Ian Fleming & the first James Bond, Sean Connery
The newest James Bond movie, Skyfall, opened last month while the press and the blogosphere celebrated the 50th anniversary of the film franchise. Cover stories blossomed describing the various James Bond actors, from Sean Connery and Roger Moore to the newest incarnation of Ian Fleming’s hero, Daniel Craig, along with Bond’s girls, from Ursula Andress to Berenice Marlohe, and Bond’s high-tech toys, from exploding briefcases to invisible cars. Nostalgia buffs of a certain age recall the Mad Magazine Man from U.N.C.L.E. parody where Sean Connery showed up at the end to brusquely inform Robert Vaughan (As Napoleon Solo) that he got more girls in one movie than Solo got in a whole season of the knock-off spy drama. We recall our chagrin when George Lazenby took over for an ungrateful Sean Connery (Bond was constricting his talents) and ruined what might have been the best of film of them all, On her Majesty’s Secret Service.
“This never happened to the other guy” Lazenby remarked with cheeky meta panache after getting beaten up in the opening action sequence.
You said it, fella.
Despite my own fondness for many of the movies — they were a family Christmas day tradition for most of my childhood and my favorite part may have been the end of each one where a final note in the credits said “The end … but James Bond will be back …” – someone has to say it: we’re all celebrating the wrong anniversary.
Fleming has become the forgotten man as the hoopla about his character’s ongoing life in the cinema ramps up. Most people seem to regard Fleming as a hack with a taste for fine liquor and high tech gimmicks. He liked to drink, no question about it, and the famous “shaken but not stirred” prescription for the perfect martini first appeared in Diamonds are Forever, published in 1956. But the obsession with “Q branch” and elaborate weaponry was entirely the product of Hollywood.
This lovely moment in From Russia with Love makes the point with typical brio. Bond, headed for Belgrade on the old Orient Express, finds himself at the mercy of SMERSH agent Donovan “Red” Grant, played in the film by Robert Shaw. In the book, there is no fancy exploding briefcase or any other gimmick to save Bond. Fleming notes this, with ironic regret: “He puffed away at his cigarette. If only it had been a trick one – magnesium flare, or anything he could throw in the man’s face! If only his service went in for those explosive toys!”
Ian Fleming’s Bond books in general, though fanciful and romantic when compared with the works of John LeCarré or Len Deighton, seem almost mundane next to the continuously escalating madcap extravagance of the films, which lapsed into self-parody for more than a decade in the seventies and early eighties (still ruefully known as “The Roger Moore Years”).
Fleming’s James Bond was grounded and practical, a sybarite but also an ascetic, equally fond of sea-island cotton shirts and cold showers. And he had an imagination, which no film has ever managed to portray and no film-maker seems to have noticed.
Here, in Diamonds are Forever, Bond witnesses the villain’s death, Jack Spang — Mafioso and international diamond smugggler — crashing in a disabled helicopter: “Yes. There he was. Only about a thousand feet up now, engine roaring and the great blades whirring uselessly as the tangle of metal pitched and yawed down the sky in long drunken staggers.” Fleming captures the scene vividly, through Bond’s merciless camera-eye:
Bond could imagine the narrow cockpit, the big man holding on with one hand and wrenching at the controls with the other as he watched the needle of the altimeter dip down through the hundreds. And there would be the red glare of terror in the eyes, and the hundred thousand pound pocketful of diamonds would be just so much dead weight, and the gun which had been a strong right arm since boyhood would be no comfort.
About the possibility of a similar fate befalling him, Bond allows himself a few typically hard-nosed philosophical musings, in flight over the Caribbean early on in Live and Let Die:
No, when the stresses are too great for the tired metal, when the ground mechanic who checks the de-icing equipment is in love and skimps his job, way back in London, Idlewild, Gander, Montreal; when those or many things happen, then the little warm room with propellers in front falls straight down into the sea or onto the land, heavier than air, fallible, vain. And the forty little heavier-than-air people, fallible within the plane’s fallibility, vain within its larger vanity, fall down with it and make little holes in the land or little splashes in the sea. Which is anyway their destiny, so why worry? You are linked to the ground mechanic’s careless fingers in Nassau just as you are linked to the weak head of the little man in the family saloon, who mistakes the red light for the green and meets you head-on, for the first and last time, as you are motoring quietly home from some private sin. There’s nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death.
Fleming was the first writer I encountered, reading for pleasure, who made me realize that the hero in a book could have an inner life, that the book itself could have a vivid sense of place and a unique sensibility. In other words, Fleming was my introduction to literature. I must add, by way of explanation that I was ten years old at the time and my primary reading, outside of Spider Man comic books, consisted of Albert Payson Terhune dog fiction and the Hardy Boys. Formulaic as those stories were, they led me to Fleming and Fleming led me directly to Chandler and Hammett, and from there to Hemingway and Camus and beyond. I learned my first lessons in fine writing from the way Fleming He sprinkled his prose with little grace notes of description – the sea ‘lisping’ on the flat sand, the ‘straight white feather’ of a fishing boat’s wake, viewed from above.
Fleming was a world traveler and he made his settings come alive in a way that some more serious authors might envy. One of the last of the books, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, begins this way:
It was one of those summers when it seemed that the summer would never end.
The five-mile promenade of Royale-les-Eaux , backed by trim lawns emblazoned at intervals with tri-color beds of salvia, alyssum and lobelia, was bright with flags and, on the longest beach in the north of France, the gay bathing tents still marched prettily down to the tide line in big-money making battalions.
And here is the view of Istanbul from a shabby hotel window, soon after Bond arrives in the city, in From Russia with Love:
Bond got out of bed, drew back the heavy red plush curtains and leant on the iron balustrade and looked out over one of the most famous views in the world – on his right the still waters of the Golden Horn, on his left the dancing waves of the unsheltered waters of the Bosphorous, and, in between, the tumbling roofs, soaring minarets and crouch mosque of Pera. After all, his choice had been good. The view made up for many bedbugs and much discomfort.
In most of these places, Bond encounters men who become his friends — generally the same kind of man: shrewd, tough adrenaline junkies, with firm dry handshakes and few illusions. From Darko Kerim, the head the Secret Service’s Istanbul Station, a cheerful cynic who treats spying in the Balkans as a teeming family business, to Corsican gangster Marc-Ange Draco, who briefly becomes Bond’s father-in-law, to Jamaica bone-fisherman Quarrel, and sturdy self-effacing CIA agent Felix Leiter, Bond has a knack for finding kindred spirits. But Bond is a dangerous man to know: most of his allies and companions fall by the way-side, shot, stabbed to death or in Leiter’s case, half eaten by carnivorous fish. Fleming had a streak of sadism and a taste for cruelty, tempered by the essential decency of his much battered, imperfect, hero who often bungles every attempt but the final one.
Fleming’s estate in Jamaica & his study
Fleming himself seems like the icon of an extinct brand of personal style, from his mysterious history with MI6 to Goldeneye, the sprawling beach estate in Jamaica where he wrote most of his books, to the ever present cigarette in its long holder, he possessed a level of personal style that modern thriller writers don’t even aspire to. This was a man who claimed to have seen every sunrise in his adult life, who remarked “I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them,” and dismissed Sean Connery with a tart “I’m looking for Commander James Bond, not an overgrown stunt man.”
The James Bond movies relentlessly update the character and his world with the cold war dissolving into the war on terror, new actors taking over the role, the gadgets and gizmos becoming ever grander, the tech ever higher, the tropes and traps more topical. The villains use parkour and iPads now; the text has replaced the cable. This is necessary in the big-ticket Hollywood that feeds the international film market, where everything must take place in the immediate, indeed the imperative, present tense.
But the charm of Fleming’s novels is the precise reverse of this passion for the up-to-date. Moldering on the used book store shelf, or awkwardly clustered in the cloud-based queue of my Kindle e-reader, they remain unapologetically documents of their own time, endearing period pieces from an era that baby-boomers like myself regard with a fierce wounding nostalgia.
It was our parents’ time, a time of cars with fins, telephones with rotary dials, when America was still the most powerful nation on earth, riding the storm surge of power and wealth from World War II. Yes there were cracks and fractures in that world, but they were easy to ignore. Everyone smoked and nobody cared. Nothing was fading away, nothing was running out, and no listened to Rachel Carson.
Our fathers wore blocked hats parties and drank from flasks of rye at football games; and our mothers gave big cocktail parties and joined the PTA. We protested and demonstrated and smoked weed and ended the war in View Nam and brought down the President.
Who could have guessed that our swaggering parents would get lung cancer from the smoking and cirhossis from the booze, and that we would become the safety first, rules-making, no-kid-rides-a-bike-without-body-armor scared of its own shadow generation, about to drag the world into insolvency with our collective Medicare and Social Security costs?
What did faded movie star Norma Desmond say in Sunset Boulevard ? “I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Well, it’s the whole world that’s shriveling now. We live in a diminished, attenuated world, one that seems to be running down like a hand cranked sewing machine. There are too many people, and too little of everything else – food, water, oil, education, breathing space. There was a kind of power moving through the world that Ian Fleming inhabited, like the immense pulses of energy that move through the Pacific from the great Aleutian storms, creating the giant waves that break in Hawaii and the Northern coast of California. That energy has drained from the world somehow. We’re all sitting in inflatable rafts in swimming pools, our new world tiny and tame and chlorinated. The power surging through Fleming’s mid- twentieth century made his success and charisma and swagger possible. It might not have created his stature but it gave him a place to stand.
Okay it was all an illusion, but it was a grand illusion and I miss it and I feel the touch of it on my shoulder every time James Bond lights one of those hand- made cigarettes from Morland’s with the three gold rings above the filter.
That time is gone and Fleming is gone, but the books remain, still more substantial and enduring than the movies they inspired, still wildly inventive and engrossing, still deliciously preposterous, still as quirky and eccentric as the man who wrote them, sixty years on and still counting.
Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, where he has been a contributor and contest winner, his work has appeared at Salon.com and The GoodMen Project, as well various magazines with ‘pulp’ in the title, including PulpModern and BigPulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.