Loading...

Of James Bondage 

In thrall to the man with the golden franchise

Wednesday, Nov 22 2006

As it often does when interest lags or a new 007 is inaugurated, the Bond franchise is once again getting back to its roots. The first time they did it, with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969, that meant getting back to the potency of Ian Fleming’s original novel, giving the superspy some emotions (ill expressed, as it turned out, by replacement mannequin George Lazenby) and marrying him off, only to see his bride murdered on their wedding day. It was one of the best of the movies. And a total flop.

This time out, the relaunch is a different undertaking entirely. Forget the novels, Casino Royale is Bond Rebooted in the manner of Batman Begins. When a movie franchise faces an endless future of topping itself anew each time out, a return to mythic roots can offer creative breathing space, a safe refuge in the past. But exactly what mythic roots can Bond return to these days? Must we return to 1962, to the rickety sets of Dr. No, with its sleazy looking Connery, its Ming the Merciless baddie and its comic-opera Cuban Missile Crisis? Or do we reach all the way back to 1953, when Casino Royale, Fleming’s first Bond novel, was published in the same year that wartime rationing was finally suspended in bankrupt, postwar Britain? Who would pay to see either?

Simon Winder would. The Man Who Saved Britain, Winder’s often witty, often maddening, discursive, digressive and atrociously edited memoir-cum-monograph on the Bond phenomenon, begins with his anointment into the sad brotherhood of Bondage in 1973, when he was 10. “For me that film pushed open the Golden Doors of sex and death, revealing a world of sophistication and cruelty previously unimagined.” He adds, more plaintively, “Writing this is particularly painful. The film in question was Live and Let Die, and its hero, James Bond, has since that moment deeply affected my life.”

click to flip through (4) St. James versions. Craig... (Photo by Jay Maidment)
  • St. James versions. Craig... (Photo by Jay Maidment)
     
 

Related Stories

The Man Who Saved Britain proves this beyond a doubt. Winder, who has admittedly spent decades in pathetic thrall to Bondian arcana, has written a wide-ranging, rambling historical-cultural-autobiographical treatise about Bond and Ian Fleming in their many social, sexual, historical and political frameworks, and within the context of Winder’s own life. He is following in the well-worn footsteps of commentators like Christopher Hitchens, Alex Cockburn and Kingsley Amis, the British historian David Cannadine, and novelist-semiotician Umberto Eco, all of whose perceptions, as Winder happily admits, are more historically clued-up, nimbly wrought and fluidly expressed than his own.

Winder’s take is more personal and idiosyncratic, freely mixing historical fact and personal reminiscence in an attempt to situate the novels and the movies in the framework of Britain’s post-imperial decline, its diminishing economic expectations and its sublime talent for denying the reality of either for a good three decades post-1945. He is most interested in the chasm that yawns between Bond as suave, deadly cocksman-assassin and post-imperial compensation fantasy, and the reality of a nation literally crippled by its then-recent victory.

In no particular order, Winder considers the WWII nostalgia that suffocated British cinema for decades; the country’s awful food; its abiding timorousness in matters of sexuality; the venality and hypocrisy attendant upon the withdrawal from its former colonial possessions; its ridiculously inept espionage services (007 first appeared in the very year that the spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean absconded to Moscow); and its love-hate relationship with all things American, particularly its role as Britain’s imperial usurper.

Add to all this Winder’s idiosyncratic musings on Ian Fleming, Sean Connery (not impressed), Roger Moore (ditto) and producer Cubby Broccoli, and you have a wildly disorganized, but often highly perceptive and amusing, survey that is closer to rant than to reason, and perhaps all the better for that.

As with Winder, who is 43, the first movie I ever saw was Live and Let Die. It was also my second, third, sixth (after a toothsome double bill of Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice), seventh and eighth. It was the first adult book he or I ever read, rescuing me forever from Doctor Dolittle’s arid doings (with Fleming’s intriguing references to “thighs,” “nipples” and “jutting breasts”), and leading me instead toward the fertile fields tilled by Frederick Forsyth, Eric Ambler and Len Deighton — a world of sex and death indeed. I cannot, however, claim, as Winder can, that my mother went into labor during a screening of From Russia With Love just three days after the assassination of JFK, whose 1960 endorsement of the same novel had launched Fleming and Bond into the cultural stratosphere. Given such star-crossed circumstances, Winder may rightly suspect his obsession is blessed with especial serendipity.

Meanwhile, as Winder remembers, the real Britain of 1973, which, far from the sun-scorched locations of the rubbishy and racist Live and Let Die, was spiraling ever downward toward the nadir of its post-WWII fortunes: an oil crisis, the three-day week (the country could literally only afford to fuel itself that long), power cuts, galloping inflation, endless labor disputes and a major IRA bombing campaign on the British mainland.

For Bond readers, it was ever thus. When Ian Fleming completed Casino Royale in Jamaica in 1952, he was one of the few Britons of that age able to disregard rationing coupons, clothing allowances, currency limits and overseas-travel restrictions, and to womanize, gamble, drink and eat as he pleased. To financially strapped, sexually unadventurous British readers, still dreaming of such luxuries as bananas and oranges in a London cratered with bomb sites, Bond was like an emissary sent back from some golden future of material and sexual plenitude.

Seen in this way, Bond was one of the fever dreams of the Age of Austerity (or, more precisely, as J.G. Ballard termed it in Empire of the Sun, a “hunger-reverie”), part of a largely undiscussed postwar cultural-starvation diet that encompassed the epicurean meals in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; the Mediterranean cookbooks of Elizabeth David, first published when their ingredients were unavailable, and thus emitting an almost pornographic allure; the ecstatically written travel narratives of Patrick Leigh Fermor; and the decidedly un-British effervescence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films. Revising Brideshead in 1962, a now well-fed Waugh apologized for the book’s “gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now on a full stomach I find distasteful.”

Fleming, for whom excess — be it carnal, culinary or nostalgic — was a sensory mandate, surely had no such regrets, and Winder is not about to rein himself in either. The Man Who Saved Britain roams freely — some might say rampages laboriously — across centuries of British history, through swamplike philosophical digressions, in sentences alternately assertive and mealy mouthed, and infuriatingly dense with meaningless qualifiers and intensifiers, run-on clauses, and logical lacunae, the kind of longueurs a more discriminating editor would have pared to the bone. No stagnant backwater of the Bond mythos — Britain’s rotten food culture; the popularization of scuba diving; even the hitherto undetected sexual allure of General Nasser — is too remote to plunder for minutiae. The book is a Sargasso of obsession and memory, yet still somehow endearing given the weight of Winder’s obsession and his helplessness to overcome it.

And he’s right about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service being one of the best movies, especially the moment when Diana Rigg, newly Avengers-hardened and gifted with a broken bottle, plummily chides Telly Savalas’ Blofeld for his solipsistic supervillainy with archly intoned Victorian verse: “Thy dawn, o lord, thy dawn/For thee alone the daylight creeps across the lawn . . .”

We’ll see this week if Casino Royale, Reboot Version 2.0, offers a moment as indelible, but The Man Who Saved Britain, for all its exasperating shortcomings, is still likely to be the more satisfying experience.

THE MAN WHO SAVED BRITAIN: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond | By SIMON WINDER | Farrar, Strauss and Giroux | 288 pages | $25 hardcover

  • In thrall to the man with the golden franchise

Related Content

Now Trending

Slideshows

Los Angeles Event Tickets