Gilbey on Film: Happy Birthday, Mr Bond

Why we don't really need a Global James Bond Day.

It may not have escaped your attention that today is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Dr No, the first James Bond film. In fact, it is Global James Bond Day, though it’s worth pointing out that this is only on the say-so of Sony Pictures, the current custodians of the cinematic franchise, rather than the governments of the world. No public holidays for any of us, I’m afraid. And, more positively, no amnesty for anyone found using alligators as stepping stones, driving cars underwater or operating a jetpack without the necessary permits.

Yes, it really is half a century since we (OK, not me, but some of us) saw with virgin eyes a cinematic convention described by Adam Mars-Jones in 1995 as “That hallowed piece of montage in which the viewer is shot by Bond while unwisely attempting to hide in a spiral sea shell.”

To mark the occasion, there is all kinds of hoopla, including the unveiling of Adele’s theme song for the next Bond movie (song and film go by the name Skyfall, a clear back-to-basics message after the complaints raised by Quantum of Solace) and the release of a documentary about the series, Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007. I haven’t seen the documentary so allow me a moment’s recourse to its release, which informs us that it “focuses on three men with a shared dream—Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman and author Ian Fleming” and “draws back the curtain to reveal the battles, threats and real stakes unfolding behind the camera.”

The PR appetite-whetting really began in earnest back in July, when the entire Olympics was revealed to be an expensive pretext for a publicity stunt to promote Skyfall by having the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter and into the Olympic stadium. She fell from the sky: Skyfall—get it? That said, the stunt would have worked equally well had the movie’s producers stuck to the other titles that were in contention, among them Queendrop and Monarchplummet.

Personally I don’t need Global James Bond Day, 007 Hour or even a minute’s silence for Countess Tracy di Vicenzo to feel some Bond-related excitement. The prospect of a new Bond movie (I’ll be reviewing Skyfall in the NS when it opens on 26 October) is enough on its own to do the trick. Bond is part of the cultural heritage and education of anyone who has had any truck with mainstream cinema in the past 50 years; it is the only film franchise which still has about it the status of event. None of which has anything to do with the quality of the individual films—perhaps it makes each one’s particular triumphs that bit more pleasurable, and its disappointments more keenly felt, because most us watch them conscious of the historical precedence. (In other words, we are likely to know our Goldfinger from our Octopussy. As each Bond film comes along, it takes its place on the viewer’s personal Bond inventory.)

David Thomson appeared on Radio 4’s The Film Programme this week to promote his new book The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us and complain that there is no longer any sense of cinemagoing as a mass communal event. Regardless of the details of this argument, I think the Bond series is a phenomenon that runs contrary to his theory. Yes, the films all end up on the small screens that Thomson bemoans, but even once Skyfall has taken its place as another bank holiday Monday schedule-filler in 2020 (by which time there will likely be a new actor in the role), there will still be about it the air of the communal.

It also helps the sense of anticipation that the series is in particularly good health. I’m a fan of the Pierce Brosnan era, particularly GoldenEye and The World Is Not Enough, but the special achievement of Daniel Craig’s tenure so far has been to purge the Bond film of its jokiness (even if, in parts of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, fun was also sometimes a little thin on the ground).

I happened to think Quantum of Solace had its impressive moments, though Craig, has expressed publicly some dissatisfaction with it. “We were hamstrung by the writers’ strike,” he told me last year. “We had half a script and lots of pressure. We suffered because of a lack of preparation. That doesn't necessarily mean that Skyfall is going to be better—I don’t want to jinx it—but I can say we’ve worked solidly on this script for two years.”

The appointment of Sam Mendes as director, and a cast that includes Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, is intriguing. “Sam's involvement has brought in people like Ralph and Javier. He’s a very visual director, and I think audiences want something visually beautiful in a Bond movie. Also, we got rid of a lot of the old characters in Casino Royale, the ones that had been set in stone. That’s just the way it happened, and I think now we can start reintroducing them.” Among those is Q, played by Ben Whishaw; though the rumour that Moneypenny will return seems to be without value.

“Before we started, Sam and I sat down together and rubbed our hands and said, ‘Right, what shall we do?’ We watched the films, we read the books again, just to find what makes a great Bond movie. And I think we’ve managed to put in all the wit we love about the series.”

We’ll be the judge of that, Mr Bond. We’ll be the judge of that. [cackles sinisterly, touches conspicuous facial scar and strokes pet tortoise]

Skyfall is released October 26.

Daniel Craig promoting Skyfall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism