David Lancaster - The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader (review) - Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34:1 Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34.1 (2004) 82-83

Christoph Lindner, editor. The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader. Manchester University Press, 2003. 268 pages, $74.95.

Hero as Globetrotter

When Ursula Andress arose from the waves, like a discreet Venus, in Dr. No in 1962, she became, for all time, the quintessence of the James Bond style, so much so that Halle Berry's similar star entrance in Die Another Day (2002), was a sign that the old formula still intended to weave its magic in changed times. Never mind that in the intervening forty years 007 had been played by five different actors, or that the Cold War had been and gone along with Swinging London and Sean Connery's hairline. This new version announced the longevity of Bond, the fact that he was a spy for all seasons.

According to Variety, over half the world's population has seen a Bond film, and this is not, perhaps, as surprising as it might seem. For these outrageously popular fantasy adventures tap into two general concerns that have been a worldwide constant ever since 1945. The first is an anxiety surrounding the international situation, whether it relates to potential nuclear holocaust, or to terrorism. The second rises out of the first: it is the deep, necessarily deluded need to believe that these problems are less complex than they appear, and that they can be solved by the courage and moral righteousness of an individual hero.

James Bond is that hero. This collection, written by a range of scholars from different disciplines and countries, tackles numerous issues surrounding fiction's most famous secret agent, both on screen and on the page. All the essays are, in essence, variations on the theme of the hero as globetrotter, an empire warrior sent from M's clubby office to exotic locations where he slugs it out with the Blofelds and the Largos, who, in turn, represent all the malevolent forces that whisper to us out of the headlines. A certain amount of ideological baggage goes with this idea: as many contributors point out, Bond is an imperialist, other races are not quite pukkah, and the energy of conquest extends to some pretty dodgy dealings in the sex war. Yet Christoph Lindner and his team show that these issues do not remain constant. To borrow Tony Bennett's and Janet Woollacott's phrase, the character some countries call "Mister Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang" is "a moving signifier".

This means that the nature of Bond's heroism slips and slides according to the particular historical period, or to the writer's point of view. For example, in "Licensed to Look: James Bond and the Heroism of Consumption", Michael Denning paints the spy of the books as a response to the growing Fifties phenomenon of tourism; he sees him as a super-consumer of other cultures, who gives the banality of modern travel an added excitement: "Fleming's adventures are really tales of leisure, tales where leisure is not a packaged, commodified 'holiday'...but is an adventure, a meaningful time, a time of life and death." By contrast, Jim Leach views Pierce Brosnan's film Bond as a reconciler of current tensions surrounding the dominance of technology. The agent connects the impersonality of his gadgetry to the human cunning that can make it effective.

In the midst of these multiple views, one issue remains constant. As Judi Dench's M said, rather crisply, in Brosnan's first outing (Goldeneye in 1995), "you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur." Many essays affirm this outlook in passing, but the main emphasis is on disturbing this placid assumption. In a re-reading of women in the Bond novels, Christine Bold suggests that female readers can reclaim all those breathy [End Page 82] Bond girls by "exploiting textual fissures and gaps that contradict the logic of masculinity or patriarchy", while, in "James Bond's Penis", Toby Miller argues that the old boy, especially as represented by Sean Connery, is not just a gun-toting Lothario, but a more vulnerable prototype for the "commodified male beauty" of our own time.

It is plain, then, that all human Bondage is here, and fascinating it is, too. Unfortunately, the book as a whole is a little enslaved to fashionable theories: there is nothing biographical on Fleming the man, and how he reflected, and diverged from, his creation. This matters because this enigmatic writer shared a number of his hero's qualities, including the fascination with fast cars, the plummy belief in Britain's imperial mission, which had taken such a bashing after the Second World War, and the Old Etonian urge to glitter and dominate. The outlook is dandified, in fact, and some readers will miss any wider consideration of the issue, or any deeper thinking on how Bond develops the world of Richard Hannay, or even Sherlock Holmes (Moriarty versus Bond; it makes emotional sense).

These issues are touched on, admittedly, but the most thorough essay on Bond's literary roots is, ironically, old material. As one of the opening salvos of the collection, Lindner reprints Umberto Eco's influential "Narrative Structures in Fleming", first published in the 1960s. Here, this seminal figure shows how Book Bond is not merely a matter of style, but of narrative structure. The original stories are modern fairy tales in which the agent is the knight, the villain the dragon, and Honeychile or Pussy Galore the reward for a job well done. As Bennett and Woollacott note in "The Moments of Bond", the films have adapted this convention; the women, for example, have gradually taken precedence over the bad guys. Nevertheless, Eco's analysis confirms what has always fascinated this writer, the sense that a Bond escapade is a journey through a meticulously patterned maze, with the villain, in the best films, lying at its heart, like a concealed and poisonous spider.

Lindner has compiled a good, solid book, even though it is a little repetitious in places. Because all the critics come from the political left, you end up longing for a robust conservative voice, along the lines of Kingsley Amis, to celebrate unashamedly the campy panache of 007's allure. For the joy of swank is crucial to the series' success; Bond beguiles us with the notion that individual style is more potent than missiles and secret hideaways. With one flick of an elegantly turned cuff, evil crumbles to dust. If only the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan were so tractable.

The University of Leeds

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.