To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen (and the release of Skyfall), 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.
I always feel a little bit guilty when I concede that I am not too fond of Roger Moore’s time as James Bond. After all, Roger Moore seems like a truly wonderful person, and a great ambassador for the franchise. Of all the actors to play the role, he’s the one most likely to appear on television or in print to share stories or anecdotes about he time in the role, to defend the latest lead actor to come under fire, or even just to make some wonderfully wittily self-deprecating remarks. My Word is My Bond is a great deal of fun for any fan of the character and the films. So, to be clear, I love Roger Moore. I just don’t really like him as James Bond.
I feel like I should make a couple of things clear before I try to explain my position. The first is that I don’t think Roger Moore is a weak actor. I don’t think he’s as diverse as Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan, and I’m not convinced he was ever as strong dramatically as Timothy Dalton or Daniel Craig. However, his performances never weighed down his films in the same way that (for example) Lazenby’s awkward and stilted delivery occasionally brings On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to a cold stop.
Moore has been quite self-deprecating on the topic in the past. He has claimed that his acting range can be efficiently codified: “right eyebrow raised, left eyebrow raised and eyebrows crossed when grabbed by Jaws.” That’s not entirely fair. Moore was a natural at the goofy comic delivery that his scripts demanded, and he really was the most quintessentially upper-class James Bond. Sean Connery’s version of the character knew his wine, his brandy and his golf, but Moore really managed to present the image of James Bond as all-round decent chap, one who lacked the dark shadows that defined most of the other portrayals of the character.
That isn’t to suggest that Moore lacked nuance, but to illustrate that he had a very distinct approach to the character, and one that was no more or less legitimate than any other. I’m not convinced that he could have done too much more dramatic heavy-lifting, but it’s a moot point since his scripts never really gave him the opportunity. When Moore was called upon to actually emote, rather than to embody a distinctly British archetype, he actually did remarkably well.
His performance is capable of conveying a complete disgust with brutality that none of the other performers could match. While his version of Bond was never as overtly emotional as Lazenby’s, Moore conveys Bond’s bitter hurt over the needless death of the Countess in For Your Eyes Only. Although the film is hardly Moore’s finest hour, A View to a Kill allows Moore to present us with a James Bond who honestly and completely abhors Zorin’s casual violence. It’s relatively subtle, as Moore simply refuses to smile around the villain – it’s a strangely effective and unnerving appearance, and one that says a lot about Moore’s time in the role.
I actually have no problems with Moore as a performer. He was often charming enough to carry off scripts that were truly terrible. None of his films are completely unwatchable – even if Moonraker and The Man With the Golden Gun are pretty awful – if only because of his strange wit and charisma in the role. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to look dignified while riding an inflatable gondola, but I’m not sure Daniel Craig or Timothy Dalton could do it. (I imagine Pierce Brosnan would give it the old college try.)
I don’t object to Moore as an actor, but I also don’t object to the camp nature of some of his instalments. In many ways, I would argue that James Bond is a bit like Batman. The character is flexible enough that there is no sole “right” or “defining” interpretation. There are interpretations that some people like more than others, but that doesn’t mean that a particular iteration of James Bond is more or less legitimate. I don’t think Bond has to be as a low-key as Sean Connery’s first two films, as brutal as Dalton’s tenure or as cynical as Daniel Craig’s introductory pair of films.
In many ways, the camp is the best of some of Moore’s least enjoyable films. The problem with Octopussy isn’t that it’s camp – it’s that it’s dull. The Spy Who Loved Me is an incredibly camp film, arguably as much so as Moonraker, but it’s generally (and quite rightly) regarded as one of the best of Moore’s impressive tally of seven Bond films. Moore had great comedic time, and wonderfully wry delivery, so it isn’t as if he felt out of place.
However, my biggest problem with Moore’s time in the role is the massive tonal dissonance. It isn’t that the movies were camp. It was that they were often trying to be both camp and also quite serious. The Man With the Golden Gun seemed to want to compare Roger Moore’s gentleman spy to Christopher Lee’s assassin for hire. That was never going to be a valid comparison, but the film gives us two relatively brutal scenes featuring Moore in order to give at least some similarity to the two men.
The first sees Roger Moore threatening to shoot a gun manufacturer in the crotch. The second sees Bond threatening to break a woman’s arm. Moore looks distinctly uncomfortable during both scenes, and he has gone on record stating he never really agreed with the darker direction for the character:
Guy wanted to toughen up my Bond a little. I think it’s most evident in the scenes I had with Maud Adams, where I twisted her arm and threatened – rather coldly – to break it unless she told me what I wanted to know. That sort of characterization didn’t sit easy with me, but Guy was keen to make my Bond a little more ruthless, like Fleming’s. I suggested my Bond would have charmed the information out of her by bedding her first. My Bond was a lover and a giggler.
However, Moore’s palpable discomfort is not the real problem with these scenes, and it’s not the root of my problem with the Moore era.
It’s the fact that scenes like this were mixed in so casually with Bond’s camper and softer approach for Bond. In fact, the scene where he threatens to break the girl’s arm ends with Bond beginning to seduce her with champagne. It’s meant to illustrate just how charming Bond is, but it’s kind of creepy. After all, Bond threatened to break her arm a moment ago for a bit of information, what should she expect to happen if she refuses his advances?
Indeed, the character’s attitude towards women becomes particularly awkward with Roger Moore’s interpretation of the international man of mystery. Although, to be fair, Moore’s Bond is arguably less misogynist than Connery’s. Moore never does anything quite as sleazy as threatening to get a nurse fired unless she sleeps with him (as in Thunderball), and never quite dismisses a beautiful girl from his “man talk” (as in Goldfinger). Although his treatment of Goodnight in The Man With The Golden Gun comes quite close, locking her in a closet while he “works.”
However, this version of Bond’s sexism stands out because he’s not meant to be as shady a character as Sean Connery’s James Bond was. Connery’s Bond was charming, but also much more cynical, brutal and ruthless than Moore’s typical was. You could argue that the theme to Thunderball applies at least as much to Bond (“… any woman we wants, he gets…”) as it does to Largo or Blofeld (“… he looks at the world and wants it all…”). Connery’s Bond was a good guy, but not necessarily a good man.
Moore, in contrast, is generally presented as a more wholesome and well-rounded character. He’s certainly less violent and his arrogance never seems quite as reckless as Connery’s does. Even at the height of his improvisation, Moore’s Bond never seems completely out of control. As such, his sexism never seems like a vice in the way that it might for Connery. Moore’s iteration of the character is shown to have fewer flaws than any of the other versions, so his sexism seems less like an expression of a cynical and predatory world view than something the movies expect us to treat as charming.
There’s also the aspect of Moore’s age. I never really had a problem with Moore’s age, even in A View to Kill, at least when it came to the action scenes. He kept in shape, and he maintained a wonderful sense of comedic timing. After all, Liam Neeson is about the same age as Moore was, and his stunts aren’t considered to be inherently ridiculous. Moore certainly handled himself better than the younger Connery did in Diamonds Are Forever.
The problem was the way the films refused to acknowledge his age. Seducing Tanya Roberts in A View to a Kill seemed downright creepy. The same with the Russian ballet dancer in the same film. However, this wasn’t just a problem in his later films. His seduction of a young Jane Seymour in Live and Let Die seemed especially creepy, especially given her character is meant to be younger than the actress. (To say nothing of Bond’s cynical exploitation of the woman’s beliefs to bed her.) Even Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me seemed a little too young for him.
In contrast, the best Roger Moore film, in my opinion, plays to his strengths by acknowledging his age. In For Your Eyes Only, Moore’s Bond is acknowledged as an older gentleman. It seems rather surreal, given the movie was originally planned to introduce a new Bond, but it suits the ageing Moore quite well. Bibi Dahl doesn’t seem too much younger than Solataire, but Bond rejects her advances as inappropriate. And, most surprisingly, he’s not cold about it. He’s polite and affectionate and engaged (if a little weirded out), more of a benign father figure than a lover. The same is arguably true of his interactions with Melina, although this makes the final scene of the pair of them in bed together rather creepy.
The same movie features a lovely interaction between Bond and the Countess. While actress Cassandra Harris was over twenty years younger than Roger Moore, Countess Lisl seems older and more world-weary than any of Moore’s other girls. Although they share a short scene together, it’s the most honest and sincere expression of romance in the Moore films, stripped of the cheesy one-liners or the wry self-awareness that come with so many such scenes.
The Moore era just seems a little too muddled and tonal inconsistent to get fully behind. However, there are elements I liked. For one thing, Moore was, mostly, a family-friendly Bond. He is perhaps the one interpretation that’s entirely appropriate for kids, for holiday and for Christmas viewing. Truth be told, I’m quite likely to leave a Roger Moore film on in the background while doing other stuff, passively enjoying it more than I would with Brosnan, Dalton or even Connery. I’m more likely to put on the DVDs of their films, but less likely to enjoy them as cinematic “background noise.”
Moore also reimagined Bond as a paternal figure, perhaps playing into the importance of Bond as a cultural icon during the dissolution of the British Empire. The falklands War, for example, took place during Moore’s time in the role, and it’s hard to imagine that Bond’s revived hyper-patriotism wasn’t in some way reflective of a general cultural zeitgeist. Fleming’s novels were written in the wake of World War II, and betrayed a fear of declining British influence on the global stage, creating an alternate universe where the CIA exists to help Bond operate on American soil, among other things.
The Moore films took place at a time when Britain seemed to be trying to come to terms with that. His films do, after all, feature the Union Flag far more prominently than any others, including that iconic parachute. He even speaks with a Margaret Thatcher impersonator. As such, it seems appropriate that Moore played Bond as something of a stern father figure handling any upstarts getting out of line.
While Fleming’s Bond, and that played by Connery, were definitely old-fashioned and conservative, they frequently seemed like petulant and rebellious children at the mercy of stern father figures. Moore’s portrayal was typically the opposite, playing Bond as a man left over from a time when England was a world power, more than happy to travel the globe and use his experience to help the rest of the world sort out their problems.
The opening of The Spy Who Loved Me featured Bond’s famous parachute, but I also think that Bond’s trip to Atlantis is at least as iconically Moore. With his dainty little jet ski, and in full naval dress uniform, Bond crosses the Atlantic to rescue Agent XXX. Even Connery needed to wear a wetsuit over his tuxedo when destroying the heroin facility at the start of Goldfinger. Moore was the kind of Bond who could jet ski into an enemy base, take down their army and destroy the villain’s base without even crumpling his dress uniform.
(Indeed, the climax of The Spy Who Loves Me is just as informative of Moore as a more “elder statesman” Bond than Fleming’s or Connery’s. while the villains typically threatened those Bonds with castration – Le Chiffre in Fleming’s Casino Royale and Goldfinger with his laser in Connery’s Goldfinger- here the dynamic is reversed. Moore’s Bond executes Stromberg by shooting him repeatedly in the crotch. In case the imagery was too subtle, Moore shoots Stromberg down the barrel of the meglomaniac’s own impressively long gun.)
Again, problems emerged when the scripts weren’t sure if Bond was meant to be the stern father figure or the rebellious child. Moore’s portrayal leans one way, while the scripts and production can’t seem to decide what they think about Bond. So we get Bond acting as a stern father to the enfant terrible Max Zorin, while wearing a silly leather jacket and snogging women young enough to be his daughter.
I don’t want this to sound like I hate Moore’s time in the role. Some of the films are pretty bad, but most are at least entertaining in some way. The Soy Who Loved Me proved there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, and For Your Eyes Only demonstrated that Moore’s particular take on Bond was just as legitimate as any other, in the right set of circumstances. It’ s just a shame that those are the only two films among his seven that can really be considered successes in that regard, with the other five all suffering from one form of identity crisis or another, unsure how seriously they wanted to be taken.
I am very fond of Roger Moore, and his wit and humour make him the perfect ambassador for the series. I just wish the movies had been better.
The six faces of 007:
We have complete reviews of all of the Roger Moore films available, if you are interested:
- Live and Let Die
- The Man With The Golden Gun
- The Spy Who Loved Me
- For Your Eyes Only
- A View to a Kill
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | A View to a Kill, daniel craig, james bond, James Bond in film, Maud Adams, Miss Moneypenny, Moneypenny, Movies, pierce brosnan, Roger, Roger Moore, sean connery, timothy dalton