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The Very British Mr. Bond: The Habits of Empire & The American Fixation on 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.

James Bond is a peculiarly British phenomenon. He’s a charmingly debonaire socialite with great taste in women and suits, but also a coldly professional killer. I’ve had debates on him where I’ve classified him as a gentleman, a sociopath, a sexist, a piece of nostalgia in a tuxedo, one of the last true cinematic heroes and the very distillation of cinematic class – sometimes within the context of the same argument. Why is Bond so fascinating? What makes him so gripping? Is it perhaps the fact that Bond is, in all his personas, so incredibly British?

Is he mostly armless?

I think perhaps the best way to illustrate my point is to look at Hollywood. Movie studios love the idea of taking a movie that was worked internationally and turning it into an American film property. The core principle behind this idea is that these films represent something universal, which can be transitioned over to American sensibilities relatively smoothly. So you end up with Ringu becoming The Ring and a remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo directed by David Fincher. Basically, if something works internationally, you can bet your socks that some American studio somewhere will figure that they can make a shedload of money by transitioning it over to American movie-goers.

It isn’t even an issues with the language barrier. English films like Death at a Funeral and television shows like The Office find themselves being remade for an American audience, because executives think that the ideas can be moved fluidly enough to an American setting. So, with this in mind, how come we’ve never seen an American version of the James Bond franchise? I mean, surely it makes enough money worldwide that the studios must be looking at it and thinking they could do it better with Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt.

Bond is a media icon...

However, the idea of Bond doesn’t transition across the Atlantic Ocean, at least in the sense of making the movies. I mean, look at the way that movie studios have attempted to make their own versions of James Bond. Bond was obviously a key influence on the relaunched Mission: Impossible films – to the point where the team aspect was pretty much dropped to focus on a single agent (who obligingly appeared in a tuxedo early on). And yet those films have never caught in the same way to Bond, as it has become an uphill struggle to get each instalment made. Between that and Knight & Day, I think it’s safe to say that Cruise really wants to be James Bond, but can’t find a way to make the formula work in an American context.

The problem is that Bond is fundamentally British. He’s based on all these classic ideas about culture and sophistication and status. He wears expensive suits, drinks rare vodka and studied at Cambridge – but he’s not meant to seem aloof or stuffy. He’s cool because he knows his wines inside out. His outdated views towards women are almost comforting because there’s no malice behind them (though, on rewatching some of the older films, it is quite uncomfortable). There’s a wonderful sense of British wit and self-deprecation. Bond doesn’t have to be continuously awesome – he can find himself in an awkward situation without milking it for laughs. Bond can go from riding a hover-gondola through Venice to kicking a car off a cliff and still seem equally threatening, enticing, mysterious and dangerous.

A Dalt-less challenge...

That’s a very hard thing to do, especially if you want to avoid veering into self-parody. You might argue that some of Moore’s Bond films did cross the line into farce, but they always managed to keep the stiff upper lip – and almost always managed to deliver a decent and genuine threat amidst the awkward humour. American blockbusters simply aren’t designed to move that way – it’s either a farce or it isn’t, it’s either a genuine threat or it’s not. Bond manages to do both at once, simply because there’s that wonderful sense of British stoicism underlining it all. Bond is aware of the joke, but never distracted by it.

Perhaps this is why the Bourne movies work so well as American espionage thrillers. Rather than emulating the self-awareness of the British spy films, the Bourne movies all play themselves entirely straight and serious. There’s no room for camp jokes or witty banter, because this is all very serious business. I think that if you compare and contrast Bond and Bourne, you’ll learn quite a bit about American and British cultural norms.

While the world burns...

However, Bond’s weird balance of wit and genuine threat may be easier for the audience to follow because it’s rooted in a sense of Anglophilia. I’m not suggesting that there’s “Bondmania” akin to “Beatlemania”, but I do think that global audiences respond differently to the films particularly because they’re British. Hell, consider the response that The King’s Speech is getting and tell me that none of that is due to the ridiculously British nature of the film. Americans love the Queen, more than they love the democratically elected leader of the country (which is ironic, since America left the Union to secure its own democracy).

I reckon that the distance from the monarchy helps to idealise it. As much as American citizens may appreciate the Queen, I doubt any would choose to live under her. I suspect a similar element is at play with Bond. Dr. No was published as a book and produced as a film as the British Empire was crumbling. Barring one or two events like the Falklands War, Britain wasn’t really a global superpower anymore, at least not on its own. The idea of a British secret agent wandering around the world and sorting out conspiracies and dictators, was nothing but a fantasy.

A bridge between England and the US?

It’s telling that Bond only rarely engaged with the Cold War as it was happening – even then, in films like For Your Eyes Only or A View to a Kill, the Russians were more like friendly rivals than threats to global security. Bond instead resigned himself to travelling all around the world to check various psychotic evil-doers with their ridiculously convoluted plans – there was relatively little political subtext to his adventures. If he American rather than British, I suspect that his movies would seem a lot less like casual fantasies – simply because of the political position America holds in the world.

The movies seemed like one last outlet for national pride. Parachutes and even hot air balloons were branded with the Union Jack. Bond was remarkably stuffy and upper-class, playing the spying game like the perfect gentleman. In Live and Let Die, he doesn’t know enough American street slang to know what the command “waste him” means. In Tomorrow Never Dies, we’re presented with the rather ridiculous idea that an international media mogul would start a war between China… and the UK. Bond has little regard for the sovereignty of other nation states, trashing a carefully staged CIA sting in Licence to Kill because it was in his way and reducing the CIA to supporting players whenever he visits America.

The one on the right likes to be Onatopp...

Bond would be a political disaster waiting to happen if he were an American on foreign soil, and the movies would adopt all sorts of harsh commentary about how they reinforce a particular world view. However, Bond is British – and the audience implicitly humours the movies’ pretense of global importance. I’m reminded of the scene in GoldenEye where Bond meets his grounded, dishevelled American colleague in Moscow, while dressed in an expensive suit and insisting on a codeword. “One of these days you guys’re gonna learn to drop it,” Wade remarks to the “stiff-assed Brit.”

We know that the world isn’t like it’s depicted here, but that’s why we love it. There’s no sense of awkward political undertones, because Bond works for a nation that used to be the world power, but has found its status greatly diminished in the past fifty years. It’s sheer fantasy in a way that is just impossible when it comes to American espionage, particularly within the current global political context. Scandals like those surrounding rendition or torture would make it difficult to engage with an American Bond, but that doesn’t apply to James. He’s rendered almost harmless by virtue of that fact that’s he’s a relic, harking back to the old days – a by-product of “the habits of empire” to quote Julius No.

I’ve enjoyed trekking through the 22 films. It’s been fun. I think I’ve captured most of my thoughts on the films and the character, but I might return to it once more before January ends.

4 Responses

  1. Ha ha ha – when you put it so simply, the idea that a British superspy is solving pretty much every international dilemma is ridiculous. It’s almost sad that we could still get away with this through to the mid 00s!

    I think the national pride it best left as a slow-burning, continual undertone to the movies. Comments here and there. Don’t like the Union Jack balloon/pacrachute etc. I feel that Moore in particular put too big an emphasis on this.

    • I agree, but I do love the opening to The Spy Who Loved Me. It was basically Moore giving a big middle-finger to those Russians. I think the “cute” factor lets the series get away with a lot.

  2. In a sense the US did adopt/hijack The Bondmovies. Starting with Goldfinger. The story took place in the US for the first time and it all became bigger and more over the top , more like a big Hollywood movie.

    • Very good point. Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever, the two movies which really pushed Bond into gaudy camp, were set predominantly in the States. Coincidence? I think not.

      Also, I re-read Diamonds recently, and was impressed at how the film was even camper than the book which featured a life-size model Western town and trainset.

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