I know exactly what made James Bond so popular when I was a kid fifty years ago.
James Bond was not just the world’s most famous secret agent. He was also the first sexual superhero (the only one, come to think of it). Bond avidly seduced women. And, more to the point, women just as avidly wanted to be seduced by him.
The original movies enthusiastically brought Bond’s sensuality to the big screen. When Dr. No premiered in October, 1962, audiences had never seen anything quite like it (Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day,To Kill A Mockingbird, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, were the sort of traditional movies being released that year).
Vanity Fair magazine says watching Dr. No today remains an exhilarating experience, and that is true. However, you should have been a teenager in a small Eastern Ontario town when that movie came out. I had to sneak out of the house to see it. I thought the top of my head was going to come off. Watching the movie for the first time in the Capitol Theatre in downtown Brockville, I could hardly contain my excitement.
Sean Connery, the first (and, of course, the best) Bond, exuded a dark sex appeal that has not been matched on the screen since by anyone, certainly not the five Bonds who followed him.
Never mind what anyone tells you, I maintain the single most electrifying moment in the history of sex in the cinema occurs when Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder first appears in a white bikini–Amphitrite, the Greek goddess of the sea, rising out of the Jamaican surf, locked forever into adolescent memory. I would further maintain that no other actress in the history of the Bond franchise comes close to Andress’s astonishing beauty.
The world as I knew it in 1962 was a monochromatic place. There was no sex–except in books and movies. That’s what made the original Ian Fleming novels so thrilling. I discovered Bond thanks to America’s new president, John F. Kennedy, who was a fan. Anything JFK liked, I was bound to like, too.
The first Bond novel I read was Doctor No followed by Casino Royale. I read the books in a tent while my family vacationed in northern New York. But as I devoured the pages, I was no longer in a tent, I was in a casino in France where “the scent and smoke and sweat…are nauseating at three in the morning.”
Europe was an exotic, far away place in those days, but Fleming transported me there, into a world of sophistication previously unknown to a fourteen year old anxious to escape the humdrum world he inhabited. Here was a hero who knew beautiful women, fast cars, good liquor, elegant casinos, and how to navigate the world’s most exotic cities. This was my kind of guy.
The books are much better written than they are usually given credit for these days although in Britain they were attacked for containing “sex, snobbery, and sadism”–all deliciously true: in the novel, Honey is Honeychile Rider and she isn’t wearing the bikini when she emerges from the sea.
In many ways, Ian Fleming was the character he created (the back cover photo on the Signet paperback editions showed him with a cigarette in one hand, a gun in the other). A former World War II spy who had become a journalist, Fleming knew well the world he wrote about–why none of the Fleming surrogates who since have tried to keep the books going were able to recreate the same air of authority or the swift, smart prose.
Ironically, Ian Fleming died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-six, on the very weekend I first read Doctor No. I heard the news on the radio, literally as I was finishing the book.
Fleming missed out on his own success. When he died, Goldfinger, the film that sent Bond into the pop culture stratosphere and became the template for the subsequent movies, had yet to be released. He never knew what an enduring phenomenon he had created. Not that he would have thought much of most of the movies, I suspect.
Over the years, I met the two most iconic Bonds. Sean Connery walked into the room bristling with the magnetism and the surly, don’t-give-a-damn attitude that must have originally drawn the producers to him. When he walked out again, he merely had to nod at my then-wife and she melted.
Roger Moore, the longest running Bond, was amiable, and in his mid-fifties, still blandly matinee-idol handsome, a beautifully dressed fellow anxious to sign autographs for the fans.
I never did get used to Moore as a rather vaporous (and eventually much too old) Bond. With Pierce Brosnan, particularly in Goldeneye, I thought they finally had a worthy successor to Connery, but he was defeated by the silliness of the subsequent movies. Brosnan seemed to be in one movie; everyone else appeared to be in something else entirely.
Daniel Craig starred in Casino Royale, arguably the best Bond movie yet made, possibly because the screenwriters went back to the original Fleming novel, discarded the cartoon aspects of previous films and returned our hero to adulthood. But I’m still not certain Craig is Bond in the way Connery was. He’s maybe too thuggish and unpolished, lacking Connery’s sex appeal.
The drab world of my 1960s adolescence has long since disappeared, and along with it the hard-edged sexy Bond that first astonished audiences. Over the years he has been watered down to the point where he was starring in family entertainments–I used to take my kids to Saturday morning previews of the latest Roger Moore Bond. There is a certain irony in the fact that movies made fifty years ago in a supposedly much more conservative time, are sexier and edgier than what is being produced today.
But good Bond or bad Bond, none of it seems to matter. Bond survives inspite of what his gatekeepers do to him. I know lots of people who could care less about, say, Batman. I don’t know anyone who isn’t a James Bond fan.
The love of his adventures is now passed on from generation to generation. I held onto the Bond books I bought as a teenager, and then gave them to my son when he was a teenager, and he loved them. Now his nine-year-old son Josh is a Bond aficionado, who, sometimes to his parents’ chagrin, devours the movies, and knows the James Bond lore inside and out.
And my fascination with Bond continues to this day. As I have been for all the Bond movies, I will be there to see the new Bond, Skyfall, when it opens next month. I couldn’t possibly ignore an old friend who has been so much a part of me for the past fifty years.
After all, in addition to defeating Auric Goldfinger and Dr. Julius No, overcoming SMERSH and SPECTRE, and saving the world countless times, Bond transported a needy teenager out of a drab existence, introduced him to a world of adventure, beautiful women, danger and, most importantly, sex.
You can’t ask much more of an old friend than that. Thanks, 007.
Leave a Reply