The Bond films have enjoyed a remarkable run since Ian Fleming’s Dr. No first made it to the screen in 1962. I remember this film of the series in particular, because it was the first movie I went to see after receiving my Ph.D. in 1963. I recall the exhilaration of being swept up in this Jamaican fantasy as my other fantasy of finally having gotten the degree somehow merged in my mind: it was Bond’s freedom (represented, I suppose, by his double-0 designation, removing restraints) that seemed so marvelous. For the moment, there was nothing ‘hanging over’ me any longer. I was free, living a fantasy.
Fantasy, of course, is at the heart of the films. Stretching now over a half century, they provide among other things a fascinating peek into the changing sensibilities of our cultural givens and social concerns. The amatory passages in Dr. No seem, by today’s lubricious standards, naïvely tame for a lady’s man like Bond; the gratuitous violence could hold its own; and the sexism and easy assumptions of cultural and political superiority on the part of the hero towards his local helpers strike us as somewhat outré for 2011 — a colonial mentality that refused to die.
The element of fantasy — myth, if you will, on both a global and a local scale — endures. That is to say, there are clear mythic underpinnings to these tales of the cunning hero matching wits and prowess, on behalf of the world, against a megalomaniac; and there are also the indulgence scenarios of the modern male: lots of ready women, flashy cars, great wines, good food, travel, clothes, gambling, guns, a can-do kind of macho.
I’m not sure what was in it for women.
In Dr. No, Bond begins his decades long flirting with Miss Monneypenny, M’s secretary, and when she angles for a date with him, he evades by noting that dining out with her would be “illegal use of government property.” It’s harmless enough, or certainly seemed so in 1962, but it’s not the kind of line you’d want to put in a mainstream film today. His Hermes-figure, the black guide, Quarrel, a Cayman Islander who brings him across the sea to Dr. No’s notorious island, is treated with a casual condescension, and Quarrel’s rolling eyes in the fearful night on Crab Key are embarrassing evocations of an Amos-and-Andy kind of stereotype about blacks. Again, it may have passed muster 50 years ago, but today it sits as an uncomfortable reminder of a national mindset about race that is not so distant. Dr. No himself, the most important Chinese person on Crab Key, is a Caucasian made up to look somewhat Chinese; the ‘servants’ and thugs, however, are all Oriental actors.
But it is not my purpose here to dwell on the failures of 1962 to anticipate social change and the differing social realities of today. My refusal to indulge in an ahistorical excoriation of these unacceptables should not be read into, however, by resentment-collectors.
I am much more interested in mapping the mythic qualities of the cinematic Bond. There is, in short, something we can call the ‘Bond typology’. It runs as follows. The hero is given an assignment by M, head of section, and arms by the armorer (the famous Q, who did not appear in Dr. No). He is sent to an exotic destination where the villain, a self-absorbed madman bent on world domination, almost succeeds but for the intervention of the hero. The latter relies heavily on resourcefulness and armaments, and a woman or women invariably accompany and/or help him in his victory (the prototype is Athena in Iliad 10!) — which is preceded by narrow escapes from dastardly plots. A fleshing out of the typological skeleton entails an elaboration of the villain’s eccentricities, variations on his plots for conquest, multiplication of his helpers, and an inventive series of variations on his ‘army’ in the final sequences; on the hero’s side, further, the varieties of gambling, the mutating roles of good and bad women, the differing methods by which he is attacked, and the ever more outrageous weaponry and choreographed fights are all subject to relentless embellishment. I had read some of the novels before I saw the first film, and the latter did not disappoint the former. As with all such formula cinema and literature — starting with Homeric narrative — the interest of the reader or spectator is not so much in what is going to happen as in how what we know is going to happen will in fact happen. See a couple of Bond films, and you’ll have internalized the typology and, consciously or not, be playing each new installment off against your mental template of an accreting but not fundamentally altering typology.
Dr. No accomplishes its task in about forty ‘scenes’ ranging from the Le Cercle casino in London to the elaborate ductwork (a marvelous displacement, or translation, of the world of katabasis [cf. my earlier discussion of this very important theme here]) meandering through Dr. No’s immense installation on Crab Key. This business of the katabatic aspects of the Bond films merits further scrutiny. It is already quite prominent in Dr. No. The first point to note is that Crab Key is distant, even mysterious, and by the common consensus of both Quarrel and Honey Ryder populated by dragons. One of the British colonials in Kingston has characterized it as a ‘concentration camp’ that nobody knows much about. We do know, however, that Strangeways had found a potentially enormous treasure there — in the form of uranium-bearing ore. Bond and Quarrel (along with Leiter, who follows only so far before returning) travel to this distant realm by boat, under the cover of night’s darkness. And when they wake up next morning they discover a beautiful young woman, Honey Ryder, collecting sea shells like some transformed Aphrodite anadyomenē out of Boticelli. Later they are all three chased up a long river snaking through the jungle, and are pursued by hounds. At night the ‘dragon’ arrives, a halftrack with two head beams and a flame-thrower attached to its front end, ‘breathing’ out fire — that kills Quarrel. There is no doubt at all in my mind but that we have here been transported deep into katabatic territory.
This impression is enhanced by a ‘doubling’ of events inside Dr. No’s palatial dwelling, where like some Hades he lords it over his minions. The two interlopers (Bond and Honey) are put through a rigorous cleansing process to wash off contamination from the radioactive soil of the island, and in the context of the katabasis one could read this incident as the washing off of their mortality to make passage into the heart of Hades’ realm possible. Honey and Bond drink the death demon’s drugged coffee, and pass out — unconsciousness being a classic displacement for death. Later comes the famous scene in which Bonds crawls and descends through narrow, dark ducts where he is subjected to the dangers of both water and heat, and when he emerges into the lab area, near which he rescues a chained Honey from the encroaching sea, may I be forgiven for thinking of Perseus and Andromeda?
I would argue that Bond’s destruction of this underworld Hell is a modern stepping up of the usual activities to which the descent hero devotes himself — no classical hero actually destroys Hades’ realm, though it was rumored that the great Herakles had certainly terrified even Hades on a few occasions. Bond does rescue the young woman, and aborts Dr. No’s efforts to queer the guidance systems of the American rockets being launched from Cape Canaveral. Does an audience watching this film see it as a displaced katabasis? Probably not consciously, though I’d venture that there is no mistaking their comprehension of Dr. No as a monster, perhaps even a death monster. The question is in a sense irrelevant, as a lack of awareness of provenience in no way invalidates that derivation and the ‘coloring’ it lends to the finished product.
A more interesting question is if the makers of the film (or Ian Fleming in the novels) knew what they were drawing on? I can’t recall the book, but in one of them Fleming sub-titles a chapter ‘The Barrier of their Teeth’ which, as any one who has read his Homer knows, is a common formula of Homeric literature (as I recall [but I could be wrong on this] Fleming actually uses the Homeric Greek ‘herkos odontōn’). This at least suggests to me that Fleming knew his mythic source material rather intimately, and perhaps he conveyed this to the producers (he was still alive when Dr. No was filming). A more ecumenical concern here, however, is the kind of narrative ‘map’ that Dr. No, the first Bond film, constructed for the subsequent Bond adventures. The pattern has, after all, survived almost intact for about three millennia (and who knows for how long before that — Homer hardly made it up, as is clear from the journey of Sumerian Gilgamesh a millennium of two before Odysseus to the underworld in his search for immortality).
Finally, a word or two about the contemporary world of 1962 and Bond’s place in it. For a generation in which the Cold War is already musty pages in the history books it is hard to imagine the kind of paranoia that fueled the enmity between the Western block and Russia, with China (in 1962, before the ‘thaw’, China was about as exotic as you could get, and we should keep this in mind when contemplating the nature of Dr. No). Fleming himself played this up in the novels in his view of ‘Redland’, and to the extent that it is a subtext in the film Dr. No, the obsession with communism lurks not far below the surface here. What is actually intriguing, from that perspective, is the disdain Dr. No feels for all camps: “East, West, just points on the compass. Each as stupid as the other.” His ‘thing’ of course is SPECTRE, a kind of super- or supra-nationalistic cartel of criminals who pop up with regularity in the subsequent films as the real threat.
I would not impute undeserved prescience to Fleming or the film people of 1962, but the curious fact, now confirmed by geopolitical events of the late 1980s and the 1990s, is that a clumsy, naive, and self-deconstructing system like communism was never a genuine threat. This being established, future Bonds will henceforth have to find other enemies (of which of course there are legions), but I’ll bet anyone that the Bond typology will not change — just the particular realizations. That has always been the way of myth. Some fifty years after the fact, then, Dr. No, the grand-daddy of Bond cinema, is still worth watching. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.