The most important thing to appreciate about Bond -
in the context of film culture
- was that it had no immediate precedent.

- Jim Smith and Steven Lavington, Bond Films

Heavy Bondage

14 June 2014

I have a lot to say about James Bond. And that's a problem. In an era where anything over a paragraph is dismissed as a "long read," having a lot to say about anything is suspect. Having a lot to say about Bond is doubly so. There's a substantial group of people who will have absolutely nothing to do with Bond in any format. Their reasons may vary; they may have a sound basis, or they may not. But you won't sell them on Bond, no matter how many words you write about it.

James Bond has been polarizing from day one. Nowadays, when the movies have lost any connection to Ian Fleming's originals and those originals are no longer best-sellers, when the explosions and violence in a Bond film are actually rather tame compared to other entertainment on the market, people might not understand what the fuss was about, but trust me on this ... in the 1960s, Bond was not just a major event, but a divisive one - considered by some to be a sign of the impending decline and fall of good taste and polite society, by others to be a breath of fresh air.

When I first wrote this film-by-film Bond project back in 2004, I did it mostly for fun and partly because I was tired of filling in people's missing or bad information. I figured, well, I'll just write up the page explaining how Casino Royale (the first) came to be such a travesty, and the page on how Never Say Never Again could get made without EON's permission, and so on ... and then I'd have them on tap the next time someone asked me. And when fewer and fewer people seemed to care, I let them gather dust and fall away.

But for some reason, a couple of years ago, people started watching old Bond films again. And I'd hear occasionally from a friend "You know a lot about Bond. Can you tell me which films to watch first? Which ones to avoid at all costs?"

I'll do that. In fact I'll give you my opinionated, guaranteed-to-start-arguments list at the end of this very page. But let's cover some ground rules first, not just to explain the format of what's to come, but to let you know what you, the Theoretical Novice Bond Viewer, are in for.

First, There Were Books

It's important to realize that Casino Royale, the first book, was published in 1953, nine years before someone would make a theatrical Bond film. By the time the film Dr. No came out in 1962, ten Bond novels had been published and had sold very well. After all, this level of interest in the books was the reason people wanted to film them in the first place. Four more Bond books were published after 1962, but two of those were published after Ian Fleming's death in 1964 - and the last four books are definitely a lower grade; two of them are continuations of a mythos some would say Fleming stole (see Thunderball) and one of those two is quite bizarre, the third is a sad little coda that begins with Bond trying to kill his boss, and the fourth is a collection of odds and ends.

In short, the written Bond and the filmed Bond were almost completely separate phenomena - one cresting and declining well before the other. The books created the impulse needed for the films, but the films began at a point when the books were already passing their heyday.

I can't recommend the books very much. You don't really want to be inside Bond's head the way Fleming envisioned him. The books are substantially more sexist and more racist than the films, because they often spell out what the films only depict tacitly. This is not meant to excuse the films; my point is, the books are even worse. But it's often interesting to see how elements of the book were changed in the process of becoming a film. And there's at least one book where the written version is miles better than the film which bears its title.

On the detail pages I'll note where both the film and the book fall in their respective sequences, and compare where it seems useful to do so.

A Tale of Two Bonds

Who is James Bond? Is he a "blunt instrument" who comes in without the least subtlety to destroy people and property and monkeywrench with bullets and fists? Or is he a gentleman thief who flirts with the women, cons the men, conducts all his business with flair and panache, then steals off with his objective while no one is looking? Is he the young damn-the-risk-Queen-and-country type of Fleming's earlier books, or the tired, bored civil-servant-with-a-deathwish of the later ones?

When I first wrote these pages I made the case that all Bond fans basically break down into Brute Bond (Connery, Craig) vs Thief Bond (Moore, Brosnan) and that your idea of the best films would be heavily influenced by which side of that spectrum you fall on. I've changed my mind in the decade since then. I now believe that the best Bond films are ones where Bond hits as close as possible to balance - some of both, not too much of either. Too much Brute and you go all the way to Thug - very dislikeable (and the audience must like Bond, even if they don't always approve of him). Too much Thief and you end up as Fop - suave, but also ineffectual and sometimes even laughable.

Pierce Brosnan has been the most balanced Bond to date, and therefore is the overall best. The second best might well have been George Lazenby (yes!) if we'd had a chance to build a bigger sample set; alas, he must be rated as "showed great potential." Sean Connery is third; Roger Moore goes all over the map but in general so far comes out ahead of Daniel Craig, who may well be our most dangerous Bond to date, but is not very good at suave at all. Timothy Dalton failed at both and is dead last. (You may proceed with your rebuttals.)

On the detail pages I will briefly discuss Bond's character in a given film, and where he succeeds and fails at ideal Bond-ness.

James Bond vs. Women

I almost feel like it doesn't need to be spelled out, but I'm pretending you are an alien who has just landed on Earth, so: Bond films can be pretty damned sexist. It's just one of those things a Bond fan has to be prepared to live with, gritting teeth if necessary.

This is not to say that Bond films haven't had strong women, or capable women, or both. They've had quite a few of those, starting with the third film (because no one puts Honor Blackman in a corner). Female characters have evolved in Bond films to handle their situations with competence and aplomb and actually act as more than a plot device or a living sex toy. There have been women in these films who grow refreshingly impatient with Bond, who see through his bullshit, who give back as good as they get. (There is a persistent rumor that the handling of women in Bond scripts got rather better very quickly once Barbara Broccoli inherited half of the Bond stewardship. I can neither prove or disprove that.)

The thing is, Bond films ultimately must be about Bond, and ultimately Bond must rescue and bed the Woman Who Survives - that's the formula - which means that sooner or later, no matter how capable she is, she must switch over to being a valuable object that no longer contributes anything besides a need to be rescued. It's always sad when you hit a point in the later Bond films when this happens, but it's still better than some of the earliest films where it never happens - because the women in those films were never fully realized characters to begin with.

On the detail pages, I'll discuss which films do a better job of handling their female characters, and which are particularly wince-worthy.

Our Backstory So Far

The history of the production of Bond films - how they got made, and how they keep getting made after all these years - is a rich one, full of daring risks, tragedies, lawsuits, and buyouts. I'll be telling this as a continuing saga, each film picking up where the previous part of the backlot story left off.

How It Came Out

In discussing the films, I try not just to concentrate on what I liked and what I didn't - after all, that's the part that's subjective and your mileage may vary heavily, but on why - why certain decisions were made and not others, and to what extent those choices were determined by circumstances and environment at the time. Things you might not have been aware of. So, for example, I'll cover why Moonraker would likely have been a much better film if it hadn't been for Star Wars, or the cultural forces that led Licence to Kill to barely be a Bond film at all.

A Thousand Tiny Little Factoids

Lastly, I'll throw in whatever little bits of trivia I think are of interest or relevance, because the Bond universe has had enough time to amass a huge amount of this stuff, and it needs to be shared to relieve some of the pressure on the storage tanks.

I Promised You A List, Didn't I?

Thank you for making it to the end of what must surely be one of the longest introductions to a set of web pages ever written.

All right. Imagine me trying to muster my strength to walk out on this limb ....

The best Bond film - with the best balance, some of the best women, the second-best M, a pretty good villain, a more than adequate plot, a nod to real-world conditions and whether Bond was still even relevant at that point, plus bonus brilliance from Alan Cumming, Famke Janssen, Joe Don Baker and Robbie Coltrane, is ... Goldeneye. If I had to choose one Bond film to bring to the desert island this would be it. Or, put another way, if you're not sure whether you'll like Bond, start with this one, because whatever faults you find in it will likely be much more magnified elsewhere in the canon. If you don't like this one, you need go no further.

The second-best Bond film - and also possibly an alternate choice for first if you really can't stand Pierce Brosnan - is From Russia With Love. It lacks the strong women, and I feel it runs on a little long, but it's definitely in the top tier.

The remainder of the top tier - say, if I had to pick the top five - would be Quantum of Solace, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Skyfall. Goldfinger is a near-miss for this tier, so substitute it in for Skyfall if the idea of two Craigs in this bracket annoys you.

In the second tier, after Goldfinger, are: Live and Let Die, Tomorrow Never Dies, The Spy Who Loved Me, the underrated For Your Eyes Only, and You Only Live Twice.

We now reach the pair of films which are literally half-good - that is, there's a point about midway through each film where you can turn it off because it's all downhill from there: Casino Royale (II) and Dr. No. They're ranked ahead of what follows because their half that's good is really very good.

This is probably where we put Die Another Day and Diamonds Are Forever, which are just a little better than the ones which follow.

Descending the quality ladder we have the hunt-for-good bits films, still worth watching but with a lot that's skippable: The World Is Not Enough, Octopussy, The Living Daylights, Never Say Never Again, The Man With The Golden Gun, and Moonraker.

Thunderball is not actually bad, but it is boring - the only unforgivable sin in a Bond film. A View To a Kill is actually bad, in nearly every way - my vote for worst Bond film ever.

You may notice two films are missing. I omit them because they aren't really Bond films - by which I don't mean they're not canon, I mean they're a different genre. If we were to look at Casino Royale (I) as charitably as possible we'd have to describe it as a hallucinogenic 1960's farce. And Licence To Kill is an American-style action movie, the kind you'd normally find Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in. So these two must be treated as footnotes.

Dr. No »

[These pages are being posted as they are revised, so the links below may not all work yet!]

From Russia With Love »
Goldfinger »
Thunderball »
Casino Royale (I) »
You Only Live Twice »
On Her Majesty's Secret Service »
Diamonds Are Forever »
Live and Let Die »
The Man With the Golden Gun »
The Spy Who Loved Me »
Moonraker »
For Your Eyes Only »
Octopussy »
Never Say Never Again »
A View To a Kill »
The Living Daylights »
Licence to Kill »
Goldeneye »
Tomorrow Never Dies »
The World Is Not Enough »
Die Another Day »
Casino Royale (II) »
Quantum of Solace »
Skyfall »

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