Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dirk Pitt, an American James Bond?

The James Bond franchise has been global success, but has also had a very particular niche in postwar British culture: the lone hero as a source of salvation for a power in decline, and validation for the idea that Britain could still matter in the world. When the United States sought such heroes in the 1970s it looked not to spies, but to cops like Dirty Harry and commandos like Rambo. At the same time, the other characteristics for which Bond is known, his combination of high life and adventure, and the extravagant quality of his adventures (with their colorful villains, gadgets and the like), has its best-known American counterparts in comic book tycoon-vigilantes like Batman and Iron Man, who face off against figures like The Joker and The Mandarin with the help of quirky high-tech arsenals.

Yet American pop culture, too, has produced its share of spies, for which James Bond has been a reference point, and sometimes more. Of course, few approach those figures named above as cultural icons. Derek Flint and the screen version of Matt Helm were fairly obvious and not very substantial imitations, which at any rate parodied Bond much more than matching or reinterpreting him, and have hardly been the most enduring of creations. One might say the same of the more recent Harry Tasker or Xander Cage, the latter a generational update already in need of updating again, were the envisaged XXX3 to get off the ground.

Some might suggest Jason Bourne as America's James Bond, given his clear cachet in recent years - but the Bourne of the films is a cipher (the whole idea is that he doesn't know who he is), the Bourne of the novels an academic who was sucked into a bizarre game by a personal catastrophe. Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan might seem another possibility - but he is an analyst dragged into the field on a few brief if wild adventures before his meteoric rise through the national security hierarchy (ending with the Presidency of the United States!) made that all out of the question. And at any rate, Ryan's being a family man of working-class origins and simple tastes (unchanged by the money he made and married) makes him rather a different figure, less glamorous, less urbane, the fantasy the character lives out of a much less hedonistic, much more socially conservative sort. So too his more field-oriented counterpart, Jonathan Clark. The characters mentioned here also happen to star in much more grounded tales than the Bond novels, let alone the Bond films (certainly Ryan has no dramatic showdowns to compare with Bond's face off against Hugo Drax or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld), with Clancy's books often seeing the good guys fail to avert some catastrophic attack against the U.S. - and then struggle with the aftermath (as in The Sum of All Fears, Debt of Honor and Executive Orders).1

Indiana Jones - the answer of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to the Bond series - comes much closer in the style of 007's adventures (the travel, the involvements with women, the feel of the action, the villains, etc.). However, Jones is also a much bigger divergence from the pattern given his being an archaeologist first and secret agent second, the setting of his adventures a half century back, and the heavy paranormal element (the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, aliens). One might add, too, that despite the undisputed place of the films in pop culture, the franchise was largely of the '80s, which saw the release of the first three films (in 1981, 1984 and 1989), and a fourth only two decades later in 2008, rather than being a vigorous going concern over a lengthier period in various media - the way Bond has, and for that matter, the way Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan have been.

Still, where the big screen is concerned, he probably comes closest, though if one considers print characters which have been less conspicuous in other media, Dirk Pitt seems rather a plausible candidate. Granted, like Jones, Pitt is not primarily a spy, his job title instead "Special Projects Director for the National Underwater and Marine Agency," which makes his bread and butter salvage jobs rather than espionage. Yet, in the books NUMA is not the small private organization Cussler founded, but a large government agency with five thousand employees, making Pitt a government operative in his own right, all the more so as he came to NUMA a military officer - an Air Force Major (eventually promoted to Lieutenant Colonel), just as Bond is a Commander in the Royal Navy. Like Bond he is also a war veteran (of Vietnam, where he flew combat missions) who takes his orders from the very head of his agency, who, appropriately for an organization so concerned with the sea, happens to be an Admiral, just like the original M. Also like Bond, Pitt combines a privileged background (his father, George Pitt, is a United States Senator) with a rather un-aristocratc ruggedness (while incidentally happening to be tall, visibly athletic, dark-haired and light-eyed, with a whiff of the exotic about him).

More importantly, the plots of the Dirk Pitt novels typically have him doing battle with international conspiracies and chasing high-stakes MacGuffins in globe-trotting adventures packed with over-the-top action in the present or very near future. In those battles Pitt's position permits him considerable personal initiative, while giving him all the benefits that come with the backing of a large government agency - much like what Bond enjoys. His enemies are typically wealthy individuals intent on reshaping the world in line with their personal ambitions or ideals, often through the use of futuristic technologies - while Pitt frequently employs the same (the yacht Calliope in Sahara, which unleashes its hidden weapons in a river battle, a gadget right out of the adventures of 007). And like Bond, Pitt is attractive to and attracted by women, getting involved with a new one (sometimes more than one) in each adventure - with one of those women (Summer Moran from Pacific Vortex!), who just so happens to be exceptionally close to the sea, later turning out to have borne his only offspring (just as Kissy Suzuki became pregnant with Bond's son in the novel You Only Live Twice).

Nonetheless, there are important differences as well as similarities, not least the works' use of setting. Bond himself is quite outdoorsy, and certainly has his share of adventures out in the wild, diving in the Caribbean or skiing Alpine slopes, but when I think of 007 I think of cities: London, Paris, New York, Istanbul, Tokyo. By contrast, Pitt is a character I usually think of as being in the mountains, the desert, and especially the sea, which Cussler from the start envisioned as his milieu. (As is so often the case, the author himself described his thinking best in a note included in the foreword of Pacific Vortex! (the first Pitt novel he wrote, though it was the sixth to appear in print): "I cast around for a hero who cut a different mold, one who wasn't a secret agent, police detective or private investigator," whose territory, rather than "a gambling casino, or the streets of New York . . . [was] the sea.")

Strongly connected with that difference in milieu is the element of historical mystery in most of the adventures, something the Bond novels and films generally eschewed.2 There is also what might be thought of as Pitt's more "populist" quality, the character not lacking sophistication in such matters as food and drink, but less ostentatious about the fact, and certainly never giving the impression of a man accustomed to a bubble of luxury, as Bond's screen incarnation does. (As Cussler wrote in the same note, for all Pitt's "rough edges" he had "a degree of style" that made him "equally at ease entertaining a gorgeous woman in a gourmet restaurant" as "downing a beer with the boys at the local saloon," with the latter scene the more typical - and I must admit, more natural.) And of course, Cussler drew on his own experiences and tastes in creating Pitt to the same extent Fleming did in crafting Bond, such things as his Californian background and penchant for collecting antique cars finding their way into the tales, further distinguishing the two characters from one another.

The result is that Bond might not implausibly be thought of as a precedent to or even influence on Pitt, but it would be a mistake to think of Pitt as simply a Bond knock-off. Rather he is an original creation whose evolution simply came to parallel Bond's - which may be one reason why Pitt has endured so much longer and better than the uncounted carbon copies of 007.

1. In The Sum of All Fears, terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl in Denver, while attacking American forces in West Berlin, tricking the U.S. government into thinking a Soviet assault is underway; in Debt of Honor, much of the Pacific fleet is disabled and the Marianas Islands occupied by Japanese forces, in conjunction with a carefully engineered crash on the American stock market; and in Executive Orders a united Iran-Iraq starts an Ebola epidemic in the U.S. that kills thousands, while invading Saudi Arabia.
2. A notable exception is the novel Live and Let Die, the plot of which involved the resting place of Captain Henry Morgan's treasure.

My Posts on James Bond
New and Noteworthy (Indie Publishing, A Call for More Dirk Pitt Movies, Rules for Cinematic Blockbusters)
Dirk Pitt Returns?
Review: Deep Six, by Clive Cussler
Returning to Sahara: The Dirk Pitt Novels On Screen
Reflections on the Dirk Pitt Series

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