Live and Let Live?

james bond sean conneryDr. No famously called James Bond ‘just a stupid policeman.’ However, Fleming’s Bond is often morally conflicted about his role as a ‘blunt instrument’ of the government and is much more distrustful of authority than the patriotic ‘For Queen and Country’ hero of the films. As Bond explains to Mathis in Casino Royale:

 [P]atriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts …. Take our friend Le Chiffre. It’s simple enough to say he was an evil man, at least it’s simple enough for me because he did evil things to me. If he was here now, I wouldn’t hesitate to kill him, but out of personal revenge and not, I’m afraid, for some high moral reason or for the sake of my country.

The films, of course, often sacrifice scenes like these in favor of white-knuckle action, exotic locations, and sultry women. While all three are certainly part of the Bond canon, the more subtle aspects of the character are often lost in the spectacle. The most recent entries in the series starring Daniel Craig spend the most time exploring Bond as psychologically damaged, morally conflicted, and suspicious of his superiors.

In addition, the Bond of the novels is closer to the colonial age than his celluloid counterpart and more skeptical about the exporting of democracy. In From Russia with Love, Bond’s Turkish contact, Kerim says the following:

That is the only way to treat these damned people. They love to be cursed and kicked. It is all they understand. It is in the blood. All this pretense of democracy is killing them. They want some sultans and wars and rape and fun. Poor brutes, in their striped suits and bowler hats. They are miserable. You’ve only got to look at them.

A similar sentiment is echoed by Bond’s contact, Henderson, in You Only Live Twice:

For God’s sake, get it into your head that the Japanese are a separate human species …. Just because people play baseball and wear bowler hats doesn’t mean that they’re quote civilized people unquote …. I stand for government by an elite.

Of course, one is tempted to attribute these statements to racist and imperialist attitudes on Fleming’s part. Although he doubtless says some regrettable things, that interpretation would be too simplistic in light of the fact that Fleming often portrays Bond, beneath his veneer of sophistication, as a savage who can’t handle the demands of polite society. As Fleming says in From Russia with Love, Bond is “a man of war …. and peace was killing him.”

To return to my point, however, the Bond of the novels is, ironically, quite skeptical of Western interventionism in foreign affairs. In You Only Live Twice, he discusses the American occupation of Japan following the Second World War. His interlocutor, Tanaka, complains that American consumer society has replaced Japanese nobility. Bond replies:

I’ve got a lot of American friends who don’t equate with what you’re saying. Presumably you’re talking of the lower level GIs — second-generation Americans who are basically Irish or Germans or Czechs or Poles who probably ought to be working in the fields or coalmines of their countries of origin instead of swaggering around a conquered country under the blessed coverlet of the Stars and Stripes with too much money to spend.

Another passage, this time from Goldfinger, describes Bond’s — and presumably Fleming’s — critique of the devastating effect of Western foreign policy — particularly the ‘war on drugs’ — on far-away lands:

A big man in Mexico had some poppy fields. The flowers were not for decoration. They were broken down for opium which was sold quickly and comparatively cheaply by the waiters at a small café in Mexico City called the ‘Madre de Cacao’. The Madre de Cacao had plenty of protection. If you needed opium you walked in and ordered what you wanted with your drink. You paid for your drink at the caisse and the man at the caisse told you how many noughts to add to your bill. It was an orderly commerce of no concern to anyone outside Mexico. Then, far away in England, the Government, urged on by the United Nations’ drive against drug smuggling, announced that heroin would be banned in Britain. There was alarm in Soho and also among respectable doctors who wanted to save their patients agony. Prohibition is the trigger of crime. Very soon the routine smuggling channels from China, Turkey and Italy were run almost dry by the illicit stock-piling in England.

Far from being a jingoistic hero, then, Fleming’s Bond is quite a bit more nuanced. He often voices the notion that perhaps the world would be better off without the kind of political adventurism for which he’s famous. Maybe if we let people figure things out for themselves — live and let live, if you will — we wouldn’t need 007. Perhaps he’s not just a stupid policeman after all.

6 comments on “Live and Let Live?

  1. I think Skyfall did a good job of getting the more nuanced book Bond onto film. I was struck by how broken down, cynical and world-weary they made him, especially during the scenes when he’s recruited back to MI6, and then the scene when M has to defend the actions of MI6 to a tribunal.
    Hopefully we’ll see more of this Bond, one that seems to be far too aware that he’s just a glorified garbageman… and that there’s always trash needing to be taken out, even if he’s bloody tired of the whole thing.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      I enjoyed Skyfall a lot. It’s probably the most Fleming-like Bond on film, despite the fact it isn’t based on one of his novels.

  2. It seems to me that the Bond we see is a reflection of the way we view those who seek to govern us. In these times, where corporations are on the rise while earnings and freedoms move in the opposite direction, that more world-weary character (who was likely Fleming’s ideal) is the person for the day.
    As for the recent film Bond, it’s amazing how many of us can relate to that character, but I suppose that’s by design.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      Good point, Maurice. Also, I just noticed that you’re sporting very Bond-like attire in your photo. No wonder you find him so relatable!

  3. elkement says:

    Excellent collection of quotes!
    I had always found that I really have to try hard to watch a Bond movie attentively – either I drift off and do something else or fall asleep. This is my general issue with action movies, but the Bond series is the worst. I should also watch them in the role of a cultural critic probably.

    • danielmullin81 says:

      I’ve always enjoyed the Bond series, both its campy and serious installments. However, your statement rings true of the Brosnan era. The producers seemed content to go with generic action fare in Brosnan’s outings, which is too bad because we never got to see what he would have done with some better scripts. By the way, I recommend the Daniel Craig movies if you haven’t already seen them.

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