Film: After 50 years - there’s still nobody who does it better than James Bond
The release of the 23rd official James Bond film, Skyfall, marks the 50th anniversary of the film series. Nigel Powlson looks back at the not always golden history of one of cinema’s enduring characters
IT may be one of the most successful movie franchises of all-time but there have been plenty of rough times during James Bond’s 50-year film career.
Identity crises, changes of fashion and taste and, more recently, a financial meltdown that threatened to put 007 permanently on ice, have all brought the series to a temporary halt. But the over-sexed superspy has always come roaring back, often in a sleek new guise ready to thrill a whole new generation of movie-goers.
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So, despite the collapse of Bond rights holders MGM that forced 007 into a four-year hibernation whilst the legal teams wrestled with the fallout, Bond arrives back in cinemas in good health, thanks to the revitalisation of the series ever since Daniel Craig pulled on a dinner jacket and gun for 2006’s Casino Royale.
But it has to remembered that the early 2000s were another sticky period for 007. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond had been outmanoeuvred by slicker, more contemporary action franchises and the storylines had become increasingly silly - culminating in a risible invisible car.
So Brosnan was retired from active service after four films in 2002 and Bond was given one of his periodic makeovers. Casino Royale, in fact, owed more in style and execution to the Bourne films that it did to any previous 007 outings. If it mirrored any Bond movie it was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Lazenby’s ill-fated only attempt at the role back in 1969. That film has grown in stature over the years but taking over from the original and still to most minds best Bond, Sean Connery, was a Herculean task that was beyond Lazenby’s ability.
Lazenby’s producers tried to compensate for any shortcomings their new lead actor might have by pitting him against a leading lady (Diana Rigg) with some presence (a rare thing in this series). Bond therefore not only bedded but wedded his paramour in this movie and then it all ended in tragedy with Rigg dying in Lazenby’s arms in the final reel. Audiences still upset by Connery’s absence weren’t ready for it – so much so that they also ignored the best 007 song of all time too – Louis Armstrong crooning All The Time in the Word. It took a Guinness commercial in 1994 to make that into the big hit it should have always been.
Fast forward to 2005, however, and in a post-Aids world where it was cooler to stick to one girl per film and where action movie leading actresses are expected to do more than look pretty, audiences were more than happy to see a tougher-than-ever 007 go ga-ga over Eva Green, who like Rigg was bravely killed off before the credits rolled.
Such was the success of Casino Royale, more than £50m at the UK box office alone, that the producers were happy to take another new step in 2008 with Quantum of Solace. This was the first real sequel in 007 history, picking up directly where the previous film had left off and making sure Bond had to face the consequences of his previous actions.
Indeed, it could be argued that suddenly we had a new golden era for Bond, the secret agent being in his best health since the golden days of the 1960s.
The series had started in promising fashion in 1962 with Dr No, which saw Connery striking just the right balance of cruelty and charisma to bring Ian Fleming’s creation to cinematic life.
The films owed less and less to Fleming as they went on but quickly established what has become the Bond mythology in a series of splendid 1960s outings, most notably Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice. By the time the latter came out in 1967, the mix of girls, gadgets and guns was firmly established as were the cameos for M, Q and Moneypenny. The set pieces were also getting bigger and John Barry’s music, the hallmark of the best Bonds, was becoming ever more lush. But after You Only Live Twice, there was a sense that there was nowhere else to go and Connery was looking for newer challenges and duly quit. After one Lazenby film, Connery was tempted back for the first blot on his 007 copybook – although he did give his considerable fee for Diamonds are Forever to charity. He spoiled his record more substantially with the unofficial 1983 outing Never Say Never Again which was a turgid, but profitable, rehash of Thunderball.
By that time a new safari-suited Bond had arrived in the shape of Roger Moore. It’s hard not to look back on some of Moore’s efforts and wince … the corny jokes, the arch of the eyebrow …but the glamorous locations, increasingly impressive stunts and spirit of fun suited the times. But as we entered the 1980s, Moore was beginning to show his age and the jokes were wearing increasingly thin.
The next attempt at reinvention nearly killed the series stone dead. The ‘Derbyshire Bond’, Timothy Dalton, was a taciturn 007 who frowned his way through two rather cheap looking efforts that did little damage at the box office. So when Brosnan was handed the dinner jacket in 1995’s Goldeneye, there was a sense of desperation about a series that had been shelved for six years. But again the right Bond for the right era emerged and brought home the box office bacon in four films.
And so to Skyfall, October’s new Bond movie that celebrates 007’s golden anniversary. The film looks well placed to become one of the year’s biggest hits and, after initially, rejecting the idea of Craig in the role, 007 devotees are now fully behind the star. But even now the signs are that during 007’s absence cinema has moved on again. The Bourne Legacy has shown that what once seemed fresh and new is beginning to look old hat. But if it is already time for a reinvention, bank on Bond to be back with a fresh new appeal before too long.
• Skyfall is released on October 26.
• This article appeared in Culture magazine, which is free with the Leicester Mercury and appears bimonthly. To find out more about being featured in the magazine, email editor Nigel Powlson. Follow Culture mag on Twitter @LeicsCulture