The first James Bond film, DR. NO, premiered in London 60 years ago today. The movies were a big part of my life growing up and remain so today. The first Bond film I saw on release in the cinema was ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. I was hooked and I remember journeying on the bus to the cinema in the early 1970s to see the Sean Connery Bonds on double-bill re-releases, before the days of home video and Bond showing up on TV (DR. NO would not premiere on ITV until 28 October 1975 and the series will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime from today).
There was a magic to seeing Bond on the big screen in the 1960s and early 1970s that cannot be replicated on the small screen. In the pre-STAR WARS days Bond was the biggest event and seeing those films on the big screen transported you into his world of colourful action, adventure and glamour. Once Bond became saturated through repeated network showings the magic was never quite the same again.
Except for 2006’s CASINO ROYALE, all my top-tier Bond films come from the 1960s. Sean Connery was James Bond to me. Accompanied by John Barry’s wonderful scores and Ken Adam’s distinctive production design – YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE’s volcano set would today be realised in CGI, in 1967 it was a creative triumph of design and build – Connery defined the cool, suave, witty action hero that would become the template for the movies from then on. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), GOLDFINGER (1964) and THUNDERBALL (1965) arguably saw Connery at his peak as Bond, before he started to grow bored with the part. The Bond formula was perfected with GOLDFINGER and THUNDERBALL proved to be the biggest success of the series at the box office. Bond and Connery became global superstars.
George Lazenby’s one-off appearance as Bond in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969) is in many fans eyes the best of the series – and the closest to the Ian Fleming source material. I would not dispute that. But the changing culture of the late 60s threatened to make Bond feel outdated. When Lazenby bowed out, after some terrible advice from his agent, Connery returned one more time for 1971’S DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. I remember the long queues at the Odeon in Bury for this one. He would play the part once more in the unofficial Bond NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN in 1983.
Whilst I liked 1973’s LIVE AND LET DIE, Roger Moore took the character in a different, lighter direction. The plots became even more outlandish and comedic elements threatened to take over. Occasionally (1977’s THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and 1981’s FOR YOUR EYES ONLY), the production team got the balance right. But the silliness of the STAR WARS-inspired MOONRAKER (1979) left me in despair for a series that was now following trends rather than setting them. LIVE AND LET DIE came off the back of the Blaxploitation films inspired by SHAFT and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974) tapped into the Bruce Lee martial arts thrillers before the series briefly restored its identity with THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. In 1983’s OCTOPUSSY, Moore was obviously too old for the part with his stunt double perhaps getting more screen time than he did. Still, he manfully fended off competition from Connery’s NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN.
By 1985’s stale A VIEW TO A KILL, Moore had aged out of the part completely and two years later Timothy Dalton took over for THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS followed by LICENCE TO KILL in 1989. Dalton brought a more serious and intense tone, closer to Fleming’s Bond. LICENCE TO KILL was an impressive action yarn that was ahead of its time in that it is perhaps closest linked to Daniel Craig’s tenure. Dalton may have lacked Connery and Moore’s skill with the witty one-liner, but he brought much-needed gravitas to the part.
When legal difficulties led to delays in the production of the next Bond, Dalton moved on and in came Pierce Brosnan for 1995’s GOLDENEYE. In many ways this was a nod to the 1960s Bonds with Brosnan capturing much of Connery’s rugged charm and blending it with Moore’s knowing wit, Martin Campbell directed with gusto and the movie was a big success. Brosnan made three more films – TOMORROW NEVER DAYS (1997) and THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999) consolidated on GOLDENEYE without ever topping it. DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002), however, saw the series hit a new low. Poorly executed CGI, an invisible car and over-the-top action sequences resulted in a bloated mess. The series was in dire need of a rethink.
Out went Brosnan and in came Daniel Craig, to fan outrage about him being blonde. The actor immediately dismissed any fears with an assured performance in a Bond for the 2000s. CASINO ROYALE (2006) took us back to the start, and Craig’s five-film run would carry its own story arc. It was a confident, bruising, exciting and moving action adventure on a scale not seen since ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. Martin Campbell had been brought back to direct and the results were sensational. A quick sequel went into production, but the frenetically edited QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) could not match its predecessor. Sam Mendes was brought in to direct 2012’s SKYFALL and the film proved to be a box-office and critical smash. Slightly overrated in my view, SKYFALL is still an excellent movie, meaning you can forgive some of the plot holes. The finale is tense, exciting and moving. The team dropped the ball slightly on 2015’s SPECTRE by messing with Fleming’s concept in changing the Bond-Blofeld dynamic. The rest of the movie, whilst entertaining enough, felt like a tick-box exercise. Craig bowed out with last year’s NO TIME TO DIE, which wrapped up the story arcs. It was the longest-ever Bond film. Whilst it touched on greatness in its early scenes, it veered off the rails totally in its final act. The ending betrayed Fleming and the fans and coloured the movie for many, including myself.
We will now have a hiatus whilst Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli look at how to reboot the series, yet again. With a property like James Bond, which has run to a series of 25 official films, it is difficult to be original and innovative. The films that followed Fleming’s template most closely have, in my view, been the most successful. Maybe, that gives Wilson and Broccoli their starting point. When in doubt, go back to the basics that have made the series great.
For me, I will keep on enjoying revisiting Bond every two or three years, watching the movies straight through. They are both of their time and timeless and represent cinema at its very best. Every time I watch Bond, I will always be that teenage boy who fell in love with the series in those smoke-filled, rather battered old cinemas.
Artwork by Pat Carbajal