It’s true. Lashana Lynch will be portraying the new Agent 007, with the “James Bond” acting in a retirement role. How you react to the news determines how closely you’ve been following the 57-year-old film series and how well you understand the actual character and its place within Cold War culture.
Indifferent at worst. That’s my reaction. At best, I’m glad to see it’s finally over and done with. The idea of a female Bond — let’s be honest about what’s happening — has been toyed with as early as the 1990’s. And it’s a wonderful idea. Bond’s retirement and replacement is a fitting reflection of what has happened to Western culture since Ian Fleming first conceived of the British secret agent in the 1950’s.
One of the things I’ve come to realize is that something you love can lose everything that made it lovable before it dies. Like a beloved relative slowly losing their mental capacities while their body remains functional, the Bond film series has, in my opinion, limped and then crawled along ever since 1989’s License to Kill starring an underrated Timothy Dalton. It was by that point the filmmakers had exhausted all book plots and titles (1977’s Spy Who Loved Me had nothing to do with the actual novel).
But fundamentally, the problem they faced wasn’t a lack of new plot ideas or bad treatments. The struggle was how to fit a hero with specific, unchangeable qualities into a context that either no longer exists or in which the prevailing social and cultural values have changed radically since its inception.
A naval intelligence officer during World War II, Fleming wrote the first James Bond novel to cope with the anxieties of his upcoming marriage. Like Fleming, Bond served in the Navy during the war and rose to the rank of commander. He was named after the author of Birds of the West Indies, which Fleming once remarked, “this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed” (page 46).
To understand Bond, you must understand the historical context in which he was conceived. Just 20 years prior, the British Empire had covered more territory and ruled more people than ever before. But by the 1950’s, it was obvious to all the Empire was on the decline and the U.S. had replaced it as the dominant superpower opposing the Soviet Union. Not to mention the scandals within MI6 via the Cambridge Five that damaged the prestige and honor of British intelligence.
All this gave men such as Fleming great angst about their lowered status on the world’s stage, and this is reflected in Bond’s temperament and attitude. He is fundamentally a Cold War warrior signifying the last hurrah of a collapsing empire that had just recently dominated the globe. Take him out of that context, and it is impossible to understand him.
In 1962, when Dr. No premiered, it was easy to see why moviegoers would idolize the dashing, roguish Englishman seducing beautiful woman while fighting against anti-Western enemies in exotic locations. Bond represented not just unapologetic classic masculinity but competence, wit, that distinct and dry British humor, class, and sophistication. He smoked cigarettes, ate caviar, and drank the finest liquor. He was particular about his suits, watches, and vehicles. He liked his martini’s shaken not stirred (forgive me).
It’s these qualities that libertarian Murray Rothbard recognized in his review of 1973’s Live and Let Die:
The Ian Fleming novels, and for the most part the movies in the Bond series, were the quintessence of the Old Culture: marvelous plot, exciting action, hero vs. villains, spy plots, crisp dialogue and the frank enjoyment of bourgeois luxury and fascinating technological gadgets.
Today, this description summarizes everything Westerners are expected and brainwashed to hate. But the trend to shift Bond toward more current politically accepted rhetoric has been occurring for much longer than you might suppose. One might note that in the films, the Russians are rarely if ever the actual villains. In From Russia with Love, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, and Living Daylights, the Soviets are background characters either being manipulated or used by the actual villain.
However, the degradation of the James Bond character really began after 1989. License to Kill had underperformed at the box office, and Dalton’s cold, ruthless Bond did not entice audiences, even if his portrayal was much more faithful to Fleming’s vision than Roger Moore’s or even the legendary Sean Connery’s. In the six-year hiatus before 1995’s GoldenEye was released, major social, cultural, and political events unfolded. The Berlin Wall had fallen, along with the Soviet Union. The struggle that defined Bond was no more.
However, feminism and political correctness had also finally gained enough traction to justify changing existing art on the grounds of adhering to ideological values. Bond as Bond was no longer in vogue. He was now “problematic.”
We see this attempt to “rehabilitate” him in GoldenEye. I have sentimental reasons to like the film, but many of the fundamental problems are all there. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond has a playboy-like charm, but there’s a sensitivity to him not found in other Bonds. His elderly male supervisor M is now played by Judi Dench, and the quasi-father-son relationship we see between the two as featured in the novels and in some of the films is gone. Instead, M now berates Bond as a “sexist, misogynistic dinosaur.” Through the entire film series, M’s secretary Moneypenny has maintained a flirtatious, but nonetheless chaste relationship with Bond. In GoldenEye, she tells him (facetiously, no doubt) that his behavior could qualify as “sexual harassment.”
As the series progresses, we’re treated to groaner lines such as in 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, where Bond tells a baddie “never argue with a woman: they’re always right!” Rather than a beautiful woman to save, Bond has a “kick-ass” chick via a Chinese secret agent who lectures Bond about serving a “corrupt, decadent Western power.”
There were other changes many may not care about, but would have horrified Fleming. In the novels, Bond drives a Bentley, which was replaced in the film understandably so with the Aston Martin DB5. In GoldenEye and in subsequent Brosnan films, he drives a German BMW. A chain-smoker like his creator, License to Kill is the last film showing Bond with a cigarette (in Die Another Day, Bond smokes a cigar).
In many ways, 2006’s Casino Royale was an attempted reboot for the series that ultimately failed because it refused to acknowledge the underlying problems of having a Cold War figure operating in a post-9/11 world. To be sure, they understood that any film overly dependent on gadgets and gimmicks ends up in trouble (see Moonraker and You Only Live Twice). Also, Daniel Craig’s Bond is closer to the literary Bond in some respects than Brosnan, even though he lacks the charm that made Connery’s version work so well.
However, continual antagonism towards Bond is conveyed through Dench’s M throughout the Craig films. Bond is portrayed as insubordinate and rebellious, but also deficient in the kind of qualities expected of him. Bond is still the “hero,” but one can sense that he is fighting for a world that no longer wants him or likes him.
It all begs the question: what exactly about James Bond is cherished in the modern West?
For all its faults, Spectre would have made a fitting ending to the series. MI6’s headquarters has been destroyed; the abandoned structure symbolizes the void left in Bond’s world that no longer contains anything he values. M is once more played by a man (Ralph Fiennes), but Bond doesn’t really have the heart to fight anymore because he has no enemies other than the ones he makes. The girl he once loved is dead. What’s he fighting for, exactly?
Of course, the filmmakers could have just set a Bond film during the Cold War again. But Bond has long since been treated as an archetype hero that could be and must be molded to fit with the current norms. Rather than change the time period, they wanted him to change, until he is no longer James Bond in anything but name. This writing has been on the wall for some time.
In that sense, they have been more successful than the great villain Auric Goldfinger.
“Do you expect me to talk?” Bond asks him in the 1964 film as he is strapped to a table with a laser pointing down at him.
Goldfinger replies: “No, Mr. Bond: I expect you die!”
The film series may limp along and cling to the “Agent 007” title, but if it wants to succeed they must change. Perhaps having a female bond is the exact change necessary to move forward, but there is no doubt that James Bond is dead. It is yet another example of what happens when something is kept alive beyond its allotted time.
I am reminded of a line from Bond’s obituary in the novel You Only Live Twice:
“If our fears for him are justified, may I suggest these simple words for his epitaph? Many of the junior staff here feel they represent his philosophy: ‘I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.’”