Forty Years of Bondage: Yet Another Completely Uncalled for Retrospective Featuring Capsule Reviews

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“What the hell does James Bond have to do with Science Fiction?” I hear you asking. Well, Bond has fought so many villains with nonexistent super-high-tech weapons, brought down two illegal space programs, and been in actual space battles with such abandon that “Spy-Fi” has become an accepted subgenre of SF itself, and literally scores of shows from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to Chuck have frequently dabbled with these kinds of trappings to a greater or lesser extent to give their stories a sense of the exotic and also just for a bit of high-stakes peril. Arguably, The Prisoner is the best SF series of all time, and it’s unquestionably a Spy-Fi show.

Just like 'Trek is the 500 lb gorilla in the SF room, Bond is unquestionably the 500 lb gorilla in the Spy-Fi genre.

So, while everyone is basking in the gleeful post orgasmic glow of the Trek reboot, but before the burning and itching when you have to urinate kicks in, I thought I’d take this opportunity to remind ourselves of another long-running franchise that’s had it’s up and downs as well.

Counting the ‘unofficial films’ the history of the franchise looks something like this:
Casino Royale (1954) – Barry Nelson is James Bond. Well, “Jimmy” Bond, anyway, a suave, devil-may-care American secret agent, in this American made-for-TV movie. Despite these liberties, and the inexplicable renaming of a couple characters (Vesper Lind becomes “Valerie Mathis”; Felix Leiter becomes “Clarence Leiter” – why?) this wasn’t a bad TV movie, and the somewhat-past-his-prime Peter Lorre makes a damn fine bond villain as the evil Le Chiffre. Had this TV movie been more successful, there were plans for converting the other Bond Novels into ‘americanized’ TV movies as well. Had this worked, Bond would have become a staple part of American culture of the 50s. Alas, no one cared, and the franchise languished in obscurity, so the series really didn’t get going until…
Doctor No (1962) – In ’61, President Kennedy commented in an interview that he was reading “From Russia With Love” and really enjoying it. Everyone in America ran out to buy a copy, and suddenly, eight years after the last attempt to put Bond in front of a camera, the novels were a hot property. United Artists immediately bought up the rights to the novels, and announced they were making a movie. Alas, the Movie Rights to Casino Royale were still owned by MGM, who’d made the Barry Nelson movie, but no matter. They got all the rest. We’re introduced to a young, surprisingly brutal Bond in the form of the young, surprisingly brutal Sean Connery. We’re also introduced to his American occasional – sidekick, CIA man Felix Leiter, played by Jack Lord. In Jamaica, Bond and Leiter foil an attempt by the evil Doctor No to destroy the American Space Program by sabotaging it’s launches. This nothing plot is more than made up for by the style and rough, unpolished nature for the movie. Many bondophiles of my generation don’t like this movie, or the next one, because it lacks the gadgets and slick nature of the later films. In fact, this is damn near the best of the movies, surpassed only by…
From Russian With Love (1963) – Connery’s second outing as Bond, this is almost an Agatha Christi adventure, complete with a long sojourn on the Orient Express. Essentially Bond is assigned to supervise the defection of a beautiful, young Russian cryptology expert, who promises to bring a decoder that will aid the west in the Cold War. The interesting thing about this is that everyone in the secret service, including Bond, knows this is a trap going into it. Despite moving the movie from the early 50s to the early 60s, this is an almost word-for-word adaptation of the novel, and easily the best of the bunch.
Goldfinger (1964) – The most overrated of the movies. By now United Artists knew they had a hit on their hands, and brought back Connery for a third outing. The previous movies were successful, but this was the first blockbuster. The plot involves the efforts of Auric Goldfinger to destroy the gold supply at Fort Knox, Kentucky. This was the first “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” movie, in which all the clichés show up: an over-the-top villain, girls with embarrassingly sexual names, a fate-of-the-world-hangs-in-the-balance plot, lots of gadgets, lots of action, vastly slicker (American) production values, narrow escapes, and so on. This was the first Bond movie that people went to see repeatedly. It’s not a bad movie, just overrated because it was so successful. Since this movie proved so successful, it’s plot elements became a formula that would be followed to the letter in almost every subsequent film. This is Connerys’ third outing as Bond, and following this movie, he becomes the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Jack Lord chose not to return as Felix Leiter, starting the annoying tradition of having utterly forgettable people play Bond’s only real sidekick.
Thunderball (1965) – They were really cranking these puppies out in the 60s, and Connery was getting tired of the grind. He was also afraid of getting typecast, ad bristling about how Bond was becoming more of a superhero than a person. This movie is the best of Connery’s post-Goldfinger set, re-introducing us to ‘Spectre’, a behind-the-scenes international organization of general naughtiness who’d been pulling the strings in three of the previous four films. It follows the formula of Goldfinger to the letter, but has a better plot, about Spectre’s plans to blow up Miami with an atomic bomb.
You Only Live Twice (1967) – Connery’s fifth outing as Bond was a weak, going-through-the-motions affair, which chose to introduce a lot more comedy. The sets are nice, the plot is negligible: Spectre attempts to start World War III by hijacking American and Russian space capsules. At the time, many critics felt the series had fallen into self-parody. Connery announced that he would not be returning as Bond, due to creative differences between himself and the producers. The fans were staggered, but despite the fact that his exit would probably end the series, covertly, many admitted Connery had probably made a wise choice. Best to leave the audience wanting more, rather than waste their time with weak crap like this.
Casino Royale (1967) – Now, by this time, the Bond Movies were the most successful franchise on the planet, and MGM still had the rights to Casino Royale, thanks to their 1950s TV outing. What kind of fool wouldn’t try to cash in on that? Alas, they had some inherent disadvantages. They couldn’t get Connery to play Bond, but that wasn’t as big a problem as you might imagine, since UA couldn’t get him to play Bond anymore either. A more serious problem was artistic: they couldn’t use the signature music from the previous movies. Thus, rather than play it straight, they decided to remake the TV movie as a big-screen comedy, starring Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Orson Wells (Reprising Peter Lorre’s ‘Le Chifre’), the eternally hot Barbara Bouchet, and many, many more. I mean, why not, since all the critics were saying the official movies had become self parody by this point anyway? In the opening sequence, the head of special intelligence, “M” (played here by John Houston!) is killed off, and a dozen other agents are simultaneously assassinated. Sir James Bond, played absolutely brilliantly by David Niven, comes out of retirement to assume M’s duties, and save the world along with the help of his illegitimate daughter, Mata Bond. (Her mom was Mata Hari.)
Despite producing a hit song, (“The Look of Love” by Burt Bacharach), this is a rambling train wreck of a movie, and an expensive box office bomb at that. However, David Niven is, in my opinion, the absolutely best-ever Bond. He’s older, he’s wiser, he’s funny as hell, and surprisingly tough besides. Yes, it’s a comedy, and a bad one, but Niven’s a great actor. Anyone can give you lemonade when life gives you lemons, but Niven was given a huge pile of turds, and he still somehow managed to turn this into lemonade. Alas, the rest of the movie isn’t nearly so good.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – George Lazenby is James Bond. Well, kinda. Only an idiot would walk away from a multimillion dollar franchise, and UA didn’t consider themselves to be idiots. They decided to continue the series, and an exhaustive search began for a new Bond. The role was offered to a young Burt Reynolds (Who turned it down), Patrick MacGoohan (Who’d already turned it down in ’62, saying “Bond is a thug.”), and a bazillion other people, and, in the end, they settled on: a used car salesman. George Lazenby was signed to a 3-movie deal as Bond. In the end, he proved difficult to work with, and before they were even done with principle photography, everyone knew George wouldn’t be returning.
Alas, this is one of those examples of when great things just barely fail to happen. The story is a departure from the format, it has a great script, it has Diana Rigg as probably the best Bond Girl ever, it has the only real tragedy we’ve ever seen in Bond’s life. Unfortunately, it has no Bond.
Lazenby isn’t terrible, but he’s only adequate. This is the most emotional story in the entire franchise, and George just isn’t up to pulling it off. That doesn’t make this a bad movie, however, just very very frustrating. Had Sean Connery done this movie, it would have been the absolute best of the entire series, and the perfect swan song for him to leave the role as well. In fact, in a perfect world, Connery would have done this movie, and they would have ended the series in 1969. Instead…welll…
Fans responded badly. The movie was a disappointment, but Connery himself was impressed with the depth of the writing, and he began talking about returning to the role, assuming it would allow him to stretch as an actor. He was wrong.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971) – UA was happy. They had their star actor back in their star franchise, even if they had to make him the highest paid actor in the world to get him to do it. Connery would return for a sixth and semi-final outing as Bond, and they were sure they could lure him back to do more afterwards. Following the trouncing the previous movie got from fans for ‘breaking format’, however, they had no intentions of taking such risks again. ‘Diamonds’ is a semi-comedic return to the ‘kiss kiss bang bang’ formula, and is the worst of the Connery films, which dispenses with the emotional baggage of the previous film in the pre-title sequence. Plot? Spectre is using diamonds to build an orbiting laser to bring the world to it’s knees. It’s a dawdle. It’s almost as if you’re watching Sean Connery pretend to be Roger Moore. Following the movie, Connery again quit, announcing he’d never play the role again. This was the last movie ever to mention Spectre, by the way. They’d been the driving force behind seven of the previous movies. Eight, if you count the Barry Nelson “Casino Royale” from the 50s.
Live and Let Die (1973) – Following an exhaustive search to find a new Bond, they settled on Roger Moore, a TV actor best known in the states for playing James Garners’ fancy-pants brother, Beau in “Maverick”, a popular comedy western. In England, he was best known for playing “The Saint,” one of a slew of vaguely Bondish, vaguely Spyish series that drenched TV in the 60s. The movie is a serious attempt to re-invent the franchise for a new decade, what with it’s rock and/or roll theme song, it’s hip early-70s blacksploitation look, and a plot dealing with the drug trade rather than the cold war. It’s also extremely violent, following the cartoonish violence of the previous movies. Arguably, this is the only ‘serious’ Bond movie that Moore ever made. It was a huge hit, securing the series’ future.
The Man With The Golden Gun (1975) – Moore’s second time out, and we’re right back to the cartoon formula of the latter Connery films. There’s this assassin named “Scaramonger” that Bond is assigned to assassinate, which, of course, he does. There’s also flying cars and a macguffin plot involving something to do with solar energy, but I don’t remember specifically. I keep falling asleep in this one, even though I rather like Britt Eklund.
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) – Moores’ 3rd time as Bond, in yet another cartoon, but a damn good cartoon just the same. As Détente was trendy in the 70s, Bond is partnered with a Russian agent, played by Ringo Star’s wife, Barbara Bach. They foil Kurt Jurgen’s plot to destroy the world using his supertanker that eats entire nuclear submarines. It’s big, it’s dumb, it’s loud, but, dammit, it’s a fun ride, despite the irritating disco soundtrack.
Moonraker (1979) – Following Star Wars in ’77, space was really hip, so it only followed that Moores’ 4th outing as Bond would involve it somehow. Incidentally, this is the first one I saw in the theaters. The plot is an attempt to recreate the cartoonish success of ‘Spy,’ involving hijacked space shuttles and yet another sociopathic plot to destroy the world. I thought it was great, and saw it three times in the theater, but, dammit, I was twelve. What the hell did I know? In fact, it’s just long tedious. I will admit two things, however:
* The battle at the end between the bad guys and the United States Space Marines (really) looks like it belongs in an episode of Space:1999, but it’s really cool none the less.
* Dr. Holly Goodhead (Played by) is the first woman in a movie to ever make me feel all strange and tingly in my naughty bits.
For Your Eyes Only (1981) – Following the over-the-top nature of the previous movies, this one was yet another failed attempt to get back to the basics of “Live and Let Die.” In fact, this film was intended to introduce a new Bond for yet another new decade, but they were able to entice Moore back at the last minute. The pre-title sequence is the absolute best one of the Moore era, with Bond visiting the grave of his dead wife, Theresa (Cf: ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’), and surviving one last attempt by Blofeld to kill him off. Unfortunately, everything else in this movie is crap, and the opening titles themselves are nothing but a poorly conceived Sheena Easton video. Plot: A British decoding machine is lost in the agean, and Bond tries to get it back before the other side does.
There is literally too much happening in this movie. Every five minutes, there’s a fight, or explosion, or chase or what have you. It’s like watching one of those old Dick Tracy movies from the 40s, that were edited together from 15 minute serial shorts. The serials were about 15 minutes long, and began with the resolution of a cliffhanger, had an action sequence in the middle, and ended with another cliffhanger. That’s fine for a serial, but for a movie, it’s too much – the world is ending every five minutes. This bond movie has pretty much the same feel. Roger Moore, who was beginning to look a bit long in the tooth, announced that his next movie would be his last as Bond.

PART 2 TOMORROW!

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