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.
The Daniel Craig iteration of James Bond is the first time that a change of actor has been explicitly confirmed as a new character, rather than a continuation of the same character. (Unless you count Lazenby’s ad-libbed “this never happened to the other fella” bit.) Going back to the first of Fleming’s novels for his first film, Casino Royale, there was a conscious effort to bring the character back to basics, but also an effort to humanise him considerably. The result has been somewhat contentious, but I think Craig has managed to put his own stamp on the role and to define it in his own terms that are respectful to his five predecessors, but also define the character as his own.
Note: As a look at Daniel Craig’s take on the iconic character, this article contains spoilers for Skyfall. Consider yourself warned.
It helps that his introductory film was one of the very few character-driven Bond movies, and one of the small selection of Bond films to give the character a clear narrative arc. That’s not to dismiss Craig’s fine work, of course. George Lazenby had been given the most character-centric script to that point, but was still hampered by the fact that he was not a good actor. The script to Casino Royale is very careful to define Bond’s character in a way that it has never really been tied down before.
Barring a few references to his time at Cambridge, or the way that the Pierce Brosnan movies would allude to past romantic affairs or conflicts, Bond has always been something of a blank slate – a “blunt instrument”, to quote his creator Ian Fleming. This was intentional, with Bond intended as a somewhat blank cypher for the reader to follow on these remarkable adventures. Indeed, in Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, Bond just seems like a grumpy professional gambler. It wouldn’t be until the third book, Moonraker, that we’d get a look at his personal life (or lack thereof) and what he does when he isn’t working.
In Dr. No, M implies that Connery’s Bond had only recently been promoted, but little was made of it. Casino Royale, on the other hand, explores the process by which Bond earns his oo ranking. In a black-and-white pre-titles sequence, Craig establishes his Bond as a lot more brutal than any of his predecessors – or, at least, a lot more candid about his brutality. A lot has been made of Craig’s brutality, but I’ve never accepted that he was any more innately violent than Connery, Dalton or Brosnan.
Brosnan’s Bond, after all, is apparently the most violent of the bunch. Indeed, three films into his time in the role, Craig has yet to execute a primary villain in cold blood. Brosnan’s Bond had dropped Alec Trevelyan off a satellite dish, fed Carver into a shredder and executed Elektra while she was unarmed. Leaving Greene in the desert with the tin of oil was sadistic, but certainly no worse than anything Brosnan did (or would do). Craig’s Bond is just less likely to hide that aggression behind an air of high culture, to wear X-ray specs and grin goofily.
The violence in the Craig films was, perhaps, a bit stronger than in earlier instalments – although still well shy of Licence to Kill. While there was an unfortunate tendency to mimic the style and quick-cutting of the Bourne movies, Craig’s violence actually seems a whole lot more affective. It generally seems like he understands that he’s taking a life, rather than flippantly or dispassionately dispatching henchmen. “Made you feel it, did he?” the corrupt section chief taunts at the start of Casino Royale, and you sense he has touched a nerve.
Quantum of Solaceattracts a lot of criticism for its action, and mainly for its editing, but there’s one delightfully dark sequence where Bond overpowers a goon and cuts an artery in his leg. He then waits for the poor fellow to bleed out, holding him in a patient lock. It’s a quiet scene, and it’s presented as something of a pathetic moment, an illustration of the kind of dirty work that a secret agent like Bond must be capable of. In a strange way, this moment of silent waiting makes us feel for Craig’s Bond all the more, because we see how he must compartmentalise his humanity.
One of the things I like about Skyfall is how it plays up the humanity of Craig’s Bond. In the opening chase sequence, he refuses to leave a fallen agent bleeding out, despite the impossible stakes. Against M’s protestations, Bond quickly tends to the man, a nice touch that suggests his compassion isn’t quite exhausted and he hasn’t become the disconnected killing machine that the job might require. Although the character tries to mask it, Craig makes the audience aware of Bond’s humanity – even in small sequences like his reaction to the death of Agent Fields in Quantum of Solace, risking capture to commend her service to M.
Of course, Casino Royale focuses quite a bit on a Bond who isn’t quite as developed or sophisticated as the version we knew in earlier films. Sent to track down Le Chiffre at his poker game, Bond simply asks, “Do you want a clean kill or to send a message?” His destruction of an embassy on an early mission could be said to be an example of his lack of finesse, but it’s precisely the way that Roger Moore or even Sean Connery would have operated, working on the ground without a care to what local intelligence organisations might have thought.
“MI6 kills unarmed prisoner,” a headline reads in Casino Royale, but Bond had been doing that since the murder of Dent in Dr. No. It’s just less acceptable now and – accordingly – the movies treat it with a bit more nuance and sophistication. Craig’s violence isn’t as casula as that of his predecessors, and I don’t see that being a bad thing. In Quantum of Solace, he executes a goon in the same way Roger Moore did in The Spy Who Loved Me – dangling him off the roof by his tie and letting him fall.
In The Spy Who Loved Me, Moore never gives it a second thought. He immediately goes back to being flirty and gentlemanly. In contrast, in Quantum of Solace, we see the consequences of Craig’s actions, both physically (the guy hitting the hood of a car, which makes the act of dropping him a lot more visceral than simply falling off screen) and politically (he killed a goon not knowing who the mook was, and there were consequences for that). I like that the violence and brutality of Craig’s Bond isn’t entirely dismissed or treated as something that can be entirely compartmentalised. Being a spy isn’t a romantic business – even Fleming’s source novels conceded that more readily than some of the film franchise instalments.
The notion that Bond is operating in a complex world is raised with Dalton’s attack on the Florida aquarium in Licence to Kill, but it’s also a recurring theme in the Craig movies. Both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are mindful of Britain’s real position on the world stage, ad the impact that a British super-spy might have on diplomatic relations in the real would. Skyfall is a bit prouder of its heritage, and is the first Craig film not to pay special attention to the CIA’s goals or objectives. While I like Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter, I also viewed Bond as a romantic British fantasy, and am immediately sceptical of any attempt to “ground” it in realistic geopolitics.
While Craig’s Bond is rash, he’s not incompetent. Casino Royale and Skyfall make a running gag out of Bond helping other agents avoid detection. “Stop touching your ear.” He’s also smart enough in Casino Royale to realise that he can’t just go around shooting bad guys. Pursuing a bomb maker, he instructs his fellow agent, “Holster the bloody weapon, Carter, I need him alive.” While this Bond might ultimately lack finesse, he’s not unsuited to the job in hand.
It’s notable that there’s a conscious effort to portray Craig as an outsider to the class system, as opposed to the elitist insider of the earlier films. That isn’t to say that Craig’s Bond lacks taste or sophistication. In Quantum of Solace, he refuses to stay in a dodgy hotel, regardless of MI6′s limited budget. “So shoot me,” he comments to Fields, “I’d rather stay in a morgue.” However, there’s a clear sense that he isn’t comfortable with snobbishness – and that he resents people looking down at him.
When a member of the club confuses him for a valet in Casino Royale, he responds by crashing the man’s jeep. It provides a nice distraction for his efforts to break into the club’s security room, but he clearly takes some measure of satisfaction in it. Casino Royaleprovides an effective sequence of Bond and Vesper exchanging exposition about their characters, something that works well both because of how it is executed, but also because we’ve never really delved that deeply into Bond’s psychology on-screen before.
Vesper identifies that faint trace of class resentment in Bond’s back story:
By the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever and actually think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain my guess is you didn’t come from money, and your school friends never let you forget it. Which means you were at that school by the grace of someone else’s charity, hence the chip on your shoulder.
When Craig’s Bond “retires” in Skyfall, he doesn’t reside among the upper echelons of society – he doesn’t hang around in casinos or fancy clubs. Instead, he gets a nice unassuming life on a beach somewhere, relatively far from civilisation. Connery’s Bond and the other interpretations seemed to adore the high life, while Craig’s Bond seems to have simpler pleasures.
In many respects, though, Bond is actually characterised quite close to Ian Fleming’s original character. It’s hard to imagine any other actor (save perhaps Dalton) delivering Fleming’s “the b!tch is dead” line so convincingly. “You like married women, don’t you James?” one of his lovers teases. He responds, “It keeps things simple.” This reflects Fleming’s comments on Bond’s domestic love life in Moonraker, where the writer revealed that Bond tended to favour sleeping with married women because those affairs had less complications.
Indeed, Craig’s Bond is really the first to touch on Fleming’s recurring theme of fatalism and predestination. The Bond of the books knows that his death is out there waiting for him, and seems to embrace that – his fascination with gambling and luck is an expression of that philosophy. Craig’s Bond finds himself struggling with the same sort of existential questions, with Vesper even arguing that he doesn’t have to be trapped within the profession.
“You’ve got a choice, you know?” she asks him. “Just because you’ve done something, doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it.” The tragedy, of course, is that Vesper ends up being the reason why Bond keeps doing it – why Craig’s Bond can’t bring himself to form personal attachments. Her betrayal ultimately affirms the cold and jaundiced exterior that he portrays to the world, demonstrating that he should keep his guard up and be wary of trust and intimacy.
The other interesting facet of Craig’s Bond – and another he arguably inherits from Fleming’s literary creation – is the unique relationship that he shares with M. In the films, M has generally just been a plot device to tell Bond where to go and who to kill and what to watch out for along the way. Even when GoldenEye introduced a female M, the relationship dynamic changed to make her interactions with Pierce Brosnan’s Bond slightly more antagonistic than they had been before.
However, the relationship between Dench’s M and Craig’s Bond is immediately more intimate. The first scene they share together together is in her apartment. The last scene between the pair of them is set on Bond’s family estate. Given that the furthest Bond and M ever got outside of an office in the early films was a trip to the races in A View to a Kill, the relationship between Craig’s Bond and Dench’s M is far more personal than any other Bond’s relationship with any other M’s. That’s why M’s decision to “take the bloody shot” at the start of Skyfall is so devastating to Bond.
It’s clear that he assumed she had complete faith in him, despite her somewhat cold exterior. “I love you too, M,” he jokes in Casino Royale after a terse communication. No other Bond would make that quip. It’s telling that Bond offers to leave M’s house before she kicks him out when he returns in Skyfall. Once he’s made it clear he doesn’t need a bed or a couch, M feels fine denying it to him. “Well, you’re not staying here,” she assures him, as if coldly trying to deny that she desperately needsBond to help clean up her mess.
“M” is, as Silva reminds us, for “mummy” and “mother.” I suspect it isn’t a coincidence that Bond’s dead mother had the name “Monique”, beginning with “M”, as revealed on a tombstone in Skyfall. Stealing her away to protect her from Silva, Bond could take her anywhere. After all, the climax of Bond film can unfold in any location. However, he opts to take her home to his old family manor, even though he hasn’t been there in years.
This portrayal of a vaguely maternal relationship between Bond and M isn’t unprecedented, despite the fact that M was never a female character before Judi Dench played her. In John Pearson’s The Life of Ian Fleming, the author reveals that Ian Fleming called his mother “M.”:
While Fleming was young, his mother was certainly one of the few people he was frightened of, and her sternness toward him, her unexplained demands, and her remorseless insistence on success find a curious and constant echo in the way M handles that hard-ridden, hard-killing agent, 007.
Pearson also notes that “never has such cool ingratitude produced such utter loyalty.” That pretty much sums up the relationship between Craig’s Bond and Dench’s M, right?
(Although, to be fair, M does have moments of compassion towards Bond. She tries to convince him that Vesper tried to save his life, as if to salvage some of the love he had for the double-agent. She covers for him when the treasury wants their money back at the end of Casino Royale, even though she has little reason to trust he hasn’t simply absconded with it. She also manipulates his test results in order to put Bond back in the field – although a cynic, like Silva, would argue that was more a “Hail Mary” play to save her own hide than to do Bond any favours.)
Kingsley Amis, the pre-eminent Bond scholar, has even picked up on some maternal aspects in the way that M acts towards Bond, even though the literary character was male:
In particular, M disapproves of Bond’s ‘womanising’, though never says so directly, and would evidently prefer him not to a form a permanent attachment either. He barely conceals his glee at the news that Bond is after all not going to marry Tiffany Case. This is perhaps more the attitude of a doting mother than a father.
I like the dynamic, though, and I think it serves both Bond and M as characters (and Dench and Craig as actors) quite well, giving the relationship a more emotional edge.
Craig is a different kind of Bond, but each actor has put their own mark on the character. His time in the role isn’t over yet, but I think he’s produced a pretty solid three films. I look forward to seeing what he has in store for us.
The six faces of 007:
We have complete reviews of all of the Daniel Craig films available, if you are interested: