Why I Am Shaken, But Not Stirred, by Ian Fleming’s James Bond

Today we turn our attention to Ian Fleming (1908-1964). Having already written about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and having often referred to the Bond franchise, cultural touchstone that it is, on this blog I thought I would spill a few impressions about the latter series.

This won’t be typical fanboy fodder. There’s by far more than enough of that out there, and unlike probably most people, I don’t go into raptures over 007. At this point, in fact, I find it drearily cliched and exhausted. Whenever I hear someone refer to Dom Perignon as their only sparkling wine frame of reference, or say “Shaken, not stirred” I want to shoot them between the eyes. It’s not that I hate the films. I find them entertaining. I have nostalgic feelings, of course. But I’m over it, was over it a long time ago, and when I analyze it I do have my problems with it.

My first Bond film was undoubtedly either Live and Let Die (1973) or The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), screened on ABC television I believe in the mid ’70s. My first Bond film in a theatre was The Spy Who Loved Me (1978). (This was also the first movie — of any sort — I watched on videotape). If left to my own devices, Bond never would have been my thing. Get Smart would be much more to my taste, of course. As a kid, I merely found the Bond films confusing. It’s not how my brain works. I’d constantly find myself going, “Wait a minute — what? Now he’s in Hong Kong. Why did he go there again?” In time I concluded nobody’s brain works that way. The idea is to just let the settings and location wash over you in rapid succession, a travelogue of sex and violence not unlike the Hitchcock double chase films on which the Bond films seem partly modeled. With repeated viewings you can kind of find the spine of the narrative, but the logic isn’t the narrative per se, it’s the chain of effects. Bond walks into a room, some guy falls out of the ceiling and attacks him with a lamp or whatever. Who that guy is, what he’s doing there, why he’s attacking Bond, are all beyond vague and beside the point. Your focus is on the choreography. Bond smashes a guy’s head through a television set (or whatever–I feel obligated to put these “whatevers” because the world is full of motherfuckers who have nothing better to do than go, “Bond never did that!” as though the trappings override the overarching point ). The point is, the setting and the orchestration of the action are more important than character or the plot. At the time, that was quite a new thing. Today, if your story is over 80 minutes long and there’s a scene lasting longer than a minute with people talking, you’re considered a Wagnerian bore, some kind of intolerable egghead.

At any rate, I was drawn into the Bond world because my best friend in junior high and high school was obsessed with it. It was kind of central and formative to who he was as an aspiring film-maker, and we even made an award winning spy film on Super-8 stock when we were about 14. (By award winning I mean a state wide contest in Rhode Island, in the teenager category. But the distinction turned our heads). The film was basically a feature length Bond rip-off starring high school kids. My friend wrote and directed and played the Bond-like hero. I played the equivalent of “M”. So this is when I began to bone up on my Bond. As I said, The Spy Who Loved Me was literally the only videotape of a movie any of us had access to circa 1980. Another friend, who co-produced the film with us, had some early VCR prototype and had taped the movie off the tv. So we naturally watched this film about a dozen times. In time, I caught up with all of the preceding Bond films, read all of Fleming’s original books, and remained engaged with the franchise through A View to a Kill (1985).

This TV Guide ad ran in 1974

And that year remains my cut-off. My knowledge about Bond films is pretty thorough prior to that. Subsequent to that, I’ve probably seen at least one film starring Dalton, Brosnan and Craig each, but for the life of me I can’t remember a thing about any of them. They don’t do a thing for me. They do even less for me than the originals. Of what came before: Sean Connery is really the only one, right? (Another cliche. I like Daniel Craig in the role, I just don’t like the vehicles he’s in). I had liked Roger Moore quite well on the series The Saint, but he comes off as too much the dandy in the Bond films. George Lazenby was an interesting experiment in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1967) — too bad they chose a fashion model with no acting experience for the one Bond film that requires the most acting (Bond actually falls in love and marries). It’s been written that Patrick McGoohan was approached to play the role — it’s our sad loss that he didn’t.

McGoohan’s objection to playing the role is a good jumping off point for my problem with the series, the more and more I analyze it. McGoohan was a staunch, conservative Catholic. He was uncomfortable with the womanizing in the films. We’ll come back to that, but first I want to unpack Fleming’s original vision for the character of James Bond. Fleming, who’d been an intelligence officer himself, and known many others over the course of his work, saw the character as a kind of soulless functionary, or as he put it, a “blunt instrument of the government.” A kind of Pavlovian post-human, trained by the military, pumped up on bennies, and, yes, possessing a License to Kill. An assassin, a commando. Fleming deliberately chose the most boring name he could think of, and pictured him as looking something like singer/songwriter/sometime movie actor Hoagy Carmichael (much like himself) —  a rather homely fellow. One thinks more of the John LeCarre heroes as played by Richard Burton and Alec Guinness and others. It’s not so much about being gazed at in a tuxedo at the casino table as about being relatively invisible.

The movie version of Bond inevitably glamorized him, gave him a flashy swashbuckling aspect and wit, and cast the startlingly handsome yet macho Sean Connery. This combination — the glamour, plus the character’s lack of humanity made it powerfully injurious to popular culture, I think.  Sex without love and killing without sorrow or regret. It’s not even “love ’em and leave ’em”. It’s FUCK ’em and leave ’em, sometimes RAPE ’em and leave ’em. Then shoot a bunch of guys and make jokes about it as you step over their corpses. We laugh at the jokes, we fantasize about a world where we bang the most gorgeous woman in the room 15 minutes after meeting her, and about mowing down all the guys (mostly foreign guys with funny accents) who get in our way. To recap: women are recreational furniture; men are for target practice. The pace and volume of all this has increased exponentially in the ensuing decades.

It also contributes to the mindset of tribalism we have now. Ostensibly Bond is fighting Soviet totalitarianism, and organized crime organizations. But his behavior and techniques mimic theirs. So it really doesn’t sift out into “our way” vs. “their way”, but US vs. THEM, with any tactic fair game in that struggle. And look where we are politically today. I’d never claim that you watch a movie and become a monster. But I do think it can be true that you can watch a movie and became a little bit more of a monster.

For related posts, please read The Curse of the Oily Man , What Was Bad and Good About 80s Cinema? and Futile and Stupid: How Comedy Changed for the Worse in the 1980s. And check out my friend Adam Swiderski’s timely piece on gun violence in entertainment on the SyFy network’s website.