Bond out of Time

Roger Moore recently died. It’s bad form to speak ill of the recent dead (unless they’re genuine monsters, of course), so I should stress that none of this is an attack on Roger Moore’s character. But I really didn’t like him as James Bond.

The movies he was in, with one notable exception (1981’s For Your Eyes Only), were all deeply flawed. Some of them were legitimately terrible. But even the one that was good has to just be enjoyed on its own merits as a spy thriller because Roger Moore was every bad decision the Bond franchise made made in one person.

I posted something to this effect on Facebook, and I got pushback from a friend who reminded me that Bond evolved over time.

Gotta remember that the Bond movies evolved over time – Roger Moore was a different type of Bond movie than Connery or Dalton.

I’m not entirely sure what his point was, but since it seemed to defend Moore, I think he meant that each Bond has to be judged from the point of view of its own era. That’s fair enough, as far as it goes – and he’s certainly right that each Bond is a reflection of the sensibilities of his era. You couldn’t make Dr. No today. But it’s ironic that his claim that Bond "evolved" seems to break down exactly at the one I was defending as best: Timothy Dalton.

I’m not sure that any changing of the Bond guard was exactly smooth. George Lazenby, despite starring in what was arguably the best (to my mind, the second-best), outing of the franchise, was so different from Connery that audiences must’ve thought they cast his opposite. That is, until Roger Moore came along two movies later and made it clear that, no, you actually could get more different. It was always a jarring change. But one thing you could always say, at least, is that the casting decision – and accompanying change in sensibility – was always in step with the times.

Sean Connery was the man for the 60s. He was virile, but with a wink, masculine in a fun way. This was the man for the decade when women had free time to play but weren’t quite yet liberated. By the time the 1970s started, the feminist revolution was well underway, and macho was OUT. Handsome was fine, but it had to be of a non-threatening kind. Nobody is less threatening than Roger Moore. Closing out the 20th century, Pierce Brosnan was like Roger Moore without the autonomy. If Moore was non-threatning, Brosnan was positively housetrained. Which, again, was right for the time. Masculine was back, but only if self-critical and wielded as a tool. And could there be a more perfect Bond for the 21st century than Daniel Craig? The present era is one where people have a pathological need to feel edgy and gritty – but always with a politically correct asterisk. Therefore, James Bond is too.

But there is one exception to all of this: Timothy Dalton. He is the one Bond1 who stands outside his time.

There are a number of good reasons for that. For one thing, he’s inarguably the best actor to wear the role. There’s an important distinction between an actor and a screen star, and aside from possibly Daniel Craig, Dalton is the only bearer of the role who was primarily the former. Maybe they cast him to play a shiny version of himself, I don’t know, but unlike the others, he wasn’t constitutionally limited to that. The main reason, though, is that Dalton played hard to get and so got what he wanted. They asked him first in 1967, but he felt like he was too young, and in any case he didn’t want to follow Sean Connery. They asked him again in 1980, but he didn’t like what the series had become. They asked him again in 1985 – this time as a way of avoiding casting Pierce Brosnan (long story) – but he wasn’t willing to drop the project he was working on. By the time the back-n-forth drama about maybe-maybe-not casting Brosnan had fully resolved against it, Dalton was in a great position to set conditions, and he did – giving this widely-quoted explanation of what he’d wanted in a 1989 interview:

I think Roger was fine as Bond, but the films had become too much techno-pop and had lost track of their sense of story. I mean, every film seemed to have a villain who had to rule or destroy the world. If you want to believe in the fantasy on screen, then you have to believe in the characters and use them as a stepping-stone to lead you into this fantasy world. That’s a demand I made, and Albert Broccoli agreed with me.

It actually went beyond that, though. Dalton, as it happened, was a fan of the original novel series, and was seen re-reading Ian Flemming originals on the set to The Living Daylights. He insisted that James Bond be James Bond – that is, the Bond of the books, and not the goofy joker of the film series.

That James Bond wasn’t created for the 1980s, though. He arguably wasn’t really created for the silver screen, and he certainly wasn’t intended to live on for decades. Shortly before his early death in 1964, Ian Flemming wrote to his publisher with the intention of killing Bond off. The Man With the Golden Gun was meant to be the last book, because Flemming didn’t want Bond to stop being fresh. In one of his final interviews (for Playboy), Flemming described Bond thus:

James Bond is a healthy, violent, noncerebral man in his middle-thirties, and a creature of his era. I wouldn’t say he’s particularly typical of our times, but he’s certainly of the times.

Joss Whedon described Cabin in the Woods as "a loving hate letter to the horror genre;" you might call James Bond Ian Flemming’s loving hate letter to Austerity Britain. It was a rejection of, and reaction to, the drab, unexciting, depressing, prudish, fussily moral, deprived and dependent place Britain had become after the war. James Bond doesn’t drink tea, which he blames for the downfall of the British Empire. In some ways, you could call him a British Randian hero – tough, self-reliant, single-minded, and defined by his profession to the point of having a sterile character. Like Rand’s heroes, he’s a distillation and exaggeration of those values of the national culture the author admires and an angry rejection of the remainder. But unlike the American version, he doesn’t necessarily like the profession he embodies. He’s resentful, cynical, negative. If the challenge with Ayn Rand heroes is sometimes seeing how they’re the good guys2, the question with James Bond was whether he was the good guy at all. They’ve been described as a reimagining – for adults, and specifically adults of the morally ambiguous postwar period – of British children’s adventure tales like Bulldog Drummond. And so they are. But they’re also an antidote to excessive American optimism, and to the rise of American power in the world in general. They’re a casting about, possibly, for the "Swinging London" that was still a decade away, or at least something like it – a more refined, respectable version of it.

Dalton was 44 in The Living Daylights, and so technically too old for the role. Also, he was playing in the continuation of a flashy, escapist film series in which the hero very much was expected to be the good guy. Working within those confines, Dalton brought us as close as we’ll likely ever get to a representative filming of the James Bond of the novels, and for my money, it was an absolutely brilliant performance. We get the subdued sense of danger, the very real violent streak that sits just beneath the surface. He’s genteel, but with real hints of cruelty. All of the understated character ambiguities are there.

What it isn’t – and thank God for that – is any kind of "evolution" from Roger Moore.

Timothy Dalton’s two appearances as Bond in the late 1980s had nothing to do with the 1980s. They had little to nothing to do with James Bond as we’d known him up to that point. They were the time when the franchise took a holiday from itself, and we got to see what James Bond might have been if filmmakers had taken it a bit more seriously. It’s an alternate conception of Bond that people mistake for a continuation only because it was marketed that way. Not a popular opinion, perhaps – though in the nearly 29 years I’ve been holding it it’s at least become a respectable one – but Dalton’s Bond was better. It isn’t really right to say he was the best of the Bonds. There were all those other Bonds, and then there was the real James Bond, the one I would actually have been an avid fan of if they’d continued the run: Timothy Dalton.

  1. More accurately, convincing yourself they are. Rand’s novels were meant to be morally challenging, presenting a differnt idea of "the good" than the reader was accustomed to. They were intended as a kind of deprogramming.

  2. I’d buy a similar observation about Lazenby, but the point isn’t as starkly illustrated with him. Plus, he was a one-off; it isn’t clear to me he was ever intended to do anything but prove to Connery that they could do these movies without him.

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