Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How James Bond Got to Have a 50th Anniversary

My writing has tended to look at the ways in which the James Bond series has dated, or been exceeded--rather than why it endured so long.

Of course, one should put the matter of the series' longevity into the proper perspective. Bond has been around for almost six decades in various forms, the film series for a half century. But Mission: Impossible in its various incarnations goes back to the '60s, as does Star Trek, which has been prominent on the big screen for four decades now. Thirty-five years after the first Star Wars film, we are hearing about plans to make Episode VII. And of course, comic book superheroes like Batman and Superman hit print and screen well before Bond did--but are still very much around.

What is really more extraordinary than the length of time for which it has been around is how prolific the series has been, twenty-four feature films appearing in the space of fifty years, the six year break between 1989 and 1995 the longest gap within this output. This warrants some explanation, and it seems to me that four factors are responsible (beyond the allure of a brand name).

First and foremost was the sheer scale of the series' success in the '60s, the kind of success that comes with not just being a hit, but a game-changer that has everyone else scrambling to follow. Success on that scale meant not just a powerful brand name, but a certain inertia. Putting it in financial terms, the series' grosses were so high at their peak that even with considerable erosion the films could go on being financially viable for quite a long time, as was indeed the case. There was a (more or less) steady decline in the films' earnings after 1965's Thunderball, the result of which was that 1989's Licence to Kill grossed a mere quarter what the older film did (after inflation)--but still turned a profit. That sort of margin also meant plenty of opportunities for at least limited comebacks from the low points--such as Goldeneye managed after Licence to Kill.

There was also the fact that the series was based not on a story with a beginning, middle and end (in the manner of the Star Wars saga, for instance), but a formula which proved susceptible to considerable adaptation. The early films, certainly, can be construed as having been about Bond's battle with SPECTRE and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but no one seems to have been seriously troubled by the switch over from SPECTRE to Auric Goldfinger in the third movie (in fact, he became the series' most celebrated villain by far), and after Bond's last real battle with Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, there was no sense that Bond's adventures had come to an end, no real reason why M could not simply send him on yet another mission after another villain. And even by that point the film had developed enough models to allow considerable scope for reworking, the series' concept accommodating films as diverse as Live and Let Die and Moonraker within the space of six years--and audiences accepting it, making each of those movies a hit on a scale not seen until well into the twenty-first century.

It helped that the films were consistently backed by large budgets. Long after the Bond movies ceased to be pace-setters for the genre, the big money behind them let them provide enough spectacle to remain a draw, very few comparable series financed on the same scale until the late 1980s (the Bonds of that decade all produced for $30 million or more, even as Hollywood still tended to spend $10-20 million to make major action films like Commando, Aliens, Predator and Robocop).1 There were certainly misfires despite this, films which were too goofy or flabby or derivative to really satisfy as action movies (like The Man With the Golden Gun, or A View to a Kill, or Die Another Day), but a fair number of the later installments offered memorable stunts, chases and fights. (The pre-credits sequence of the much-maligned Moonraker, for instance, was to be copied time and again by other films, like 1996's Eraser.)

Finally, there was the continuing appeal of the concept's idiosyncracies for a considerable audience. The familiarity that bored and annoyed some attracted others, while the series lasted long enough to have become an object of nostalgia without ever really having gone away. There remained, too, an attraction on the part of many to the idea of a sophisticated, globe-trotting, hedonistic hero, the over-the-top quality of the characters and plots and action, the lightness of the tone with regard to the sex and violence--much more than those who pompously insist that the "guilty pleasures" of pop culture "must change with the times" would admit. Much as the films did have to change, a significant part of the films' attraction was the ways in which they did not do so--though of course, this could not and did not go on forever.

1. It should be remembered that the early Bond films played a significant role in founding the genre, doing much to develop the form (its structure and pace, its use of the set piece, its editing techniques), creating quite a number of classic scenes (Bond's fight with Red Grant on the Orient Express in From Russia With Love, the climactic battle at SPECTRE's volcano crater base in You Only Live Twice), and inspiring wide, direct imitation of specific elements (in decades of James Bond-style adventure from Our Man Flint to XXX).

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