I watched the first Bond movie, Dr. No, this weekend & have some thoughts on James Bond as a cultural icon.
Dr. No is the first James Bond movie. It premiered in 1962 and was quickly followed by three more movies, one a year until 1965. 1966 did not see a Bond movie, but they’ve been made consistently every few years since then, for a total of 26. As of now that’s an average of one every two years. That’s a remarkable feat for a movie franchise - especially one so consistent in its formula. James Bond is older than the moon landing, JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam war, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war, the creation of the Internet, and cable TV. The consistency of the Bond formula through all that change makes the Bond films an interesting study into changing culture over time. I am going to ignore the questions of racism and sexism - I think quite and lot has been written connecting James Bond with those topics - and focus more on the trends of the series itself. Specifically I am interested in what sorts of things are established as the core features of Bond movies (at least for the early few, as they are introduced). I am also interested in how the characteristics of Bond villains change over time. I think this will have the most to say about what we were worried about as a culture at the time.
Let’s start with Dr. No. Be warned, there are spoilers here.
The movie is set mainly in Jamaica (the end credits reveal that at least some portion was shot on-location, something I expect to change over the series). We see the introduction of many Bond mainstays, including an attractive woman with a pun name (in this case Honey Ryder’s name is used to great effect with the theme, Under the Mango Tree - “Under the mango tree, my honey…") and a solid action movie quip (though I only noticed one). As the pursuer’s car drives off a cliff and explodes, a bystander asks Bond what happened. He says “I guess they were going to a funeral.” Bond’s car, by the way, is nothing remarkable - a Sunbeam Alpine, a two-seater British sports car more akin to an MGB than an Aston Martin DB-series. That has yet to be established. His gun, however, is firmly put in place (by his boss). In this scene Bond is relieved of his preferred Beretta (“Nice and light - in a lady’s handbag! No stopping power.") and given his standard Walther PPK. Finally, we see the introduction of Bond villains and the SPECTRE organization. Bond villains are cold and unfeeling and they gloat when Bond tries and fails to advance his own ends. They have large fortresses full of traps and confusing passages. They only want to have the world bow before them, and nothing else will do. They’re intelligent and rich and just about to accomplish what they’ve set out to do.
Dr. No in particular is a half-Chinese, half-German man. He’s a very intelligent engineer who once worked for Chinese organized crime, before stealing a bunch of money and establishing a convoluted fortress in Jamaica. From there, he uses some sort of a nuclear-powered machine that makes radio waves to “topple” American missiles and rockets. What does this say about our cultural fears? Well, the use of nuclear power - and the infusion of the swamp surrounding Dr. No’s lair with radiation - is an obvious pick for what we were afraid of at the time. Nuclear power remains something we’re inordinately worried about. At this time, I anticipate the bombs were more prevalent in people’s minds. It had been under twenty years since they were dropped. This makes nuclear power an appropriate touchstone. Dr. No is half-Chinese - the fear here is Communism - and half-German, which perhaps reaches back again to WWII, though the case could be made that it’s also a fear of Communism since half of Germany is run by Russia at this point in time. The Berlin Wall had arisen just a year previous. Lastly, Dr. No’s plans to topple American rockets would have hit home in particular - JFK delivered his famous “to the moon” speech in mid-1961.
I did not expect to find so much in Dr. No that plays on cultural fears. I expect reading Bond villains as a proxy for cultural fears will continue to be interesting over the rest of the series.
Does this interest you? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments. I’m gonna go watch From Russia with Love and have more for you next week.