Wednesday, October 28, 2015

James Bond, Aristocratic Action Hero

Kingsley Amis wrote of James Bond as a "semi-aristocrat," with even that aspect of the character smuggled in by the backdoor rather than ostentatiously declared--at any rate, in comparison with his "clubland" predecessors like Bulldog Drummond. However, if he is just a backdoor semi-aristocrat, the fundamentals are very much there--not least that essentially aristocratic trait, individuality. We do not always remember the names of characters in films, but we remember this one, who manages to loom larger than the actor playing him. No one thinks of Goldfinger as a Sean Connery movie as such the way they would, for example, The Hill or The Molly Maguires or Entrapment; rather it is a James Bond movie with Connery in the lead role. (Still less does anyone refer to On Her Majesty's Secret Service as a "George Lazenby movie," unless they mean by that the one Bond movie that had Lazenby in it.)

One may protest that Bond is not the deepest of characters. There is a sufficiently strong sense of who he is, apart from any one character, that fans can get into fairly involved debates over who would be suited to the role, rather than this just being a simple popularity contest regarding which actor they like better; while the promise of a glimpse of his past was plausibly part of the sales pitch made for Skyfall. His traits and tastes are instantly recognizable--not least his affinities for particular leisure activities and consumption goods like beverages, food, clothing and cars.

And all this is very much evident in the way that Bond operates. Despite his Royal Navy background, it is difficult to picture him as ever really a member of a team, or an organization. When Bond receives his briefing, he usually gets it not as a member of a bigger group, from the top man in the Firm himself, after which he is packed off by himself to his destination where he may work with others (local stringers for British intelligence, friendly foreign organizations) but not as part of their units or structures. Even the quips in tense situations, and the gadgets (much more part of the cinematic Bond than the print version), fit in with this, their very idiosyncrasy adding to the character's distinctiveness, while the quips in particular do not just testify to his cool head under pressure, but his having a particular personality--his being an urbane man with a sense of irony and dark humor.

Moreover, Bond's individuality is time and again acknowledged not just by friends, but by foes. In Moonraker Hugo Drax on meeting Bond says "Your reputation precedes you," without any doubt at all about which reputation Drax has in mind. Of course, this is exactly what a secret agent, let alone one whose competence we are supposed to admire, should never hear from the villain in question. However, the line seems perfectly natural within the context of Bond's universe, which has virtually nothing to do with the doings of real-life spies, and everything to do with highly personalized contests between aristocratic men of prowess, Bond's enemies being equally individual. Even where they happen to be vulnerable to the charge of being crude ethnic stereotypes, they are still men in possession of vast resources, and accustomed to command, larger-than-life in their own person, and with sufficient aristocratic flair of their own to act as foils to the hero. Something of this even extends to their principal henchmen. Bond may knock off huge numbers of anonymous enemies--but his memorable confrontations are with characters whose names and appearances and methods we remember, an Oddjob, a Tee Hee, a Jaws. His ability to get the better of such figures at the gaming table, at the dinner table, or in a death grapple, rather than his shooting down the masses of "boiler suit" guys the villain uses as cannon fodder, is the real measure of Bond as a man of war.

In short, James Bond is most recognizable when he is an individual fighting as an individual against other individuals.

This appears all the more clearly when one contrasts Bond with characters developed in the extreme opposite fashion--the American action films of the '80s. The isolated, spartan existences led by figures like John Rambo, or Arnold Schwarzenegger's John Matrix in Commando (1985) or Dutch in Predator (1987) afforded little room for self-expression or personal distinctness of any kind. In fact, take away Rambo's trauma (more plot point than theme), and his bitterness about the treatment of America's Vietnam veterans (in Part II, at any rate), and one is left with very little indeed--Rambo virtually impossible to separate from the actor playing him. Likewise Matrix is virtually indistinguishable from Dutch in Predator. Matrix or Dutch, it's really just Schwarzenegger that we remember in either role.

Their manner of fighting the enemy reflects this aspect of them. The plot may have them fighting alone, but that lack of distinctness makes it much easier to see them as part of a team (albeit special ones, like the one Dutch leads in Central America in the early portion of Predator). These heroes may make the occasional crack, but speech of any kind is an uncharacteristic rarity, Dutch's "Stick around!" feeling to me a bit forced. Equally, while some of their enemies are more conspicuous because they are in charge, or because of some visual feature, there is just as little to them as there is to the protagonist, the slightness of one as a character doing nothing to sharpen the image of the other. (Steven Berkoff's career is especially handy in this regard; comparing his turn as General Orlov in 1983's Octopussy with his characterization of Colonel Podovsky in First Blood, Part II is enough to illustrate the point.)

Naturally, they may show an exceptional measure of cunning as they take on larger numbers of opponents, and at times even appear flamboyant in action, as when Rambo and Colonel Trautman momentarily stand alone on the Afghan-Pakistani border against a massive Soviet detachment, and then Rambo crashes his tank into an oncoming helicopter. Still, they seem most themselves when pointing a machine gun at a wave of oncoming enemies (who do not even have boiler suits) who dutifully fall down--the parody of such sequences in Hot Shots: Part Deux (1993) only a slight exaggeration of the finale of Commando.

In short, one winds up with very little individuality on the part of the characters in these films, which seem to me to reflect a different sensibility. Perhaps it is a matter of the form the whole leisure class-warrior idea takes in a more populist age (or perhaps, simply a pre-aristocratic one?): the combat prowess is there, but the aristocratic qualities that went with it in the old conception of things is discarded, such expressions of individuality included.

My Posts on Ian Fleming's Novels
Of Ian Fleming and Thorstein Veblen
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)

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