emptive departure from the role and the bitter print feud between co-stars but the film stands up today as a classic in the series, often cited in the top three of most 007 film polls as a fan favourite. Lazenby handles himself with physical aplomb throughout the movie whilst his parting shot cradling his assassinated bride is utterly convincing and heartbreaking. We will never know how Lazeby would have grown into the role in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), but I for one would have loved to have seen him complete his 'revenge-cycle' against Savalas's Blofeld. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is a high watermark moment for the series and Lazenby continues to delight, thrill and fascinate aficionados to this day.

"What you will want to know is how Mr. Moore's saintly feet fit into Mr. Connery's discarded shoes. Comfortably, I'd say, rather than impressively. For all his easy boyish charm he lacks the hard, sardonic quality of his predecessor. But I still think we shall grow to like the new incumbent well enough."
-Felix Barker (Evening News)

Hostage crisis, Watergate, spiralling inflation and the on going war in Vietnam were ever present at the dawn of a new decade. The band-aid that was Connery's involvement in Diamonds Are Forever proved that Bond had a future - just not with Connery. Social unrest was reflected in the edgy cinema being produced at the time be it Five Easy Pieces (1970), Catch 22 (1970) or Taxi Driver (1976). With the explosion of 'blaxploitation,' it came as no surprise that cinema in the early 1970's included Fleming's politically difficult Live and Let Die, and that it was chosen as the flagship to launch the new face of Bond. Instead of following through with a harder interpretation of the role, the caretakers of 007 chose to steer the series in a lighter comedy direction. Who better than the suave and sophisticated Roger Moore, globally recognized for his long running role in The Saint and numerous other television roles, most notably in The Persuaders. Rog was the Bond I grew up watching and I feel lucky to have experienced his tenure as it unfolded. Just like many young viewers who grew up in the Brosnan era, only to discover the back catalogue's rich history upon further investigation, I never questioned the validity of Moore as Bond. He was a smooth operator, quick with the quip and often preferring to use his wits rather than muscle in most scenarios in order to escape. Although unfashionable now, I believe it was Moore's 'gentle touch' that allowed the series to not only survive a searing decade of change but to thrive in an atmosphere that made films such as Smokey and The Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose huge box office hits. It would be true to say that the 1970's saw Eon Productions following the trend rather than setting the pace, never more apparent than in Moonraker (1979) cashing in on the space adventure frenzy created by Star Wars (1977). Technology also wreaked havoc on the series with scriptwriters hungry to cram Q Branch with the latest ludicrous invention thus undermining Bond's ability to rely on his instincts. After super tankers, space shuttles and everything in between, an effort was made in For Your Eyes Only to humanize Bond, although it was a little too late. The steadily decreasing box office returns reflected the audience's growing ambivalence to the films, and the series was in need of a facelift. Although Moore's portrayal is my least favourite of the series, playing Bond more like a naughty uncle than a hardened, sardonic super spy, I will always be grateful and appreciative for his sterling efforts at keeping the public's love for the films alive. A large factor in Moore's success in the role was his refusal to imitate Connery's characterization thus carving his own legacy for the series. His replacement had his work cut out for him.

"It's very important to make the man believable so that you can stretch the fantasy. Whether people like this kind of Bond is another question."
-Timothy Dalton

Timothy Dalton is sometimes dubbed the 'literary' Bond due to his thorough study of Fleming's novels, which aided his interpretation of the role. He also divides the cinema audiences in the same way Lazenby does, although most hardcore enthusiasts delight at Dalton's brooding, complex take. Critics tend to take offence at Dalton's deadly serious approach and respect for the character, although the role had been reduced to a parody before the actor stepped in. By re-establishing 007's core foundations, Dalton successfully overhauled the role, although he failed to be taken into the hearts of the general public unlike his predecessors, Connery and Moore. Much has been made of the one partner only formula introduced at this point, though neither of Dalton's movies actually adhere to that rule, as gadgets (Aston Martin Volante) and stunts (Rock of Gibraltar sequence) are retained elements. There is, however, a notable absence of witty one liners in both his films. Plotlines were ripped straight from the day's headlines with Glasnost, KGB defections and the Oliver North Contra scandal, and in Dalton's second film, the war on drug cartels. After the formulaic safety blanket of The Living Daylights (1987), Licence To Kill (1989) took a U-turn in the series which ultimately lost Dalton ground in the role. The brave yet one-dimensional departure from plot formula, coupled with Dalton's brutally delivered vigilante character is very 'un-Bond' like which robs the film of the glamour and cheek fans crave. However, the poor box office showing of his second installment can be attributed to the stiff competition of the 1989 season (Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Batman). The business reshuffles at MGM / UA which tied the franchise up in red tape for a whole six years also caused damage. Dalton was never given an unbroken series of films to solidify his persona into the hearts and minds of audiences. Age must also come into play in Dalton's decision not to reprise the role in 1995. Whilst he is physically handsome in The Living Daylights, he is notably less so in License To Kill. My personal taste is stretched to either points of the compass with his two adventures. I immensely enjoy The Living Daylights (1986), though I hold reservations for License To Kill (1989). Regardless, I have nothing but praise for Dalton in both films. His grim and dirty interpretation is slowly gaining renewed appreciation. Given the perspective of time and distance, hopefully this reassessment will recognize Dalton's bold and worthy portrayal.

"Both Sean and I will be forgotten after everybody sees Pierce."
-Roger Moore

In the six year hiatus between Bond adventures, something happened that I'm sure Ian Fleming would never have imagined possible. First, the Berlin Wall toppled and the Soviet Union split. The world that 007 inhabited had certainly dramatically changed. The enforced breathing space gave popular culture a momentary respite in which to take in the impact of this unique phenomenon. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and an increasing number of video-television, cable, satellite stations and laserdisc all reinforced the nostalgia and emotional attachment fans felt. The ascent and domination of mass media would later be addressed in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). A lot of thought and hard work went into the relaunching of the Bond franchise with emphasis placed on defining what elements would make Bond work in a contemporary context. This knowledge would later inform the adaptation of everyday personal items into Bond gadgets such as the all purpose mobile phone, X-Ray specs and Brosnan's famous Omega Seamaster watch. Ironically, it was one of one GoldenEye's scriptwriters, Bruce Feirstein, who identified that the way forward for the movies was to return to the core essentials that make the character so endearing: "The world has changed. James Bond has not." James Bond, 007 burst back into cinemas with Goldeneye (1995) to a renewed popularity unrivalled since the heyday of You Only Live Twice. The timing was perfect. The world was hungry for a fresh Bond adventure. As promised in numerous 007 closing credits, James Bond had returned and with yet another new face; Pierce Brosnan. Where Brosnan stunningly succeeds is his total understanding of what the audience loves and expects (tuxedos, martinis, quips, guns, girls and Bond, James Bond) and the subtle layers of nuance he breaths into the character. Take for instance Bond's touching farewell to Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher), as she lie dead in Tomorrow Never Dies, (1997) or the way he reassures Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) after the avalanche in The World Is Not Enough (1999). Brosnan presents a sincere Bond, well aware of the fictional elements but still more than able to render a dimensional account of the role. Moore never took the character too seriously and Dalton perhaps attempted to breathe too much realism into the role. Brosnan achieves a perfect balance referencing all his predecessors work whilst still bringing a unique take on the role. It is his absolute assuredness, handsome integrity and physical commitment, Pierce not only breathed life back into the role but made Bond a household name once again. They don't call him the 'Billion Dollar' Bond for nothing!

"I care about Bond and what happens to him. You cannot be connected with a character for this long and not have an interest...All the Bond films had their good points."
-Sir Sean Connery

So what sign does this offer towards the future casting of Her Majesty's finest. History has shown that former contenders have come back into play on at least three separate occasions. Who was up for the role before Brosnan? The height and physical dimensions of all the actors have remained fairly constant throughout the series so I think it's fair to say the producers won't be hiring Sharon Stone, as the press once suggested or Colin Salmon for that matter. Bond remains a very British spy and all the actors have played him with an English accent (to varying degrees of success!) so even if an American was cast Bond should still sound like Bond. Perhaps some clues can be found in what Pierce Brosnan has to say about the role: "Bond remains a constant. He never changes. He's the one stabilizer within the whole genre. And he's the one who remains somewhat timeless, somewhat trapped within a period of time as well. My task was always trying to find my own reality within it: How do you make it human but still keep the fantasy and mystique of the character?"

The Bond legacy is daunting. Twenty films with billions in box office returns. Five actors have each enriched the role and brought something thrilling and unique to their interpretations. Only one thing can be certain: the next actor who is talented and lucky enough to be cast as cinema's greatest secret agent has enormous shoes to fill.