Bondage and rumination

James Bond expert James Chapman talks about the enduring allure of Agent 007 and the sexual ambiguity of Ian Fleming's creation.

Published May 1, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

On the evidence of his engaging and thought-provoking new book, "Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films," James Chapman may know more about James Bond than anyone on the planet. Chapman is an expert in British film history, a lecturer in film and television history at the Open University in England and, he freely admits, a lifelong Bond aficionado. In "Licence to Thrill," he wears his two hats, serious film scholar and no-holds-barred movie fan, with a certain, well, Bondian elegance and ease. Salon recently spoke to him by telephone at his home in Milton Keynes, England.

The James Bond films are the most successful films in history as far as box office goes, and yet at a time when pop culture is getting all kinds of critical and scholarly scrutiny, they've been overlooked. Why do you think that is?

You're right that popular culture is now starting to get more serious attention from historians and cultural theorists, but I still think there is resistance to taking seriously things that seem to be about pure entertainment or escapism. A lot of the interest in film as a medium is on realist films -- films which seem to have some sort of social or moral worth or purpose, films about real life. But that's meant the marginalization of genre films, like the Bond films, which have been hugely popular with audiences and which don't on the surface seem to have any social relevance or message.

Is there something particular about Bond that has caused this resistance?

In the '80s, when film scholars started to look at British popular genres, they claimed them as being interesting because they were somehow transgressive, sexually or otherwise. Like the Gainsborough melodramas of the 1940s -- "The Wicked Lady," I suppose, is the most famous. It's about a respectable woman who becomes a highway robber and takes on this life of crime. Of course she dies in the end, she's punished, but she has a hell of a good time along the way.

Now the Bond films don't seem especially transgressive. Nothing about them pushes the boundaries of what's permissible socially or morally. They're really sort of conservative, particularly in their representations of national identity, and in some respects they're actually quite reactionary. In the early '60s, when they first came out, they were tapped as being sexist and, to a degree, racist. I think this is the reason historians haven't come along to reclaim them, to start taking them seriously.

You'd think academics would like what the films did with the Ian Fleming novels -- taking a conservative, establishment figure and turning him into a sort of classless hero.

You'd think so, and it's quite interesting how the films take the class connotations out of Fleming's character. Partly it's due to the time in which the films are being made -- the Sean Connery films are very much a product of the '60s, but they're recasting '50s material. Fleming was writing before the '60s' "cultural revolution" -- he's an old gentleman, an Etonian. By the '60s, some of the ethos of Fleming's Bond character is already a little out of date.

Fleming's Bond was in some ways the last of the great British imperial heroes. He's got a whole lineage going back to Sherlock Holmes, Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond, Dick Barton, popular fictional heroes. Bond was the last in that line. By the time the films are being made, the British empire is being dismantled at a pretty rapid pace. And Bond becomes this anachronism -- this imperial hero in a post-imperial age. I think the films are very successful in adapting this imperial hero into an icon of the new society emerging in the 1960s, with the emphasis on youth, on modernity, on classlessness.

I think in the casting of Sean Connery, Bond does become effectively classless. He has the good manners, the elegant tailoring, of the traditional English gentleman, but Connery's performance is almost in the style of American leading men -- Clark Gable, Gary Cooper -- more earthy, with that machismo, rather different from the traditional Englishness of David Niven, who'd been Fleming's preferred choice for Bond. Also, Connery's accent -- that soft Edinburgh accent -- it's regional. There's not an obvious difference between upper class, middle class and so on with Scottish accents. I think this works in the films' favor. All of the critics -- even in Britain -- couldn't place Sean Connery's accent when "Dr. No" first came out; they decried it as sounding Irish-American.

Fleming himself may have been conservative and old-fashioned, but the sexuality in his books is very explicit, even by today's standards. It invites you to speculate on Fleming's own life.

It's clear that Fleming, like a lot of his public [the British equivalent of American private] school generation, was not averse to a little bit of experimentation. Certainly I think he enjoyed slightly masochistic relations with his various girlfriends, and even with his wife.

What about the rumors that he was gay?

Well, I'd take that with a pinch of salt. The thing about Bond, where the Bond character is interesting in relation to Fleming's own psychological makeup, is that Bond became this fantasy projection of what Fleming would like to be like. I mean, Fleming was a very attractive man to women -- he was effortlessly charming, he was viewed as being a sportsman, a strong athletic type, though the smoking and drinking eventually took their toll in middle age.

So Bond wasn't an entirely fantastic figure, but I do think Bond's physical and sexual exploits are that much greater than Fleming's own were. What's interesting about the representation of sex and sexuality in the Fleming books is that they were, at the time, attacked by some critics for their moral degeneracy -- for "sex, sadism and snobbery," as the critic Paul Johnson put it in reviewing the book "Doctor No" in 1958. And that book, in particular, was taken apart for the perceived excesses of sex and violence, which often go together in Bond.

In your book you point out that Fleming's first Bond book appeared the same year Playboy magazine did.

Yes, it's no coincidence that the first book was published in 1953, the year the first Playboy was published, and what you could call the "Bond morals" chime in with the Playboy ethos of the '50s and '60s, of this kind of free, easily available, nonhypocritical sexuality. It's no coincidence that Playboy serialized some of the later novels, and when the films started the actresses often did photo shoots for Playboy.

In some ways the films downplay the sex that was in Fleming's novels.

You could take the film of "Doctor No," that famous shot of Ursula Andress walking out of the Caribbean onto this beautiful golden beach wearing a bikini that was very skimpy for the time: These days it'd seem quite modest, perhaps, but at the time it was something else. But in the book, the character Honeychile Rider walks out of the sea, and Bond looks at her and she's naked. You couldn't show that on film in the early '60s. And you wouldn't even do it today in a Bond film. They have all these exciting adventures, he sleeps with lots of women, but it's done in a sort of coy way -- there's never explicit nudity or explicit sexual scenes.

You say in the book that you're not going to take sides on the eternal question of which actor is the best Bond. But if I had to guess, I'd say you lean toward Timothy Dalton, who you point out has a little more emotional range.

Really, I'm not sure I have a favorite Bond anymore. I think all the actors who have played him have brought something to the character. And I also think the casting has always been right for the times -- Roger Moore wouldn't have worked in the early '60s, for example. But on the other hand, the Dalton interpretation, the more morally serious interpretation of the late '80s, wouldn't have worked in the '70s, when the nature of popular cinema was moving toward camp and parody. Actually, the first Bond film I ever saw was "The Spy Who Loved Me," and I maintain a great fondness for Roger Moore's Bond ever since as a result of that. But he's not the favorite of the hardcore fan culture.

By Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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