Friday, August 19, 2011

The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond

Genre: Entertainment
Author:Simon Winder (2006)
Simon Winder writes a very entertaining book for those grew up on the cinematic fantasies of the James Bond films. The fact is that he never proves in this book that James Bond or Ian Fleming or Sean Connery of the producers of the original films (Albert Broccoli, Harry Saltzman) save Britain or, really. that pop culture "saves" at all.

What makes this book worth reading is Winder's sardonic and very witty takes on all matters of the Bond books (from Fleming's passion for food, especially smoked salmon and all sorts of drinks, to his obsession with kinky sex and violence combos). Also, the movies (in which I'm afraid he rather undervalues the latter films, although some of them like "License to Kill" (1989) , "Goldeneye"(1993), and "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977) are really quite good for their genre and anyone who went to those movies expecting a cinematic experience on par with "Raging Bull" or "The Sorrow and the Pity " should have stayed home and read a good book.

Here's a bit of Widner prose style. He's rather good I think.

"As the 1960s progressed, Bond’s ability to maim and kill foreigners became a great consolation to millions of embittered and confused people whose traditional world picture had changed with alarming speed. Bond in fact became in the 1960s pretty much the only British national capable of damaging anybody at all.’ "

"We can argue almost indefinately about which Bond film is the worst---but in the end it is an argument that sullies us all. The very fact of having to recall, say, Roger Moore dressed as a clown in "Octopussy" or Blofeld in a wheelchair being tipped down an industrial chimney in "For Your Eyes Only " makes everyone feel uncomfortable."

Until the more childish fantasies of the "Star Wars" series knocked it off its perch in 1977, the James Bond films were cutting-edge, cool films for young people old enough to get off the Walt Disney feature treadmill and see more adult fare. My first Bond film was "Gold-finger" (1964) and I was hooked on its formulas, even with the cuts made for its US television premiere. Of course the James Bond style was already familiar to me thanks to programs like "The Man From UNCLE", "The Avengers" and spy spoofs of secret agent gadgetry and competence like Don Adams mostly-hapless Maxwell Smart in the "Get Smart" series. The real deal, the Bond movies, were off limits to me thanks to parents who thought violent Westerns without sex were better for me than the "kiss kiss bang bang" stuff that played and was revived over and over again at the local drive-in theaters about Santa Clara County.

A few months later "Live and Let Die" (1973) hit the local screens and could see any film I could get myself into. I found the film risque, funny, inventive and enjoyable, even though older viewers around me in the dark no doubt lamented the loss of Sean Connery, the lucky fellow who got to play Bond when it was fresh and the best of the Fleming material was just waiting to be adapted.

"Live and Let Die", features the more pedestrian actor from television, "The Saint" (the amiable but less dangerous Roger Moore) subbing for Connery, the latter taking his personal mix of suave danger and pub-brawler grit off to more challenging roles.

Still Moore's film efforts, with a couple of wrong turns like "The Man With the Golden Gun", had the same successful mix of adventure, Men's Magazine style casual sex, outlandish action, fantasy violence with foreign baddies with bizarre names, more than a dash of sadism, some exotic travel locales , beautiful women, and the inevitable showdown with a diabolical mastermind in his trend-setting Ken Adam-designed high-tech lair just as the earlier ones.

It seemed it that era (roughly 1964--1975) that all spy films either aspired to be Bond films or went out of their way to go in a more unBondian direction. In that way, the series had very much the same impact that Ernest Hemingway's writings had in Americ, with aspiring fiction writers either copying or loathing his spare, telegram-inspired style.

The main focus of this book is on the novels of Ian Fleming whose first James Bond book, "Casino Royale", came out in in 1953 a few months after a tragic "killer smog" in a London winter has caused hundreds of deaths and seems as good a landmark as any to summarize a long era of post-war drabness under Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden, and Harold MacMillan. By the time "Doctor No" came out in 1962, Britain had a new post-war generation looking for their own adventures at the pictures. Just as John Kennedy--a fan of Fleming's work--represented a new era in America, a new Britain was emerging in the high culture plays of Harold Pinter, the pop culture triumphs of rock and roll groups, and the outlaw cultures of protest and youthful idealism.

Perhaps these movements "saved" Britain in some way on the home front. I'll leave that to some otherreviewer. Most Americans went to the Bond films or read the books I'll wager because it was cool to do so and seemed like a escape. And, yes, an English guy in a dinner jacket seems more likely to carry off a dangerous near -suicidal assignment with aplomb than, say, an overeager American stud with a small vocabulary and a big blowtorch.

Indeed, Winder goes back and forth, especially in the early part of the book between major British economic, political and military events and compares them with the fantastic world of Bond and his international der-ring-do and high-living and hedonistic lifestyle. The Bond adventures, he maintains, became a sort of palliative not only for young male readers looking for some spicy bedtime reading, but also for a older and generally conservative reading public which wondered where Britain stood in the post-war world.

Other books I've run across focus on the origins of Ian Fleming's characters and how they evolved into the hottest film series of the 1960's and early 70's, treating Bond as divorced from the larger society he represented. Winder reclaims Fleming, a former intelligence officer at the Admiralty, scion of privileged and ex-pat "swell" living mostly in Jamaica in his last years as a flesh-and-blood man, without lionizing him but giving him a certain left-handed tribute.

The book provides insight into how the Bond character came to be seen as a reaction to the momentous changes Britain, for good and bad, Britain underwent after World War II and how it dealt with a slow but steady economic decline starting in the 50's with a few ramped-up years here and there, followed by the doldrums of the mid-70's when the UK settled to being a major European rather than an international power thanks to the debacles of the Suez Crisis, decolonization and the rise of the USA in manufacturing,to DeGaulle's rejection of his old ally from the European Common Market and to Japan as rivals for the spoils and underpaid labors of the earth.

Somehow, though, as least in Flemingland if not England, all was well in hand by the climax of the latest adventure, a series which keeps going.

Be that as it may, this is a fun book if you're a Bond fan.


  1. Yes, I imagine Connery used to love it in the 60's when American newspeople assumed he was English! Rather like an aquaintance who once said to me, "didn't you vote for Reagan in '84?"

    I only read three of the Fleming novels, including "Moonracker", but didn't get into Fleming's books until my twenties, when the films had hit a bad patch in the mid-80's and I wanted to compare the source material to the better films of my youth. "From Russia With Love" is the one I remember best, the one the omniverous bibliophile John Kennedy had reportedly read, and one with some rather unpleasant assessments of Russian assasins and in general members of the fair sex. Being a rake if not a flat-out scoundrel where women were concerned, I would have loved to have read what remarks JFK might have written in the margins.

    Was "The Avengers" cooler than the Bond films? A case could certainly be made for that, in the years where the self-assured Honor Blackman and the (to me) amazing Diana Rigg gave girls someone to cheer for as well as the guys.

    "The Prisoner" series I think belongs in a post-modern cool all its own. Every good episode of that series--and there are quite a few---has meanings and themes that use the genre of spy stories and makes a disturbing case for things having gone awry in modern life.

    Yes, the American "spy game" brand really went downhill in the 60's. i supposethat was one of the reasons I liked Bond and Michael Caine's first two Harry Palmer films. One guy doing his best in a low-end government operation is always a better story than an organization of bureaucrats with endless resources. And could one imagine really, honestly liking the brisk efficacy of an American "M", with the ever-faithful Miss Moneypenny in the outer office? Nope. Or a George Smiley from John La Carre's early novels in the cowboy culture that is the CIA, or at least the CIA the spook P.R. boys sells to nervous US citizens? Not me.

    Winder does make negative reference to the violence generated by the British Empire in their Victorian hey-day ,as well as deploring violence in Indina. Palastine and the more recent balancing of affairs in the casual hangings policy and other colonial brutalies of the Kenyan uprising. The thing is , as yousay, even though the book apparently got negative reviews in the right wing of the UK Press, Wilder does "give the game away" more than a bit. The book is funny in that respect in that nobody is spared his acid-tinged pen. But you can't help feeling he is nostalgic for a kind of world where his criticism could be directed at a real imperial establishment and not one that fell away of its own weight by 1960.

    It's interesting that, indeed, the best British films of the 1960's, some of whic hyou mention, owe nothing to the Bond series. They were all likely more or less exporting a view of "Britishness" that nothing to do people's daily lives. It is startlingto realize that James Bond, for all his Union Jack parachutes and meetings with "M" and "Q" in Whitehall, is always so divorced from the very nation he is sent to die for. No mother. No father. No girl back home, even one to cheat on. Not even a favorite football team. just a vauge term or two at Eton and then Naval Intelligence and then...

    A fantastic LOL clip by the way, AA. Sad of course. The War on Shopping Meets "The Peace Scare".

    But seeing Gaddafi getting his weaponry from a friendly Cockney grocer makes me feel I've misjudged the lad a bit. I'll bet His Excellency misses the days when he could shop for missles and poison gas along with a nice selection of English cucumbers at Covent Garden while humming a bit of a Herb Alpert tune.

  2. Big Bond fan here Doug.

    Sean almost didn't take the role yet he did and I have never cared much for the movies after Connery as they didn't have the same depth. I found that during the era with Sean - Flemming had a grasp on what was taking place and within his own way he created adventurous movies with not just the a super spy but one which was within a dangerous time and always came out with a success. James Bond was based on an english person I forget his name yet it was made into film - an intriguing book indeed as I would dare to say that many action films were inspired by the movies of that of James Bond.

  3. I think the Bond films really set the standard for action films for at least a dozen ears Jack.

    It's true the non-Connery Bonds lacked depth in part because the culture had moved on. The Cold War evolved into the "Detante" between Washington and Moscow and also Vietnam changed the perspective of so many towards ambivilance of the whole business.

    In a way for adults I think film like "From Russia With Love" or even "Goldfinger" (not a Cold War flm but one about nuclear terror) were a safety value for viewers. One of Winder's points in the book is that the Bond of books and films made the whole business of spying seem exotic and exciting with all the air travel and interesting backdrops like Istanbul and, for European viewers, Miami Beach.

    Nowadays, at least after 9/11, air travel and seeing a city across the ocean was a thrilling business many dreamed about doing once in their lives. Bond was part of that milieu,as well as his cars and women and, for the movies, the gadgets. The jetpack he uses in "Thunderball" is way over the top but at the time how many people had ever seen such a thing?

  4. There were many things which within his movies did come to be not entirely yet there was foresight within the Bond movies of Sean's Doug. If you recall Hollywould nearly shut down with anything that even was close to 9/11. As well many were put on hold till a year or two later. But those Bond movies with Connery were made without apprehension.