The silly Bonds and the serious Bonds

Sean Connery, making a face during the filming of Goldfinger.

For many, it may seem there are two types of James Bond films.

One type consists of the the entries that focus on the spy stuff, the action or psychology of Bond. We may, in the interest of brevity, call these the serious Bonds.

The other type consists of the entries that instead are fun, adventurous and don’t take themselves too seriously. Here I’ll call them the camp Bonds.

Don’t get too hung up on the labels. I’ll get back to them in a little bit. What’s important is what they mean, and why there are two types of Bond films. Or maybe there aren’t…

A rough* division would perhaps look something like this:

* Many titles can be put in both columns, and your mileage may vary a bit on where each film is placed. That is, however, not a weakness of this hypothesis, but in fact one of the main points, as we’ll see.

I’ve been around the James Bond fandom long enough, but also the casual viewers to know that most of them feel that one of these columns much more represents the True Tone™ of the Bond films. They look upon the Bond films from the other column as less Bondian. Thus, for viewers in the camp… well, camp, Dr No may appear boring, while the viewers in the serious section feel that Octopussy is silly.

This may have to do with which type they encountered first, or who their favorite Bond is, or it may just reflect their personality type. Some people just want chewing gum for their eyes, and some people don’t want to have fun — to criticise each of these just a little bit.

I would argue, though, that most Bond films are a mix of both serious and camp. They all contain both low-key spy stuff and over-the-top events, per definition, as Bond films. Where each film can be placed on a gliding scale between these endpoints is not the interesting part for me. Instead, I’d like to focus on the topic of interpretation of the source material, and begin with something completely different. Indulge me for a moment.

What’s the difference between Batman and Superman?

Both Batman and Superman have been active as characters since the 1930’s (Batman 1939, Superman 1938). Their careers have been intertwined, and even if their biggest visual differences are the color scheme, they are more often recognized as being the day/night versions of each other.

But whereas Superman as a character has been fairly consistent with his “big blue boy scout” personality, through the various writers and artists who have created his adventures and re-interpreted his life, Batman has at least two distinctive personalities, and tones, associated with him. One is the serious story about an orphaned man taking up crime-fighting, using his wealth. This version can be seen in the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale films, and the Frank Miller comics, for instance. The other is when the creators acknowledge how silly it is to be fighting crime, dressed as a bat. In this interpretation, such as in the 1966–1968 TV series, but also earlier, such as when Batman partnered with Ace the Bat-Hound, the tone is lighter.

Both these interpretations are true, in the sense that they flow naturally from the source material, even if one of them is not the interpretation you prefer. You could easily imagine a universe where either of these interpretations are the only interpretation. If the “other” version was the only existing one, you may not have started reading or watching Batman.

[For a longer discussion on this subject, I refer to this video essay by Patrick H Willems.]


Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.

Lest you think this thought only applies to comic characters and can only be sliced in one dimension, let’s briefly look at one of the most well-known characters in literary history, Hamlet.

Hamlet, famously, have several central questions associated with him, but let’s focus on this: is he mad or does he only play mad?

Different adaptations have emphasized different interpretations on this question, and you can certainly make a case for both sides. Entire books have tried.

That’s the point. Both sides have a good case. Let’s put a pin in that thought.

Different interpretations

Not many characters have been interpreted so very differently, outside of when the character has been spoofed or parodied. Frankenstein’s monster, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Robin Hood, Dr Who, and a few others.

This, I believe, depends on a duality in the source material. Both interpretations flow naturally from different facets of the original works.

In Bond’s case, this would be the novels by Ian Fleming. Parts of them are serious, biographically enriched stories, and parts are fantastical. There are very few novels that contain just one or the other. Casino Royale, Fleming’s first novel, probably comes closest, as it borrows heavily from Fleming’s own experiences.

It follows naturally that the movies based on these combinations will themselves become both serious and camp.

The serious in the camp

Let’s look at one Bond example, The Man With The Golden Gun. I’ve placed it above in the serious column, but there are of course several elements that are included to be adventurous, exaggerated and fun: the quips from Bond, Scaramanga’s fun-house, the fight in the belly dancer’s dressing room, the interrogation of Mr Lazar, M’s headquarters in the Queen Elizabeth, the fight outside the karate school, sheriff JW Pepper, the stunt with the twisting car, the flying car, Mary Goodnight’s clumsiness in Act III and the final fight with Nick Nack.

With all of these exemples, it may be hard to understand why I put it into the serious column. The reason I did that can be illustrated with an analogy. It doesn’t matter if you lead an entire life as a law-abiding citizen if you one day commit a murder. In the same vein, a movie which has one gruesome scene can be placed in the horror genre.

So what about The Man With The Golden Gun? Does it have any scenes that place it firmly in the serious column? Yes. Several, in fact.

First, it has Bond’s interrogation of Ms Anders, where Bond twists her arm until she gives up Scaramanga. This scene wasn’t accidental. Bond could have been given the information freely. Ms Anders had after all sent the first bullet to M, so she should have been willing to give Bond all the information he needed to kill Scaramanga.

Here, I wouldn’t blame you if you compared this scene to another scene in a film I’ve put in the campy column, Diamonds Are Forever, where Bond strangles a woman with her bra. Does this challenge my classification? I’d say that there are four differences between those scenes:

a) the music. In Diamonds Are Forever, it’s the James Bond theme, in a playful, triumphant style. In The Man With The Golden Gun, there’s no music at all. This often signifies seriousness.

b) the lines. The dialogue in The Man With The Golden Gun looks like this:

– Ow! You’re hurting my arm.
– Then tell me where those bullets go.
– No, I can’t.
– Try!
– He’ll kill me!
– Who?
– I can’t tell you!… Scaramanga.
– You see what you can do when you try?

Compare that to the scene in Diamonds Are Forever:

– There is something I’d like you to get off your chest.
(Marie gasps and gags.)
– Where is Ernst Stavro Blofeld?
(Marie chokes.)
– Speak up, darling. I can’t hear you.

In Diamonds Are Forever, Bond jokes as he’s about to kill Marie. The scene in The Man With The Golden Gun lacks comedic elements almost from the start.

c) the story. After Bond strangles Marie, he finds Blofeld, kills him, and then the real story of Diamonds Are Forever begins. Remember, this is just the pre-title sequence, so very little carries over into the main story. In The Man With The Golden Gun, this scene comes later and leads Bond to the main villain, which is significantly more important.

d) the characters. Marie, as a character, has no screen presence outside her murder. We don’t know much about her, but since she’s connected to Blofeld, we assume she’s with SPECTRE in some fashion. Andrea Anders, on the other hand, has several scenes with either Bond or Scaramanga, and is indeed the person who starts the entire story. We care more about her, and Bond’s handling of her is longer and therefore more jarring.

[To be fair, Diamonds Are Forever is not without its grim scenes, but they are filmed in a camp manner. The travels of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, for example, are filmed as comic relief, but the subject matter, with the drowned old lady, and many others, could have been handled like they were actually threatening.]

The second reason I put The Man With The Golden Gun in the serious colum is the killing of Ms Anders and the first meeting with Scaramanga. This has to be one of the longest scenes in the film series which takes place with a dead body firmly at the center. Dr No has Bond leaving off a dead driver at the embassy and Thunderball has the death of Fiona Volpe, and Casino Royale has the knife fight at the corpse exhibition, but they are mainly played for laughs or as a short burst of tension. And there a few other scenes where we can see one or several dead bodies, but it’s rare that we know their names of the dead person or can see their eyes for more than a second (Paris Carver and Elektra King spring to mind). But in The Man With The Golden Gun there’s a two and a half minute dialogue scene about Scaramanga’s backstory, including an anecdote about his elephant friend dying. All while Ms Anders’ body is sitting right next to them.

The start of the dinner at the climax of The Man With The Golden Gun.

Third, the dinner and the start of the duel. After an entire film, where Scaramanga is being portrayed as the number one hit-man in the world, Bond is challenged to a duel. The set up for the duel is rather long. I’m not merely referring to the almost one minute speech and countdown that Nick Nack holds at the beach. Before that, it’s the dinner scene. Now, the dinner scene is a staple in the Bond movies, starting with Dr No. Most of them have pleasant conversation and then a moment when the villain turns nasty, but this scene doesn’t end when the villain changes tone. In fact, it goes on quite a while. During this dinner, Scaramanga and Bond start with verbal sparring, as per usual (“At a million dollars a contract, I can afford to, Mr Bond. You work for peanuts. A ‘well done’ from the Queen and a pittance of a pension. Apart from that, we are the same.”), but when Bond becomes sharp in his tone, the audience knows (but Bond doesn’t) that Scaramanga is putting his golden gun together, and when he’s done, Scaramanga points his gun at Bond. After that, almost another minute of serious talk, without any glimmer of camp or humor until the very end.

The camp Bond

Is this important, to separate these films into two columns?

I would argue that it’s not, but that it may help us look at the screenplays and stories more closely. And by looking at them separately, things will hopefully become clearer.

Let’s start with camp. This term is much broader than most people perhaps use it. As TV Tropes puts it: “Derives from the French gay community’s slang term se camper, meaning “to pose in an exaggerated fashion”. The term “Camp” morphed into referring to a sensibility that revels in artifice, stylization, theatricality, irony, playfulness, and exaggeration rather than content, as Susan Sontag famously defined the term in her short essay “Notes on Camp”. Don’t expect it to take itself the least bit seriously.

Despite my mentioning of Batman above, camp isn’t necessarily big pink “Ka-Pow!” cartoon effect bubbles, or any of the cartoonish villains from the Adam West TV series.

Instead, let’s remember that the “coolness” of Bond is also part and parcel of the campiness. He’s hyper-masculine and almost unflappable. This is performance.

Just look at how much focus is on Bond’s clothing and vehicles in articles and, indeed, in the films themselves, whether it is the classic Bond smoking or the rare car models. And there are so many other moments in the films that can be viewed from a queer perspective that there’s an entire blog devoted to it.

[It may be relevant here to mention that one of the screenwriters of GoldenEye, Bruce Feirstein, wrote a book called Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, which is a tongue-in-cheek guidebook to hyper-masculinity, but that some readers missed the satirical tone in it, which means their image of the masculine becomes more exaggerated and fantastical and ultimately camp.]

One thing that push some Bond films more into the campy and sometimes silly side of things are the gadgets. These range from the slightly ahead of its time, such as the watch Bond wears in Octopussy, via the improbable (for instance the radiactive lint in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), to the impossible (the magnetic watch which, against the laws of physics, can bend the trajectory of a bullet at long range, “or so Q claims”). It’s easy to dismiss the gadgets, but they have certainly inspired many other films to include exciting new technology, and they have also become part of the public image of James Bond.

Here, Edward Biddulph attempts to measure the fantasy level, based on number of gadgets.

And let’s not forget that some of these gadget scenes are inspired by scenes in the Fleming books, such as the briefcase in the novel From Russia With Love. Fleming himself collected real gadgets and were inspired by wartime equipment that was designed to fool inspection from the other side.

But the part which probably garners the most criticism for the camp films is the humour. There is, definitely, a dry wit in Fleming’s novels, but not the kind of one-liners that came out of Bond from the start in the films. That type of cold-blooded, sarcastic humour borrow heavily from the film noir tradition, but it also gets some of its innuendos and clever wordplay from screwball comedies and early romantic comedies, which is probably why they arranged for Bond to meet Sylvia Trench in Dr No, and let her return in From Russia With Love. They could have had plenty of that kind of friction and intrigue, should they had continued to bring Trench back. Instead they let go of the continuity which made it easier for the viewers to watch the films in any order.

Terence Young, director of the first James Bond film.

It should be noted that the comedic tone of the first film Dr No in the end was a bit of a surprise, even to the director, as can be seen here:

“The success of Dr No in UK cinemas — earning a whopping £69,000 (R1.3m) in the first week (whopping for 1962 at least) — was a surprise to everyone. But, according to a story told by Peter Hunt to John Glen, who both went on to direct Bond films, Terence Young was also surprised by how audiences reacted.
‘When they made Dr No, Terence Young went to the press show,’ says John Glen, who wrote about his Bond career in the autobiography For My Eyes Only. “Terence was standing at the back of the theatre and when the critics started to laugh at various things, he got terribly embarrassed. He’d made what he considered to be a straight thriller, he didn’t realise that the humour was in there.
‘He got so embarrassed he left the theatre and went home. Peter Hunt had to ring him and tell him to get a copy of the evening papers because the critics were raving about this new style of humour — the tongue-in-cheek Britishness, if you like. Terrence [sic!] said to Peter Hunt: ‘That’s all well and good, but how do we do the second one, knowing what we know now?!’’”

Hugo Drax, as portrayed by George Almond.

Another part of the campiness of the Bond films is the question of the villains. Fleming was quite aware that the villains he created for Bond were larger than life, with physical deformities, backed up by powerful organisations, and, of course, with memorable names. It was an easy decision for the producers and screenwriters whether to keep those or not when it was time to make the films. There are so many wonderful possibilities, from a storytelling standpoint.

An equally easy decision was the evocative names of the women that Bond meets during his adventures. The personalities were not very much different from any heroine in any box office film series, but ask anyone to name the villains or female agents in the Mission Impossible series, or in the Bourne series, or in the Taken series, or in The Fast And The Furious series, or in the Jurassic Park series, or Transformers series, and so on. They likely won’t be able to. Being evocative, or even provocative, is a way to be remembered, and using names, such as the ones that the James Bond book and film series have used, is not only memorable but distinctive. No wonder it’s a feature most parodies use, as in the Austin Powers films. It’s hard not to compare this to the various superhero and supervillain names from Marvel and DC, or the odd names from Star Wars or Harry Potter.

Finally, there are plenty of farcical elements in the action sequences, from the noisy fight in the cottage with all the bells in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Bond’s gondola splitting another gondola in the middle while the gondolier keeps using his oar in Moonraker, to crazy stunts with the trucks in the climax of Licence To Kill. To use comedy in tense action sequences is common nowadays, but this practice were mostly pioneered in modern cinema by the James Bond films. (This technique was used quite often in the silent film era.) And the Bond films use it constantly, almost seamlessly blending comedy with straight action moments. Just look at the primarily serious fight in Spectre between Bond and Hinx, which ends rather comically with Bond fastening Hinx to a chain of barrels (a classic in zany cartoons), prompting Hinx to utter his only line in the movie, or the fight between Bond and Kananga, where Bond actually bleeds, but which ends with a another classic gag, namely the gas inflated person who floats up into the air.

The serious Bond

On the other hand, the Bond films have always also had a measure of realism or groundedness. Realistic spy stuff has not been one of the things the Bond films have been known for, but there are other signs that the writers have tried to make the films, as Fleming himself put it, “[…] wildly beyond the probable but not, I think, beyond the possible.” How have the writers tried to steer the viewing experience in that direction?

Daniel Craig, showing us how many times you live.

Since we’re not focusing on the actors here but the screenplays, I’ve skipped the entire discussion of Roger Moore’s raised eyebrow, Pierce Brosnan’s quips sotto voce, or Daniel Craig’s deadpan comments, and instead focused on what the stories and scenes those actors are in tell us. Are all the Craig Bond films realistic, all the way through? No. That may be the style the films are shot in, but it’s not what the stories and scenes tell us.

It should be noted that realism as a film concept is notoriously hard to define, since film by its very nature in some fashion is documenting what is in front of the camera. But TV Tropes again puts it well: “Realism is not synonymous with cynicism, but the two are often confused in ways which cause tropes such as edginess, explicitness and goriness to be associated with a work becoming ‘more realistic’.”

In that vein, let’s look at some of the injuries Bond sustains over the course of the films. He’s shot in the calf in Thunderball (very superficially, by the looks of it), he breaks his leg and sprains his arm in Octopussy (but tosses the bandage aside to kiss Octopussy), his arm is hurt in the pre-title sequence of The World Is Not Enough, he’s tortured severely in Casino Royale (so much that he’s forced to stay in the hospital), and he shows more wear and tear in Licence To Kill than in most other films.

A battle-scarred Timothy Dalton as Bond at the end of Licence To Kill.

In most other Bond films, the injuries are very minor or non-existent, lending something of an unnatural feel to them.

Then there are the injuries that other characters have. Most of the characters that die don’t die in especially visually gory or unpleasant ways. There are exceptions, such as the unnamed SPECTRE agent who falls into the way of a snow plow in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dario’s and Krest’s deaths in Licence To Kill, Zao being pierced by an ice chandelier in Die Another Day, and Guerra’s death at the hands of Mr Hink in Spectre, but other deaths are filmed in such a way to make what must have been bloody or painful death sanitised for a younger audience, such as when Corinne Dufour is ripped apart by Drax’s dogs in Moonraker, and the camera and soundtrack almost manage to make it tender. That’s one of the reasons the beginning of Casino Royale was such a change from most of the other Bond films: Bond’s fight with Fisher is not clean, but destructive and the pain seems real. Pain is one of the most important point in making a fight realistic, which is why the audience care less about Elvis’s death in Quantum of Solace (very quick, by explosion) than they do when Dominic Green’s foot is hit by a fire axe.

Then there’s the other side of the villains: their plans. In parodies and copies of the Bond films, the villain’s plan is often to take the entire world at ransom, or world domination, in a 1960’s kind of way. But the Bond villains themselves have at least had a somewhat plausible way of achieving their goal, by stealing the gold in Fort Knox — nay, setting off a dirty nuclear weapon in Fort Knox, thereby increasing the worth of all other gold, or increase petroleum prices by sabotaging the competitor’s pipelines, or arranging terrorist attacks to get the intelligence community to accept a surveillance system with a backdoor. These plans are often inspired by things happening in the real world, such as the energy crisis that formed the basis for the plot of The Man With The Golden Gun, or the criticism that was directed against the CIA which formed part of the story of Quantum Of Solace. Since the antagonist is arguably the most important function in a screenplay, to give the villain a good, (at least somewhat) realistic plan is an essential lesson.

Another element that the writers have used to foster realism is details. Many who write about this subject get caught up in the brands (“Bollinger, R.D. The best!”), and other factual details, such as where the orchidae nigra flower grows (the river Tapirape, apparently). Even Kingsley Amis heralded it as one of the things that made Fleming’s readers accept the stories (he christened it “the Fleming effect“). But there are other details that I believe are more important to pull the movies to the more realistic end of the spectrum.

A glamorous setting, but it’s still a meeting. The 00 agents who are in Europe meet in Thunderball.

One underappreciated aspect is the administrative details. From the first film, the meeting with M is often not just about the mission at hand, but about the work as a secret agent. M decides which gun should bring in Dr No, in From Russia With Love, M and Bond discuss tactics about the meeting with Tatiana Romanova, in Goldfinger, M threatens to replace Bond, in Thunderball, they have an all staff meeting, in You Only Live Twice, Bond asks permission to come aboard, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond resigns, and so on, and so forth. This is in every film. Also, merely the presence of M’s secretary, Q and various other staff members, also help bring this aspect of realism to the forefront. Not just by the scenes existing, but by Bond’s lax, irreverent attitude, which makes him look like it’s not his first time in the field. He’s experienced and at home in M’s office.

A realistic world is also filled with failure and malfunctions. There are several points in the films where gadgets misfire (or seem to misfire, such as before Fatima Blush’s death in Never Say Never Again), vehicles break (“Out of gas. I haven’t heard that one in a long time…”), incredible stunts fail or almost fail (that’s the things that create tension), and people make mistakes (including Bond, and even fatal ones). These are all things that happen in real life, and make Bond seem more human. On that topic…

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in Dr. No.

… notice this dialogue from Dr No:

Honey Ryder: I’m glad your hands are sweating, too.
Bond: Of course, I’m scared, too.

This is perhaps not the picture most people have of James Bond, and it’s not echoed in many other films in the series. In screenwriting outside of the Bond series, fear and other emotions are important mechanisms in making a realistic narrative in a non-realistic or fantastical setting (inside a volcano, in a space ship, in a mini-submarine, in a deserted Cubist city, etc).

There are a few scenes throughout the films that attempt to dive deeper into Bond’s psyche — some longer and some shorter. In the second category are for instance the scenes in the Moore films where Bond’s marriage to Tracy is mentioned (The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only) or in the Brosnan and Craig films where he’s scalded by M for being a blunt object. In the first category, there are more subtle scenes, such as in GoldenEye, where Natalya Simonova and Bond talk about his loneliness, and in the same film, when he encounters Alec Trevelyan who questions his motives, from the perspective of a former colleague. René Mathis’ questions about Bond’s life in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace make it seem like they are closer as friends than most of Bond’s allies through the years. But the two most outstanding studies here are the two major love stories: the one with Tracy (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and the one with Vesper (beginning with Casino Royale and then continued in Quantum of Solace and Spectre). Can you love if you’re a secret agent?

But emotion is a tricky subject in writing. As a seasoned agent with a background in the Navy, Bond would have been trained to act decisively and unemotionally in order to be an effective asset in the field. This, of course, clashes with Bond’s cavalier view of danger, something that every agent would avoid until it became absolutely necessary, and his very high profile, but let’s put that aside as something that you would have to apply your suspension of disbelief.

Tanya Roberts as Stacey Sutton, hanging from the Golden Gate Bridge in A View To A Kill.

In his stead, the job of audience surrogate often falls on the female main characters. They react with panic, fear and by freezing, all natural reactions to dangerous situations. It’s easy to complain about how the female characters often become damsels in distress (a trope that’s as old as the Greek mythology, and is more than a bit cliché), and need Bond to save them, but in fairness:

  • many of them are untrained for the dangerous situation that they find themselves in
  • there are quite a few female characters who don’t fall into that trope, such as Domino who kills Largo in Thunderball (though after being saved by Kutze), Tracy who saves Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Dr Holly Goodhead who fights along Bond in Moonraker, Melina Havelock in For Your Eyes Only whom Bond needs to stop at several points, and Camille Montes in Quantum Of Solace, who saves herself from her attacker.
  • Bond’s male allies tend to die, so Bond saving the women may be seen as one degree better than killing them off.

As more and more women are working in the various armed forces around the world, so have also the number of trained women in the Bond series. Most prominently we have M, played by Judi Dench, from GoldenEye to Spectre, but there are others, including Anya Amasova (The Spy Who Loved Me), Xenia Onatopp (GoldenEye), Jinx Johnson (Die Another Day) and Eve Moneypenny (Skyfall). In The World Is Not Enough we briefly see a female 00 agent. We’ve still to see a heavily featured female trained agent who Bond is not romantically engaged with at any point, but that will hopefully change with Nomi, the new 007, in No Time To Die.

The happy mix

If you are under the impression that I am on the side of camp or on the side of serious, I can assure you that you’ve missed my point. That table at the start is not how I would divide the films, really.

In fact, my message has been that all Bond films contain parts that are camp and parts that are serious, and that this fact is one of the biggest selling points of the James Bond film franchise.

Last example: let’s look at Octopussy, a film perhaps most known for its scenes in the circus, with Bond made up as a clown.

009, as portrayed by stunt performer Andy Bradford, in Octopussy.

However, there are many Bond fans who appreciate the scene at the start of the movie where 009 is chased by the knife-throwing twins, a sequence which takes about 3 minutes of screen time and is quite effective at showing the threat posed by the twins. And indeed the rest of the scenes that include the twins continue to be tense. Well, except for the way Mischka is killed (with a cannon falling on his head, like a cartoon anvil).

And that’s the point, very few other similar films mix action and comedy as effortlessly as the Bond films. Be on the lookout for those scenes and moments in a film that you would perhaps put in one category that contrast the others.

As a viewer you can expect a healthy mix of sneaky spy stuff but with heinous villains, risqué names but with a stern M ordering Bond to stop snickering, and dangerous plans that ends with a farcical chase scene. In that sense, Bond caters to (almost) everyone.

You may prefer one tone more than the other, but be aware that both have their origin in the source material, and the blend itself may be the reason why the Bond films are so successful.

Writer, reader and writing coach. @aliasHannibal on Twitter. Also runs the @BondWriting account on Twitter.

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