A British newspaper recently ran an article asking if the cult of James Bond is a new religion. It came to the conclusion that it is. I wasn’t surprised at the question posed. In fact, I was relieved that, at last, it was being asked.
Only this year, that cult has grown still greater with the phenomenal success of the latest installment of the spy’s adventures. Spectre is a box office smash across the globe—so much so, that it has become one of the most financially successful films not just of the year, but ever. Coming from one of the most successful movie franchises ever, that’s saying something.
Is there anyone on the planet who has not heard of James Bond, aka Agent 007? Perhaps some perfectly content tribesman in a remote part of Borneo. For the rest of us, however, living in the West, and, increasingly, the East, he is a fixed point on our cultural map. What’s more, there appears to be no chance of this soon changing.
The spy was the creation of Ian Fleming. Today, increasingly, however, the author has only a walk-on part in the ever-growing Bond mythos. Few of those flocking to movie theatres around the world to watch the latest incarnation of 007 have read the novels. I suspect many have no idea Bond existed in print before ever he appeared on celluloid. They can rest easy, however, for whereas the films, on the whole, have “worn well,” the same cannot be said of the literary Bond. From Fleming’s pen sprang a snobbish Englishman who cynically looks down upon those lacking his privileged upbringing. One contemporary book review termed the 1958 appearance of Dr. No as a very English version of “Sex, Snobbery & Sadism.” Wisely, from the start, the film’s producers jettisoned much of the books’ increasingly antiquated prejudices, and, instead, made the film’s hero a much more egalitarian figure, whilst ensuring he remained awash in sex and sadism. Given that this was the start of the 1960s, it was a shrewd move. In addition, they had one large piece of luck in the casting of a relatively unknown Scottish actor, Sean Connery.
According to Fleming, Bond was an upper-class, privately educated, former naval officer; Connery, by contrast, was a working-class Scot who had driven a milk cart before going to sea as a simple sailor. Needless to say, Fleming was appalled at the choice—at first, anyway; soon he would come round to his leading man, not least when he saw the audience’s reaction and the resultant box office receipts. In fact, in the later books, he was to adjust the Bond biography to at least nod to the emergence of Connery in the role. For example, the spy’s public school was to be located in Scotland. More importantly, the actor brought to the part something else: charisma. The actors whom Fleming suggested—for example, Rex Harrison and David Niven—would today have rendered the spy series a one or two picture memory at most. Even now, Connery as initial catalyst is the reason why there is still so much momentum to this long-running series.
Perhaps, today, it is hard to imagine the impact these films had when first released. They were not simply popular; instead, they quickly became a phenomenon. The mix of escapist adventure, exotic locations, and promiscuity were to hit just the right note for the changing morals and attitudes of the then-new decade. Above all, in keeping with that new age, Bond was a self-sufficient hero who answered to no one, and was seemingly preternatural in his ability to triumph over men, and women. From 1962, Bond has straddled world cinema like a Colossus, and the world’s movie-going public has, in turn, never ceased to gaze upon his hollow glamour.
Just after reading that newspaper article asking about Bond’s cultic status, I came across a review of his latest adventure in a broadly Christian website. It was glowing. 007 is a much-loved and much-missed hero forever returning. Really? The website was excellent on many of the moral and social issues of today. However, when it came to an appreciation of this slice of modern culture, and its impact on the lives it encounters, a degree of naiveté was on display. No doubt, some reading this will say that one can make too much of what is, after all, “only a movie,” and a popular one at that. And, inevitably, the question will be asked: does anyone really take this stuff seriously? Well, in 1962, after the release of Dr No, there was one literary organ that did so. In an October 7, 1962 article somberly titled “The James Bond Case,” a writer in L’Osservatore Romano decried Bond’s first cinematic outing as “a dangerous mix of violence, vulgarity, sadism and sex.”
The Vatican’s official newspaper was then not noted for film reviews. It was not interested in circulation, or, for that matter, in being “relevant.” It was, however, interested in souls. This review of Dr. No was not a commentary on the acting, or on the director’s vision, or on the producer’s budget, but on the finished celluloid product—what it contained, what it represented and, most important of all, what impact it could have on the lives of those watching.
Violence, vulgarity, sadism and sexual license: the characteristics of those who follow the path of darkness that leads back to one who fans the flames of those same disorders. There is something of that darkness at the heart of James Bond. He lives for himself. His loyalty is not to the mankind he is purportedly always saving, or even to Queen and Country; his loyalty is to “Number One,” even if it has two 0s and a 7. Neither does he have any loyalty, let alone love, for the women he encounters. There is a passage in Dr No where Bond reflects on the stages of a relationship as “the conventional parabola” of sentiment, flowing inevitably from sexual license to boredom, before “the tears and the final bitterness.” It is clear that all women will ultimately grow cold in the spy’s affections. One suspects, on an emotional level, they never really grew lukewarm in the first place. And, all the while, he kills and maims with gay abandon. No pity, no remorse, and certainly no post-traumatic stress—it is a case of live and let die, because you only live twice, or, in 007’s case, forever on screen. If one phrase could sum up this eternal “superman” as he is served yet another martini, shaken not stirred, it is: Non Serviam!
Such a screen character, even just a few years earlier in 1950s, would have been deemed contemptible. Interestingly, the Irish actor, Patrick McGoohan, was asked to consider the role. A devout Catholic, he turned it down due to its immoral content. Earlier, another Catholic, author Paul Johnson, reviewing the Fleming books had criticized them for pandering to the worst in readers. Rapidly eclipsing the literary works, the cinematic Bond struck a nerve doing just that, and has continued to do so ever since. At the beginning of the 1960s, the world was ready for a hero that was free of any constraints—social, moral, religious—and so it got its modern version of the Golden Bull—or perhaps more correctly Goldfinger—that it craved.
Bond was to shape the dreams and fantasies of the generations that followed through the 1970s and 80s and beyond—men who wanted to emulate Bond, to live as he did. Advertising took note, and takes note still with every new release from the series as the Bond myth is endlessly reworked and perpetuated. Noticeably, the spy’s morals are now the new norm. So much so that in 2012, the new look L’Osservatore Romano, wanting to be more “relevant,” revised its view of Bond. In his then latest escapade, it praised him for his “humanity”—even if that particular embodiment of humanity carries a “licence to kill” any other member of the human race that gets in the way. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
So the question remains: has he become a religion? Whether that is judged on how selfishly we live our lives, or how little concern we have for the harm inflicted—emotional or physical—upon others, then Bond is, for many, a representative icon before which to do homage. He is the mascot for the new religion—or is it a very ancient one?—of a world that needs no God; Bond’s way of life is the new creed, his mode of behavior the new value system, and his form of worship enthralled to the shining reflection of his own immaculately turned out image of self.