Bond – is it still the same story?

Dave Kellaway examines the Bond franchise as a cultural product and reviews the latest movie.

 

No time to Die, the new Bond film took £24 million at the box office in the first few days of release and £85 million globally, smashing all records for a film opening. Press reports suggest it will take at least £1billion and be the biggest ever Bond movie. Never mind Bond saving the world from the threat of Spectre this time he has been charged with saving the film industry and particularly cinemas. After this mother of all blockbusters had been held back repeatedly because of COVID the corporate bosses are hoping that the Bond franchise will kick start a mass return to the cinemas.

Original painting by Sally Jones, currently in exhibition at the Hampstead Garden Gallery until 18 October* (see note at end of article)

How you grow up with Bond in your head

Unless you are over 75 most of us cannot imagine a time when there was no regular Bond film. It is the longest running and one of the most profitable franchises in world cinema. Most people have grown up in some relation to the Bond fantasy. I remember my local priests berating some youth for having a Ian Fleming Bond novel on his person. It was considered quite corrupting by the Catholic Church and they were considered dirty books because of the sex scenes. Boys and young men like me watching the films would picture themselves as the all action hero, driving those magical cars, winning in the casino, destroying the heinous baddy but especially having all those ‘Bond girls’. Certainly it projected a certain model of male sexuality and values that had a real mass influence on how we grew up and related to the opposite sex. Girls and young women were more likely than not to fantasise about the gentleman hero and identify to a degree with his girlfriends. In fact even in the early films the women Bond bedded or threatened him were sex objects but were also. often physically strong and independent killers. 

Everyone is able tell you their favourite scenes or films. Those old enough will discuss who has been the best Bond. The films’ catchphrases and theme music are embedded deep in popular culture.  It is hard to find other cultural products that operate so effectively at a mass level.

The same movie re-run each year

Really there is only one Bond movie that is constantly remade each year. To give the impression of newness and change there are modifications made to keep up with actual changes in attitudes and ideology. What are the main elements?

Bond is called in to respond to a serious threat to Britain or to the world by cold war enemies like Russia, China or North Korea (up to the 90s), terrorists or global conspiracies (Spectre) motivated by money or megalomaniac plans for humanity. In trying to locate and deal with the threat/enemy Bond goes to a number of exotic locations where he engages in violent conflicts, car or other vehicle chases. He gets detained or tortured. In between he has sexual encounters with various ‘glamorous’ women who can be helping him or betraying him. This all builds up to a dramatic set piece finale set against the clock where Bond has his showdown with the grotesque villain. The bad guys are usually disfigured in some way to emphasise their otherness. Homophobia was strongly expressed too as the baddie camped it up. He wins and goes off with the woman who has not tried to kill him. Laconic, dry humour permeates his performance even when facing extreme danger. A modern version of the stiff upper lip and British phlegm we have seen in countless British war films.

There has to be a British super car with awesome weaponry and some new technical gizmo like an explosive fountain pen to help Bond. The catchphrases must pop up somewhere: ‘martini shaken not stirred’ and ‘I’m Bond, James Bond’. The James Barry instrumental theme has to be there from the beginning. Last but not least there is always a linked promotion around the Bond song.  The top singers of the day, nearly always women such as Shirley Bassey, Adele, Tina Turner or Madonna, are giving a certain hit song.

Are the secret services really like this?

As well as a expressing a subtly changing male sexuality Bond’s actions and values reinforce a certain Englishness and presentation of the British security services. John le Carré books and films show a much more accurate picture of the British state and how it runs its secret services. There is nothing very heroic about his characters and he consistently questions the official ideology behind the British state’s actions. 

In the Bond theme the security services might occasionally be shown to be bumbling or letting Bond down but essentially it is a force for good, defending Britain and the world against their enemies.  Historically the enemies were caricatured as ugly, brutal and amoral with totalitarian ideologies. Bond and the good guys are handsome, pretty and glamorous with access to a luxurious lifestyle and sexual freedom. In Cold War times this also presented a deliberate contrast with the dour, poorer and more repressive Eastern Bloc. Often the enemy was given little depth or even dialogue. In recent films they are given more complexity and background. 

Of course the biggest myth about the films is that individual agents such as Bond play an important role in the overall practice of the security services. High tech monitoring and data analysis backed up by drones and the lethal force of special official or unofficial armed units are how they actually operate today.

An interesting article by Sarah Kelley shows how the producers shifted back to a more British focus for Bond in Skyfall and Spectre after trying to make him an American style hero defending the West as a whole in Casino Royale. She also shows how real political developments like high tech monitoring and the terrorist threat informed the later movies much more.

Refreshing the brand

In order to refresh the franchise and keep it up to date with changing values and attitudes new scriptwriters and creators have been brought in. Phoebe Waller-Bridge creator of the feminist comedy drama Fleabag has been drafted in for the latest film. Over the last few films women characters who work alongside Bond have been introduced. They are as effective as Bond as killing machines and agents.  Scripts are less sexist and crude racial stereotyping has been eliminated. We can all remember how in many of Bond’s sexual encounters the notion of female consent was exactly that, rather notional.  The label Bond girl has been banned. There is talk of a female replacement for Bond himself as Daniel Craig is stepping down after this film. Particularly in Skyfall we saw a much deeper, more emotionally complex Bond. All sorts of Freudian themes were introduced with his father (played inevitably by Sean Connery) appearing and the mother figure of M, played by Judi Dench, being killed. Given all these modifications and additions to the action thriller genre it is unsurprising that the films are getting longer, the latest is nearly 3 hours long.

All the changes now embedded in Bond movies due to the #metoo and anti-racist movements have actually provoked a bit of a backlash from anti-progressives and the Right. They moan about what is being done to ‘their’ James Bond, how it is political correctness gone mad and conceding to the ‘woke’ generation. Even Kate Mossman writing for the New Statesman finds the new Bond makes the films tedious and boring. In itself this shows the ideological significance of the Bond franchise and how it impacts on a mass level.  The real cultural and political conflicts in today’s society do not leave it untouched as some neutral film fantasy. 

Original painting by Sal Jones

A Global Brand selling a global role for Britain

It is not just another film or franchise but practically an industry with thousands of stable jobs connected to it. Governments even see it as part of Britain’s soft power – the Great Britain brand – as it is sold throughout the world.  Hence it benefited from a tax break worth £47 million and general support.(see Dan Sabbagh’s article in the Guardian on this) It should have come as no surprise that at the London Olympics even the Queen was dragged in to plug Bond. Thriller franchises like the Die hard, Bourne or Mission Impossible do not even compete at this level with Bond. Countries will vie to offer the Bond people inducements to film in their countries’ picturesque or iconic locations. Tourism benefits from its connections. Although a British production it is a global product produced and distributed with international investment. Its development over 60 years reflects the growth of globalised capitalism.

But it certainly communicates a global role for Britain that does not really exist anymore. It reinforces the idea of the state fighting to defend ‘our’ security and well-being rather than corporate interests. This probably strengthens some people’s delusions of global conspiracy too. While most people understand it just as a film, a story with increasingly absurd plots the subliminal effects and general impact probably subtly nurtures a sense of Britishness that suits Boris Johnson’s idea of global Britain. Dan Sabbagh is his Guardian article (op cit above) makes this point:

At a time when Britain is struggling to provide fuel for petrol tanks and cheap gas during a warm September, following on the heels of the US in its retreat from Afghanistan (…)James Bond presents an alternative universe in which a powerful British secret service ranges across the world, albeit to foil dastardly, non-state enemies.

Bond movies are not very ecologically friendly either. The carbon footprint generated by travelling to all those locations and all the special effects must be huge. Then it epitomises a flattening of the diversity of cultural production in such a mega global enterprise. Just imagine how many critical, challenging film projects could be financed with the Bond budget. At the heart of the stories we find a glorification of technology whether it is the cars or the special weapons or how problems are solved. Conflicts over the control of bio-tech weaponry for instance are not really explained. Such weaponry appears unconnected to class, imperialism or identifiable power interests. It feeds into  popular opinion today about faceless power, conspiracies and a lack of control. Often ecological destruction is laid at the door of generic notions of technology dissociated from class or the state.

Why we still go and see them

Apart from the ideological construction of masculinity and Britishness the movies are hugely successful because the action sequences are so brilliantly conceived and filmed. Not surprising given the investment behind it. Other thriller franchises cannot compete with the number of locations and the industrial level mechanics involved in certain scenes.

At a very elemental level and on a big screen it delivers the essence of the unique cinematic experience – different from the theatre, reading a book or TV. It literally jolts you out of your seat.  The experience is anchored within the cosy familiarity and predictability of the Bond movie. People like what they like – the corporate cinema bosses know this and serve it up. 

Let’s be honest this particular feature is why people who are maybe quite critical of the security services or of the gender models presented will go and see the latest film. Even people on the left need a bit of fun and distraction. We went last night. Here is our review.

No time to die  – a bit more than just a refresh

Yes it is still the same movie rerun but the latest film dumps or radically alters some of the key elements outlined above. Casual sexual encounters are replaced by a genuine Bond romance that plays a key role in the plot. Flag waving and unproblematic showboating of the secret services is replaced by almost Le Carre scepticism and exposure of conspiracy at the heart of the deep state. Female roles are even stronger than before and have a kill rate nearly as high as Bonds. 

Most of the other features remain true to the franchise. Bond’s love interest is still many years younger than him and the female gaze is still focussed on his attractiveness. We still do not seem to have moved on from Shakespearean drama is the way the villains are nearly always disfigured physically in some way. This insidiously creates an equation between disability and evil. The locations are as eye catching as always. No wonder the mayor of Matera in southern Italy is expecting a tourism bounce of over £10 million.  It is a uniquely beautiful place but the movie makes it even more magical than it is in real life. Much of its picturesqueness comes from the renovated cave houses that used to shelter peasants and workers who lived in dire poverty. 

We see the ‘British’ brand cars that are today usually owned by international capital feature in all the chases. That Aston Martin with the retractable machine guns, whose Dinky toy version we all craved to own as kids, returns with venom. Whilst the British state’s nefarious role in the movie’s mortal threat to humanity is highlighted, the Royal Navy rides to the rescue in the end. Bond’s heroic defence of the realm, despite everything, is untarnished. The humour is as predictable and cringe worthy as ever, while the car chases are not just car chases but Bond car chases with a whole different budget.

Popular cultural products are a form of commodified service. In order to sell on a mass scale they have to adapt and react to changes in society’s attitudes, opinions and behaviour. In this way it can also continue to fulfil its overdetermined role of reproducing an ideology that encourages adherence to the status quo and pleasure in the mass consumption of the dominant spectacle (cf Phil Hearse’s article). Sarah Kelley in her article cited above recognises the insight of media scholar Todd Gitlan on this point:

Gitlin explains that the media’s promotion of dominant ideology can involve acknowledging a small amount of “watered-down” oppositional opinion in order to convince the public that their interests are being reflected: “The hegemonic commercial cultural system routinely incorporates some aspects of alternative ideology and rejects the unassimilable” (1979, p. 251).

The Bond franchise can allow a certain critical input from feminist creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge but it cannot threaten the overall ideological narrative. Her input makes its bonkers plot more coherent and the characters more interesting. Is it worth seeing? As long as you approach it critically there is no harm in enjoying this cinematic experience. Discussing it with friends or with co-workers means you can raise some of the issues we have raised here. It is difficult to do that without seeing the movie.


* note: Sally Jones, the artist behind the brilliant paintings illustrated here add her comments about her latest exhibition at Hampstead Garden Gallery in London, until 18th October, entry free.

‘No Time Like the Present’ –used as the exhibition title is intended on various levels – obviously a spin-off from the new film title, and also referring to the long wait and delay for the film but also referring to the current times we are living in….. there is no time quite like the present…. it feels like a fictional movie we have been living through – with mad leaders elected, Trump and buffoons like Boris and the pandemic and antivaxxers, the rush for petrol and toilet rolls! ….. etc .

I like to think that my paintings – question the characters and look at them from another viewpoint –  rather than buying into them – the titles and innuendo are tongue-in-cheek but nod at a subversive side, whilst allowing the viewer to reach their own conclusions, and without dictating a political viewpoint…..  Bond movies are fun and vulgar, good and bad, they are a British institution and a recognisable part of the culture. Love them or hate them …. just take them with a pinch of salt.


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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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