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The Sky is Falling: Skyfall & The Return of a Distinctly British Bond…

Country?

England.

– first lines of the trailer

I actually really liked the first trailer for Skyfall, released on-line last week. There were a lot of reasons for that: the fact it looks more stately than Quantum of Solace; the abundance of shots of Bond in a tux; the promise of incredible action paired with genuine character development. However, the most appealing facet of the trailer was the suggestion that this was a Bond who wasn’t ashamed to be British. Bond is a British icon, arguably a relic left over from the last days of the British Empire, but it seems like the past few films have been increasingly uncomfortable with that.

Of course, back in the day, the films were a bastion of British nationalism, almost played up to an absurd degree. We all remember, for example, that iconic British parachute from The Spy Who Loved Me. Of course, that was a different time, and it seems like that quaint British nationalism has slowly seeped from the series. When that parachute returned in Die Another Day, it was used by the villain Gustav Graves, a shallow parody of Bond, and seemed like a scathing criticism of such nationalist touches.

James Bond was created by Ian Fleming as a completely earnest British hero, a gentleman of the highest caliber willing to do what was necessary for King and Country, with the unspoken assumption that it would be the best for the rest of the world as well. The films were a bit more ironic about it, filmed during the Cold War in which Britain was a supporting player, they seemed to relish giving Bond a disproportionate amount of influence on the world stage. After all, the Bond films were hardly the place for realpolitik and Bond’s firm British nationalism seemed almost quaint in an era where the influence of the nation was rapidly declining. After all, Roger Moore’s Bond seemed, at times, to be nothing more than a wry wink at the audience.

At some point, however, that changed. Irony went out of style. Of course, the Daniel Craig films jettisoned a lot of the camp from the series, but it seemed that Bond’s nationalism was downplayed before that. Timothy Dalton seemed lost amid the international politics of The Living Daylights and worked somewhat better as an assassin working for personal (rather than political) motivations in Licence to Kill. Arguably the best of the Brosnan Bond films, GoldenEye, was preoccupied with deconstructing Bond’s patriotism, but not necessarily his British identity. A lament for the simplicity of Cold War politics, it would have been easy enough to make a similar movie about the American espionage experience in the existentialist ennui of the nineties.

Tomorrow Never Dies felt like a more specifically British experience, taking Bond to Hong Kong, one of the last remaining British colonies at the time. Still, the notion of a Third World War erupting between China and Britain couldn’t help but feel like a polite tipping of the hat towards British nationalism – an assertion, made amid a Bond film very much focused in reconstructing the series after GoldenEye deconstructed it, that the classic Bond formula could still work in the modern day. While Tomorrow Never Dies attempted to reassert the classic Bond conventions, including the exaggerated sense of national importance on the world stage, it seems the attempt was less than successful. In Die Another Day, for instance, the pecking order was firmly established. Bond and M were introduced, for the first time, to their CIA counterparts. While Bond might have been on his own revenge mission, it was made very clear that M was only involved at the sufferance of the American authorities.

Sure, a few bitter barbs might have been offered by Judi Dench’s acerbic commanding officer, but Die Another Day seemed to tacitly acknowledge that Bond’s disproportionate influence on the world stage would have to be tempered a bit. I wonder if September 11th might have played a part in that, or merely a desire to appeal to American movie-goers by firmly positioning America as the centre of Bond’s world as well the real world.

The Daniel Craig films only emphasised the point. Both films heavily feature the CIA. While this allowed more screen time for the awesome Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter, it did feel just a little bit like Bond was on some sort of international leash. In Casino Royale, his “American brother” bankrolls his stake in the poker game, in return for the pride of the arrest of Le Chiffre. While the action revolves around Bond, the implication is clear – he’s only there because the American’s tolerate him.

Quantum of Solace feels a little more awkward in its acknowledgment of geo-politics, as it features the CIA carving up South America. It seems a bit ironic for a film about British super-spy to criticise American foreign policy so earnestly, but – again – Bond is shown to be reliant upon American intelligence and information (leaked, again, from Felix Leiter) to win the day. It feels like the movie is more about Bond interfering in a CIA operation than it is about Bond’s proactive quest to uncover the identity of Vesper Lynd’s assassin. It feels like the series was awkwardly trying to acknowledge that Britain is not the world power that it once was.

In contrast, Skyfall looks to positively revel in Bond’s British-ness. The opening shot includes a Union Flag flapping prominently in wind. He acknowledges England in his first line. The flag appears again, draped over several coffins. M and Bond appear to share a tender moment over the English countryside. The trailer also features Hong Kong, one of the last colonies to leave British control, quite heavily. The plot snippets here and there make the movie seem a lot more personal, with the implication that somebody will be striking close to home. It seems like Sam Mendes’ Bond film will be very proud of its British roots.

And that feels quite right, to be frank. I am normally a bit reluctant to embrace excessive nationalism when offered entirely earnestly – as in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon – but Bond is something of a special case, much like Captain America or Asterix. An attempt to divorce Bond from his British roots removes something essential to his character, and feels a little bit hollow. I think the character thrives as a distinctly British hero – and any attempt to contextualise him in realistic geo-politics serves to diminish him.

I think the timing of this return to conventional themes is appropriate. It is the character’s fiftieth year in film, after all, so I suspect audiences will probably indulge some deserved self-importance. It is also the Queen’s silver jubilee. More than that, the 2012 Olympics are taking place in London, so I imagine it’s a great time to play up the Britishness of the character – I imagine that national pride is swelling at the moment. In fact, Danny Boyle is capitalising on it by filming a short with Daniel Craig as Bond. As if Bond opening the Olympics isn’t proudly patriotic enough, he’ll receive his mission at Buckingham Palace. It’s hard to imagine the prospect getting any more British. Maybe he could be drinking tea at the time?

I’m glad that the Bond’s British identity seems to be playing a much bigger part this time around, if only because it’s one of the things I always kinda liked about the character.

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7 Responses

  1. Great piece! I must say I hadn’t really noticed the toning down of Bond’s influence on the world stage and the growing presence of the CIA in the recent films. But I did pick up on the Britishness of the new teaser. And it certainly makes it a more exciting prospect.

  2. The toning down of the British nationalism was something I didn’t twig either. I thought it was just being a bit more realistic about the UK’s place in the world stage. Seeing the new trailer does look to show a shift back to the pride of being British. Nothing wrong when the intention is honorable. The cinematography looks quite astonishing. I for one am quite looking forward to the new Bond film.

    • I can understand the realism, but it seemed to sap a lot of the fun of it. I don’t want to watch a movie about the best spy from a second-tier country. I want to see the ebst spy in the world, full stop. While I appreciate the psychological complexity of GoldenEye and Casino Royale, I don’t think that this requires acknowledging the absurdity of a lone British secret service agent single-handedly saving the world while the more powerful nations sit on their hands. If you have to acknowledge it, acknowledge it, but the last few films seemed to dwell on it.

  3. Reblogged this on Push Dump Fat Button.

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