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On Oct. 14, 1962, a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft photographed the installation of forty medium-range Soviet missiles in Cuba. These nuclear weapons had an effective range of 5,000 kilometers, and could easily reach major U.S. cities, including Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C.. President Kennedy was informed, and two days later on Oct. 16, the Cuban Missile Crisis began; for the next two weeks, the world held its breath and hovered on the brink of nuclear war. The first-ever James Bond film, Dr. No (1962), premiered in U.S. theaters only six months later. The villain’s plot to disrupt U.S. missile launches from his Caribbean hideout must have seemed frighteningly timely to an audience still recovering from the past year’s scare.
Ian Fleming may have created the character of James Bond in 1953, but it is not without reason that Bond waited until the height of the Cold War to make his silver screen debut. Espionage, technological warfare, and political intrigue were then at the forefront of our collective consciousness, and the fears and anxieties of the time help to explain the early success of Dr. No and subsequent Bond films: Thunderball (1965) is a countdown to recover stolen nuclear warheads in the Caribbean, while Goldfinger (1964) features a communist plot to irradiate the United States’ gold supply.
“During the Cold War, the villains were generally of an Eastern European nature and world domination was their goal,” says Anne Morra, curator of “50 Years of James Bond,” a Museum of Modern Art exhibition opening on Oct. 5 that will commemorate the film character’s 50th anniversary. To celebrate this milestone, MoMA plans to screen all 22 Bond films during the month of October, leading up to the November release of Skyfall, the series’ newest installment. The outlandish storylines of the films were not far off from the hyper-imaginative communist conspiracy theories circulating at the time, and Bond’s fancy gadgets are hardly remarkable when compared to the technologies developed by the United States and the Soviet Union to gain an edge in the arms race.
Of course, the key to remaining popular was the ability of the Bond franchise to adapt to an evolving sociopolitical climate, capturing new contemporary tensions, even as the era of détente set in and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Richard Peña, the program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, explains that “James Bond was very much a Cold War creation,” but that in later films, “writers developed an international criminal organization for Bond to fight against, often even side-by-side with Russians,” to make sure that the character remained relevant. “The most contemporary villain, in my opinion, is Dominic Greene, in Quantum of Solace, who is portrayed as an eco-terrorist,” Morra says. “This plot device is so current, a long and far cry from the days of SPECTRE agents and decoder machines!”
On the other hand, there is a certain timelessness about the character of Bond that crosses all generational gaps. Despite having been played by six different actors, Bond remains one of the most enduringly popular and recognizable cinematic figures of the past half-century. The Bond of 2012 is more or less the Bond of 1962, with a few changes in interpretation. Sean Connery, the first actor to bring Bond to the big screen, “was stealthy, smooth, sexy, and didn’t expend too much psychological angst in order to bring down the villain,” Morra says. Connery pioneered the romantic idealization of the spy, ushering in the era of tailored suits, expensive cars, and dry martinis. “Spy work is kind of grubby, but Sean Connery was transformed into this suave, far more elegant character,” Peña says.
Roger Moore, who took over the role of Bond in 1973, “brought the character to the point of parody” with his sarcastic wit and debonair charisma, while Timothy Dalton (1987-1989), on the other hand, brought a renewed physicality to the character “in response to the action mega-block buster of the late 1980’s, such as Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and others,” according to Morra. Pierce Brosnan’s post-Cold War Bond (1995-2004) was “very diplomatic,” and Daniel’s Craig’s take on the character (2006-present) “is a harkening back to Bond as written by Fleming. He is modeled as a man who is both immune to and disgusted by the work he does,” she says.
Despite their substantial differences, all these men cultivated a rough yet sophisticated persona: “Bond’s popularity and influence derive from being cool rather than heated ... His appeal has as much to do with his restraint—a certain implosion—as with his dexterous feats,” Annette Insdorf, a professor of film at Columbia, says. Bond unites brutality and civility, a paradox that does not fail to entertain audiences. “There is an aspect of Bond that is both of the law, but also beyond it, and people are fascinated with this,” Peña explains. “The license to kill, this ability to kill and get away with it, has always been a major part of his character.”
Interestingly, the most controversial change to Bond’s character was made earlier this year, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Heineken announced that in Skyfall, Bond will trade his signature martini glass for a simple green beer bottle. Purists were outraged by this break from the elegant figure so carefully crafted by Fleming, Connery, and his successors. A cold beer is certainly more modern than Connery’s forty-dollar martini, but one could argue that this change has disturbed the fine balance between the timeless and the contemporary that has kept Bond one of the most well-loved film characters of all time.
After all, it’s doubtful that the hero of the Cold War will be taken seriously when he flags the barman down for a pint at the local pub—neither shaken nor stirred, of course.
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