SPECTRE, James Bond‘s 24th film in 53 years, will be released in November here in North America, adding to one of the most profitable and beloved film franchises in history. Over the years, the series has had ebbs and flows in both quality and popularity, and many of the lines and concepts are part of the lexicon. Still, the films are very much a product of the decades they were made, and stand as cultural touchstones for them. How does the Bond franchise reflect the changing times? Going decade by decade, I’m going to look at the James Bond series and discuss the films within those decades, while looking at their success as films as well as how they each enlarge the screen persona of the character and what we know and take for granted. We begin, of course, in the 1960s.
James Bond had six film outings in the 1960s, the most in any decade. The first “official” (meaning produced by EON Productions, the official rights holders) 007 film was Dr. No in 1962, in fact based on author Ian Fleming’s sixth Bond novel. As is true with most of the films in this decade, the script stays very true to the source material, being much more concerned with the character as a suave man of the world and with the ins and outs of espionage. There is the requisite action, adventure, romance, and intrigue, but the novels stick quite close to life, albeit heightened, though the novels certainly were not as fantastical or silly as the films eventually became. This first film introduces audiences to James Bond, first portrayed by 32-year-old Scottish actor Sean Connery. It is through Connery that most of the memorable Bond-isms derive. While Fleming had envisioned Bond as a boring, quite cultured, paper-pusher with a gun, director Terence Young made a concerted effort to turn the brash, rugged Connery into an erudite man of taste. It certainly worked, as the public’s image of James Bond tends to be that of Sean Connery.
The six 007 films made in the 1960s are the most uniform, in both quality and style, but also in cultural context. Bond as written in the novels is a Cold War character, a product of Post-War Britain, and he embodies the stiff upper lip, “Keep Calm and Carry On” mentality that Englishmen of action possess. The films, a product of the global change of attitudes beginning in the early 60s, portray Bond as slightly more playful, but no less dangerous. He is, however, still very much a misogynist and is in fact far more promiscuous in the films. Bond in this films is not worried about giving women a bit of a slap if they’re asking for it and usually it leads to him sleeping with them. Even the character of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger who, despite her name, is portrayed as an independent woman (she’s an outright lesbian in the book), who can see right through James Bond and seems to have no patience for him and his assertion that no woman can resist him, eventually succumbs to his advances and changes her ways.
Other women in the series make no qualms about being either typical damsels in distress, typical femmes fatale, or simply typical sex objects. Of course they’re all glamorous; that’s a given. In fact, the only women in the entirety of the 60s films who are not an international fashion models are Rosa Klebb, played by Lotte Lenya, in From Russia With Love (1963) and Irma Bunt, played by Ilse Steppat, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Klebb is a Russian and a member of the villainous crime outfit SPECTRE. She’s squat, trollish, and psychotic, but it is also briefly eluded to that she is a lesbian in a scene where she leers at the film’s heroine. This is very symptomatic of the time. A homosexual woman is not only frowned upon, it has to be portrayed as an ugly, evil woman. If it were a beautiful lesbian, surely James Bond would have to sleep with her, so they had to make her physically unappealing on top of evil and gay.
The latter evil woman, Irma Bunt, is harsh and schoolmarm-ish and is tasked with looking after the villain’s cadre of captive beautiful women, and keeping men, like Bond, away from them while the experiments are conducted covertly. She is portrayed as almost asexual, far too butch to be interested in such activities. That she’s also unattractive is unnecessary, but it accomplishes the same goal, to have a woman whom Bond does not need to sleep with, nor even want to. Not when there are eight other willing, nubile women who serve only to further the plot and give Bond, and the largely male audience, some nice eye candy. It’s these kinds of archaic sexual politics that shouldn’t fly today, which I’ll discuss when the time comes, but in the 1960s, it is absolutely in keeping with the attitudes of the era and as such need to be viewed in that way and taken with a grain of salt.
The villains in all of these films are brilliant, powerful, and maniacal. These stay very true to the themes of Fleming’s novels and have become as iconic as Bond himself. They often have some very elaborate plan involving blowing up some large landmark, using lasers to hold the world ransom, or stealing a huge amount of money. In fact, the bulk of these tropes belong to one character, Auric Goldfinger in the third Bond film which is named after him. He holds a special position in the 60s Bond films in that he is the only one not tied to fictional criminal organization SPECTRE. Goldfinger wants to steal (or destroy) all the gold in Fort Knox and has an incredibly complex plot to pull it off involving the mob and a nuclear explosive. Also unlike the other films, Bond runs into Goldfinger immediately and the two spend the entire movie playing a very polite yet deadly game. One such run-in occurs in one of the most famous scenes from the era, where Goldfinger has Bond tied up and has a laser slowly start cutting toward him. He even utters the immortal line, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”
Goldfinger is the most Bond-ish of the films on the era and is the template for a lot of the films to follow. It’s also one of the most faithful to the source material. One of the strengths of the 60s films, with one notable exception which I’ll get to in a moment, is how “realistic” they are and how close they stick to Fleming’s original novels. Dr. No and its follow-up From Russia With Love are incredibly realistic and, though lighthearted at times, work just as well as other Cold War spy movies. They do, however, add the through line of SPECTRE, something that hadn’t yet been introduced in the novels when they were written. However, it’s this through line that gives all six films in the decade their cohesion. While generally specific references to previous films are absent, the very fact that Bond continues to be a thorn in SPECTRE’s side and vice-versa make the films less random and episodic while still separate and independent. This is how film continuity ought to be done. Regardless of who plays the lead role, the Bond films are at once sequential and stand-alone. Unlike the absurdly complex film continuities of comic book movies these days, which apparently depend entirely on the creative team and the players involved, there can always just be another Bond movie that can be enjoyed whether anyone has any foreknowledge of the series or not.
One of Bond’s mainstays is its use of spectacular action sequences and fight scenes that progress exponentially as the series and the budgets increased. Dr. No is somewhat lacking in impressive set pieces, but it does have a large rocket silo set built into a mountain and a large, explosion-fueled escape. The next film, From Russia With Love, ups the ante with a gunfight in a gypsy camp, a fistfight on the Orient Express, a boat chase complete with flairs and exploding gasoline barrels, and a finale involving Bond fighting a helicopter with a sniper rifle. Goldfinger begins with an impressive, though entirely unrelated, Bond-on-a-mission sequence. The fourth film, Thunderball (1964), begins with a jet pack escape and ends with a 20-minute underwater battle featuring Bond and CIA agents facing off against Emilio Largo’s SPECTRE agents. You Only Live Twice (1967) has an dogfight between three armored helicopters and Bond’s heavily-armed whirligig-style contraption, and a finale involving ninjas attacking SPECTRE’s volcano lair. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is chock-a-block with car chases, ski chases, a bobsled chase, and ends with Bond and Italian Mafiosi helicoptering into SPECTRE’s mountain-top chateau. Truly, the films all endeavor to outdo each other and luckily, with the majority of these scenes, they are to the benefit of the story and not just a digression.
Another such staple is the use of gadgets, given to Bond by the armorer, Major Boothroyd, known almost exclusively as Q, played in all of the films save the first by Desmond Llewellyn. The technology is almost ridiculous at times, but in the early films, the gadgets are believable and generally pretty normal. In fact, in Dr. No, the big gadget Bond is given is merely his signature Walther PPK, replacing his beloved Beretta. As the series progresses, the gadgets become less practical and almost always, miraculously, are the precise thing Bond will need to save the day. One aspect of the Q character that develops in the 60s is his antagonistic relationship with James Bond. Q routinely objects to the way Bond treats his devices in the field and bemoans the fact that they are usually destroyed or discarded. This sort of combative repartee is eventually also applied to Bond’s superior officer, M (Bernard Lee), though in the 60s, he is much more the stern father figure, the way he is in the books. While often they don’t see eye to eye, M appreciates Bond’s success rate and has a fondness for the young rogue and so is willing to overlook his recklessness and rampant womanizing.
The mysterious leader of SPECTRE, designated No. 1, is Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a character who appears in four of the six films, though his face is not visible until the last two. This character is the direct inspiration for Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil character from the Austin Powers franchise, specifically Donald Pleasence’s performance as Blofeld in the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Pleasance’s Blofeld is bald, has a scar on his eye, wears strange Japanese-inspired clothing, has a volcano lair, strokes a white cat, speaks with an indefinite European accent, and feeds people to piranha. The film as a whole is much sillier and far-fetched than the others in the decade and sadly the later spoofs do somewhat taint the whole thing. Blofeld as a character, however, is quite intriguing and in general works quite well. He fairs much better in his next full appearance, in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as played by Telly Savalas. Savalas is much more dangerous and physically threatening and not merely the effete figurehead of the outfit. In You Only Live Twice, if not for a gun and henchmen, Blofeld would serve no personal threat to Bond, but in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he is not only an evil genius, but will grapple with 007 if the need arises (spoiler: it arises).
Let’s take a moment to talk about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a film that is almost universally derided due to the absence of Sean Connery. After a falling out with producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, Connery was replaced by 26-year-old Australian catalog model George Lazenby. While he certainly looks the part and performs the action sequences quite admirably, he definitely lacks the acting chops and the onscreen charisma of his predecessor. There is also the unfortunate sequence in which Bond is disguised as a genealogy expert and as the actor could not do any voice but his own, he is dubbed whenever “in character.”
The film, however, is one of the best of the decade and is undeserving of the lambasting it takes because of Lazenby. Directed by series editor Peter Hunt, OHMSS sticks the closest to Fleming’s novel and the action is frenetic and exciting and, as mentioned previously, Savalas’ Blofeld is inspired. The film also offers Diana Rigg as the series’ first real love interest, culminating in Bond committing to a monogamous relationship for the first time. The film ends on a shocking down note the likes of which not previously seen. If the entirety of 1960s Bond is viewed as a single story, this final film closes the chapter amazingly well and should have been Connery’s swan song as it very nicely rounds out the character we’ve spent six movies with. Unfortunately, the film is unjustly harangued and Sean Connery went on to make two more Bond movies (one unofficial) which were not nearly the quality of this one.
The 1960s were the golden age of James Bond and, while it’s easy to write off all of them as just silly action fluff, they do succeed incredibly well as a snapshot not only of 1960s British culture but of the spy genre of old. There’s a magic to these movies that goes beyond the general fun of the series as a whole that would not be reached again for several years. As the films progressed, they became more and more ridiculous and far-fetched, and for the bulk of a 12-year span would be more outlandish than the last. I’m tipping my hand too early, though, I fear. Next week, we’ll look at the ups and downs of 1970s James Bond.
Until next then, make sure your martinis are shaken, not stirred… You know, the way martinis always are.
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!