Before I begin I have to say that I am truly a James Bond film fan. I am no maniac about them, and having never read the books I do not have any quibbles with similarities or lack thereof from the books. I enjoy the films and the worlds that they create and the fascinating, alluring, and hilarious characters that inhabit them. I will judge the various Bond’s and the films that feature them by the only standards that I think are relevant or necessary: my enjoyment and my personal opinion of who the character is supposed to be within the world that the films cumulatively create. Some people hate Bond and some people are obsessed with him. I fall in between and somewhere a bit closer to the latter category. I am not going to try and convince skeptics to give the films another try. This is an essay for fans and by a fan, and I make no apologies.
Now to the fun; How do we judge what makes the best Bond? Is it his look? His mode of dress? The way he speaks or the way he fights? Is it his attitude towards his friends and his enemies? His attitude towards women? The answer to all of these is yes…and no. There is a lot to this durable and, I think it is safe to say, classic character then just a list of personal attributes and strengths. It is also in his flaws, the way he makes love to his women, the look in his eye and the way he holds his Walther PPK. It is the sort of je ne se qua that is really only relevant to characters from fiction, visual or otherwise, who have moved beyond a single story to become a legend and even a mythology unto him/her/itself. Sherlock Holmes, Falstaff, Batman, Superman, the Greek Pantheon…Bond easily fits into this list. The characters only exist within the context of their own worlds and universes of course, but there is a sense that we can know and feel what works and what depiction of the characters or stories do not. To once more quote the eminently over-quoted Justice Potter Stewart, when it comes to the quality or folly in the depictions of characters I love in stories and on film, I know it when I see it.
I suppose it is best to start with the beginning. Sean Connery is known by many to be the first Bond, and he is known by slightly less to be the only TRUE Bond. I disagree, but not violently. Connery created the original parameters of the character and he succeeds in creating a compelling roll for himself and for those who would follow him in the later films. Connery’s Bond seems cool and calm, but in reality he is rather a hot head and whose personality is droll almost to the point of being flat. He takes charge immediately in any dangerous situation, and never really seems to have any issues with putting himself (and others) in personal danger to achieve his mission. In From Russia With Love, the best of the Connery films, Bond must drag his love interest and partner in crime Tatiana Romanova (played by the drop dead GORGEOUS Daniela Bianchi) across half of the planet while attempting to foil a plot by who he assumes are Russian agents, but are in fact SPECTOR. Tatiana is Russian agent herself and in possession of a vital bit of spy-craft machinery that Bond and the Brits want to get their hands on. What is more important than the plot though is the way that Connery’s Bond plays within it. Bond obviously has some feelings for Tatiana, but they are obviously much more towards the superficial part of the spectrum. He uses her more for personal cover, and in many moments seems more annoyed with her than anything else. He orders her around and generally treats her like 60’s era men treated women in popular media. He often puts off immediate sexual gratification in order to pursue the mission, and in this way he can come off as a little fuddy-duddy and somewhat of bore. He is a misogynist without all the fun inherent in that for the he who would take advantage of that personal philosophy.
Of course when he does allow himself the time to partake in womanly charms he does so with gusto, and he certainly has no problem with hooking up with the nearest available piece of tail. But this occurrence is few and far between for a man who can literally shoot lasers from his wristwatch and kill Soviet agents with his bare hands. This Bond is a spy first and a hedonist second, and this comes off as a bit of a letdown for us fans. Bond is supposed to be a full on lover of life and all of its many pleasures. Sure this Bond will drink his Vodka martini, but he really doesn’t seem to be enjoying it much. His mind always seems to be on the mission, but even then he almost seems to take only an ironic interest in that: whenever he kills his foe he often seems to pause and wonder what the point of all of it was (see the classic bathtub kill in the slightly overrated Goldfinger). This is fascinating from an existentialist point of view, but the Bond films are not meant to be a study in the philosophy of life and morality: it is supposed to be an escape into a world of intrigue and lost inhibitions, where the actions of hero have little real consequences besides combating the menace at hand and having a blast along the way. This is supposed to be a character of pure id, but Connery shows us a Bond confined within the realm of ego. We never really understand why this Bond is doing what he is doing, or why he doesn’t seem to take more joy in it. One gets the feeling that he could singlehandedly save the Queen herself from an assassination and merely shrug when congratulated afterwards. He is not confident enough nor does he have the joie de vivre necessary to truly inhabit the role.
Of course he has his good points as Bond: he looks incredibly suave and well put together (except for the occasional turtleneck sweater or shirt unbuttoned a little too far down), and he has fucking chest hair. He has all the looks and potential to be the man’s man secret agent required for the role, but in the end he just comes off as to ironic and to apprehensive by half.
This is all of course preferable to the next Bond: Lazenby. Now there is nothing terribly wrong with this Bond, but a number of small problems pile up to make a hero that is hardly memorable, and hardly the quintessential James Bond. In his first and only film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service we get an active and adventurous Bond skiing off of a cliff, some great hand to hand fight scenes etc. But what we do not get is a Bond who has any real charm or panache. In the early scenes between Bond and his lady love in this film we a real lack of passion on the part of our hero. I mean, for goodness sake, the Bond girl is played by Diana Rigg and he saves her from drowning. This scenescalls for passion and that characteristic romantic pragmatism that makes Bond the non-p.c. Lothario we all love. We get instead…George Lazenby. There is nothing wrong with the man as an actor: he delivers his lines well, he is not annoying or cloying… or interesting or fun or funny or memorable. The best you can say about this Bond is that he is in good shape. He is probably the most youthful seeming Bond before Daniel Craig…but that in and of itself is a strike against him. When watching key scenes in this film I cannot help that my mind wanders and begins to see Greg Brady standing toe to toe with Blofeld. Not the impression I want to have of my favorite kickass manly man super-agent.
[End Part One. In Part Two I will discuss Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Criag at length…and reveal my favorite Bond]