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The cultural impact of James Bond

The far-reaching influence of Ian Fleming's super-spy.

Words by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

When Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale hit bookstores in 1953, it’s unlikely the author could have imagined his protagonist, James Bond, would thrill fans of movies, books, comics and video games for decades to come, becoming arguably the most recognizable name in the history of fiction. Bond has left a mark on global pop culture like few other creations, inspiring countless imitations; some successful, some not so.
Fleming himself drew from previous sources in the creation of his hero. He was heavily inspired by classic British literary adventurers like Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quatermain and Bulldog Drummond, taking dated tropes and transferring them to the post-colonial, cold war era. Similarly, the films drew inspiration from the classic serials of the 1930s and ‘40s, which thrilled millions of kids every Saturday morning. Usually lasting around 20 minutes per episode, the key feature of these serials was the ‘cliff-hanger’ ending, with each episode climaxing with its hero – be it Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers or Batman – facing what seemed like certain death. Of course, the following episode would reveal that our hero had, sometimes quite literally, a trick up his sleeve to ensure his survival. The Bond films borrowed this technique, inserting several cliff-hangers throughout each movie, and later giving TV networks convenient spots to insert commercial breaks. When 007 finds himself seemingly trapped while the villain arrogantly explains his diabolical plan, it’s a direct call-back to these serials.
Another key influence on the Bond movies is the work of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, whose early British movies like 1935’s The 39 Steps and 1937’s Young and Innocent employed a chase narrative, with a handsome hero finding himself on the run with a beautiful young lady in tow. Take this concept and reverse it, with the hero following a lead rather than being chased himself, and you have the central narrative thrust of every Bond movie. And, of course, there’s those beautiful young ladies, who would come to be known as ‘Bond Girls’.
Hitchcock had made several spy movies himself – 1936’s Secret Agent, 1942’s Saboteur and 1946’s Notorious – but it was his return to the ‘man on the run’ chase thriller, 1959’s North by Northwest, that would have the greatest influence on Ian Fleming, who wanted Hitchcock to direct the first cinematic Bond adaptation, originally set to be Thunderball rather than Dr. No. Hitchcock declined, a decision history suggests he ultimately regretted, as he helmed a couple of poorly received spy movies of his own – 1966’s Torn Curtain and 1969’s Topaz – in the wake of the success of the early Bond instalments. North by Northwest’s leading man, Cary Grant, was also Fleming’s original choice to portray 007.
While the first two Bond adaptations, 1962’s Dr. No and the following year’s From Russia with Love, were profitable hits, it was the subsequent two movies, 1964’s Goldfinger and 1965’s Thunderball, that really captured the imagination of a global audience, proving huge box office draws across the world. By the mid-1960s, spies and secret agents were everywhere to be seen on screens big and small.
Fleming was influenced by British author Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond stories, which had been adapted for a successful series of films in the ‘30s. In turn influenced by the success of the cinematic Bond, Drummond would return to the big screen, played by the late Richard Johnson in two movies – 1967’s Deadlier Than the Male and 1969’s Some Girls Do – that owed a lot more to the Bond movies than Sapper’s original stories.
Author Len Deighton had created a spy of his own in a series of novels. Though never named in the books, the character was given the name of Harry Palmer for a trio of films – 1965’s The Ipcress File, 1966’s Funeral in Berlin and 1967’s Billion Dollar Brain – in which he was portrayed by Michael Caine. While these movies were made to cash-in on the Bond craze, they were altogether different in tone. There’s nothing glamorous about Palmer, bedecked in thick black-rimmed spectacles and shopping in grocery stores rather than dining in fine restaurants, thanks to his poor secret service wages; and bikini-clad babes are notably absent! Bond composer John Barry provided the score for The Ipcress File, but it’s a lot more downbeat than his bombastic Bond work. Three decades later, Caine would return to the role for 1995’s Bullet to Beijing and the following year’s Midnight in Saint Petersburg, which employed original screenplays rather than drawing from Deighton’s novels.
Far more light-hearted were 1966’s Our Man Flint and its 1967 sequel In Like Flint, a pair of spoofs which starred James Coburn as super-spy Derek Flint. Sharing his home with four beautiful young women, playboy Flint had as much in common with Hugh Hefner as James Bond. The character returned, sans Coburn, for a 1976 Canadian TV movie, Dead on Target.
Equally parodic of Bond was a quartet of films starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm, a spy who specializes in tracking down and killing enemy agents, whose cover as a photographer ensured he was always surrounded by a bevy of models. Based on a long running series of novels by author Donald Hamilton, the films deviated from the straight tone of the source material into broad spoof territory. Martin sleepwalked through his role, often appearing a little worse for wear and far from the peak physical condition you would expect a spy to maintain. A short-lived 1975 TV series cast Anthony Franciosa in the role of Helm, but, presumably hoping to cash in on the popularity of Columbo and Kojak, Helm was turned into a private investigator.
As late as the '90s, the spy genre was deemed ripe for parody, with comedian Mike Myers finding success as British spy Austin Powers in a trilogy of hit movies, spoofing Bond and its many ‘60s imitations. A 1984 spy spoof, Top Secret, was poorly received on release but is now considered a comedy classic.
The most notorious Bond spoof came in the form of 1967’s Casino Royale, a broadly comic take on Fleming’s first 007 novel, later adapted more conventionally in 2006.
At the turn of the century, the Bond franchise was viewed by many critics as an obsolete cold war relic, and audiences desired a new, more contemporary take on the genre. Along came The Bourne Identity in 2002, an adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s 1980 novel, which had previously been filmed as a 1988 TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain in the title role. With Matt Damon as an amnesiac who comes to learn he’s actually a secret agent manipulated by his own government, the movie gave the spy genre a youthful, energetic upgrade. Serious in tone but packed with frenetic action set-pieces, it would inspire three sequels of its own, while proving a major influence on the direction the Bond franchise would take in its current Daniel Craig iteration.
Bond was equally influential on the small screen. By the mid-1960s, almost every home in the U.S and U.K had a television, and the TV networks of both countries were keen to exploit the popularity of spies. In Bond’s home country, a raft of spies and secret agents thrilled British TV viewers. Debuting in 1961, The Avengers actually preceded Bond’s cinematic debut, but drew influences from Fleming’s series, adding its own ‘Bond Girls’ in the form of the tough but beautiful sidekicks who aided the late Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, a debonair and very British umbrella wielding gent. Such was the popularity of Avengers’ stars Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg, the pair would become two of the most memorable Bond Girls, Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s Countess Tracy di Vicenzo. The show was revived as The New Avengers in 1976, with over the top storylines that verged on parody, reflecting the tone of that era’s Roger Moore Bond instalments.
Prior to replacing Sean Connery, Moore had become a household name in Britain thanks to his starring role in The Saint, playing Simon Templar, the hero of a series of novels by author Leslie Charteris. Templar was a super-thief, stealing from criminals, but the show essentially followed the spy template. It proved a hit in the U.S and beyond, a key factor in Moore’s eventual casting as Bond. The actor had been forced to turn down the role of 007 twice because of his commitment to the show before he ultimately stepped into the famous tux. As with The Avengers, a 1970s revival in the form of Return of the Saint, starring Ian Ogilvy in the lead role, was short-lived.
Between finishing The Saint and taking on Bond, Moore appeared in The Persuaders. Along with Tony Curtis, the pair essayed playboys who solved crime, and the show made much of the culture clash between American Curtis and Brit Moore. The show’s great theme tune was provided by none other than John Barry!
Stateside, Ian Fleming had been asked to develop a small screen spy show for NBC. Originally pitched as Ian Fleming’s Solo, the series would become The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum starred as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, agents in the employ of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Solo was a wise-cracking, womanizing American, while Kuryakin was a somber, professional Russian. Presenting a Russian as a heroic lead at the height of cold war tensions between East and West was a gamble, but one that paid off, with American audiences, particularly those of a female persuasion, instantly warming to McCallum’s character. The cold war was never actually mentioned throughout the show; instead the villains were members of T.H.R.U.S.H (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humankind), an organisation that, like Bond’s S.M.E.R.S.H and S.P.E.C.T.R.E, was dedicated to its quest for global domination. The show was a smash hit, and in Europe, seven two-part episodes were combined and released as theatrical features. A spin-off, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E, starred Stefanie Powers as a female operative. In 1983, the cast returned for a reunion TV movie, The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E, which featured a cameo by former Bond George Lazenby as a character cheekily named ‘J.B’. The first genuine U.N.C.L.E big screen movie, starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Solo and Kuryakin, was released in 2015.
Equally popular was Mission Impossible, which featured the exploits of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force), a group of secret agents who specialized in pulling off ‘impossible’ feats. Boasting one of TV’s most iconic theme tunes, the show originally ran from 1966-73 and returned for a 1988 TV revival. The franchise is likely best known now for its Tom Cruise starring cinematic spin-off, the fifth instalment of which opened in 2015.
As on the big screen, the spy genre was spoofed on TV with the Mel Brooks created Get Smart, in which Don Adams and Barbara Feldon played the bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart and his long-suffering partner Agent 99. After five successful seasons, two movies followed, one theatrical (1980’s The Nude Bomb), one made for TV (1989’s Get Smart, Again!). In 1995, a revival starring comedian Andy Dick flopped, with only seven episodes produced. More successful was the Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway starring 2008 Get Smart movie, though reviews were mixed.
Two decades after the peak of the spy genre, MacGuyver introduced its titular secret agent, played by Richard Dean Anderson, to TV audiences in 1985. MacGuyver was a rough and ready, DIY version of Bond, more comfortable in t-shirt and jeans than tux and bow-tie, and famously had a knack for using everyday household objects to create everything from radios to missiles. The character and tropes of the show were later spoofed in the 2010 comedy film MacGruber.
By the early ‘70s, African Americans formed a considerable part of the American cinema-going audience, and a new genre – ‘Blaxploitation’ – was born to cater to African-Americans starved of black screen heroes. The Bond movies were immensely popular among African-Americans, and the franchise’s influence is clear to see in the Blaxploitation genre. Private Eye John Shaft, portrayed in film and TV by Richard Roundtree (and Samuel L. Jackson in a 2000 reboot), was conceived by writer Ernest Tidyman as a black 007. The 1971 film’s advertising boasted that the movie was “Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt”. A black female secret agent played by Tamara Dobson thrilled audiences in 1973’s Cleopatra Jones and its 1975 sequel The Casino of Gold.
This craze was reflected in Roger Moore’s Bond debut, 1973’s Live and Let Die, filmed in Harlem and New Orleans, and starring Blaxploitation stalwarts like Yaphet Kotto and Gloria Hendry, the latter becoming the first black actress to bed James Bond, at a time when on-screen inter-racial relationships were still considered taboo. Over the years, Bond has had a variety of black lovers, played by actresses like Halle Berry, Grace Jones and Naomie Harris, and the current fan favourite to take over the role from Daniel Craig is black British actor Idris Elba.
Live and Let Die wasn’t the first time Bond had taken a non-white lover. As early as Dr. No, Bond slept with the Chinese Ms. Taro, though the character was played by Kenyan born British actress Zena Marshall in unconvincing make-up. 1967’s You Only Live Twice featured three Asian Bond Girls, this time played by actual Asian actresses – Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi from Japan, and Tsai Chin from China.
The Bond movies were hugely popular across the globe, and several Asian and Europe rip-offs were made to exploit its popularity. The cheekily titled 1965 German/ Italian production A 009 Missione Hong Kong starred Stewart Granger as a silver-haired spy. The 1967 Italian knock-off Operation Kid Brother (aka O.K. Connery) starred Sean Connery’s younger brother Neil, as well as 007 regulars Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell. Perhaps the most outrageous movie to bear Bond’s influence has to be the 1981 Filipino oddity For Your Height Only, which starred the 83cm tall Weng Weng as Agent 00. Along with its 1982 sequel, The Impossible Kid, it has to be seen to be believed.
Of course, Bond had an impact beyond cash-hungry movie and TV producers, with the general public adopting his famous catchphrases. Who hasn’t been tempted to introduce themselves surname first, ala “Bond, James Bond”, or request their Martini be “shaken not stirred”.
007 exerted an influence on fashion over the years, and each new release sparks a battle among designers to have Bond and his female co-stars decked out in their creations. The futuristic shoulder-padded suits of 1979’s Moonraker would prompt one of the ‘80s most iconic trends; in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 Catch Me If You Can, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character asks his tailor to recreate the three-piece suit sported by Bond in Dr. No; and quite a few ladies bought their male partners speedos after witnessing Daniel Craig emerge from the surf in 2006’s Casino Royale.
Bond has had a similar influence on tourism, thanks to the series’ globe-trotting plotlines. 007 hit the screen at a time when international travel was becoming affordable and no longer confined to the ‘jet set’. Previously ignored destinations like the Caribbean and South East Asia were transformed into tourist hot-spots after being featured in Bond movies. Just like fashion designers, tourism boards are eager to have the fictional character visit their locale on his adventures. $20 million worth of tax incentives are rumoured to have been offered to Bond production outfit Eon to film the pre-credit sequence of Spectre in Mexico City, so great are the benefits of the global exposure provided by a Bond movie. London enjoyed a boost in tourism upon staging the 2012 Olympics, the opening ceremony of which featured Daniel Craig as 007 parachuting into the Olympic Stadium alongside the Queen of England, his parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack in a nod to the opening sequence of 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.
Over 50 years since Bond first appeared on our screens, his influence can still be found in the multiplexes, with a host of spy themed movies released in 2015, including the latest Mission Impossible; a big screen adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E; spoofs Kingsman: The Secret Service and the Melissa McCarthy starring Spy; Spielberg’s fact-based cold war thriller Bridge of Spies; and, of course, Spectre, the 24th official Bond production. The cold war may be over, but the world will always need spies and secret agents as we face new threats; and it seems Bond will always be around to protect us.

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