To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen, we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.
Alec Trevelyan stands out amongst Bond’s foes on the big screen because he’s really the first to be constructed explicitly to contrast with Bond. You could argue that many of the outings in the series are more preoccupied with the villain than with Bond himself, and GoldenEye stands out as one of the films most tightly focused on Bond himself. Alec Trevelyan, as such, exists as a more direct mirror to Bond than most of his foes. The bad guy even operates under the code name “Janus.” There are several implied reasons – his knack for treachery and betrayal, the scar on the side of his face. However, it also suggests that Bond and Trevelyan exist as two sides of the same coin.
It’s not too difficult to imagine an alternate universe where Sean Bean had been cast as the new James Bond. He might have been a bit rougher around the edges with his stronger regional accent, but he’d make a convincing super spy. Perhaps not as suave as Pierce Brosnan, but certainly not quite as rough as Daniel Craig or Timothy Dalton. We’re introduced to Alec as a friend, as an ally, as a stand-in. Agent 006, right next to Agent 007. Throughout the film, the pair seem to share the same tastes, with Alec even boasting to Natalie, “James and I shared everything.” You could argue that Xenia Onatopp is Alec’s version of a dark Bond girl. (Although, lucky for him, they don’t appear to be in a sexual relationship.)
Bond and Alec are introduced together, with Bond’s first words to his colleague being “I’m alone.” Alec astutely counters, “Aren’t we all?” The prologue to GoldenEye has few qualms about exploring the more unsavoury aspects of Bond’s profession. While Bond unlocks a door, Alec cold-bloodedly executes an unarmed scientist, effectively confirming that these agents are also deadly assassins. However, while Alec pulls the trigger, both are implicated in the act. This is precisely the sort of violence that Alec would use to great effect during his time as an international terrorist – the same sort of brutality, albeit divorced from romantic notions of patriotism. “For England, James?”
As a villain, Alec knows the tricks. He’s played the game before. When he catches Bond snooping around his control room, he knows that Bond planted mines, because that’s what he would have done. He knows how to disarm them, referring affectionately to Q, asking how he is and whether he’s been up to his usual tricks. It gives the character a unique angle in a gallery of Bond villains that might begin to look a bit overly familiar. Of course, Alec has all the trappings of a typical Bond villain. He has a secret layer, a gimmick henchwoman, an evil plan, a god complex. He’s still more human than most.
Reportedly, the part of Trevelyan was originally written to be an older character, a mentor to Bond who went to the dark side. Apparently the producers wanted to cast either Anthony Hopkins or Alan Rickman in the part. An older character would make sense, given the timeline for the execution of the Lienz Cossacks in the wake of the Second World War. (When the part was re-written for a younger actor, the script skirted the issue by suggesting that Alec’s family survived the massacre, with his father committing suicide years later. “But my father couldn’t let himself or my mother live with the shame of it.”)
I like the decision to cast Alec as a younger character, more in line with Bond. On a purely practical level, retroactively inserting a mentor into Bond’s back story strains credibility, while it’s easy enough to believe he had a friend who dies in the line of duty, early in his career. It also allows for a relatively interesting dynamic. As Bond scholar Kingsley Amis noted, Bond villains tend to be older than Bond, playing the part of a stern patriarch. I like that archetype, but it’s nice to get a relationship that feels more like a brother. Alec feels like a counterpart to Bond in a way that no character since Red Grant really has.
GoldenEye is an exploration of Bond in an era after the Cold War. The movie is effectively a moment of reflective soul-searching on the part of one of the longest-running movie franchises in the world. What does Bond do in a world that no longer has two gigantic political poles? How does he relate to an audience that has possibly grown up in his absence? Is he still relevent? The movie suggests that Bond is infinitely adaptable, that he’s able to keep moving forward, that he has an innate ability to evolve and recover from damage that would kill any other character or franchise.
In one very famous moment, M attacks Bond as “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” It’s certainly the case. Brosnan’s Bond comes with a lot of emotional baggage. It was a recurring device in the Brosnan era to have the heroes’ past decisions come back to haunt them. However, the James Bond franchise also came with a lot of baggage as well, a burden that the producers feared might leave them lagging behind the competition. GoldenEye is very much about Bond’s refusal to be burdened by that baggage. As such, it’s also about Alec’s inability to escape it.
Bond must empathise with Alec’s point of view. There’s undoubtedly a sting in his words as the traitor mockingly responds to Bond’ demand for an explanation. “Why?” Bond asks. Alec responds, “Hilarious question. Particularly from you. Did you ever ask why we toppled all those dictators and regimes, only to come home – ‘Well done. Good job, but sorry, old boy. Everything you risked your life for has changed.’” Alec seems unable to cope with the fact that he’s inhabiting a world made of quicksand, liable to shift beneath his feet at any given moment. He can’t deal with that.
Bond, of course, can. Bond can take orders from a “female authority.” He can lower himself to charming the evaluator from the London office. More than that, though, he can cope with a world that isn’t simply black-and-white anymore. He can work with Valentin Zhukovski, an old enemy he brutally crippled. He can team up with a Russian government employee. Sure, he might fall back on old habits like driving a tank through St. Petersburg, but he’s only human.
Alec, on the other hand, can’t. Unlike Bond, who carries his wounds on the inside, underneath a sharp suit, Alec wears his scars on his face – disfigured in the grand tradition of classic Bond baddies. Although he tries to disguise his petty revenge with a get-rich-quick scheme, it’s obvious that Alec is still living in the past. “England is about to learn the cost of betrayal,” he boasts, “inflation-adjusted for 1945.” It’s no coincidence that he conspires to send Britain back to the “Stone Age.” If he can’t stop living in the past, England won’t be able to either. Bond succinctly cuts through Alec’s attempts to mask his plan plain old greed, “all so mad little Alec can settle a score with the world 50 years on.”
To be fair, Alec counters that Bond has his own coping mechanisms. He expressly identifies Bond’s alcohol consumption and womanising as a desperate attempt to outrun his own past. While it’s far from healthy way to cope with a serious problem, it certainly seems more constructive that Alec’s grand evil plan detonate an EMP over London. The point is clear: Bond is undoubtedly rooted in the past, but he can escape it. Alec can’t. It makes Alec feel like something of a tragic figure, despite his colossal attempt at retribution for a crime that occurred before he was even born.
Alec Trevelyan isn’t necessarily a compelling character in his own right. However, he’s very fascinating when examined in context, and he’s a very valuable tool for exploring the place of Bond in a radically shifting geopolitical climate. This sort of angle makes Alec almost unique as a primary villain, and it’s one of the reasons he remains one of the enduring Bond villains.
You might be interested in our other Bond villain character studies:
- Doctor Julius No (Dr. No)
- Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
- Ernst Stavro Blofeld (You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever)
- Francisco Scaramanga (The Man With The Golden Gun)
- Aristotle “Aris” Kristatos (For Your Eyes Only)
- Max Zorin (A View to a Kill)
- Franz Sanchez (Licence to Kill)
- Alec Trevelyan (GoldenEye)
- Elektra King (The World Is Not Enough)
- Le Chiffre (Casino Royale)
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