Twenty three films. Seven actors. Twenty nine vanquished villains. And only one 007. To call the James Bond franchise a series would be a vast undersell; over the last 50 years, the Bond saga has come to encompass everything that is quintessentially British in a way that no other set of films has ever quite managed. Even as its style has changed hugely, from the jazzy cool of Connery to the hilarious campness of Moore to the brutal efficiency of Craig via uber-slick Brosnan, Bond, at its heart, has always remained Bond. Calm, collected, sharp and always, always smooth. His methods may change, but he will always remain one of the greatest exports Her Majesty has to offer.
It all started back in 1962, when Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli partnered to produce Dr No on a fairly low budget with the then unknown director Terence Young. The film faced problems immediately, with those on the board adamant that it was too violent and entirely too sexual to get past the censors. Even if it did get past, they said, the target audience for this kind of film would be too small to make any profit. The film did get past the censors, Ursula Andress rose out of the sea as Honey Ryder in one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history and Bond announced his arrival with pomp.
As the ratings poured in, so did the money, and with it, the ambition of the Bond project grew. Thunderball upped the stakes in every department, almost seeing how far it could go before people started calling bullshit on the temerity of the ideas; the plot involved two stolen atomic bombs, £100 million in ransom and an entire underwater battle. The result? The audience loved it. Thunderball became the most successful Bond of the time, and factoring in inflation, remains the most successful Bond ever. Bond was now all about the kitsch, the improbable villains and the even more implausible plots, all filmed in the most gorgeous locations.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the first foray away from the typical James Bond. George Lazenby took over as Bond for one outing and the film tried to make the character more realistic. He was darker, more brooding and oddly, faithful to a woman. He married her, only for Blofeld to kill her in a drive by shooting that broke Bond’s heart. The film met with mixed reviews and the audience voiced their displeasure at the direction that Broccoli and co had decided to take the film in. They had spoken, and so 007 reverted to his old self.
Roger Moore took over for twelve years, starring in six films and cementing himself as one of the contenders for the much argued ‘best Bond ever’. He was all charm and little action, and ended up with a portfolio of innuendos, sexual one-liners and terrifically subtle knowing looks that would be completely unrivalled until the reign of Brosnan. While he didn’t have Pussy Galore (still the best Bond girl name ever), he managed to ‘keep the British end up’ and ‘attempt re-entry’ with Dr. Goodhead, Mary Goodnight and of course, Octopussy.
For years, the franchise seemed to be prospering on the self-made recipe for success; gadgets, girls and plenty of explosions. It may well have carried on in this vein for a decade longer had it not been for the immensely successful release of the Bourne trilogy. Bourne was everything that Bond was not. Quick, devastating and gritty, Matt Damon’s character broke the mould for super spies and sparked the beginning of the end for the archetypal Bond. Viewers had started getting weary of the one-liners and the deus ex machinas of Q’s weapons; they were hungering for more of Bourne’s off-the-cuff brutality. Realism was calling, and Bond was slipping away. Eon Studios intervened, took four years off and then returned, tighter and trimmer with a new Bond in tow. Daniel Craig and the reboot of the franchise was fresh ground, an attempt to realign itself with the public’s new view on spies. He was still 007, he still wore tuxedos and liked his vodka martinis shaken-not-stirred, but the action was rougher, more feral. Bond punched and kicked and clawed, he drowned people in bathroom sinks instead of using invisible cars. The release of Skyfall this week marks the newest chapter of the newest type of Bond. It will be fascinating to see where the character goes from here, and what his arc becomes, but with the outstanding reviews that Skyfall has received, and the intense wave of hype that it has rode in on, rest assured that Bond is far from dead.