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Opinion
 
BY DAVID MCMAHON

Bond's licence to thrill not expiring any time soon

In fact, universal appeal of ageless super spy defies time

Published on Aug 25, 2014 12:04 PM
 

It was Mr Fleming. With the revolver. At the river camp in equatorial Brazil. He wasn't licensed to kill.

But had the Englishman not used the weapon to despatch an alligator that threatened members of a 1932 British expedition, the world might never have been introduced to James Bond.

The marksman was Peter Fleming, who published his first spy novel in 1952, before he put in a good word the next year for another aspiring novelist whose debut novel had been rejected.

His intervention with London publisher Jonathan Cape was made on behalf of his younger brother Ian, whose manuscript for Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, had been pushed aside because it fell short of the writing standard of his older sibling.

If Fleming the Younger was spooked by the temporary setback, it did not deter him.

Having quipped before he earned his first publishing contract that writing a book was as simple as producing a good salad, he had to go back, reluctantly, to the drawing board.

His rewritten version of the spurned novel jump-started a multi-billion-dollar franchise that outlasted the Korean War, the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War and conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fleming's 60th death anniversary was observed this month. But unlike his creator, James Bond - actually in his 90s now - never ages and so continues to elude death. Bond is ageless, in print, on screen and in universal appeal.

So what is it about this character that still makes him a global phenomenon?

Essentially, he is a superhero without a cape. While he is as resolute and as invincible as Superman and Batman, he favours slick suits, does not need a phone box to gear up for battle, and his only kryptonite is the allure of beautiful women.

Yet, the British spy shares a common DNA strand with those costumed American comic book heroes. Superman and Batman were Depression-era characters created in 1938 and 1939 respectively. Bond, too, was spawned in a time of global austerity - the post-World War II era - which is undoubtedly why he provided popular escapism-rooted entertainment at a time of dire economics and shifting political alliances.

The uncertainty of the era of the nuclear threat ensured the growing need for intelligence gathering as a vital crutch for national security - and this real-world uncertainty gave Bond a growing cachet. Whenever 007 answered the call to duty, millions of fans across the globe paid heed.

The Bond global brand has never substantially diminished or plateaued but has continued to expand across the decades.

When the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was released in 1953, Sony had just launched the pocket-sized transistor radio. Six decades later, in the era of cloud computing, Fleming's hero is still one of the world's most popular.

While his most enduring traits are his incorruptibility and his ability to win against huge odds, it would be a mistake to dismiss Bond's adventures as simply a one-dimensional triumph of good versus evil. The sub-plots, too, are equally compelling - wry versus menacing, suave versus sinister, slick versus despicable.

The classic marketing term "the complete package" applies to Bond, despite his many shortcomings. And despite the predictability of each successive film plot - yes, we know without fail that he will quell the villain, seduce the heroine, use an array of gadgets and conquer adversity to emerge dusty but triumphant - he still remains box-office gold.

The books, too, have continued after Fleming's death in 1964, with Kingsley Amis, Christopher Wood, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver and William Boyd assuming the literary mantle.

On screen, Bond has officially been played by six actors; a seventh, David Niven took the role in the 1967 version of Casino Royale, a Bond spoof. Sean Connery in 1962 was the first to play 007, followed by George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig - so the English spy has been played variously by a Scot, an Australian, an Irishman and three Britons.

In the same time frame, the United States has had 10 presidents - John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

While it is easy to denigrate the Hollywood Bond or to dismiss him as a predictable caricature, that would be to ignore one of the key factors in his appeal that has increased exponentially from one century into another.

Like any top international brand, he has modernised and adapted to keep pace with the times. Yet, like his Rolex and Omega watches, his Aston Martin and black ties, he has retained the essential qualities that make him so distinctive.

Accordingly, he has blended seamlessly into the changing backdrop of history and popular culture, with a greater following in the 21st century than he commanded in his original avatar.

To the casual observer, the cut of Daniel Craig's designer Tom Ford suits mimics the outfits worn by Connery, yet the modern sartorial emphasis is unmistakable. By allowing Bond to evolve - but not too much - the franchise has stayed true to its original fan base, from the time when men wore trilby and fedora hats, while simultaneously opening the floodgates to new fans born and raised in the era of grunge music and designer stubble.

Craig's harder-edged Bond has been more profitable than any other. His version of Casino Royale (2006) became the first 007 film to rake in more than US$500 million (S$625 million) at the international box office.

This benchmark was replicated by Quantum Of Solace (2008), while Skyfall (2012) topped the US$1 billion mark for the first time.

But this commercial success has also masked dangerous quicksand. The two most substantial threats to Bond's success surfaced in the last seven years, precisely when the movies were more profitable than at any time in their history.

Twice since 2007, the Bond movie legacy has faced a greater danger than ever posed by the great villains Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Drax, Scaramanga, General Chang, Le Chiffre and Raoul Silva. Industrial action, of all things, hobbled Quantum Of Solace during the Hollywood writers' strike, followed in 2010 by the bankruptcy of MGM, the studio that distributes the movies that are licensed to thrill.

Next time you see Daniel Craig in a restaurant, don't send him a martini, even if it is shaken, not stirred. He said he has lost count of the number of strangers who send him the drink, even in the middle of the morning.

But if all you want is to shake his hand rather than his martini, go ahead. Just join the "Q".

dmcmahon@sph.com.sg

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