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Who is Bond?

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

If you only count official EON productions, there have been six actors to play the role of suave British Secret Service agent James Bond, 007. However, the continuity of it all gets kind of tangled. Is Roger Moore’s clownish spy the same person as Daniel Craig’s cold-hearted assassin? Has the same agent been in operation since Dr. No (clearly taking place in the 1960s) through to Quantum of Solace (featuring all the technology of now)? There’s a popular fan theory that “James Bond” is just a cover identity, passed down from agent to agent as easily as the number “007” – so each iteration of the character is a different agent given the rank. It actually holds up surprisingly well when you watch the twenty-films in the official series.

What’s on the cards?

The counter-argument might be to stop taking it all so seriously. When you can accept that Bond has been to outer space to fight a villain with solid metal teeth, little questions as to how he changes his physical appearance seem to shrink in importance. Just sit back and enjoy the show – don’t over-analyse it. Still, I think this theory puts a unique enough slant on things to make it well worth a bit of discussion.

Each of the actors in the role have brought their own particular approaches – I think each actor has their strengths and weaknesses. For example, Roger Moore is the lightest Bond, but Timothy Dalton is perhaps the darkest. Pierce Brosnan just oozes charm and sophistication while Daniel Craig is a thug. Indeed, different iterations of Bond, as well as displaying markedly different personalities, display contrasting personal tastes. While Connery preferred cigarettes and martinis, Moore favoured cigars and straight spirits. It doesn’t help matters that Casino Royale represented a “reboot” of the franchise, while still holding on to actress Judi Dench as M, a role she had played during the previous decade.

Furthermore, the reason that Casino Royale works so well for the audience is because of the expectations attached to the name “James Bond”. Although Daniel Craig, upon his promotion, has the subtlety of the bulldozer he drives through a North African construction yard, we know that he must learn poise and sophistication in order to become Bond. We know that there’s a point at which Craig must end up before he can actually be James Bond. The name carries particular weight, and it’s one that the movie feels on its shoulders. Of course, that expectation exists outside the film itself (in the minds of audience members who know who James Bond is), but there’s a sense that it bleeds through into the film itself.

Bond really takes off…

Indeed, you could suggest that the franchise has been, in a manner, “rebooted” every time an actor has assumed the title role. Of course, the term didn’t exist for movie-goers during the earlier transitions, but the idea is the same – you could argue that each actor playing Bond started their own little franchise. This would solve a large number of problems, such as how Sean Connery could be active in the sixties and Pierce Brosnan could be doing the same job in the nineties with Bond seeming much older. However, this clearly isn’t the case. There’s a faint, but detectable, hint of continuity to the film series.

For example, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Lazenby’s Bond keeps a drawer filled with trophies from earlier Sean Connery adventures – implying that those adventures occurred. In the same way, Roger Moore visits the grave of Tracy during the prologue of For Your Eyes Only – Tracy was the short-lived wife of George Lazenby’s Bond. Q’s lab in Die Another Day includes keepsakes from Sean Connery adventures. It’s clear that the movies do share the same continuity. The events in earlier films still occurred and are not “wiped clean” by the next actor who comes along.

You could argue that the slipping timescale is a red herring. Like in comic books, where Batman has always been active for the past ten years, you could suggest that Bond has only ever been active for ten years. Dr. No will always take place a few years prior to the current Bond film, just slightly updated for the modern era. So the character of Bond has always been Bond. However, even the characters themselves seem to note the transition from actor to actor – which only really makes sense if there’s a similar transition in character as well.

There’s snow body like Bond…

In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Blofeld doesn’t immediately recognise Bond – he needs an incorrect answer from the man to deduce his true identity. Now, this makes sense if – as in the original script – Bond has had massive plastic surgery to infiltrate Blofeld’s operation, but there’s no such reference to any change in the film. In fact, Lazenby closes the opening section of the film by delivering the line, “this never happened to the other fella.” The line only makes sense if we consider Sean Connery to be “the other fella”. So Bond himself regards the character who appeared in the earlier adventures to be an entirely different person.

Indeed, when Sean Connery is first introduced as James Bond, in the opening scenes of Dr. No, it’s made clear that he’s new to the role. M warns him to shape up, “unless you want to go back to standard intelligence duty”, implying that this version of Bond is still standing on relatively uncertain ground. Similarly, we meet Timothy Dalton’s version of the character on a training exercise in The Living Daylights – which seems like a waste of time unless he’s an instructor (which he isn’t).

And, yet – despite the relative anonymity of Sean Connery on assuming his status as a 00 agent in Dr. No – in From Russia With Love, SPECTRE is able to deduce that the British Secret Service will send its top agent after a Soviet defector – James Bond. This always bothered me. Ignoring the fact that the destruction of Dr. No‘s underground layer could possibly have made Connery’s Bond famous overnight, M never seems too concerned that the bad guys are familiar with Bond. He’s a secret agent, for crying out loud – and, as the theme song from Casino Royale points out, everyone knows his name. Tiffany Case knows the name in Diamonds Are Forever, without recognising his face. Bond rarely even bothers with a cover identity.

Spaced out?

This approach only really makes sense if “James Bond” is designed to carry weight or to strike fear. As if the person carrying the name “James Bond” will always be the very best British agent. “I understand double-0s have a very short life expectancy,” Daniel Craig remarks at one point during Casino Royale, and it seems reasonable to assume that this is well-known logic which applies from 001 to 009.

I like to believe that the departures of specific iterations of Bond can be traced to their final films. For example, the first time that Sean Connery left (after You Only Live Twice), he remarked about possibly retiring to Japan. When he returns in Diamonds Are Forever, we pick up with him in Japan – as if to suggest Lazenby’s excursion had never happened. Indeed, as Bond tears through Blofeld’s operation, he never states why he is so clearly mad. It’s suggested that he’s avenging Tracy’s death at the climax of the last film, and I agree. However, Connery’s calm and controlled rage is not the anger of someone who has lost their beloved. I think he’s avenging on behalf of Lazenby.

I think that Lazenby’s Bond was more human than the rest – I think that the loss of his wife, as he cries over her body, whispering “we have all the time in the world”, would have destroyed him. I find it hard to believe that he could return to work after that. Even if he did, Moneypenny probably would dare joke (as she did in Diamonds Are Forever) about Connery’s Bond bringing her “a diamond… in a ring” – that would be in bad taste to remark to a recently widowed man.

The job does have perks…

In fact, a bigger deal is made of Sean Connery’s return in Diamonds Are Forever than there was about Lazenby’s arrival in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. A diamond expert greets Bond, remarking, “You’ve been on holiday, I understand?” It’s a clear reference to the fact that Connery’s iteration of the character has been away, as is M’s assertion that “we do function in your absence, Commander.” It is possible that these comments refer to the short-lived honeymoon at the end of the previous film, but they’d seem damn insensitive. I’d argue that they refer to the fact that Connery’s version of Bond had essentially retired to Japan and been drafted in as a last minute replacement after his successor had a breakdown (following the death of his wife). After all, his pursuit of Blofeld begins in Japan.

An alternative theory – and one I am quite fond of, even if it does step outside the twenty-films – is that Connery’s Bond was subsequently arrested in America for stealing state secrets (what with the fake moonlanding and such in Diamonds Are Forever) and was imprisoned in Alcatraz under a fake name (or, possibly, his birth name). This version of the character shows up again in The Rock.

I tend to think that this might be hinted at in Die Another Day. Director Lee Tamahori originally wanted a cameo from Sean Connery to confirm this fan theory (that “James Bond” is a legacy title), but was shot down – however, the movie features Bond captured by a foreign power and disavowed by his own intelligence community, with Brosnan emerging from captivity looking a lot like Sean Connery did in The Rock.

Not all the movies are gold…

I think that Roger Moore’s version of the character is perhaps the one with the happiest ending. He looks like he served his time as a secret agent before gracefully reaching the pension age and retiring to a life of peaceful tranquillity, happy that he’d made the world a better place. In fact, this version of Bond probably lives in a small cottage somewhere, being just as pleasant as the real Sir Roger Moore seems.

Timothy Dalton’s second film, Licence to Kill, provides a fitting departure note for his iteration of the character. I know that MI6 has always been somewhat lax with regulating Bond and his misdemeanours, but I think it’s safe to say that the trail of carnage Bond hacked across Central America, ruining a carefully planned CIA sting operation (resulting in the deaths of the agents involved) and such, made him far too much of a liability to just take back on board when it was all said and done. I can only hope the character was forced to retire, rather than imprisoned or shot.

Somewhat similarly, Pierce Brosnan’s final turn in the role saw him captured and tortured, left as damaged goods. He went rogue like Dalton, although he was manipulated by M into helping an on-going investigation. However, I find it hard to believe that Brosnan went back to active duty after going rogue like that. I imagine that the torture alone was enough to get him transferred to a routine desk job or training assignment.

An offer you should say “no” to…

Of course, there are any number of slight problems with this theory. The most troublesome is Tracy, Bond’s one-time wife. She was married to Lazenby, but there are explicit references to Bond’s marriage with Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me and Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill. Roger Moore visits the grave of Tracy at the start of For Your Eyes Only. I think it’s possible (if you suspend your disbelief) that Moore and Dalton’s iterations of Bond were married at some point in the past – to different women, of course. It’s also possible that visiting Tracy’s grave is a mark of respect to Moore’s predecessor, in the same way that we may visit the graves of especially close friends.

As a side note, I also like the theory that – if Bond is an honorary title passed down to agents deemed worthy – the name of “Blofeld” is something similar. Especially given how harsh that the character is on failure – executing henchmen with impunity during From Russia With Love and You Only Live Twice – it seems odd that Blofeld should still be alive after failing spectacularly three times in quick succession. I like the idea that Telly Savalas is a new character who has assumed the “rank” of “Blofeld” for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

It’s a theory which gains a little weight when we see a factor churning out Blofeld doubles at the start of Diamonds Are Forever. Of course, these duplicates are designed to protect the “real” Blofeld – but the identity of that particular Blofeld seems constantly in flux. When one fo the duplicates warns Bond about the voice modulator implanted in his neck to make him sound like the real Blofeld, he adds, “or is it his neck? I never can remember.” I like to think it’s quite possible that Bond killed the real Blofeld earlier on and whichever double he killed last would assume the identity of the “real” or “ultimate” Blofeld. Or perhaps I’m putting too much thought into this.

It’s a fun theory which I think adds a bit of depth to the mythos. Or maybe it’s just a bit of obsessive compulsive fan fiction which examines a fun movie series in far too much depth for its own good.

19 Responses

  1. Haha really cool, thanks for writing this : -D

  2. Hello writer,
    I enjoyed your article very much.
    It shows a deep knowledge of an ever growing in complexity subject, and intellectual effort and imagination in formulating your theories expressed here.
    I’ve read the 13 books (more than once), saw the 23 movies (more than thrice), and have very many books, including one rare one written by the real wife of the real James Bond, on her encounter with Ian Fleming, as well as and a range of magazines on the matter.
    So you can believe me, when I say that now a days, I find few articles as interesting as yours here.

  3. Man, I wish they would cut through all the red tape and make another Bond film! I am going through serious withdrawl…

    I think I am one of the few people who really liked Lazenby as Bond. Granted he was not the best looking actor, but he did a great job. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is in my top five favourite Bond films of all-time.

    • I must concede, Lazenby would be great… Except he never seemed to be enjoying it. Even Dalton seemed to be having a great time in the role.

  4. Great article there Darren, and really, really like The Rock theory.

    Personally, I buy into the one person but over a shorter period of time than the films have spanned. One of my favourite things about the series is that (besides the fashion) it’s very hard to point out a definitive era. Definitely helps give the films a timeless quality.

    • Yep, I van see where you’re coming from.

      However, I just can’t reconcile the transition from Connery to Lazenby or Moore to Dalton – the portrayals were so different that they may as well be different people, for me.

  5. You could argue that Roger Moore’s Bond returns to visit Tracy’s grave because when Lazenby’s
    incarnation of Bond married her it was as James Bond and not under his real name. Roger Moore
    would simply do this to maintain the legend(espionage term) of James Bond. In the first season of the BBC series Spooks two of the main characters, Tom Quinn and Harry Pierce have a
    conversation about this subject. Quinn describes how he met a woman under an assumed name
    and began a relationship with her and doesn’t know how to tell her his real name. His boss Harry Pierce describes how he didn’t tell his wife he was a spy until he was married. Hopefully this helps with the discussion.

  6. Thanks Darren I was worried that my explanation might be a little to long.

    • No, it makes sense. and I remember that conversation in Spooks. I really need to get back into it – I used to watch it years ago.

  7. Darren, I apologize in advance for repeating and/or recasting some of your arguments.

    The different incarnations of Bond are clearly different men, both in the books and films. This is made explicit in the books, notably Casino Royale and Dr. No, which refer to Bond’s short tenure to date. “James Bond,” an employee of “Universal Exports,” is the cover identity for 007. There have been, and will be, many 007s. In the Fleming novels, which span a little over a decade, it is the same man, who is superficially similar to Connery. (Some of the physical characteristics are a bit off, however).

    Some of the confusion exists because there were major changes to the film versions of the Fleming novels, particularly in the Moore era. That is, the novels may suggest that Bond is always the Connery characterization, but since the films often only superficially follow the novels (if even that), this is not a valid argument. Obviously, the film continuity, which spans nearly half a century now, is NOT the same as the continuity of the novels, which is a much shorter timeframe.

    For the reasons you give, the following movies make it pretty clear that “James Bond” is the not the same man: OHMSS, Diamonds Are Forever, and Live and Let Die. Additionally, these three characters do not share the same personal habits or preferences. For example, Moore smokes cigars (not cigarettes) and primarily drinks champagne (never vodka martinis). I cannot imagine either Connery’s or Moore’s characters marrying Tracy. The film commentaries on the Deluxe Edition DVDs clarify that this was done deliberately, albeit not always necessarily for that reason. In particular, Guy Hamilton wanted to make it very clear that Roger Moore was not the same man as Sean Connery.

    As one of the commenters above has suggested, the very few objections to the theory that the different James Bond incarnations are in fact different men can be rationalized. Obviously, they may have very good reasons of their own for confusing the issue and suggesting that Bond is always the same man.

  8. His name is Bond , James Bond. Whoever plays him , he is one and the same. The movies are not neccesarily in order and not all actors or directors know how to portray him best. Lets not let the movies or books about his life confuse you in to believing that James Bond is a codename for multiple persons.there is There is only one Bond namely James Bond.

    • Fair point. Then again, I like that the logic is never addressed in the films. Of course not. It just is. To question these things is not only unnecessary, it also overcomplicates things. It doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to think about, though!

  9. I very much like this theory of the James Bond as a code name. It fits and neatly ties together the entire film series. (Hell, it even allows for the non Eon films from Barry Nelson’s to Never Say Never Again to Lazenby’s appearance as Bond in the Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. in 1983. In the 1967 Casino Royale, there werwe no less than 6 people posing as James Bond in addition to the original (played by David Niven), so this is an idea that goes back pretty far. Nice job!

  10. I’ve never been a fan of the “codename theory,” but the idea that it is one single continuity from 1962 – 2002 is obviously absurd as well. In my mind, each Bond exists in their own continuity and each new actor is a reboot. Of course there are references spanning the actors’ tenures (most notably to Tracy). but I always took this as them sharing a backstory in broad strokes (i.e. all Bonds lost a wife tragically, but not as specifically depicted in OHMSS).

    • Fair, but it also requires that they all had a wife specifically named Tracy, and at least two of those were murdered by Blofeld.

      • That’s not a problem for my interpretation. But I believe outside OHMSS the only specific reference to the name “Tracy” is on her tombstone in FYEO; likewise the connection to Blofeld.

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