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What We Can Learn from James Bond

The world of espionage powerfully grasped the popular imagination over the past fifty years, and James Bond was the main reason for this. Bond's impact on the public's perception of espionage, through both Ian Fleming's novels and the films made of them, is hard to overestimate. He was the most successful adventure hero in history, thwarting "the instruments of Armageddon" in the film The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) or saving the world as the seconds tick away in Moonraker (1979). It is Bond who accounts for the popular misconception that espionage is all about covert operations and human intelligence (HUMINT), when in reality it was the less glamorous signals interception (SIGINT) that long dominated espionage.

The Bond series drew on contemporary fears in order to reduce the implausibility of the villains and their villainy, while also presenting potent images of national character, exploring the relationship between a declining Britain and an ascendant United States; charting the course of the Cold War; and offering a changing demonology. They were an important aspect of postwar popular culture, not only in Britain but also more internationally, particularly after the Americans created and financed the cinematic Bond (1962).

In the films, Bond dramatically--and frequently--saved America. As the seconds ticked away toward the ending, he stopped Dr. No (in the first of the films) from "toppling" a crucial American missile test (1962), prevented Goldfinger (in the third film) from rendering the Ft. Knox gold reserves radioactive (1964), and thwarted Largo's attempt to blow up Miami in the fourth film, Thunderball (1965), and Blofeld's to destroy Washington in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). He foiled Zorin's plan to decimate the Silicon Valley by means of a bomb that would activate the weakness of the San Andreas Fault in A View To A Kill (1985), and those of other megalomaniacs, some of whom, such as Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Hugo Drax in Moonraker (1979), would have destroyed America as part of a global cataclysm.

In fact, it was America that saved Bond. Launched in the novel Casino Royale (1953), Bond was a quintessentially British figure, his lifestyle located precisely in terms of British mores, but he was translated for the film role, and today it is the films, not the novels, through which the world knows Bond. Ian Fleming's intentions are glimpsed at secondhand and, even then, only fitfully after the third film, Goldfinger, which appeared in 1964, the year of Fleming's early death.

Ironically, Bond was first portrayed on-screen as an American, "Jimmy Bond," in an hourlong 1954 CBS television presentation of Casino Royale. A British agent, Clarence Leiter, assisted Bond, reversing the Anglo-American relationship of the book for American consumption. Excluding the parody Casino Royale (1967) and the remake of Thunderball in Never Say Never Again (1983), the films have been the work of Eon Productions, which was established by
Harry Saltzman, a Canadian, and Albert Broccoli, an American. In 1961 they persuaded United Artists to fund production for a six-picture deal. They also established the tone of the series. Fleming had wanted the stylish David Niven to play Bond, but Broccoli wanted a tougher image that would appeal to American filmgoers as a man of action. Bond had to be self-contained, not self-satisfied; his smoothness could not be expressed in terms of class identity. Thus a star was born: Scotsman Sean Connery.

Changing Images

The Bond stories provide snapshots of the evolving images of Britain, America, and the world, with their clear presentations of the evil afoot recording the changing nature of the threats to the world. The politics of Casino Royale were located squarely and specifically in the Cold War, with an attempt to thwart Soviet influence in the French trade unions. Indeed, in 1947, "Will Bill" Donovan, the former head of the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA), had helped persuade the American government to fund opposition to communist influence in these unions. In the novel, Bond's attempt to out-gamble his communist opponent, Le Chiffre, is rescued by Felix Leiter, a CIA observer, who loans Bond the money with which he beats the villain.

Bond's need for American money reflected the central role of the U.S. in defending the West. Leiter provides it easily and with confidence in Bond's skill, suggesting a far smoother working of the alliance than was in fact the case.

The two powers were cooperating in NATO and the UK-U.S. Security Agreement (covering SIGINT) and had fought together in Korea, but there were serious differences, particularly over the Middle East. Furthermore, American concern over the British spy system had risen greatly after the defections of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union in 1951, while in 1952 distrust (appropriately so) of Kim Philby, the British SIS (Secret Intelligence Services) liaison officer in Washington and a Soviet spy, led the CIA to insist that he not return there. Fleming did not press Anglo-American tensions in his novels, but he was aware of them and, at times, his plots can be seen as efforts to create an impression of the normality of British imperial rule and action, with Bond as the defender of empire.

In the second novel, Live and Let Die (1954), Fleming presented the U.S. itself as threatened. Responding to interest among British readers in the U.S. and to American readers, Fleming offered the New World, with Britain, in the person of Bond, active in it. In place of the cloying opulence of the casino in Royale at 3:00 am, Live and Let Die opened with the energy and luxury of a welcomed arrival at Idlewild (now JFK) airport in New York. Driving in from Idlewild, Bond remarks that New York "must be the fattest atomic-bomb target on the whole face of the world," and Black Power is seen as the tool of Soviet subversion. Its leader, the sinister Mr. Big, who uses voodoo, has Bond seized in Harlem.

In the fourth novel, Diamonds Are Forever (1956), Bond returns to the U.S., clearly a subject of some fascination. Again, there is an enemy within. Fighting the Mafia provides Fleming with an opportunity to express the racist views of the interwar years: "They're not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meatballs and squirting scent over themselves."

In Dr. No, Bond thwarts a Soviet-backed attempt to bring down American rockets, the West Indies serving as a Cold War battlefield that makes Britain relevant to the U.S. A sense of America under threat is also clear in Goldfinger (1959): the Superintendent at Pennsylvania Station tells Goldfinger that travellers from Louisville report being sprayed from the air by the Soviets. In saving the American gold reserves, the old world coming to the aid of the stronger new world, Bond is also all that a post-Suez Britain can rely on. He had come to represent a shift from brawn to brains, from resources to skill.

Competition and tension with the U.S. permeates the Bond stories, even if the theme was not pushed. In The Hildebrand Rarity (1960), Milton Krest, a villainous American collector of rare species, explains British to Bond that there are only three powers of any consequence left: America, Russia and China. They might occasionally lend other countries some money "so that they could take a hand with the grown-ups," he said, "but that was just being polite like one sometimes had to be--to a chum in one's club who'd gone broke."

The British need to adapt to America was an important, albeit concealed, theme in Bond politics. Bond's style could barely conceal the diminished British political and military presence in Cold War confrontations. In the person of the wife-beating Krest, who is in fact murdered, wealth and power became insensitivity and sadism, an unsettling account of what British weakness could permit.

The novel Thunderball (1961) was a departure, introducing the independent SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, or the "four great cornerstones of power"), and presenting it as evil unconstrained by ideology. (In the movies, SPECTRE was introduced in Dr. No, which had the eponymous evildoer working for SPECTRE instead of SMERSH, as in the novel.).

Britain, however, is still presented as playing a major role, M (the codename for the head of Britain's M16) declares: "We've teamed up with the CIA to cover the world. Allen Dulles is putting every man he's got on to it and so am I," as if the two were equal. On learning that he will be given CIA support in the Bahamas, Bond fears that he will be sent "a muscle-bound ex-college man with a crew-cut and a desire to show up the incompetence of the British."

UK vs. U.S.

You Only Live Twice (1964) reflects Fleming's increasing melancholia about Britain. Britain is in decline and the U.S. is refusing to pass on information. Britain therefore seeks intelligence from Japan and has to earn it by lending Bond for a mission to further Japanese ends. In Fleming's own 1959 tour of East Asia and the Pacific, he had noted Britain's greatly lessened influence there. In the book, a Soviet scheme to use nuclear blackmail to force British nuclear disarmament and the removal of American bases from Britain is thwarted by President Kennedy's willingness, based on British intelligence, to threaten nuclear war.

Published posthumously, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), warns about links between the KGB, the Mafia, Black Power, terrorism, and Cuban drugs, and is skeptical about the prospects for America's pressure on Castro. "If the Americans once let up on their propaganda and needling and so forth, perhaps even make a friendly gesture or two, all the steam'll go out of the little man."

The Big Screen

The films, rather than the novels, dominate modern attention. It has been claimed that half the world's population has seen a Bond film, which means that billions of people have viewed an image of global struggle through Western eyes and that the percentage of non-Western viewers has increased. The series as a whole has been among the most profitable ever.

To work as adventure stories, the films had to resonate with viewers' concerns. This they did, with themes such as the space race, the energy crisis, nuclear confrontation, women's liberation, and drugs. Shifts in the Cold War were also noted. In Moonraker (1979), the Americans check with the Soviets when their radar identifies a space station, to confirm that it is not a Soviet space vehicle. In Octopussy (1983), there are good and bad Soviets; in A View To a Kill (1985), the villain Zorin has escaped KGB control; and in The Living Daylights (1987), the KGB head emerges in a positive light, as does the Afghan resistance; the villains being a KGB general and his American partner. Indeed, Bond's success rests on his intelligent willingness to abandon the stereotype of Cold War struggle.

Outside of the Cold War, in the film License To Kill (1989), Franz Sanchez, a sadistic drug king based in a thinly- disguised Panama, is depositing much of his money in the U.S. while taking American orders for drugs and setting the price under the cover of his employee, Prof. Joe Butcher, who operates as a televangelist. There is a "death of history" in the sense of the absence of competing grand ideologies.

Bond Plays the Kremlin (Academics Miss the Point)

An interview with Oleg Gordievsky (who was head of the KGB station in London but eventually defected in 1985) was the most commented-upon part of a 2001 BBC radio program on "The Politics of James Bond." Gordievsky claimed that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party watched Bond films, that he was instructed to secure copies as soon as one came out, and that he was requested to obtain the devices used by Bond.

If only for this reason--the way popular culture and events shape each other--the politics of Bond rests in large part on the perceptions of those who read or watched the stories. Many papers presented at the 2003 Conference "The Cultural Politics of Ian Fleming and 007" at the University of Indiana, aside from misunderstanding Fleming's attitudes-- for example, he did not present SPECTRE as a bureaucratic world akin to SIS, but as a clear depiction of evil--bore very little relationship to the text. The conference turned into a branch of culture wars. Alternative readings that were more true to the historicist dimension were harshly criticized. More perplexing was the theoretical obfuscation offered by readings that were strong on reference to modish theorists and weak in any grounding in the real world.

If the Indiana conference indicated the range of possible responses to Bond, most often the response is located in a popular culture that is readier to work with apparent meanings, rather than to pursue implausible and self- referential academic approaches. Because these meanings are very much up-to-date in their political concerns, the stylish Bond works as a defender of the West in the here-and-now. Indeed, the question of the future of Bond frequently rests for popular audiences on the issue of where the villainy will come from. Thus, from 2001, there was the issue of whether, and if so how, the Bond corpus would relate to the threat from Osama bin Laden. Any depiction of Muslims or Arabs today has to avoid the suggestion that more than a minority are villains.

Furthermore, the villain without is in fact less important in the Bond corpus than the villain within, such as Drax--an establishment figure harboring deadly intentions. Adapting Bond to the threat of terrorism is less difficult than depicting the terrorists themselves. This indeed explains both the modern preference for Britons as villains--every other group claims prejudice- -and to the notion of the adventure hero as an agent discovering secrets. This is different from the challenge posed by an open and self-proclaimed villain. In the end, a successful new film will extend the remarkable endurance of James Bond as a key guide to popular views of espionage in the modern world.

This piece appears courtesy of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.