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Tuesday, 29 January 2013
Kingsley Amis, Drax’s Gambit and the Reform of the Action Sequences in the James Bond Films
The late literary author and one-time (though reluctant, it has to be said) ‘Angry Young Man’ of the 1950s literary movement, Sir Kingsley Amis holds a deservedly much-esteemed position in the history of the James Bond phenomenon from the 1960s until his death in the mid-1990s and it could be argued (quite justifiably) that he is second only to James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming in terms of his contributions to the literary world of James Bond with critical works and a continuation novel to his credit. As well as being the author of such novels as Lucky Jim (1954), Take A Girl Like You (1961), The Green Man (1969), Girl, 20 (1971) and The Old Devils (1986), (the latter title being the novel for which Amis deservedly won the Man Booker Prize in 1986) he was also (rather surprisingly for a literary author) a very great fan of genre fiction, and this was especially the case with his books on the James Bond phenomenon in the second half of the twentieth century. Amis wrote only the second book on the literary James Bond phenomenon (after O.F. Snelling’s 1964 book Double O Seven: James Bond, A Report): The James Bond Dossier (1965). He also penned the fun and rather light-hearted concordance The Book of Bond or Every Man His Own 007 (1965) under the pen name of Lt.-Col. William (‘Bill’) Tanner. Amis also wrote the first commissioned James Bond continuation novel after the death of Ian Fleming in August 1964, namely that of Colonel Sun (1968) under the (Glidrose-approved) pseudonym of Robert Markham. Though the novel received mixed reviews from the critics, it sold relatively well and it remains one of the most successful post-Fleming evocations of the high old tone of the Ian Fleming originals, despite the best efforts of Messers Wood, Gardner, Benson, Faulks and Deaver in the years since then.
In Kingsley Amis’ excoriating review of John Gardner’s second James Bond continuation novel For Special Services (1982) published in the Times Literary Supplement on 17 September 1982, he makes the following very interesting point on the nature of the James Bond films when compared with their literary continuation counterparts:
“I have suggested that For Special Services has little to do with the Bond films. In one sense this is its misfortune. Those films cover up any old implausibility or inconsistency by piling one outrage on another. You start to say to yourself. ‘But he wouldn’t –’ or ‘But they couldn’t –’ and before you can finish Bond is crossing the sunward side of the planet Mercury in a tropical suit or sinking a Soviet aircraft carrier with his teeth. Hardly a page in the book would not have gone the smoother for a diversion of this sort. Why, for instance, does the New York gang boss set his hoods on Bond when all he has to do is ask them nicely? Echo answers why. The reader is offered no relief from his bafflement.
“By a kind of tradition, however, perhaps started by Buchan and Dominick Medina in The Three Hostages, the main character-interest in this type of novel attaches to the villain. Mr Big, Hugo Drax, Dr No and their like are persons of some size and power. They are made to seem to exist in their own right, to have been operating since long before Bond crossed their paths, rather than to have been run up on the spot for him to practice on. But then to do anything like that the writer must be genuinely interested in his material.”1
In his earlier review in the New Statesman of the film tie-in novelisation of the third Roger Moore James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) by the screenwriter Christopher Wood entitled James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Kingsley Amis made other interesting comments about what he saw as the inherent and intrinsic differences between the literary and the cinematic James Bond. It was a more mixed review than his polemical review of John Gardner’s For Special Services and indeed the whole contemporary James Bond continuation project as a whole. Amis wrote of the difficult task of writing a James Bond novel in the Fleming style in the vastly different conception of the character that was that of the filmic James Bond character of the late 1970s. This filmic image of James Bond had long ago overtaken the literary Bond character in the vast swathe of the public consciousness and in the public mind:
“…Mr Wood has bravely tackled his formidable main task, that of turning a typical late Bond film, which is basically facetious, into a novel after Fleming, which must be basically serious. To this end he has, by my count, left out nine silly gadgets and sixteen silly cracks that were in the script.
What nobody could have cut out is the element of second-sight contingency planning (or negligence) that gets by in a film, indeed is very much part of the style of these films, but intrudes in a book. Your enemy has an explosive motorbike sidecar ready to launch at your car in case he’s forgotten to kill you for certain and in secret a few minutes before. In case that misses, he has already aloft a helicopter fitted with jets and cannon. Your car is submersible in case you meet such a helicopter while driving on a coast road. In case you submerge your car he has a submarine waiting. In case he has you have underwater rocket-launchers.
Later, in his supertanker, [the Liparus] which is really a giant submarine-trap, your enemy has a revolving gun-emplacement and four inch armoured shutters with machine-gun slits over his control-room in case the submarine crews he’s taken prisoner and forgotten to kill break out of the ‘brig’ and start trying to take over with spare weapons they find in the magazine, where there’s also enough stuff just lying around to build a bomb that’ll blast through the armour-plate. Second-sight sportsmanship?
In his published letters, Amis revealed to his second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard that he’d “been to Pinewood Studios to be talked to about the new James Bond film, which they want me to write an article on. Don’t know that I will, but it was fun to go, meet Roger Moore etc.” This means that Amis visited the set of the then new James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me in September 1976, and although he never wrote a review of the film, he did instead go on to review the novelisation of the film by Christopher Wood by in the New Statesman just a week after a review of the film The Spy Who Loved Me by another reviewer had appeared in the official weekly Labour Party journal. It is surely no coincidence that Kingsley Amis' son Martin Amis was at this time no less than the Literary Editor of the New Statesman (a position that he held between 1977 and 1979), and therefore he had Amis senior had the literary licence in the left-wing journal to vent spleen on the modern-day conception of a James Bond film that bore little to no relation to the works of the late Ian Fleming - that of The Spy Who Loved Me.
There is much of interest (and indeed relevance) in what Kingsley Amis wrote about the nature of the contemporary James Bond films of the late 1970s in his two reviews quoted above. Indeed, all of his criticisms and observations are still true today, perhaps even more so. Amis was clearly no great fan of the James Bond films, (most especially those of the often light and dandy version of James Bond as played by Roger Moore) much preferring the original Ian Fleming James Bond novels and short stories to their outlandish cinematic counterparts. The reviews (and a letter to Philip Larkin on Gardner’s 1981 first Bond continuation novel Licence Renewed) also reveal that Amis, as the first James Bond continuation author, also heavily disapproved of the continuation novels by John Gardner; to the extent that he thought that they brought the memory of the original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming into disrepute! Kingsley Amis’ words about the almost psychic villainy in the James Bond films in always anticipating Bond’s next move was an aspect especially a part of the larger scale James Bond films directed by Lewis Gilbert (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) and some of the more modern Bond films like the action-film orientated Pierce Brosnan outings Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Die Another Day (2002) and even Daniel Craig’s Quantum of Solace (2008). The new era ushered in by the Daniel Craig version of James Bond has put paid to most of these problems identified by Amis as being why the novels and their film counterparts are so very different from each other. The current-day Daniel Craig era is a “reboot” of the series, starting with Casino Royale (2006) and continuing with Quantum of Solace (2008) and Skyfall (2012) and as such, it has seen a return to the spirit of the Ian Fleming novels and a rejection of the old traditions of the popular (and sadly much more prominent, in the general public’s mind, at least) traditional James Bond of the Eon-produced films in the forty year period of the so-called “classic James Bond films” before the advent of the 2006 “reboot” of the series from 1962 to 2002.
Amis’ reference to the overly implausible, fantastic and outlandish elements of the James Bond films that had crept in over the years was especially true in the most decadent era of the James Bond films – that of the 1970s. These particular Bond films were by their very nature much more action, gadgetry, gimmickry and major logistical stunt orientated than either their Bond film predecessors in the 1960s or their successors in the 1980s. The 1970s was a more decadent era than many others, and this decadence certainly rubbed off on the James Bond films of the era, in that they were less focused on James Bond’s character, but instead much more on the action set pieces, amazing stunt work, explosions, mass gun battles and villainous lairs hidden in the most unexpected of places. Amis, in both the extracts from his book reviews quoted above was reacting against this new version of James Bond that he rightly felt had replaced that of the literary James Bond in much of the public imagination and consciousness. Amis, rather admirably, always remained a book Bond man rather than a film Bond man and this was his area of interest and indeed vast expertise. Amis contributed much to the literary side of the vast James Bond universe, including critical studies, a fun James Bond concordance, the first James Bond continuation novel, as well as general book reviews, articles, letters and interviews on the subject of the literary James Bond and his creator Ian Fleming. Amis even wrote the entry on Ian Fleming in the Dictionary of National Biography 1961-1970 and his last television interview was on a Biography Channel programme on Ian Fleming shortly before he died in October 1995. This shows the depth of Amis’ dedication to the world of the literary James Bond and his creator Ian Fleming. Amis’ contribution to the literary world of James Bond cannot be overemphasised, and, as such this article seeks to delve deeper than hitherto into Amis’ views on the James Bond films and how these tally with the original vision of Ian Fleming and the new and refreshing era of the Daniel Craig James Bond films released in the six years between 2006 and 2012.
Amis’ publicly stated dislike of the Roger Moore James Bond films has led to the rumour or suggestion that it was a combination of the fact that Amis’s Colonel Sun was accepted over Geoffrey Jenkins’ novel Per Fine Ounce (circa 1966) that Harry Saltzman refused to even countenance a film version of Colonel Sun, as he had been involved in supporting Jenkins’ bid to get Glidrose to publish his James Bond novel, the outline of which he had worked on with Ian Fleming in the early 1960s and which he indeed wrote up before Glidrose later refused to publish, as was their right under the terms of the contract drawn up to commission the novel in the first place. However, there is another interesting aspect to the story of the potential filming of Colonel Sun by EON Production, as is revealed in one of the late author’s letters to his second wife and fellow novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard:
“…Meant to tell you that while I was at Pinewood I mentioned Col. Sun to the PR chap, saying quite innocently that I’d heard long ago that Sal[t]zman had more or less specifically rejected the idea of filming it. PR chap said well, you know Sal[t]zman has left the organisation now and, er, let’s say I’ve heard people mentioning Col Sun. So there may be something in store for us there.”3
As it turned out, Amis’ Colonel Sun, like all of the numerous continuation novels by the likes of John Gardner, Raymond Benson et al remained and indeed still remain un-filmed well over forty years since its publication way back in March 1968. Another reason cited for the reluctance of EON to film Colonel Sun, one of the most authentic of the post-Fleming James Bond continuation novels (perhaps as it was the first and was written in the requisite period of the 1960s with its contemporary Cold War backdrop of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and Red China) was that the remaining producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli was put off by Amis’ publicly stated dislike of the James Bond films of Roger Moore. While Roger Moore captured the suave and sophisticated element of the James Bond character construct of the Eton drop-out of the original Ian Fleming novels, he played the character much more lightly than the likes of Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton or Daniel Craig. However, there were some elements of toughness that the lighter-touch James Bond actor Roger Moore brought to the role in his record-breaking seven James Bond films such as his fisticuffs with Saida’s minders, beating up of Scaramanga’s girlfriend, Miss Andrea Anders both of which featured in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), knocking the muscle-bound henchman Sandor off a roof in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and kicking a car containing Emile Leopold Locque off a cliff-edge to his death in For Your Eyes Only (1981). While the first two of these incidents were just plain nasty, and not having any precedent in the works of Ian Fleming, the killing of Locque is reminiscent of the Bond of the novel Live and Let Die (1954) kicking Mr Big’s henchman The Robber into a shark pit as revenge for the shark-mauling of his friend Felix Leiter. Locque’s brutal end was revenge on the part of Moore-Bond for the murder of his Italian ally Luigi Ferrara by Locque, hence this toughening up of Bond was justified. This dislike of the Bond films of the 1970s and the wrong direction that Amis felt that they were going in (away from their earlier fidelity to the works of Ian Fleming) is evidenced in his book reviews of James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me and For Special Services, the relevant extracts of which are quoted above. Evidently, this antagonism to the film version of James Bond must have alienated Cubby Broccoli and his production team. And so it came to pass that when Eon Productions ran out of original Fleming material there was always the James Bond character from which they had the rights to make new film adventures from – they did not have to resort to the sole continuation novel of Amis, or latterly those of Gardner or Benson.
Amis raises some very interesting and timelessly relevant points about the more traditional formula-driven James Bond films of yesteryear as well as pointing to the way the future direction of the action sequences and set pieces of the James Bond films should go in the future. What Amis wrote way back in 1977 and 1982 in the unexpected place of his reviews of two James Bond continuation novels is still as relevant to a reader in 2013 as it was at the time of original publication, if not even more so, given subsequent James Bond films that have been released in the years since 1977 and 1982 respectively. The Daniel Craig James Bond films have seemingly finally headed Amis’ advice on and criticism of the extravagant yet hollow, soulless and emotionally vapid James Bond films of the late 1970s (and of 1967, if one counts You Only Live Twice, where the rot rather set in, and “film Bond” began to replace “book Bond” in the public imagination, in this author’s view). There were of course such earlier films of the 1970s as Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), all directed by Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton, but the scale of these three Bond films all tended to be smaller and with tagged-on endings involving resurgent henchmen (Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, Tee Hee and Nick Nack) making a last ditch revenge attempt on Bond’s life after the death of the main villain that was their boss. Guy Hamilton used the same cinematic device in Goldfinger too, although there it was the main eponymous villain that made the revenge attack on Bond after he had foiled the Operation Grand Slam plan to irradiate all of the gold supply of Fort Knox. These three films had a smaller scale plot (especially true of the first two Roger Moore films, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun) and being co-scripted by new writing talent Tom Mankiewicz they had a lighter, more comedic tone more in keeping with the general mood of the early 1970s where audiences depressed by the grim reality of the energy crises and the “three day week” wanted more escapist fare from their Bond films than had their predecessors in the 1960s that had starred Sean Connery and George Lazenby respectively.
In the aftermath of the break away of Harry Saltzman from the partnership with Cubby Broccoli and his selling of his half stake in the Bond films to the studio United Artists, Broccoli had the maxim of putting every budgetary penny spent up on the screen for the audience to marvel at had the adverse effect of reducing the James Bond character to a mere cipher. From The Spy Who Loved Me onwards, it seemed that the James Bond character was merely the catalyst for wild death-defying stunts and explosive set pieces. In all of this large-scale action and spectacle the character of James Bond was reduced to that of a fantasy figure onto which impressionable audiences could project their wildest dreams in an escapist adventure that lasted a little over two hours. The James Bond films of the 1970s offered this chance of escape in an increasingly dull world of international terrorism, strikes, three-day weeks, energy crises and IRA bombing campaigns. It must have been felt by the producer, directors and screenwriters that too much character development of James Bond would have gotten in the way of the general mood of Bond films being escapist fare – too much dwelling on Bond’s inner demons being not what audiences of that grim decade that was the 1970s would not have been looking for. Cubby Broccoli seemed to have the uncanny gift of being able to deliver up to the audience what they wanted at that particular time in history, even though this meant that the actual character development of the James Bond character was mostly put on the back burner in the 1970s. Spectacle, set pieces and giant sets were the order of the day in the James Bond films of the 1970s – character development very much took a back seat. Now, in this new blessed era of Daniel Craig, the Fleming purist may rejoice loudly at the direction taken by the action sequences and plotting of these new and superior James Bond films, following on from the earlier example of Roger Moore’s finest Bond film (from a Flemingesque point of view) For Your Eyes Only (1981) and the later Timothy Dalton films of the late 1980s, where there was once again a renewed attempt to bring the unexpurgated soul of the James Bond character construct, as originally envisaged by Ian Fleming faithfully to the big screen. Amis refers to the element of the suspension of disbelief in the James Bond films of the late 1970s thus:
“Those films cover up any old implausibility or inconsistency by piling one outrage on another. You start to say to yourself. ‘But he wouldn’t –’ or ‘But they couldn’t ’ and before you can finish Bond is crossing the sunward side of the planet Mercury in a tropical suit or sinking a Soviet aircraft carrier with his teeth.”4
It is safe to say that Kingsley Amis is being rather facetious himself here (a phrase he uses to describe the contemporary James Bond films of the late 1970s) and that he is rather engaging in some hyperbole, but when one considers the fact that the two James Bond films of the late 1970s, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) both had plots concerning the destruction of all life on Earth through nuclear weapons and poison gas respectively. It could be said that Amis’ seemingly exaggerated comments was not too far from the truth in his reviews. It was against this backdrop of the replacement of the James Bond novels with the James Bond films of the 1970s, that Amis wrote what amounted to two polemics against the Bond films. Ironically, Amis conversely felt that the continuation Bond novels themselves probably could have done with emulating them in order to be successful in the mind’s eye of the contemporary general James Bond fan of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Another very interesting and indeed salient point that Amis makes in the extracts from the reviews quoted above is the fact that the James Bond films in the decadent era of the late 1970s all have the same approach to villainy in the form of the various henchmen and henchwomen that form the forces that act against the secret agent James Bond in the film versions:
“What nobody could have cut out is the element of second-sight contingency planning (or negligence) that gets by in a film, indeed is very much part of the style of these films, but intrudes in a book. Your enemy has an explosive motorbike sidecar ready to launch at your car in case he’s forgotten to kill you for certain and in secret a few minutes before. In case that misses, he has already aloft a helicopter fitted with jets and cannon. Your car is submersible in case you meet such a helicopter while driving on a coast road. In case you submerge your car he has a submarine waiting. In case he has you have underwater rocket-launchers.
Later, in his supertanker, [the Liparus] which is really a giant submarine-trap, your enemy has a revolving gun-emplacement and four inch armoured shutters with machine-gun slits over his control-room in case the submarine crews he’s taken prisoner and forgotten to kill break out of the ‘brig’ and start trying to take over with spare weapons they find in the magazine, where there’s also enough stuff just lying around to build a bomb that’ll blast through the armour-plate. Second-sight sportsmanship?”5
This criticism of The Spy Who Loved Me concerning the battery of henchmen some of the more outlandish and megalomaniacal villains in the film series threw at James Bond could also be applied to previous James Bond films like Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, and Live and Let Die. What Amis cleverly calls “second-sight contingency planning” on the part of the filmic James Bond villains and their various minions is seen most clearly in the “greatest-hits package” of a James Bond film that is The Spy Who Loved Me, a Bond film by numbers (although the correct winning combination) that is essentially a remake of You Only Live Twice (significantly also directed by Lewis Gilbert) with a fair measure of Goldfinger thrown in for good measure, and just to make sure all of the classic (and provably successful) Bond film ingredients needed for box-office success were present and correct. When James Bond (played by Roger Moore) visits Karl Stromberg in Atlantis, his gigantic steel spider-like underwater research laboratory off the coast of Sardinia, he goes under the guise of Robert Sterling, a marine biologist, in order to see how Stromberg lives out his rather reclusive and eccentric existence under the sea as the wealthy owner of the Stromberg shipping line or one of “the principal capitalist exploiters of the West” in the words of the doctrinaire Communist agent Major Anya Amasova of the KGB. Stromberg asks Jaws after seeing Mr Sterling (Bond) “Were they the two on the train?” to which the mute Jaws gives an affirmative nod. “James Bond and Major Amasova, a Russian agent. Let them get ashore, and then kill them.”
As Amis readily notes in the passage quoted above, James Bond, after having been granted an audience with Karl Stromberg in Atlantis, his underwater research laboratory in Sardinia, is pursued by a veritable litany of Stromberg’s henchmen in ever-increasing and elaborate death-dealing devices along a coastal road in Sardinia. These devices include in swift succession; a motorbike and missile-launched sidecar that attempts to blow Bond and Amasova to smithereens in their Lotus Esprit, a car full of gun firing thugs (including the 7 ft 2” indestructible steel-teethed hit man Jaws), a helicopter equipped with a contemporary Vietnam War (1965-1973) style machine-gun cannon (later seen in A View to A Kill, Tomorrow Never Dies and Skyfall also) that attempts on several occasions along the selfsame coastal Sardinian road to riddle Bond’s Lotus Esprit with bullets and turn the pure white coat of the sports car to the crimson red of blood and mutilated and bloody bodies. The helicopter that was flown by Stromberg’s personal assistant and pilot Naomi forces Bond to drive his Lotus Esprit off the edge of a pier into the Sardinian sea. This heart-in-mouth sequence results in the revelation that the car has the ability to turn into a submarine submersible car, with fins and tail rudder to control its underwater course. From the sea, Bond uses the car’s controls to fire a missile upwards from the roof of the submerged car at the “uninvited guest” of the helicopter flown by Naomi, which explodes in a massive fireball above the surface of the sea. Bond had used a quick and death-defying manoeuvre to escape the sidecar-missile projectile, causing the rider to be thrown over a cliff-edge to his death when the motorbike sidecar missile hit the unintended target of a luxury Materassis Sardadream bed mattress lorry (“All those feathers and he still can’t fly” quips Moore-Bond). The car full of gun-toting thugs meets its end when Bond fires liquid cement from two jets hidden behind his car’s number plate to cover the car’s windscreen, causing it to crash headlong into a Sardinian citizen’s house. The gadgetry of the Lotus Esprit of course recalls that of Bond’s gadget-laden Aston Martin DB5 in the film Goldfinger, which many Bond aficionados consider to be the very best James Bond film. Tellingly, Jaws is the only walk-away survivor of the terror car carnage. Amis, in his haste forgets to even mention this car chase sequence from the film version of The Spy Who Loved Me, but he can perhaps be forgiven for this over-sight as he makes very salient points, was not a Bond film admirer in any real sense, and probably was relying on his memories of the showing of the film in the cinema; beta-mix tapes, video cassettes and DVD/Blu-Ray copies that would allow of multiple viewing for strict accuracy, not then available to the general film-going public of 1977 (although the very first prototype video tape was created in 1956). This was a problem faced by many of the early commentators of the James Bond films, of course, from John Brosnan to Steven Jay Rubin to Raymond Benson. Amis does however remember the three underwater sledges fitted with small underwater torpedoes and missiles seen in the film when Bond’s car tries to investigate Atlantis as it exists under the ocean. There is also a Shark Hunter mini submersible that Major Amasova helps to destroy with an ink screen and two mines that blow the Shark Hunter up when the mines hit the seabed. (There is an apt little in-joke here on the reality of the incompetence of much of post-war British Intelligence (of, for instance, the Cambridge spy ring) as it then existed when Major Amasova admits that she knew about the car’s weaponry as she “stole the blueprints of this car two years ago.” (!)) Amis rather succinctly refers to this underwater scene by saying:
“Your car is submersible in case you meet such a helicopter while driving on a coast road. In case you submerge your car he has a submarine waiting. In case he has you have underwater rocket-launchers.”6
Although it is notable that Amis was certainly no expert (or indeed fan) of the James Bond films, he had evidently seen enough of them and their variations in quality from film to film and to know that they were formula films very much set apart latterly from the original works by Ian Fleming that he had earlier studied in such depth in several books in the 1960s. Amis knew (arguably better than any other commentator of the time) the flaws of the Bond films in their presentation of small-scale minor henchman villainy and in the panorama of their action set-pieces as seen most especially in The Spy Who Loved Me with thescene along the Sardinian coast. It is clear that Amis made most revealing criticisms of many of the James Bond films of the late 1960s and late 1970s – that which he knowingly labels “the element of second-sight contingency planning (or negligence) that gets by in a film, indeed is very much part of the style of these films” whereby Bond’s sworn enemy always seems to have another madman’s surprise of a death-trap waiting to spring on him just “in case he’s forgotten to kill [him] for certain and in secret a few minutes before.” This is a very astute reading of the problems with the action sequences of the most popular (amongst the plebeian masses, not the true Bond aficionados) of the James Bond films, namely, You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, all, rather tellingly, directed by Lewis Gilbert (and two of which were of course written by scriptwriter and novelist Christopher Wood). These Bond films appeal to the general mass of the general public worldwide simply because they are fun, light-hearted romps that move at break-neck pace; the exotic locales, megalomaniacal villains, lush and exotic girls, preposterous potentially Earth-shattering villainous plot conspiracies, fast action and gadget-laden cars, helicopters and gondolas and as such, comprise what Joe Public considers acceptable when they hear the name “James Bond” uttered or read it in print. In his review of John Gardner’s For Special Services, Amis makes another very interesting point concerning the nature of the villainy that Gardner has on display in his second Bond continuation novel, but which could, of course be equally applied to the villains and their various henchmen in the contemporaneous Bond films of the late 1970s:
“I have suggested that For Special Services has little to do with the Bond films. In one sense this is its misfortune. Those films cover up any old implausibility or inconsistency by piling one outrage on another. You start to say to yourself. ‘But he wouldn’t –’ or ‘But they couldn’t –’ and before you can finish Bond is crossing the sunward side of the planet Mercury in a tropical suit or sinking a Soviet aircraft carrier with his teeth.
“By a kind of tradition, however, perhaps started by Buchan and Dominick Medina in The Three Hostages, the main character-interest in this type of novel attaches to the villain. Mr Big, Hugo Drax, Dr No and their like are persons of some size and power. They are made to seem to exist in their own right, to have been operating since long before Bond crossed their paths, rather than to have been run up on the spot for him to practice on. But then to do anything like that the writer must be genuinely interested in his material.”7
The same criticism could surely be attached to the highly influential (in the popular consciousness) three James Bond films directed by Lewis Gilbert between 1967 and 1979. These films were massive earners at the box-office when compared to some of the grittier or more experimental James Bond films that either followed or preceded them (thinking here of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun specifically). Lewis Gilbert was responsible (N.B. I make that sound rather like a criminal offence quite intentionally) for the three most outlandish James Bond films in the fifty years of the official Eon-produced series from 1962 to 2012 (excepting, of course Lee Tamahori’s Die Another Day, 2002) And although it is true that no Bond films have (as yet) featured Bond “crossing the sunward side of the planet Mercury in a tropical suit” [shades of Roger Moore’s much-maligned safari suit seen in The Man with the Golden Gun, Moonraker and Octopussy]”; this being an example of Amis’ exaggeration to make an otherwise salient point, the Lewis Gilbert Bond films certainly came close to this type of outlandish excess. [It is notable that, as a child, I first came across the word “outlandish” rather appropriately in a film review of Moonraker published in a newspaper – “one of the most outlandish entries in the series.”]
In Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice there were the excesses of a space rocket swallowing other space rockets, the “Little Nellie” gadget laden autogyro small helicopter, an underground volcanic lair that formed the military base of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, leader of SPECTRE In The Spy Who Loved Me there is the “Wet Nellie”, the submersible Lotus Esprit gadget-laden car, Atlantis, the Liparus super tanker and submarine-swallowing storage container and a mass of spectacular stunts from skiing off a cliff and being saved by a Union Flag parachute to an escape from the sinking Atlantis marine research laboratory in an escape pod (shades of the later film version of Casino Royale, 2006, where there is a sinking piazza in Venice). In the even more excessive last Lewis Gilbert directed Bond film Moonraker (1979) there are the outlandish elements of Bond being pushed out of an aeroplane without a parachute that he then has to wrestle n mid-air from his protagonist, a spin in a centrifuge astronaut-trainer with a G-force that almost goes off the recorded scale of ordinary human endeavour, a space shuttle based programme of eugenics where the plot is to remove from the decadent Earth all of its human life and to repopulate it with a set of “perfect physical specimens” that will breed a new Master Race that will be reborn like a Phoenix arisen from the ashes of the old Earth. In order to “preserve the balance of nature”, Drax sees to it that animal life will remain unaffected by the lethal improvements made to an ancient civilisation’s orchid-sourced nerve poison. There is also a laser battle in space between the “Draxites” and the NASA-trained cavalry leader Colonel Scott’s space marines, which does look rather preposterous. Despite this, it is a climactic scene clearly influenced by similar cavalry-arrival scenes in Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me. Although the Bond films post-Moonraker were less excessive and more grounded in the gritty reality of the dirty trade that is espionage, late 2002 saw the release of Die Another Day, which critics and fans alike cited as being a return to the old-school excesses of Bond films of yesteryear such as You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. With a plot involving a laser satellite in space called Icarus (a seemingly benevolent "second sun") that was designed by the apparent English toff Sir Gustav Graves (in reality Colonel Tan-Sun Moon) to destroy the very heavily mined border area (known as the 38th Parallel) between the Communist North Korean and the democratic South Korea, leaving the way clear for an invasion by the North Korean Army some fifty years after the Korean War of 1950-1953.
Although the film had a rather gritty start with James Bond being captured and tortured over the course of some fourteen months between 2001 and 2002 (during which time 11th September 2001 occurred and the “world changed”), when the film arrived at its main Icelandic location, it is noticeable how preposterous the plot becomes all of a sudden. There is the idea of the “second sun” that is the Icarus space laser satellite (recalling both Diamonds are Forever and GoldenEye), the Aston Martin Vanquish that becomes an invisible car at the touch of a button, the fight between two (ridiculously) heavily gadget-laden cars on the ice, the Ice Palace (inspired unacknowledged by John Gardner’s 1983 Bond continuation novel Icebreaker), the climactic fight on a plane with Graves in the role of an evil science-fiction inspired superhero with a Robocop-inspired Icarus satellite control suit, the preposterous CGI-inflected scene where Bond uses an open parachute and the windscreen from Graves’; super car to surf a tidal wave caused by the Icarus satellite being used to cut off a large section of a ice cliff edge. This scene recalls Amis’ mention of “Bond…crossing the sunward side of the planet Mercury in a tropical suit”. The ice cliff scene was clearly inspired by the exploding of the limestone cliff edge with drilled-down dynamite charges in the original Moonraker novel, of which Die Another Day is a very loose updated adaptation. Sir Gustav Graves is modelled on Sir Hugo Drax, the Icarus satellite is modelled on the Moonraker rocket, Blades gentleman’s club features, the face-changing device recalls Drax’s botched plastic surgery and the character of Miranda Frost was originally going to be called Gala Brand in line with the heroine of the Moonraker novel. With the advent of Die Another Day, that piece of hyperbole on the part of Amis does not seem quite so outlandish and exaggerated a suggestion after all. Amis also made reference to how easily the submarine crews being held prisoner in the ‘brig’ of the Liparus were set free and were able to raid the ship’s armoury. This is a staple of spy and adventure films, however and is not solely unique to the film The Spy Who Loved Me. One is reminded of the "Space Seed" episode of Star Trek: The Original Series (of which the film Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is a direct sequel) where Captain James T. Kirk (sometimes referred to as a portly James Bond) and the villainous Khan are fighting in an engineering room aboard the USS Enterprise and Kirk manages to gain the advantage by his unscrewing of an anti-matter containment control bulk head pin lock that just so happens to resemble a long wrench and Kirk uses this handy im-provised weapon to gain the advantage in his hand-to-hand battle with his opponent by repeatedly hitting Khan over the head with it until he is finally knocked unconscious.* One suspects that the same type of “second-sight sportsmanship” applies in the prisoner escape and breaching of the control room in The Spy Who Loved Me, but as Amis says this fun Bondian romp can easily be forgotten about once it has been viewed, as it is rather hollow and soulless in nature. As a film, The Spy Who Loved Me, with its "James Bond as a superman" automaton figure, is really just a light and sugary piece of pink candy floss to dissolve almost instantly on the tongue, leaving a sickly sweet aftertaste, in contrast to the Army Surplus hard-boiled sweet of the noirish Fleming original, and as Amis writes at the end of his review of Christopher Wood’s novelisation of the film, “…but forget it. You safely can.”8
However, despite these outlandish elements in certain of the James Bond films from You Only Live Twice to Die Another Day, Amis’ criticism of the Bond films in his two reviews of Bond continuation novels could be said to have rational support in the original works of Ian Fleming. An action set-piece that Fleming designed for his third James Bond novel Moonraker (1955), not of course to be confused with the outlandish 1979 film version of the same name, applies the type of counter-move to the excesses of the latter-day James Bond films that Amis was referring to in his two book reviews quoted above. A quote taken from this passage in Moonraker will easily make this salient point on the vast differences between many of the action set-pieces seen in the James Bond films and those as originally written by Fleming in his novels and short stories of the 1950s and 1960s. In the scene quoted below from Moonraker, James Bond, driving his old Bentley, is in pursuit of the villain Sir Hugo Drax’s Mercedes, with his ADC and dogsbody Willy Krebs as a passenger and WPC Gala Brand as his prisoner bundled up on the back seat. After Drax has blatantly forced a third party car called Attaboy II off the road in front of Bond’s Bentley, Bond sees this as a declaration of war from the patron of the British Moonraker nuclear deterrent rocket, Sir Hugo Drax:
“As [Bond] flashed by, noting the horrible graffiti of the black skid-marked [sic] across the tarmac, his mind recorded one final macabre touch. Somehow undamaged in the holocaust, the windhorn was still making contact and its ululations were going on up to the sky, stridently clearing imaginary roads for the passage of Attaboy II – ‘Pom-pim-pom-pam’ ‘Pom-pim-pom-pam…’
So a murder had taken place in front of his eyes. Or at any rate an attempted murder. So, whatever his motives, Sir Hugo Drax had declared war and didn’t mind Bond knowing it. This made a lot of things easier. It meant that Drax was a criminal and probably a maniac. Above all it meant certain danger for the Moonraker. That was enough for Bond. He reached under the dashboard and from its concealed holster drew out the long-barrelled .45 Colt Army Special and laid it on the seat beside him. The battle was now in the open and somehow the Mercedes must be stopped.
Using the road as if it was Donington, Bond rammed his foot down and kept it there. Gradually, with the needle twitching either side of the hundred mark he began to narrow the gap.
Drax took the left-hand fork at Charing and hissed up the long hill. Ahead, in the giant beam of his headlights, one of Bowaters’ huge eight-wheeled AEC Diesel carriers was just grinding into the first bend of the hairpin, labouring under the fourteen tons of newsprint it was taking on a night run to one of the East Kent newspapers.
Drax cursed under his breath as he saw the long carrier with the twenty gigantic rolls, each containing five miles of newsprint, roped to its platform. Right in the middle of the tricky S-bend at the top of the hill.
He looked in the driving mirror and saw the Bentley coming into the fork.
And then Drax had his idea.
“Krebs,” the word was a pistol shot. “Get out your knife.”
There was a sharp click and the stiletto was in Kreb’s hand. One didn’t dawdle when there was that note in the master’s voice.
“I am going to slow down behind this lorry. Take your shoes and socks off and climb out on the bonnet and when I come behind the lorry jump on to it. I shall be going at walking-pace. It will be safe. Cut the ropes that hold the rolls of paper. The left ones first. Then the right. I shall have pulled up level with the lorry and when you have cut the second lot jump into the car. Be careful you are not swept off with the paper. Verstanden? Also. Hals und Beinbruch!”
Drax dowsed his headlights and swept around the bend at eighty. The lorry was twenty yards ahead and Drax had to brake hard to avoid crashing hard into its tail. The Mercedes executed a dry skid until its radiator was almost underneath the platform of the carrier.
Drax changed down to second. “Now!” He held the car steady as a rock as Krebs, with bare feet, went over the windscreen and scrambled along the shining bonnet, his knife in his hand.
With a leap he was up and hacking at the left-hand ropes. Drax pulled away to the right and crawled up level with the rear wheels of the Diesel, the oily smoke from its exhaust in his eyes and nostrils.
Bond’s lights were just showing round the bend.
There was a series of huge thuds as the left-hand rolls poured off the back of the lorry into the road and went hurtling off into the darkness. And more thuds as the right-hand ropes parted. One roll burst as it landed and Drax heard a tearing rattle as the unwinding paper crashed back down the one-in-ten gradient.
Released of its load the lorry almost bounded forward and Drax had to accelerate a little to catch the flying figure of Krebs who landed half across Gala’s back and half in the front seat. Drax stamped his foot into the floor and sped off up the hill, ignoring a shout from the lorry-driver above the clatter of the Diesel pistons as he shot ahead.
As he hurtled round the next bend he saw the shaft of two headlights curve up into the sky above the tops of the trees until they were almost vertical. They wavered there for an instant and then the beams whirled away across the sky and went out.
A great barking laugh broke out of Drax as for a split second he took his eyes off the road and raised his face triumphantly towards the stars.
Krebs echoed the maniac laugh with a high giggle. “A master-stroke, mein Kapitän. You should have seen them charge off down the hill. The one that burst. Wunderschön! Like the lavatory paper of a giant. That one will have made a pretty parcel of him. He was just coming round the bend. And the second salvo was as good as the first. Did you see the driver’s face? Zum Kotzen! And the Firma Bowater! A fine paperchase they will have on their hands.”
“You did well,” said Drax briefly, his mind elsewhere.
Suddenly he pulled into the side of the road with a scream of protest from the tyres.
“Donnerwetter,” he said angrily, as he started to turn the car. “But we can’t leave the man there. We must get him.” The car was already hissing back down the road. “Gun,” ordered Drax briefly.
They passed the lorry at the top of the hill. It was stopped and there was no sign of the driver. Probably telephoning to the company, thought Drax, slowing up as they went round the first bend. There were lights on in the two or three houses and a group of people were standing round one of the rolls of newsprint that lay amongst the ruins of their front gate. There were more rolls in the hedge on the right side of the road. On the left a telegraph pole leant drunkenly, snapped in the middle. Then at the next bend was the beginning of a great confusion of paper stretching away down the long hill, festooning the bridges and the road like the sweepings of some elephantine fancy-dress ball.
The Bentley had nearly broken through the railings that fenced off the right of the bend from a steep bank. Amidst a puzzle of twisted iron stanchions it hung, nose down, with one wheel, still attached to the broken back axle, poised crookedly over its rump like a surrealist umbrella.
Drax pulled up and he and Krebs got out and stood quietly, listening.
There was no sound except the distant rumination of a car travelling fast on the Ashford road and the chirrup of a sleepless cricket.
With their guns out they walked cautiously over to the remains of the Bentley, their feet crunching the broken glass on the road. Deep furrows had been cut across the grass verge and there was a strong smell of petrol and burnt rubber in the air. The hot metal of the car ticked and cracked softly and the steam was still fountaining from the shattered radiator.
Bond was lying face downwards at the bottom of the bank twenty feet away from the car. Krebs turned him over. His face was covered with blood but he was breathing they searched him thoroughly and Drax pocketed the Beretta. Then they hauled him across the road and wedged him into the back seat of the Mercedes, half on top of Gala.
When she realised who it was she gave a cry of horror.
“Halt’s Maul,” snarled Drax. He got into the front seat and while he turned the car Krebs leant over from the front seat and busied himself with a long piece of flex. “Make a good job of it,” said Drax. “I don’t want any mistakes.” He had an afterthought. “And then go back to the wreck and get the number plates. Hurry. I will watch the road.”
Krebs pulled the rug over the two inert bodies and jumped out of the car. Using his knife as a screwdriver he was soon back with the plates, and the big car started to move just as a group of the local residents appeared walking nervously down the hill shining their torches over the scene of devastation.
Krebs grinned happily to himself at the thought of the stupid English having to clean up all this mess. He settled himself back to enjoy the part of the drive he had always liked best, the spring woods full of bluebells and celandines on the way to Chilham.”9
This excerpt from Ian Fleming’s Moonraker novel (obviously the polar opposite of the eventual film version released in 1979) shows how Fleming described in beautiful prose an action set piece in one of his early James Bond novels. The extract quoted above ends with a beautiful piece of flowery prose, at odds somewhat with the violent scene of the newsprint rolls. There is no succession of motorbike and sidecar missiles, gun-toting thugs in cars, helicopters fitted with Gatling guns, or underwater sleds and Shark Hunter mini-submarines. What there is is a resourceful Sir Hugo Drax, using his wartime Nazi Werewolf and commando training to use the innocuous looking weaponry that is part of everyday life, such as ordering his lieutenant Willy Krebs to cut the ropes holding vast rolls of newsprint onto the back of a lorry to crush James Bond and his pursuing Bentley car in one of the few action sequences that appear in the more character-driven narrative of Moonraker. The contrast with the action sequences that Amis was referring to in the Bond films of the 1970s is clear for all to see in plain black and white. The arch-villain Sir Hugo Drax (in reality embittered Nazi Graf Hugo von der Drache) is resourceful and wily in his use of the surrounding environment to stop the pursuit of the armed James Bond in his Bentley. Fleming had his villains use the seemingly innocuous surrounding environment and all it had to offer from a hazardous point of view in an unprecedented manner. Rather than the use of a premeditated litany of henchmen going after Bond in his car as is seen in the Bond films of the late 1970s, we see in the newsprint scene the villain using an unpremeditated method to bring Bond and his pursuing Bentley car to a standstill. Fleming achieved this task by having Drax order Krebs onto the back of a lorry in order to cut the ropes holding the newsprint rolls on, all without the aid of motorbikes, cars, helicopters, sleds or Shark Hunter mini-submarines. The contrast between the simpler action sequences of the original Fleming James Bond novels and the more complex and outlandish ones of the later James Bond films is stark indeed, and there for all to see.
The Bond films solely produced by Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli (after the split from his more creative co-producer partner Harry Saltzman) were instead low on new creative ideas, and from The Spy Who Loved Me onwards it is true that the rot really started to set in as far as the often very derivative action sequences in the Bond films was concerned – they are full of what Amis so aptly labelled “second-sight contingency planning” and “second-sight sportsmanship” also, when it comes to the inevitable arrival of the cavalry in the three Lewis Gilbert films, You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker and in some of the other Bond films also, like Goldfinger, Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Having said all that, it would be remiss of this author not to mention the fact that in the Fleming purist direction that the Bond films (mostly) took after the excesses of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker it is possible to see the influence of the works of Ian Fleming on the action set pieces in the new decade of the 1980s until the modern-day with Skyfall in 2012. After the space-age antics of the film version of Moonraker, where the Bond producers had jumped on the whole science-fiction band wagon of films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and TV series such as UFO and Space 1999!, it was felt by the producers, director and scriptwriters that in his new filmic adventure it was high time that James Bond was seen to come back down to Earth again and also back to Flemningian basics. As Amis wrote in his review of John Gardner’s For Special Services (1982):
“By a kind of tradition, however, perhaps started by Buchan and Dominick Medina in The Three Hostages, the main character-interest in this type of novel attaches to the villain. Mr Big, Hugo Drax, Dr No and their like are persons of some size and power. They are made to seem to exist in their own right, to have been operating since long before Bond crossed their paths, rather than to have been run up on the spot for him to practice on. But then to do anything like that the writer must be genuinely interested in his material.”10
Amis here is referring to the second James Bond continuation novel by John Gardner, but he could just as well be referring to the James Bond films of the late 1970s, which was a time very close to when he wrote this particular review in the Times Literary Supplement in September 1982. As Amis notes, Ian Fleming put a great deal of interesting characterisation into his James Bond novels and short stories and this really helped to make his thrillers so intensely readable, as real well-drawn characters and the copious use of brand names often added a real sense of verisimilitude to an otherwise often outlandish (though less so than the films) villainous plot like bombing London with its own nuclear deterrent rocket, “toppling” American missiles into jungles, raiding Fort Knox to seize all of its gold, hijacking Vulcan bomber nuclear bombs to hold to ransom Britain and the United States and threatening Britain with biological warfare in order to get immunity for past crimes and the recognition of an aristocratic title. Fleming’s villains are well-drawn on the page, unlike those of some of the continuation novels that followed his untimely death at the age of just fifty-six in August 1964. Amis writes:
“They are made to seem to exist in their own right, to have been operating since long before Bond crossed their paths, rather than to have been run up on the spot for him to practice on.”11
Amis’ carefully selected and succinct series of words here about Bond villains or their various henchmen “being run up on the spot” as target practice for James Bond’s deadly aim is surely very telling when also applied to the Sardinian coastal road sequence in The Spy Who Loved Me where a veritable litany of henchmen try to kill Bond and Amasova in their Lotus Esprit both on land and underwater. They appear to have been much more of the “run up on the spot” school of Bondian villainy described by Amis than the persons of “some size and power” of the original Fleming novels and the faithful Flemingesque Bond film villains who “seem to exist in their own right” before Bond comes along to threaten their interests and their diabolical plans. After the excesses of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker the James Bond films that followed these two “epic Bonds” seemed to follow the Guy Hamilton school of lower-key Bond films and villains and were more grounded, down-to-Earth Bond films as a result. After Moonraker, there was a renewed attempt to go way back to the original Fleming novels and short stories and to return to the true grit of the original James Bond character. Many of John Glen’s films of the 1980s tried to incorporate Fleming sequences, dialogue and characters. For example, the idea of newsprint rolls being used as weapons by Krebs in Moonraker is seemingly reused in For Your Eyes Only when Bond’s Greek ally Milos Columbo shoots through two ropes to set in motion a series of what resembles newsprint rolls containing raw opium (“an old smuggler’s trick, Kristatos knows them all”, so we’re told) into the path of oncoming armed assailants with the desired effect of knocking them over. In For Your Eyes Only Glen also uses one of the few ideas for an action set piece in a Bond film that actually comes from the pen of Ian Fleming: that of a keel-hauling sequence at the end of Live and Let Die, although the ship the Secatur, owned by Mr Big is blown up by a limpet mine just before the keel-hauling of Bond and Solitare is about to begin in earnest. In the film version of For Your Eyes Only Bond and Melina Havelock are not so fortunate as they are both hauled after Aris Kristatos’ boat until he thinks that “the sharks have them”, although this is of course not the case. In the all-round high-octane action film that is Pierce Brosnan’s second James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), there is another use of rolls of newsprint as Bond ducks and dives between them as armed employees of the media mogul Elliot Carver fire at him and cause general chaos in the printing presses of the Carver Media Group Network (CMGN) owned Tomorrow newspaper (“Tomorrow’s news today”) that is published in Hamburg in Germany. Bond even gets to punch a red-jacketed assailant into the newspaper printing press machine, quipping, rather predictably, “They’ll print anything these days.” Clearly this sentiment also applies to the script for Tomorrow Never Dies itself, which had no real link back to anything Ian Fleming ever wrote, except for Paris Carver’s line “Tell me James, do you still sleep with a gun under your pillow?”
Similarly, in the new era of grittier and more realistic James Bond films starring Daniel Craig as a close likeness to Ian Fleming’s original conception of James Bond, there are more Flemingesque action set pieces for audiences to be once again thrilled about. For example, in the film version of the very last Fleming novel to be filmed, his debut Bond novel Casino Royale, finally filmed as the first Daniel Craig Bond film Casino Royale (2006) there is the brutal torture of Bond’s genitals by a rope swung by a desperate Le Chiffre who wants the casino Texas Hold ’Em Poker winnings that he feels that Bond has cheated him out of. Before this, there was the ploy of placing a tied-up Vesper Lynd in the middle of the road, to be potentially run over by Bond’s latest Aston Martin car. This action scene is inspired both by a similar scene in the original Casino Royale novel where Bond’s pursuant Bentley is brought to a standstill by a series of three-way tacks thrown onto the road before his approaching car by the villain’s car (in a very early example of a gadget-laden car in the James Bond universe. Such a tack-laying device was later seen in Bond’s BMW remote-controlled Q-car in Tomorrow Never Dies).
It could also be argued, of course, that the scene in Moonraker with the newsprint rolls crashing into Bond’s Bentley is another scene in the same class of action sequence. In fact the scene with Vesper Lynd lying in the middle of the road is also very similar to the scene in the novel version of The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) where a blown-up and life-size doll of Bond’s secretary and MI6 field agent Mary Goodnight is placed across a railway track on Scaramanga’s train in order to fool the passenger and “security guard” James Bond into thinking that she is about to be cut in two by the passage of the train over her prostrated body. The intention of the dummy is to get Bond to blow his cover and to expose himself as a British agent who had joined up with Scaramanga’s outfit in order to bring it down from the inside (shades of the later 1989 Bond film Licence to Kill here). This scene, along with the similar ones in the novels of Casino Royale and Moonraker could all be said to be inspirations on the scene in the film version of Casino Royale where Vesper Lynd is placed tied-up in the middle of the road, causing Bond to brake and swerve to miss hitting her with his car to such an extent that his car goes into a world record amount of over-spins of the car body before it stops in a nearby field. Quantum of Solace (2008) sees a return to a more action-oriented Bond film like Tomorrow Never Dies again, although in this film there is a snappy-type of fast and flashy editing of the action sequences, not really seen before in the Bond films, although there were elements of this in Die Another Day (2002), the last Pierce Brosnan film. The latest James Bond film, Skyfall (2012) has seen a return to the Flemingesque back-to-basics style of the earlier, less flashy Bond films of old. Much of the latter part of the film takes place in the countryside of Scotland – the peat and the heather and the ancestral home Skyfall Lodge where the filmmakers tell us James Bond was born and bred until the age of eleven, when he was orphaned after his parents were killed in a climbing accident abroad. Some of this detail (but not the construct of Skyfall Lodge itself) comes from the obituary of James Bond that was reprinted from The Times in Ian Fleming’s penultimate Bond novel You Only Live Twice (1964). The final showdown between James Bond, his boss M and his old family groundsman Kincaid is a veritable SAS survivalist and booby-trap course where traps are set – such as the explosives from shotgun shells being placed under lifted floorboards and shotguns and knives are used, with one in the back for the villainous Raoul Silva, the mastermind behind the hi-tech plot to try to kill M and to discredit her Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) before the world stage. In true Dr No or even Amis’ Colonel Sun novel commando style Bond and his helpers Kincaid and M kills all of Silva’s army of men, and finally gets to throw a knife in Silva’s back (recalling the earlier knife in the back delivered by Milos Columbo against his old foe Aris Kristatos in the film version of For Your Eyes Only (1981). In Skyfall, there is even a great action set piece that recalls for this author at least the newsprint roll scene from the Moonraker novel where Bond pursues Silva into a London Underground access tunnel. Silva has started to climb up a ladder when James Bond arrives on the scene and fires a few shots at him. In response, Silva (dressed in the uniform of the Metropolitan police) detonates a bomb by remote control, which opens up a great fissure in the wall of the London tube. As a result of this, rather like Willy Krebs cutting the ropes holding the newsprint, a tube train comes crashing through the gaping hole Silva has created straight at the personage of James Bond, who has to literally run for his life. Despite it having taken almost sixty years since the publication of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker in 1955, it seems that finally the filmmakers have learnt the lesson of “Drax’s Gambit” and have had a villain use the innocuous looking surroundings of the environment where Bond is pursuing them through to deliver a convincing action sequence. This adds immeasurably to the relegation of the old action sequences of Bond films like You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker to the distant past. While Bond fans should be glad that these films exist, they should be equally glad that these types of films and their action sequences will not be repeated for as long as Daniel Craig remains as the closest conception of Ian Fleming’s James Bond yet to be seen on the big screen. The success of Skyfall (2012), correctly hailed as one of the greatest James Bond films ever, has largely been down to a great script, great villain in Raoul Silva and a great radical director in Sam Mendes, who brought all of the best elements of the James Bond films together and added in a little lemon twist of his own to the martini recipe mix for success. Sam Mendes recently said in an interview with BBC film critic Mark Kermode that the James Bond films started life as thrillers and then, around about the time of Moonraker (1979) they became action adventure films, with a kind of travelogue element, as in Moonraker where Bond was the glue that bound Venice and Rio de Janeiro together as a film. Mendes said, “And Bond becomes the glue in a sense and he ceased being the story around that time and I felt one of the brilliant things that Daniel [Craig] did with Casino Royale was that he became the story again. He became the centre of the movie, by which I mean he had a journey, that was something that I was very conscious to try and do.”12
The renewed focus on the James Bond character and the stripped down, bared-back set of action sequences in Skyfall helps to show how a modern-day spy film with all of the trappings of modern life – lost pen drives full of confidential information and the hi-tech wizardry of Silva’s computer hacking plot can still be foiled in the twenty-first century by all of the true grit and determination of age-old commando-style ingenuity and resourcefulness packed into Her Majesty’s Secret Servant, Commander James Bond CMG RNVR. It is indeed amusing how things come around full circle in the world of James Bond, and that finally the Daniel Craig era has delivered the kind of Fleminesque touches and the kind of action set pieces that Kingsley Amis would have been rightly proud of. It is just a very real pity that the late great Sir Kingsley Amis or indeed Ian Fleming, the originator of it all, did not in fact live long enough to see these action sequence reforms in all of their glory up on the big screen. When substantial change and reform comes to an ongoing body of work, guided by many different creative talents and like the law of the land itself, authored by many different hands, whether the body of work is literary, cinematic, theatrical or otherwise, it often comes too late for those "dead hands" that originally initiated it. Sadly such is life, is it not?
* In "Space Seed" there are early shades of Dr. No crushing the ornament on the table in front of Bond and of Tee Hee twisting Bond's Walther PPK in Live and Let Die (1973) when Khan twists Captain Kirk's phaser with the strength of his bare hands! It is indeed interesting how influences in popular culture zip back and forth until the crack of doom!
9 Ian Fleming, Moonraker (1955), (Pan Books Ltd., London, 1965), pp. 149-153.