Cinema’s most famous secret agent turns 50 this year. In an age when superheroes come and go, 007’s held the course and saved the world from dreariness. A tribute to a half a century of great entertainment—and some of the lesser-known architects who were central in creating the enduring Bond image.
On a Friday night when I was seven, my father took us to the opening night premiere of a film about which I had no inkling. I remember my mother being vaguely reticent and rolling her eyes at the thought, but my father was pretty adamant. I sat through the film bewitched. It was pretty dark for a seven year old, and there were whole chunks which I couldn’t follow, but somehow the combination of deadly and debonair made for a heady mix, and I knew that I wanted more.
It helped that my father pointed out the really important bits of plot development, the cars, the gadgets and the dastardly villains. After the film, he took me aside and explained more about the hero and his death-defying exploits.
Were there more films, I wondered? Turns out that there were indeed: 15 to be exact. Heaven! These being the days before DVDs, it took multiple visits to the video store before I could illegally copy all of them; but in a remarkably short space of time, I had them all and proceeded to become an addict. By an addict, I mean having all the films, all the posters, all the original books, even the books about the films and being able to spout out yards of dialogue, to the cordial loathing of most around me.
The film I had watched that opening night was The Living Daylights, starring Timothy Dalton. The action hero, of course, was James Bond. Only 007 could save the world time and time again with perfect flair, grace, and nonchalance… and still have an immaculate suit afterwards. The endless fascination with Bond has remained with me to this day; it’s still something of a pilgrimage to make it out to the opening night premiere for each new film. But my obsession is hardly unique given the generations of young boys who’ve been mesmerised by the British spy with a licence to kill. To say that James Bond is an iconic cultural phenomenon is a massive understatement; the films continue to dominate modern attention through constant updating, and the producers claim that half the world’s population has seen a Bond film. Sure, the franchise is sadomasochistic, often shallow and with a hero disengaged from the rules of normal society (famously leading the Vatican to issue a special communiqué in the 1960s expressing its disapproval at the film’s moral standpoint), but it sure makes appealing comfort food.
Can it really be that in just over a month, the apparently indestructible Bond turns 50? The first film, Dr No, made its world premiere on 5 October 1962 to a world still traumatised by the effects of war and facing the imminent threat of Armageddon in nine days time with the Cuban missile crisis. Now, as we await the 23rd instalment in November, Skyfall, with Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem, it’s perhaps worth remembering where it all began and the now obscure men who were central in creating the enduring Bond image.
Watch: Dr No trailer
There were perhaps three men who were the chief architects in creating the identity of what the world now identifies as James Bond. Everyone knows the most famous: Sean Connery, the actor who played him seven times and is forever identified with his most famous role. But few people now remember the very first James Bond, Terence Young. The first? Definitely.
Connery may have been chosen for his predatory presence and his cat-like grace, but he was initially very much a rough diamond, a tough, rough, hairy Scottish bodybuilder from a working class background whom Bond creator Ian Fleming dismissed as “too vulgar”. But Connery had latent appeal, and to shepherd Bond’s transformation to the screen the producers hired Terence Young to direct Dr No. Young was a refined English gentlemen and a man of the world. He had read oriental history at Cambridge, was a tank commander in the Battle of Arnhem, and above all was erudite, sophisticated and witty. The personification of the fictional secret agent.
“Terence was Bond actually, he lived the part,” remembered John Stears, the special effects wizard on the first films. It was a sentiment echoed by the first Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell: “Terence put all the polish on Sean… without him, Sean would not have been James Bond.” From taking him to his own Turnbull & Asser tailors in Savile Row to educating him about how to light a cigarette at a baccarat table and even how to eat, Young guided the novice through the elegance and sophistication needed to be a glamorous spy.
In essence, all Connery had to do was mimic Young onscreen and the rest was film history. Such is the potency of the visual style which Young oversaw that almost all directors since have sought to extend it. It is the style of Bond.
Then there is Ken Adam. Adam was the German production designer on seven Bond films, and if Connery (through Young) gave the films a panther-like presence and menacing sexuality, then Adam gave them their visual identity, their architectural foundations and their modishness. His creations were the images you remembered long after you forgot how Bond had made yet another improbable escape from the villain’s clutches. They were literally what set apart the series from all other films.
From the dazzling gold vault of Fort Knox in Goldfinger to Bond’s beautiful underwater Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me, from the Aston Martin with a special passenger ejector seat to the impossibly majestic laser beam made out of diamonds in Diamonds are Forever, Adam has been responsible for some of the grandest illusions in cinema. In a tribute to him, Roger Moore likened walking into one of his sets to “walking into a dreamland of visual opulence”.
Adams’ signature began with Dr No.“What I felt at that time—we’re talking about 1961—was that I couldn’t remember seeing a film that reflected the age we were living in. Computers were there, electronic things.… I called in everyone from the construction department at Pinewood Studios and said, ‘Bring me materials that are new on the market.’ And they were fantastic. Everything you wanted, people would get. And that inspired me, so I could really dream and let my imagination go.” And imagine he did, decking out the monstrous villain with forged steel prosthetic hands and giving him a cavernous underground lair complete with monster fish.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Adam fondly remembered how he was helped by the extraordinary faith the producers had in backing him. Scouting locations via helicopter in and around the Japanese islands for You Only Live Twice in 1966, he and the co-producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli came across a mysterious area of volcanic islands.
“When we landed I said to Cubby, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the villain could have his headquarters in one of these extinct craters?’ And I made a quick sketch and Cubby saw it and he said, ‘If I give you a million dollars, do you think you can do it?’ And I said, ‘Ja.’” Out of this sketch—and the casual promise of $1-million—grew Blofeld’s lair, the biggest set built in Britain. From then on, more grandiose was definitely better when it came to sets.
The Bond of 2012 has been quite substantially reinvented since Connery’s day. Over the years, the improbability factor has certainly increased, and to a certain extent the integrity and charm of the earlier films have gone. But despite the improvisations around the structured theme, the basic template has endured, 50 years on, a credit to the trio of Connery, Young and Adams.
If you’re a fan, and you surely have to be one, order yourself a vodka martini, with a slice of double thick lemon and an extra measure of Kina Lillet and introduce your kids to the elegance of Dr No, or From Russia with Love or Goldfinger. Such class you can only copy. DM
Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab
Some firing squads are all issued with blank cartridges with the exception of one person. This helps alleviate personal responsibility for the execution squad.