The name James Bond has many connotations in popular culture. It has become synonymous with a glamorous depiction of international intrigue. In the Bond pictures, world politics are translated into spectacular stunts, exotic locales, casual sex, high-tech gadgets.
James Bond is not just a character; he represents a certain world view. Perhaps more than any other popular hero in the post-WWII years, Bond combines the hero of the classics with the specific conditions of the unsettled postwar world.
When the James Bond film series reached the respectable age of 25 in 1987, the critic Alexander Cockburn called the series “the most successful saga in postwar popular culture.” Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott similarly wrote in the book Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero: “He is arguably the most popular, in the sense of widely known, figure of the post-war period, if not of this century”
Beginning with Dr. No in 1962, one of the first Hollywood films to rely heavily on the techniques of television commercials, the series has lived on to include 22 “official” Bond films, not including the Bond spoof “Casino Royale” (1967) or Sean Connery’s 1983 return as Bond, “Never Say Never Again.”
All the films have been very commercially successful—no matter who directs them. Pioneering the simultaneous release of a large number of prints at once, which has became a standard Hollywood practice, Bond’s producers catapulted the films into financial success by making each Bond film an event.
The Bond films stand as a sort of informal history of the postwar years. Some of the Bond films have troubled themselves to take into account the end of the Cold War, for instance.
The success of Bond has not only been commercial, however: Bond has had a huge impact on world politics. It is important to remember that Bond’s political influence is a combination of the effect of the films and the original Ian Fleming novels.
In The James Bond Films: A Behind the Scenes History, Steven Jay Rubin explains how book sales and the films’ popularity went hand in hand throughout Bond’s peak years, working together to create the Bond phenomenon.
Alexander Cockburn argues that the international political community was heavily influenced by the glamorous view of espionage and realpolitik. which Fleming first created in the Bond novels. Cockburn goes so far as to propose that without Fleming’s influence…We would have had no OSS, hence no CIA. Sir Anthony Eden would not have embarked on his mad Suez adventure. President John F. Kennedy would in all likelihood be alive today. The Cold War would have ended in the early sixties. We would have had no Vietnam, no Ronald Reagan, and no Star Wars.
Without Bond, it would be a different world. The Bond novels and films created what Cockburn called “a subculture of sabotage and assassination,” a fantasy world with terrorists threatening the most powerful countries in the world, black market criminals selling atomic bombs, chemical warfare, laser technology, and space stations. One by one, each of these “predictions” came true.
The Bond novels and films were unusually popular with politicians the world over, John F. Kennedy included, which accounts for Bond’s great political influence. When Life magazine reported in 1961 that “From Russia With Love” was John F. Kennedy’s ninth-favorite book, the popular press rejoiced, even the President of the United States was a Bond fan.
To help usher in an age of realpolitik, the Bond of the films was appropriately ambiguous in terms of political beliefs. While we accept the premise that Bond stands on the side of good, which is synonymous with the West, the films never delve into the political motivations behind Bond’s heroism.
One fan named Lance put it this way: “Bond is one the side of good. He’s complicated, he uses the baddies’ methods to fight the baddies, which means killing and such. He doesn’t like his job, but who else would do it?”
Bond’s political ambiguity opened the way for his international acceptance. Over the past half a century, he has become the darling of a variety of opposing political causes.
The film’s highly visual nature, the spectacle of the settings, and the fast-paced action allowed the Bond films to bypass language and culture and be appropriated into many cultures.
Even in the U.S., the Bond films were open to interpretation. In a March 1965 issue of The New Guard, a publication for right-wing Young Americans for Freedom, Bond was the cover story, described inside as an ideal conservative: “With his rather uncomplicated philosophy of life, his pronounced loyalty to his country, and his excessive interest in fine machinery, [Bond] coincides with the current conception of the conservative mystique.
James Bond has always been what you make of him, not much more than a point of reference on which fans could project their various beliefs and fantasies. Kingsley Amis once described Bond as a “simple pro forma we can all fit ourselves into… We don’t want to have Bond to dinner, or go golfing with Bond, or talk to Bond. We want to be Bond.”