James Bond Films

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James Bond Films

The James Bond films, concerning the adventures of the debo-nair British secret agent, are one of the most successful series of films in cinema history, with 18 official films released between 1962 and 1997. Collectively they are known for a number of elements, including spectacular stunts, outrageous villains, and beautiful women. The films have survived multiple changes in the actors playing Bond and changing times as well, to captivate the public imagination the way few other series have.

The roots of the Bond character begin with British author Ian Fleming, who served in World War II as a member of British Intelligence. In the early 1950s he began a career as a writer with the publication of Casino Royale, a hardboiled adventure about British Intelligence agent James Bond. The book contained many elements the character would eventually be renowned for: an exotic location (the casinos of Monaco), an outrageous villain (Soviet agent Le Chiffre), and a beautiful woman (the doomed Vesper Lynd).

Fleming's books were an instant sensation, with their mixture of high living, violence, and sex proving irresistible to readers. No less a public figure than President John F. Kennedy was a professed fan of Fleming's spy fiction. Inevitably, film and television producers courted Fleming for the rights to his creation, but found little success. One such failed deal, with Irish film producer Kevin McClory in 1959, would come back to haunt Fleming.

In 1961, Fleming closed a deal with producers Harry Saltzman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli to make the first Bond film, Dr. No. While its pace and style may seem slow and old fashioned to contemporary audiences, the film's casual violence and even more casual sex shocked and excited the crowds of the 1960s. Scottish actor Sean Connery, who played Bond, became a star for his tough, ruthless portrayal of the secret agent. The image of the film's love interest, actress Ursula Andress, rising from the ocean in a white bikini with a knife strapped to her side, has become an indelible commentary on female sex appeal.

Ian Fleming would die in the early 1960s, but his most famous creation was already destined to outlive him. A second film was soon in production, and when From Russia with Love was released in 1963, it found more success than the first. It was not until the release of Goldfinger in 1964, however, that the films reached their highest pinnacle yet. The film, concerning Bond's efforts to stop a madman's attempt to detonate a nuclear warhead in the Fort Knox gold depository, became one of highest grossing films of its time. It captured the public's imagination with its fantastic imagery and set a standard future Bond films would have to work hard to match: the body of a nude woman covered in gold paint; production designer Ken Adam's spectacular stainless steel Fort Knox; Bond's Aston Martin DB-5, a classic automobile equipped with a number of deadly gadgets; the most famous Bond woman of all, Honor Blackman playing Pussy Galore; mad villain Auric Goldfinger and his lust for gold; and Goldfinger's lethal henchman Odd Job and his razor-edged bowler hat. Sean Connery was never more appealing to audiences. His blend of ruthlessness and humor defined the part of Bond for a generation.

Connery starred in the next two Bond films: Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967). Thunderball was the source of litigation from McClory, who accused Ian Fleming of using material they had developed together in 1959. McClory won the lawsuit and was involved in the 1965 production, which concerned the terrorist hijacking of a pair of nuclear warheads by Bond's arch enemies, the forces of SPECTRE. The Bond films reached fantastic heights in You Only Live Twice, with its gorgeous Japanese scenery and incredible technology of sleek space rockets and SPECTRE's glimmering headquarters in the heart of a dormant volcano. It also marked the first on-screen appearance of one of Bond's more sinister foils, Ernst Stavros Blofeld, played by Donald Pleasance. While the films' successes continued unabated, Connery had tired of the role and wanted to seek other challenges as an actor.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) was the first Bond film to feature an actor other than Connery in the role of the deadly agent. George Lazenby, an inexperienced actor, took over the role. While competent, he lacked Connery's appeal and conflicts with producers prevented him from taking the role again. The film is considered by some purists to be one of the better Bond films; it hews closely to its source novel and features former Avengers star Diana Rigg as Bond's doomed wife, Tracy. Box office results did not reach the heights they had under Connery, however, and he was coaxed back for a farewell performance in Diamonds Are Forever. The baton was finally passed for good when Roger Moore took over the part in Live and Let Die (1973). Moore's portrayal differed considerably from Connery's; Moore lacked Connery's sense of menace, but compensated with his own sophistication and sense of humor, creating a lighter kind of Bond film which was perfect for the jaded 1970s.

Moore would return in The Man With the Golden Gun to face off against Christopher Lee's villain, Scaramanga, but box office receipts were dropping. Broccoli bought out his partner Saltzman, and came back in 1977 with The Spy Who Loved Me, Moore's third as Bond and the most lavish to date. It found tremendous success with audiences. The film was laden with expensive sets and elaborate stunts, including a sleek sports car that transformed into a submersible. It also included the steel-toothed villain Jaws, played by the imposing Richard Kiel. Moore returned again in the successful Moonraker (1979), which took advantage of the late 1970s craze for science fiction spawned by the blockbuster Star Wars. It had Bond in an outer space adventure centered around the Moonraker space shuttle.

For Your Eyes Only (1981) marked a return to more realistic espionage adventure that would continue in Moore's next two efforts as Bond, Octopussy (1983) and A View to a Kill (1985). A View to a Kill would be Moore's last film as Bond. His decision to retire from the part led to respected stage and film actor Timothy Dalton assuming the license to kill. His first outing, The Living Daylights (1987), was a moderate success. His next effort, however, License to Kill (1989) was poorly received by critics and fans alike. While a superb actor who stayed true to Fleming's characterization of Bond as a dark, driven man, Dalton's grim performances simply came as too much of a change after the lighthearted Moore. The Bond saga would now endure a six year hiatus, owing to protracted legal and financial troubles involving the films' producers and studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer/United Artists. When Bond returned, however, it was with a bang.

Goldeneye (named for Ian Fleming's Jamaica estate) was released in 1995 to excellent reviews and the highest ticket sales in the series' history. Irish actor Pierce Brosnan assumed the role at last (after briefly having the part and then losing it to Dalton due to his commitment to the television series Remington Steele) to great acclaim. His mixture of Connery's toughness, Moore's humor, and his own good looks and skills as an actor made him perfect for the role. His next effort, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) was another huge box office and critical success.

Certain unofficial Bond productions have seen the light of day through the years. Eon Productions did not obtain the rights to Casino Royale in 1961—they had already been sold for a black-and-white CBS television production starring American actor Barry Nelson as Bond. These rights were then bought for a late 1960s spoof of the Bond phenomenon starring David Niven, Orson Welles, and Woody Allen. Kevin McClory's Thunderball rights led to Never Say Never Again (1983), which featured one last encore by Sean Connery as Bond.

More than just a series of massively successful films, Bond has worked his way into the fabric of our culture. His name and certain other phrases—license to kill, Agent 007—have become synonymous with action, adventure, and a glamorous lifestyle. The Bond series has spawned uncounted spoofs and imitators, from the 1960s spy craze that included the Matt Helm films, the Flint movies, and the television series Mission: Impossible, The Man from UNCLE, The Avengers, and The Wild, Wild West, to such 1990s productions as the spectacular True Lies and the affectionate spoof, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Bond theme songs frequently become Top 40 hits. Moreover, the Bond films have in large part set the bar for the action film genre with their incredible stunts and high production values.

Bond also reflects the changing times. The Bond of Connery—sexist, violent, and cruel—so popular in the 1960s changed with the changing attitudes of the times, especially concerning women, into the more gentle and funny Bond of Moore in the late 1970s and 1980s. As the Cold War ended, Dalton's Bond found himself facing a maniacal drug dealer in License to Kill and the AIDS crisis prompted a monogamous (!) Bond in The Living Daylights. In the new world order of the 1990s, Brosnan's Bond has faced ex-Soviet agents in Goldeneye and a crazed media baron in Tomorrow Never Dies. Through the years, Bond has even quit smoking.

Bond has lasted this long because of his appeal to our fantasies. Bond enjoys the exotic locales, expensive clothes, and fantastic technology that few people experience in their lives. Men envy his appeal to women, and women find actors portraying Bond attractive in their own right. Through him, both genders can live a life of danger, excitement, and heroism. He changes with the times in order to remain relevant. Where his contemporaries have largely vanished, Bond remains visible without compromising the heart of the character.

—Jay Parrent

Further Reading:

Pfeiffer, Lee, and Phillip Lisa. The Incredible World of 007. New York, Carol Publishing Group, 1992.

Rubin, Steven Jay. The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1990.

Rye, Graham. The James Bond Girls. New York, Carol Publishing Group, 1996.