Shaken but Still Stirred: Looking Back at 50 Years of James Bond

stives, jason stives, looks back at half century of bond…

As you will learn soon from an overdue retrospect that I have been working on, pop culture anniversaries seldom miss our eyes but this week there was one that needed to be addressed in all it’s cool and at times dated (but still very cool!) glory and that is the significance of October 5th, 1962. On this day 50 years ago, a bad ass and suave MI6 agent entered our cinemas for the first time and even though I was about 26 years away from being born I remember this man’s entrance into my life vividly. On this date, 50 years ago, Dr. No debuted in theaters introducing us to author Ian Fleming’s greatest creation, James Bond. To a new generation probably seeing him for the first time with next month’s Skyfall probably can’t see his appeal and every decade that has been the trouble with agent 007 but for 50 years he has remained the epitome of an icon in line with pop culture marvels like Batman, Mickey Mouse, and Robin Hood. Okay, so maybe not in that particular company but when you think of film in the past 50 years you would remiss to not include everyone’s favorite double 0 agent with a license to kill. With 22 films now notched under his belt, James Bond as a commodity has produced one of the most lucrative franchises in film history and one that swooned a plethora of female movie goers and envied the majority of the male population.

The first time I ever saw a Bond film it was 1967’s You Only Live Twice, a film that begins seemingly with the “death” of Bond, something that probably should’ve happened at the beginning of every subsequent decade he has existed. While the character had been around in print for almost a decade, Bond entered a very misogynistic world in 1962 that as trends and culture evolved made the character seem less and less relatable and very outdated. In this day and age with the Jason Bourne films acting as an American substitute, Bond and his pension for fast cars, suave attires, and beautiful women seems like an overly manly wet dream but the character has prevailed and remained iconic in my eyes for its institutional appeal that for at least thirty years ran rampant with its Cold War history. It also helped that every decade saw a change in tone to fit with what people were going to see. In the sixties everything was grand and epic so Bond was the same, in the seventies it was flashy and over the top as a way of counterbalancing the serious auteur nature of the decades biggest films, the eighties it was neon camp, and in the nineties it was the blockbuster era of film. Today, Bond remains a balance to all of that and its realistic style mixed with the character’s famous hallmarks has made Bond profitable to a new audience and memorable to those who grew up with him.

It’s also important to remember how iconic he became just from how his first persona was portrayed. Sean Connery is still the definitive Bond and set a tone that one would argue has been difficult to match. Armed with a cool demeanor, a Walter PPK, and a plethora of dark humor, Connery’s Bond was as stealth as he was physical which is a pedigree at best on how to play the character. It’s also tough to compare to subsequent actors when your first 5 films are considered the standards for greatness with Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, and You Only Live Twice ranking regularly in Top 10 Bond film lists. It was the amazing production values that attracted me initially to Connery’s Bond and when you think of the sixties Bond films not that many other films of the period tone and production wise can compare. Directors like Terence Young, Guy Hamilton, and Lewis Gilbert were responsible for conveying the espionage travelogue of one man’s pursuit of evil in all its’ form both of the flesh and of the mind. Seriously, if you ever wanted to find a reason for traveling the world look no further than Bond’s expeditions to Jamaica, France, Japan, Russia, Turkey, and many other exotic locales.

Of course this was saddled up with some over the top plots of world domination and a plethora of tempting gadgets but that doesn’t matter. James Bond was the closest thing to a superhero that you can believe could exist and even had his own super suit by simply wearing a tuxedo or a tailored suit from Seville Row. When Connery left the role the task was given to bring in an actor who could convey the same presence but with his own spin and sadly George Lazenby, whose only outing was 1969’s On Her Majesty Secret Service, couldn’t muster up a well mannered performance. That being said, and we will delve deeper into this when we have James Bond week in November, OHMSS is for me my favorite Bond film and definitely one of the best in the series for being a purely espionage based film and is a world trek that still to this day looks so beautiful and awe inspiring.

After returning briefly to Connery to keep the franchise afloat someone had to be put in a more permanent place and that fell to Roger Moore, who played Bond from 1973 to 1985. For all the cheesiness and quality issues of his period, Roger Moore did a good job of keeping the Bond character afloat during the 1970s and 1980s. Determined to not have him replicate Connery, Moore was saddled up with a truck load of bad puns, even more over the top stunts and locales and stories that ranged from solid (Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only) to jarring and excruciating (Moonraker, A View to A Kill). Still seven films and a consistent box office over 12 years said a lot and you can’t take away from that even if it wasn’t all pride and glory.

As the world became far more real and the Cold War simmered, audiences closed out the eighties with two outings from actor Timothy Dalton as Bond in 1987’s The Living Daylights and 1989’s License to Kill. While the latter’s tone was far more grim and dark, the first for me is a great return to form after the more slap sticky films of Roger Moore’s tenure. Dalton physically could perform to Connery’s stamina but his Shakespearian background made him a far more profound Bond that didn’t necessarily fit the mold but it’s a testament that he is still regarded as one of the best actors to play the part even if he isn’t necessarily the most remembered Bond. His successor, Pierce Brosnan on the other hand I still believe summed up all the best elements of his predecessors even if the quality of the films’ took a decline.

Brosnan’s first outing, Goldeneye is still a smashing explosion of action, sex, and political thrill but his three subsequent outings tended to lean more towards the hokey tone of the latter day Moore films. So 2002 seemed like a dead zone for Bond after the foul taste of Brosnan’s last appearance in Die Another Day. Four years went by and we got Casino Royale, to me, one of the best Bond films and the closest thing resembling the Connery Bond films with the added edge of telling the tail of a young and unstable 007. Daniel Craig for some may seem too serious but when you convey someone who is basically a young killer like Bond, you need that intensity but thankfully Craig also has charming good looks and a physique that can take the punches and dives off cars and trains that are needed to get the job done. It remains to be seen how he will be looked at years down the line especially since 2008’s Quantum of Solace wasn’t a highly decorated film, but with Craig signed on for two more films, and the latest flick Skyfall a month away, we will have more time to jell with this man’s modern interpretation.

Today is marked as James Bond Day and for me Bond has never been a more entertaining character to spend some time at the movie theater with. Everything about that character still gets me as if I was watching him for the first time. My earliest memories are fond and seeing that gun barrel roll across the screen for the first time with Monty Norman’s iconic score dancing and bombarding behind Bond’s silhouette is still as thrilling as ever. There is also a slew of iconic imagery from this franchise ranging from the first appearance of an Aston Martin as Bond’s car of choice to the first time the man orders a Vodka Martini. Other hallmarks? How about some kicking’ theme tunes ranging from the likes of Paul McCartney, Tom Jones, Duran Duran, and for the latest film, Adele. How about iconic gadgets like an explosive attaché case, a portable underwater breathing apparatus, and a fold out helicopter equipped with bombs, machine guns, and rockets! While the Craig films have up until now sequestered the use of gadgets, Skyfall will see the reintroduction of Bond’s gadget man, Q, and hopefully the introduction of some slick new gadgets. Hopefully, none of those gadgets will be an invisible car because I can’t deal with that again.

I could chatter on about the importance and love that these films have given me in my life but seeing is really believing. If you are a long time fan you know all about this fun and sometimes faded glory but for new fans go and discover this legacy first hand. Go buy and watch Sean Connery discover erotically gold painted, dead body of Jill Masterson in Goldfinger. Watch Daniel Craig compete in an intense stairwell fight with an assassin in Casino Royale. Rent, but do not own A View to Kill, in which Roger Moore clashes with Christopher Walken in a blimp high above San Francisco. You know what, just skip that one all together or watch just for the posterity of seeing them all. James Bond may not possess the gritty, knowing mind of a Jason Bourne, or the heroic and honorable feats of Chris Nolan’s Batman, but he indulges all those undertakings that men read about when they flip through GQ or watch a Sylvester Stallone action flick, a macabre of testosterone unimaginable by reality but more than plausible in the movie going mind.