Fleming, Ian (1908-1964)

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Fleming, Ian (1908-1964)

Writer Ian Fleming created one of the major male icons of the second half of the twentieth century, the spy James Bond—as Alan Barnes suggests, "the only fictional character of the twentieth century to have acquired the aura of myth." The series of novels containing Bond not only concocted a new heroic figure, its immense success and popularity (Fleming had sold thirty million books by the time of his death) kick-started indigenous spy writing in America. Bond on film was also hugely successful, adding to the lustre of the spy and increasing the popularity of British music and cinema in 1960s America.

Son of a major and member of the British parliament, and younger brother of author Peter Fleming, Ian Fleming's English background was privileged and reflected the expected route of one of his class (Eton, Sandhurst, a job in the "City") rather than the adventurous spirit of his most famous creation. It was Fleming's periods as a journalist in Moscow at the beginning and end of the 1930s, along with his work in World War II as a high-ranking officer in naval intelligence, that provided much of the background for the novels. Fleming was in his forties when he began his writing career with Casino Royale in 1953 followed by ten more Bond novels (the best of which were written in the 1950s) and two collections of short stories. Fleming also wrote a column under the pseudonym Atticus for the London Sunday Times in the 1950s and contributed to other magazines. He had one son, named Caspar.

The plots of the Bond stories reflect the heritage of the previous half century of British popular spy and thriller writing. Fleming laid out "the right ingredients" for these works in Dr. No (1958): "physical exertion, mystery and a ruthless enemy … a good companion," and a certainty that the "cause was just." The James Bond character was based on a number of soldiers and agents Fleming knew during the war, but the author, as quoted in Andrew Lycett's biography, wanted the character to be "unobtrusive": "Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure—an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a government department." Bond's enemies and their conspiracies took their power from an almost mythical badness, and the battles were more parables of good and evil than political thrillers. Yet Fleming covered these parables with a veneer of reality, which, in its intensity, was perhaps his biggest influence on the genre. His prose describes closely many of the most attractive and expensive places in the world, from beautiful islands to expensive restaurants. He also described in detail the possessions of the rich and successful, whether it be the most reliable guns or smoothest cigarettes, the finest car or best mixed cocktail. Comparable to this closely described visible consumption was the depiction of women, built to Playboy specifications, whom Bond seduced, bedded, and discarded with astonishing ease. There was something of the Playboy philosophy to Fleming's novels, of men as adventurous and potent while still at ease with consumer society.

Fleming's work did much to change attitudes toward the figure of the spy in American culture. Fleming's Bond was praised by John F. Kennedy and recommended by Allan Dulles, head of the CIA. Bond made the spy acceptable, shifted the perception from 1950s associations with the Rosenbergs and muddied the moral problems the spy had always held in the American psyche. Bond was a very English figure, of class and with imperial concerns, but he was also an international, professional figure fighting evil. As America moved to the forefront of world politics, its own intelligence service could be drawn in such a light, an international, professional movement against evil.

The Bond novels reflect a moment in time after World War II, beyond rationing in Britain and beyond the darkest days of the cold war in America when tourism, visible consumption, and sexual freedom came to the fore. It was at this point in the early 1960s that they made it onto the screen. Cubby Broccoli, producer of the majority of the Bond movies, pinpoints the strengths Fleming's work offered: "a virile and resourceful hero, exotic locations, the ingenious apparatus of espionage and sex on a fairly sophisticated level." It was these elements that would sell the films as the racism and misogyny (in their most extreme forms) and much of Fleming's British imperial nostalgia were sloughed off. Bond, as a character, was fleshed out by Sean Connery into a less one-dimensional character with a more attractive and humorous rebelliousness. Dr. No, the initial film, came out in 1962, quickly followed by From Russia with Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964). These films showed the British industry turning away from the "kitchen sink" dramas of the previous few years to more slick and upbeat movies that were enormous commercial successes in America, increasingly interested in British pop music and culture. Dr. No had been made cheaply, but a great deal of American money was pumped into its sequels—money well spent, as the series became successful on an increasingly global scale.

—Kyle Smith

Further Reading:

Barnes, Alan, and Marcus Hearn. Kiss Kiss Bang! Bang!: The Unofficial James Bond Film Companion. London, Batsford, 1997.

Broccoli, Albert R. ("Cubby"), and Donald Zec. When the Snow Melts: The Autobiography of Cubby Broccoli. London, Boxtree/Macmillan, 1998.

Lycett, Andrew. Ian Fleming. London, Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1995.