Updating James Bond
Ian Fleming, writer of single-mindedly anti-Communist pop thrillers, was a quintessential product of the cold war. In the tradition of popular, even pulp, fiction, he invented escapades for his Agent 007 never seen on earth or in heaven and violated the procedures and “tradecraft” of real espionage at every turn (and knowingly, since he had served in British Naval Intelligence during World War II). But there was nothing fanciful about Fleming’s choice of adversaries. The bad guys in his thrillers were always representatives of international Communism and/or the Soviet Union. Fleming’s anti-Communism was of the primitive sort, attributing to the Russians a kind of wanton, undiscriminating destructiveness which presumably no rational adversary possesses. Yet it reflected his abiding, visceral conviction that the Russians were out to do us in.
The first James Bond movie, Dr. No, was very much a sleeper. Its budget was modest; its star, Sean Connery, almost unknown. But it was released in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis. John Kennedy—a reader and admirer of Fleming—was President of the United States. Americans were ready to pay any price, bear any burden. U.S. support troops were on their way to Vietnam. And Dr. No shot to the top of the box-office listings and stayed there.
Even this first Bond film, however, was not quite straight Ian Fleming, since even during the iciest days of the cold war, before the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist party in 1956 and the beginning of de-Stalinization, Hollywood had never found anti-Communist films to be a paying proposition. Whether it was because the public found the iniquity of Communism too obvious, or too gloomy, or too boring, it would not pay good money to have the Kremlin’s evils explained to it as a form of entertainment. There were some anti-Communist films produced, but these were turned out by the studios (still in existence in those days in their dictatorial form), knowing they would probably lose money. They were intended, in fact, as a sort of combined loyalty oath and insurance plan in the event of a possible revival of the McCarthyite congressional investigations. If the inquisitors were ever to return, each studio would be able to point to its own anti-Communist film. So even though anti-Communism was riding high, and the Soviet Union was unambiguously considered the enemy, the public balked at anti-Soviet tracts in its movies. What it got instead was the cinematographized James Bond.
Now that the twelfth and latest of the James Bond movies—For Your Eyes Only—is about to burst upon us, the time has come for a backward look at the entire canon, the longest and most successful series in motion-picture history. Since a detailed recounting of a dozen James Bond screenplays would leave all but the most determined minds reeling, I shall attempt to focus on what is after all a central issue: the vicissitudes of James Bond’s adversary, the Enemy of the Free World.
To begin with, there was Dr. No, quite straightforward in its political implications. The hero was Bond, of course, engaged in a titanic struggle to defend the West against international subversion. The setting was a Caribbean island, “a secret base for revolutionary experiments.” The villain was a sinister half-Oriental scientist attempting to throw a monkey wrench into the space program by diverting the course of U.S. rockets from Cape Canaveral. As I have explained, a certain depoliticizing tendency is to be noted in even this first translation of a Fleming novel to the screen. For one thing, Dr. No is no longer a straightforward Moscow agent as he was in the original. (“The Russians are my partners in this venture. They trained six of my men, Mr. Bond. ”) In any event, 007, while reconnoitering Dr. No’s secret stronghold, finds the lightly clad Ursula Andress collecting shells on the beach. She is a “nature girl.” She just happens to be there.
But if no film in which the hero incidentally finds a half-naked Ursula Andress collecting shells on a deserted beach can be accused of being a political tract, the cold-war atmosphere is still unmistakable. If America does not win the space race, the West will fall! Dr. No, if not precisely a Moscow agent, is at least half-Chinese, and as such the representative of a recognizable adversary in the real world. His Caribbean island, moreover, is not far from another island where a Soviet-sponsored Fidel Castro has recently taken his stand. James Bond’s best buddy is a CIA man.
It did not take producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli long to realize they had a smash hit on their hands, and number two in the series, From Russia With Love, followed the next year. The film’s budget is bigger, there is a lot more expensive gadgetry, and the focus is shifted to our great coeval rival in Eastern Europe, but the formula is not much changed. Though Fleming’s beloved SMERSH—his flamboyant improvement on the KGB (he swore it actually existed)—is transmuted into the more neutral SPECTRE ( a “group of international criminals”), it is a Russian plot that sets the film in motion: an attempt to plant a beautiful female pseudo-defector, actually a KGB disinformation agent, on the West. Furthermore James Bond’s best buddy is a Turkish agent (Turkey being in that period second to none in its anti-Soviet militancy); and his cold-blooded arch enemy, “Red Grant” (played by Robert Shaw), who attempts to murder him on the Orient Express, is—SPECTRE or no SPECTRE—revealed to be a Russian.
In 1964 the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed the U.S. House of Representatives without a single dissenting vote, and the U.S. Senate with only one, and Saltzman and Broccoli were ready with Goldfinger. Here James Bond’s opponent is the “millionaire madman” Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), whose goal is nothing less than destroying the West’s whole economic system by capturing Fort Knox and making the gold contained therein radioactive—this in cahoots with the Red Chinese, a commando unit from whose army seizes Fort Knox. The attempt is foiled by James Bond and the U.S. army.
In Thunderball, 007 remains pretty much on course. SPECTRE seems to have some kind of collegial succession system like the Roman Catholic Church because no sooner does it lose one arch-fiend than it produces another to throw into battle against James Bond. The new fiend hijacks two U.S. atomic bombs with a view to holding the entire Western world for ransom.
Still, Thunderball marks a departure. The Vietnam war was beginning to produce internal strains within both the U.S. and the Western alliance, and suddenly there are no Communist agents on the premises. Traces of the cold war have not yet been altogether expunged, however. The female lead’s brother, killed during the atomic-bomb hijacking, is a NATO pilot. Bond’s best buddy is still a CIA man. The day is saved by U.S. “Aquaparatroops” (whatever they are). And the danger to be averted is directed against the “Western world.”
In You Only Live Twice, released in 1967, the changes are more drastic. James Bond’s CIA best buddy, Felix Leiter, an ongoing part of the series up to this point, is no longer around. He is replaced by “Tiger Tanaka,” head of the Japanese Secret Service. Since Japan is both diplomatically and militarily the most inert of the world’s great industrial nations, this particular substitution, although deliberate, is also ludicrous (of course the Bond series is wildly popular in Japan). But the most important change in You Only Live Twice is that this time the new SPECTRE arch-fiend is hatching a diabolical plot, not just against the West, but against the West and the Soviet bloc together. From the usual island base the fiend is at work intercepting missiles in an attempt to provoke World War III, placing the West and the Soviet Union in the same boat, two peace-loving societies determined to prevent some deranged third party out there from destroying the world.
By the time of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, released in 1969, the Bond series—not unlike the U.S. in Vietnam—was floundering desperately. First of all, its star, Sean Connery, had walked out, to be replaced by the unfortunate George Lazenby. But the absence of its star was not this movie’s only liability. Seemingly as alarmed by the peace movement as was President Johnson, and eager to shed James Bond’s warlike image, the film’s screenwriters produced a truly remarkable hodgepodge by way of a story. SPECTRE’s “arch maniac,” it seems, has assembled ten international beauties from all parts of the world, each one more lovely than the next. Properly inoculated with a special virus, Bond will be compelled to spend one night with each of the ten beauties, after which they will all be sent back to their own countries where the virus Bond has passed on to them will destroy all vegetable life! Now even by James Bond’s standards this is an idiotic plot (meant, presumably, to convey the horrors of defolition in Vietnam). But, more important, what has become of the old 007? Where are the roaring missiles, the giant bombs, the fiery explosions, the carnage? One need hardly add that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a failure, the only one in the series.
But James Bond soon found his sea legs again. Sean Connery was induced to return for one last picture (to be replaced later on by Roger Moore). But if Phase One gave us the anti-Communist James Bond, and Phase Two the decline and fall of the Peacenik James Bond, Phase Three of the series gave us the perfect James Bond for the early 70′s in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Live and Let Die (1973), and The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). This is a James Bond who has drunk deep of the wisdom of détente. He knows all about MAD, he knows that war between the superpowers has been rendered obsolete, and he knows therefore that the West can have no plausible adversary in world affairs. He has also learned, as few men before him, the “lessons of Vietnam.”
The 70′s Bond is not lacking in violence (his creators would not make that mistake again), but he lavishes his violence on a patently impossible collection of “archfiends,” “madmen,” and other megalomaniacal noodleheads of no identifiable party, nation, or political persuasion. No CIA men appear in these pictures, since the CIA has the reputation of fighting (some would say not always judiciously) real enemies, whereas this has been revealed as delusionary, as the West has no real enemy. No KGB men appear either, of course, but, as has been pointed out, identifiable Communist agents have been absent from the series ever since the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.
The only amusing element still left in Phase Three is Dr. Kanaga (Yaphet Kotto) of Live and Let Die, a “malevolent black ruler” (probably suggested by Idi Amin) who plans to “dominate the Western world with an onslaught of voodoo and hard drug addiction.” It is worth noting that this film was released before the Arab oil embargo of 1974 and the crescendo of passion for the Third World which was to come not long after. Two or three years later, I suspect, a “malevolent black ruler” somewhere in Africa might have become as unacceptable as a malevolent white ruler in the Kremlin.
In any case, the series was to reach a new high of sorts in Phase Four with The Spy Who Loved Me, released during 1977, the first year of the Carter Presidency. The film had several novelties. It was the first Bond film to have an entirely original story. The producers claimed that it had been Ian Fleming’s wish before his death (in 1964) to have only the title of this particular novel retained, so the screenwriters, Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum, could let her rip. Also, the women’s movement had been complaining that James Bond treated women like so many comfort stations, and so moviegoers were promised the most important feminine role ever seen in a Bond movie, a woman with whom 007 would have a real “relationship.” And last, the film marked the return, after all these years, of the KGB—this time as James Bond’s loyal friend and faithful ally!—since the feminine role in question was none other than that of a beautiful KGB officer, James Bond’s true “relationship.” (Ian Fleming, as the saying goes, must have rolled over in his grave.)
So the Bond series at this point abandoned Phase Three’s policy of neutralism for one favoring a Western-Soviet alliance against—well, in this case against a web-fingered Nordic shipping magnate who wants to destroy our civilization in order to recreate it again underwater. The head of the KGB actually appears in the film—so silver-haired, benign, and high-minded that, but for the accent and the problem of nationality, he would have been an excellent candidate for Jacob Javits’s seat in the U.S. Senate.
I saw this film with a special invited audience representing the cream of New York’s publishing industry. Its members laughed gleefully, cheered at the bravura bits, and seemed to view the notion of the West and the KGB teaming up as a harmless and agreeable fiction. They did not take the proposition seriously, of course, or literally—but just as obviously they did not find it objectionable or shocking (as they might an alliance with, say, General Pinochet of Chile). Hadn’t we gotten rid of our inordinate fear of Communism? And as an intellectual Bond-fan explained to me, wasn’t the Soviet Union really our de facto ally against the equivalent of these Bond-film maniacs? Didn’t these maniacs stand for all those anti-Communist maniacs who, left to their own devices, could end up creating animosities which might truly destroy civilization?
Moonraker, released in late 1979, had the same slant. Once again, a megalomaniac plans to destroy human life on earth, this time from outer space. James Bond realizes his only chance to halt the madness is to alert both Russians and Americans, and the two cooperate in annihilating this threat to mankind.
Much has happened in the world in the last two and a half years, more than enough, one might think, for the latest James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only, scheduled for release soon, to abandon the recently-formed U.S.-Soviet alliance. Whether it does or does not we shall soon find out. Up to this point, in any event, the James Bond series can have had few equals in obliterating from the popular culture the idea that our society might actually have a powerful and dangerous adversary. Nor, in saying this, do I mean to sneer at the purveyors of mass culture. If the editors of the New York Times Book Review can see fit, as they did a few weeks ago, to publish a rave review of a new thriller, Gorky Park, about “an honest Communist poiceman,” in which the reviewer complacently affirms that the Soviet and American police and security systems are roughly equivalent, how can one blame the authors of The Spy Who Loved Me for thinking, in 1977, that the idea of a Soviet-Western alliance was perfectly respectable?
The question of adversaries in the spy-thriller genre brings me to two other recent films, each of which has solved the question in a rather different way. The first, Eyewitness, by Steve Tesich and Peter Yates (the writer-director team which created the Academy-Award winning Breaking Away), was released in mid-February with mediocre commercial results. The second, Night-hawks, starring Sylvester Stallone, took off with a mighty roar in New York over the Easter holiday and promises to be a major hit. Both are better-than-average glossy films. Both have grievous failings. Whether Nighthawks‘s greater box-office appeal is a result of Stallone’s presence, or whether it comes closer than the other film to telling the audience what it wants to hear, would be hard to state with certainty.
To say that Steve Tesich, author of Eyewitness‘s screenplay, has “solved” the adversary question is a slight overstatement, as for him there seems to have been no problem at all. The enemy in Eyewitness is Israel, with occasional sideswipes at Zionists, Jewish refugees from Russia, and American Jews who support Israel, particularly if they speak with foreign accents. Incredible as it seems, Hollywood has made its first anti-Israel movie. There has been a conspiracy of silence about this, only one critic mentioning it openly, with a few others referring in gingerly fashion to the “fanaticism” of the Israeli protagonist and letting it go at that. Ordinary moviegoers, many of them Jews, apparently find it so unthinkable that an anti-Israel film could come out of Hollywood that they have simply decided not to register what is plainly before their eyes.
To be as clear as possible, I shall tell Eyewitness‘s story backward (which, as with all thrillers, is of course the way it was written). The movie’s murderous assassin turns out in the end to be an Israeli secret-service officer (Christopher Plummer), doubling in the first scene as a fund-raiser for the rescue of Soviet Jews (which shows how much Tesich knows about hit teams). “Joseph,” for that is his name, has murdered an unappetizing ex-South Vietnamese who had been serving as intermediary with the Russians to—and this, like so much else in the movie, defies probability—buy Jews out of the Soviet Union. But the wily South Vietnamese is not the only victim of Israeli fervor. An innocent American janitor who talks to horses (William Hurt) has knowledge of the murder, so he becomes the target of repeated assassination attempts by Joseph, all staged with the traditional paraphernalia of spy thrillers: scary music, atmosphere of nameless dread, etc., etc. Finally, comes what is perhaps Joseph’s most loathsome crime: he poisons the janitor’s dog, and a big, lovable dog at that. Now in the real world of secret operations, innocent witnesses are perhaps killed and pets poisoned even by “good” people. But in the thin world of the thriller movie a man who poisons dogs is a bad, bad man.
The middle parts of Eyewitness (working forward) are devoted to the love affair between the janitor, Daryll Deever, and a rich Jewish girl, Tony Sokolow (Sigourney Weaver), who is also a television reporter (Tesich has admitted that the character and situation were suggested by his long-time crush on CBS’s Lesley Stahl). Tony’s rich Jewish parents do not approve of her love affair with a janitor (nicer people, presumably, would have been delighted), though in fact a less likely janitor than Hurt, fresh from his role as a Columbia professor in Altered States, can scarcely be imagined.
For quiet unlikeliness, however, no scene in this movie goes much further than its opening, the fund-raising evening which has Tony and other family members playing chamber music against the extravagantly opulent setting of a New York town house. I am not an expert on the social nuances of New York Jewry, but I’m still wondering how a group of recent Russian immigrants could possibly have made so much money so fast. But they had to be Russians, both to give the film its veneer of timeliness and to make possible a later scene, where Joseph, asked to spare the life of the innocent janitor, replies to Tony’s Russian émigré parents, “And how do you know how much innocent blood was spilled to get you out of Russia?” And as though this were not enough to communicate the moral ambiguity of these refugees, it is followed almost immediately by the key scene in the film, in which Tony, who has grown progressively more estranged from her parents, suddenly sees them for what they are, foreigners, monstrous fanatics, Zionists, and cries out in horror, backing away from them, “I’m afraid of you!”
There is no arguing with this scene. There it is. And Tony leaves Zionist Mom and Dad for the Gentile janitor.
That is not to say that the movie is without hope. If you are a beautiful Jewish girl, preferably one who looks like Sigourney Weaver, and if you are willing to extricate yourself from your sinister family life with its alien loyalties, and throw in your lot with real Americans, then you can be taken into the bosom of America, along with Steve Tesich.
Tesich is not an average American. Born in a small town in Yugoslavia, he arrived in East Chicago, Indiana, at the age of fourteen, and talks endlessly in interviews about being “in love with America.” But the America he is in love with seems to be the Columbia campus of 1968, where, as a graduate student in Russian literature, he heard the siren song of Mark Rudd—alongside whom he took a play-writing class—and does not seem to have recovered. “We had the sense of a community of people heading in one direction toward something wonderful,” he has said, adding that he has preserved his 60′s idealism “intact,” and that he was marked by the period “for life.”
As must be obvious from the above quotations, the mark left by this period is very evident in Eyewitness, which is a stubborn attempt to reassert the 60′s counterculture view of the world. If the best external enemy that can be found is Israel, with an assist from some leftover devils from Saigon, then the true enemy and evildoer is still America, since the principal reason Israel is singled out for vituperation has always been that it is connected so intimately to the United States. So the anti-American Left is far from dead. It is alive and making movies.
It would be hard to imagine an international, covert-action movie more different from Eyewitness than Nighthawks, which starts from the premise that an international terrorist movement actually exists, and goes on to speculate about the possibility that it could strike in the United States as it has in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Ireland.
The plot of Nighthawks gets under way when it is learned that the world’s most famous terrorist, “Wulfgar” (suggested by the notorious “Carlos,” with echoes of the Baader-Meinhof gang) is on his way to New York. What to do? An anti-terrorist team is assembled in New York under the leadership of an Englishman—this to underline the international nature of the problem, and also perhaps to call to mind the spectacular success of Britain’s SAS in storming the Iranian embassy in London when it was taken by terrorists last year. The film’s hero, Deke DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone), is a New York cop and a member of the anti-terrorist squad. In the original version of the screenplay, which was circulating among the major studios in Hollywood some two or three years ago, DaSilva was a cop, period. He had no biography. But as the mood of the country changed, so did the scenario. In the version that finally reached the screen he has been given a past, and what a past. Former lieutenant in the army’s celebrated “First Cav” in Vietnam. “Fifty-two certified VC kills.”
With the exception of John Wayne’s successful The Green Berets in 1967, before the anti-war movement hit its peak, the American cinema reacted to the Vietnam war with a great silence. After the war, and after a rather long wait, with the peace movement still near the front of public consciousness, came that movement’s distillation of the truly representative Vietnam veteran, the character played by Jon Voight in Coming Home—a cripple. But suddenly the mood began to change and we got Robert de Niro in The Deerhunter, and just last year Steven Railsback in The Stunt Man, both soldiers and veterans who are patriots again, if scarred and bitter. And now, at last, triumphant, we have Stallone as Deke DaSilva, unmaimed either physically or spiritually, a military hero in the old mold, proud of his war record in Vietnam and ready again “when his country calls.” I cannot describe the exhilaration that swept over the audience at the sight of one of America’s greatest film idols, manly, powerfully built, playing a hero who has killed his country’s enemies in Vietnam and come back proud. This character has hardly been seen on American screens since The Sands of Iwo Jima.
The Englishman instructs his anti-terrorist squad, explaining that policemen, unlike terrorists, are trained in the use of non-lethal force, and are supposed to raise force to the required level only cautiously. Terrorists’ entire purpose, however, is lethal. In the split second while the policeman is deciding whether the ultimate level of force is needed, Wulfgar shoots, and the policeman dies. Although it is never put in so many words, the lesson imparted is perfectly clear. When dealing with a terrorist, get him before he gets you. DaSilva at first has a problem of conscience. “What’s the matter with you?” he is asked irritably. “You made fifty-two kills in Vietnam. What do you think we picked you for?” “But that was war,” DaSilva answers. At his first encounter with Wulfgar, the terrorist who has killed time and time again, DaSilva cannot bring himself to open fire because Wulfgar is escaping in a crowded subway car and a miss could kill innocent bystanders. The policeman’s black partner, Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams), on the other hand, has gotten the new message right from the start and, blocked, is screaming, “Make the shot, Deke! Make the shot!” By the end of the movie, rest assured, Deke “makes the shot.”
A genuine problem of civil liberties is involved here, of course, and Nighthawks is too much of a commercial genre movie to face it squarely. The general principle is that, when dealing with ordinary criminals, who kill selected individuals chiefly for economic gain, a policeman opening fire in a crowded subway car could do more damage to the citizenry at large than the criminal would be likely to do if allowed to escape. But when the felons involved are terrorists whose entire goal is to inspire terror and to kill, the balance shifts drastically. When Britain’s SAS hit the Iranian embassy in London, West Germany’s Leatherheads the airfield at Mogadishu, or the Israelis the airfield at Entebbe, the death of innocent civilians if it occurred was to be regretted, but had to remain a secondary consideration. The primary objective was to destroy the enemy.
Anyone who has studied the subject at all realizes that, when a major terrorist campaign takes hold in a country, that country’s civil liberties are reduced as surely as night follows day. In an early scene in Nighthawks, just to set the mood, Deke DaSilva drags a criminal he has just knocked out across a deserted subway platform while droning the words of the Miranda warning to the unconscious body: “You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to legal counsel. . . .” The scene wins a roar of laughter from the audience, and I would say—no doubt to the horror of the ACLU—a roar of approving laughter.
Where Nighthawks gets evasive, and even silly, is when it comes to the key question. Who is Wulfgar anyway? Whom is he working for? We are asked to believe that he is a “free lance” terrorist, come to New York to seek “publicity.” If he succeeds in a big enough coup, presumably, the various terrorist search committees will get wind of it and be in touch with him (through the phone book, perhaps).
To be fair, however, it could be argued that this evasiveness is merely Hollywood’s old, commercial reluctance to make a straight anti-Communist film, no worse than fudging the fact that Dr. No was originally supposed to be a Moscow agent. Otherwise, the film is unusually forthright in acknowledging political realities: Wulfgar (played by the Dutch actor, Rutger Hauer) is identified as a former member of an “international terrorist organization” with links to the IRA Provos; Wulfgar’s female sidekick (Persis Khambatta) is identified as an Arab. When Wulfgar, holding a carload of passengers hostage on the Roosevelt Island aerial tramway, demands the liberation of four “political prisoners” in American jails, the names mentioned are respectively Arabic, Spanish, German, and Oriental. But, most important of all, Wulfgar calls himself a “liberator,” and we learn that he is a graduate of Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow.
Maybe there’s a real enemy out there again. Maybe Sly Stallone knows.