Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Reading Bulldog Drummond

I was recently surprised to find that the Internet Movie Data Base lists a Bulldog Drummond movie as in development for 2013. There is so little information available about the project that it may just be a "myth of IMDB" (like The Brazilian Job). Even if that is the case, that there should be a myth at all is a reminder of the utter unwillingness of movie-land to completely let go of any franchise.

Until recently reading H.C. "Sapper" McNeile's original novel, Bulldog Drummond (1920), I knew the character only secondhand, from mentions of him in studies of spy fiction I'd read, and from a couple of movies that treated the material rather loosely – 1969's Some Girls Do (the second and last in a series of films that updated the character for the '60s), and 1983's Bullshot Crummond (a parody of the series I found very entertaining despite my limited familiarity with the butt of its jokes, and which seems to me underappreciated).

In that first book, Bulldog is the nickname of Captain Hugh Drummond, a decorated British Army officer of World War I who has since returned to private life as a "sportsman and a gentleman." Quickly getting bored with the leisure his wealth affords him, he decides, initially as something of a lark, to put an ad in the newspaper in which he indicates a hunger for "diversion. Legitimate, if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential."

The ad is soon answered by Phyllis Benton, the tale's damsel in distress and romantic interest, whose father has been drawn into the machinations of one Carl Peterson, and his henchman Henry Lakington. Drummond finds plenty to interest him here, and soon enough, with the help of some of his ex-Army friends, is taking on a plot for a takeover of Britain by left-wing revolutionaries financed by a pack of greedy and vengeful foreigners.

It has often been said that Drummond can be thought of as a proto-James Bond. There is the protagonist's privileged social background, his wartime military experience, his penchant for sport and juvenile behavior (along with his buddies, he seems very much the upper-class hooligan), his knack for getting into trouble and then back out of it again. Like Bond he lives in a comfortable apartment in an upscale London district, tended by loyal personal servants (James Denny, and his wife), and is very particular about his cigarettes (with Virginia tobacco on one side of his case, and Turkish on the other).

There is, too, the feel of his adventures: the international criminal conspiracy headed by an evil genius (Carl Peterson) with an affinity for exotic and deadly pets, weapons and cronies (a cobra, a killer gorilla, knock-out gas), and a gadget-packed lair; his encounters with alluring girls good and bad (besides Phyllis, there is Peterson's daughter Irma); the combination of gentility and murderousness in his confrontations with the arch-villain (fully on display in such scenes as Peterson's visit to Drummond's apartment early in the story); the bad guys who in their arrogance or sadism prefer not to dispose of Drummond immediately, making bouts of unconsciousness and rounds of capture and escape a surprisingly regular feature of his life.1 The course of Drummond's investigations also anticipates Bond's, particularly his habit of baiting the bad guys into revealing bits of information, and his coincidentally eavesdropping on villains at the right time to catch crucial bits of their plans (often, during those periods when they think he's safely locked up). He even picks up an American detective as a helper in Jerome K. Green of the New York Police Department (a proto-Felix Lighter to Drummond's proto-Bond). And when it is all over, Peterson, like Ernst Stavro Blofeld in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963), manages to escape from justice at the end of the adventure, insuring that there will be a next time.

That is not to say that there are not significant differences. Bond is, after all, a professional operative working as part of a massive government organization rather than a restless amateur, and something of a cynic, world-weary, in a way that Drummond shows no sign of being. This attitude carries over to the treatments of politics in their respective adventures. While Fleming's plots were typically right-wing and nationalistic in their conception (so much so that Umberto Eco took them ironically), and the author was not at all shy about expressing his opinions about politics (or anything else), he never comes close to the long-winded, heavy-handed and contempt-filled denunciation of the left, the working class, and intellectuals in general to which Drummond and company devote most of the last tenth of the novel. (One might also add that Bulldog is much less debonair than 007, described by the author as possessed of a "cheerful ugliness," and at any rate is, despite Irma's charms, a one-woman man, marrying Phyllis and ending his first adventure on his honeymoon with her.) Nonetheless, Fleming's debt to Sapper is such a vast one that Julian Symons was substantially right when he described the James Bond novels as "the 'Sapper' pipe-dream converted to the mood of the fifties," and Bond as a "more sophisticated version of Bulldog Drummond" (270) in his classic study of the thriller genre, Mortal Consequences.

The 50th Anniversary of the James Bond Film Series
A History of the Spy Story, Part II: The Life of a Genre
A History of the Spy Story, Part I: The Birth of a Genre
Thoughts on W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden
Reflections on the Jason Bourne Series
From Screen to Page: Reading Ian Fleming
The Life of a Literary Genre: Considering The Mystery
Reflections on the Dirk Pitt Series
The End of James Bond?
The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Culture, by Patrick Anderson

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