Late last week, I had one of those mental flashbacks, moments where the events of the present so uncannily resemble a previous experience that the past comes flooding back. Emerging from a screening of Skyfall at Hamilton's Lido cinema, I was met with a line of patrons eagerly queuing for the next session. It's not that queues are completely unheard of these days, particular this year at the Lido, where the International Film Festival did sterling business. However, there was something very 20th century about the euphoric afterglow occasioned by the movie just seen and the look of anticipation in the punters' faces about to experience same. I was suddenly taken back to 1977 at the Odeon in Rotorua. It was just like it was going to see The Spy Who Loved Me.
There was good reason to recall a James Bond film from the past. Discounting a spoof, a remake and a false start on American television, Skyfall is the 23rd James Bond film. As most will no doubt be aware, its release marks the 50th anniversary of the first "official" Eon Production adaptation of Ian Fleming's work. Reflecting a good deal of thought about how best to mark this milestone, it evokes memories of the early 1960s Sean Connery movies, literally returning the character to his Scottish roots.
There have been longer lived film series than Bond and ones with more individual instalments. With the success of the Harry Potter adaptations the franchise can no longer claim to be the most profitable, either. From a critical perspective many an argument can be mounted against the bed-hopping Cold War warrior, from misogyny, snobbery and latent racism to just plain ridiculousness. If you want credibility in your fictional spies look to John Le Carre and his adapters. Fleming's man is strictly the stuff of fantasy and male fantasy at that.
Outside of actual cartoon figures like Mickey Mouse, arguably no other fictional film construct has held sway so broadly for so long, transcending the limitations of some of the actors playing him, the time and political environment from whence he originally sprung and changing social attitudes toward his more colourful exploits. Smoking, drinking, gambling and womanising - the vices with which Fleming so lovingly if incredibly imbued his state assassin - are now all to be frowned upon by a humourless, puritanical world. Yet, if you can survive the plastic interpretation of Roger Moore and the insufferable posing of Pierre Brosnan, if you can bear up to the indignity of being played by a one-dimensional Australian like George Lazenby, what's a little political incorrectness between friends?
Judging by the mask of anticipatory bliss on the mostly middle-aged faces waiting to see Skyfall, Bond still has a loyal audience keen to indulge the guilty pleasure of nostalgia. Each of us orientate to the character relative to the years on our clocks and our individual film- going experience. For my mother there was only one Bond and he spoke with a Scottish accent, a view until at least recently I came to share, but not before growing up on a steady diet of inconsistent Roger Moore vehicles. To be 11 years old when The Spy Who Loved Me was released was the perfect age for a franchise that had slipped into campy excess and self-parody. I'm just thankful that I read the books in adolescence and had the good fortune to experience the Connery originals on the big screen in a mini-retrospective at the local fleapit. It was truly character building, even if it took me years to understand why calling a sensual woman Pussy Galore was snigger-worthy funny.
In Daniel Craig, Bond has an interpreter equal in acting prowess to Connery, more muscular without being muscle bound. Admittedly lacking Connery's Scottish burr, he's got that same magic combination of physicality, charisma and understated humour. Craig's Bond, like Connery's and, indeed, Fleming's, is arrogant but with good reason.
In a year where the lines between life and art were blurred, with Bond playing a part in the Queen's official Diamond Jubilee celebrations, seemingly sharing the screen with the actual sovereign, it is fitting that Skyfall associates its hero with a Churchillian bulldog. Given that Winston Churchill was Elizabeth's first prime minster the iconography is apt. Love him or loathe him James Bond has become a cultural constant, an all pervasive, if anachronistic, symbol of the British fighting spirit in an era when the empire is but a distant memory.
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