The Spectre of geopolitics in Bond movies

The continuing success of the James Bond franchise over five decades is commonly attributed to its universally appealing cliche: femme fatales, glamorous locations, fast cars, over-the-top villains and, of course, the lone secret agent with the licence to kill, whom every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with.

There is another often overlooked element that has contributed to the success of the series: its representation of people's innermost geopolitical fears.

Terrorism, organised crime, weapons of mass destruction, economic crises, environmental devastation: The list of international threats in the Bond world is at least as long as that of his gadgets and lovers.

Born out of the pen of Ian Fleming, himself a former agent in the British naval intelligence, in 1953, James Bond is the son of the Cold War.


The post-9/11 version of James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, has to deal with the thousand shades of grey of the new complex world marked by betrayal and double play. PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

While the ideological and military threat of the Soviet Union was growing, Bond, on the wave of the triumphant British resistance to the Nazi aggression, is in charge of defending the Western world.

In the novels, there is no mention of the disappearing British Empire or emerging American dominance, nor of the Anglo-American tensions of those years due to the Suez crisis in 1956 and the defections to the Soviet Union of British spies Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby.

But the plots were very much grounded in the anxieties of the Western world of those days. In Thunderball, published in 1961, one year before the Cuban missile crisis, the commander of a US nuclear submarine fears that "any of these little sandy cays" in the Caribbean "could hold the whole of the United States to ransom" with "one of my missiles trained on Miami". It was the year when John F. Kennedy included From Russia With Love among his top 10 favourite books, making Ian Fleming a bestseller in the US.

The smart allusion to the top threats of the day continued in the movies. Every actor playing James Bond not only brought a different style, but also a different geopolitical environment.

Sean Connery (and George Lazenby, for that matter) is very much rooted in the Cold War. Indeed, it seems that even the Soviets were interested in James Bond movies. Oleg Gordievsky, the former head of the KGB station in London who eventually defected in 1985, claimed in a BBC Radio show that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party watched Bond films and the KGB asked him to obtain the gadgets used by Bond.

But, if Bond is the son of the Cold War, he is also the father of the Western world's current geopolitical fears.

Enter Roger Moore, with more humour, but also a better relationship with the Russians. He works with a KGB agent, played by the model Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977, during the years of US-USSR detente.

In 1985, when US President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began to hold their "summit" meetings in the real world, in A View To A Kill Bond receives the Order of Lenin, the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union.

Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan are tasked with moving the series out of the Cold War. Bond becomes the guardian of a new world exposed to transnational threats. Dalton deals with drug trafficking in his two contributions to the series, even ending up in Licence To Kill in a not-so-disguised Panama to defeat narco-trafficking in the same year - 1989 - when the US invaded the country and arrested General Manuel Noriega.

This was the first Bond movie not to use the title of a novel by Fleming (who died in 1964), although the plot had elements of two of his short stories and a novel.

Brosnan fights financial criminals in Goldeneye (1995); and techno-terrorists and media moguls who want to provoke a war in the South China Sea in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997); an evil oil tycoon in The World Is Not Enough (1999); and North Korea in Die Another Day (2002), right when US President George W. Bush included it in the "axis of evil", together with Iran and Iraq.

Up till that period, the geopolitics of James Bond remains primarily painted in black and white.

There is no trace of the ambiguity of international affairs and the intelligence underworld, so well captured by the works of Eric Ambler, Len Deighton or John le Carre.

When Bond goes to Brazil or Egypt, the local agents are inept or non-existent. He always acts clean; he has no moral dilemma. And so it falls on Daniel Craig, the post-9/11 Bond, to introduce the thousand shades of grey of the new complex world.

Betrayal and double play, together with the dark side of carrying a licence to kill, feature prominently in the last movies. Bond is less Winston Churchill and more Batman. He kills with no remorse in Casino Royale, while facing a global terrorist connected with African rebels and organised crime. His boss' bodyguard almost kills him in Quantum Of Solace, when he saves the world from a plot to control the price of fresh water. In Skyfall, his nemesis is nothing less than a former colleague, particularly apt in the use of cyber terrorism.

More will be added to the dark side of Bond in the new Spectre, which stands for the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, released worldwide this month.

The genius of Fleming invented the most nefarious private transnational criminal organisation in the early 1960s. Not surprisingly, the idea comes in handy today, mixed with a subplot of a sinister surveillance technology that reminds us of a world order in which global snooping is the new normal.

As the series continues its uninterrupted success into the 21st century, a key question remains.

For how long will today's audience accept the idea that a British white man, the product of Western democracy and free market order, repeatedly saves the world from Armageddon, with the help of a white, usually blonde, lady?

As a new geopolitical order is emerging, with its epicentre shifting towards the East, we should expect some more adaptation. But, don't worry, glamour and seduction will always be there.

  • The writer is Adjunct Associate Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and Non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute based in New York.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2015, with the headline 'The Spectre of geopolitics in Bond movies'. Print Edition | Subscribe