Sixty years ago today, on October 5, 1962, the first James Bond film, Dr No, was released in the UK. Evelyn Waugh, a friend of Ian and Ann Fleming, accompanied them to the premiere, after a swell dinner party. He was not impressed.
In his diary, Waugh recorded: “We entered in darkness and left unobserved by the paying audience; not at all like a gala performance of opera with tiers of boxes, promenade and tiaras sparkling under chandeliers. The film was totally fatuous and tedious, no mystery, not even erotic.” A few months later Waugh wrote to Ann Fleming remembering what he could about “Bond’s passions” in the movie: “In the film I think he dallied during a sweaty siesta… and then went off in a boat with a prize cock-drop – a sort of Swedish games mistress. But I was not very attentive.” So much for Ursula Andress.
Waugh, it seems, did not feel that he had been present at an historic event for the nation as a whole. Yet that evening launched one of the defining cultural icons of Britishness to this day, up there with the Beatles, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the late Queen Elizabeth, whether we like it or not. James Bond is the longest continually running film series; it is estimated a quarter of the global population has seen at least one Bond film. The 25 films made by the production company Eon, founded in 1961 by Harry Saltzman and Albert R “Cubby” Broccoli (the family business had indeed been brassicas) have grossed around $20 billion, in figures adjusted for inflation.
The producers of Dr No, though, only just managed to scrape together a low budget of $1m, the Hollywood studios rejecting Bond as too British and too lewd. Eight Bond novels had appeared between 1953 and 1961 but the only previous screen adaptation had been a 1954 live production of Casino Royale on US television, with Bond re-cast as American.
Dr No, especially if seen now in a sparkling new print, looks remarkably ropey: the sets made of cardboard, punches laughably pulled in the fight sequences. Dr No’s prize aquarium (the first of many aquatic curios in the Bond universe) had to be faked with supersized film of goldfish, while Andress’s definitive bikini was fashioned from a British army webbing belt. Many key Bond characteristics are not present yet. There are no gadgets (Bond simply upgrades from a Beretta 418 to a 7.65mm Walther PPK), no mighty cars, only two locations, London and Jamaica, no incredible stunts (Bond merely wiggles his way through an air vent).
There was, though, Sean Connery, 31 when the film was shot, the perfect uncommunicative hunk. Fans hail his first appearance, when he names himself “Bond… James Bond” to Sylvia Trench at the club Les Ambassadeurs over the pulsing theme music, as the most important 20 seconds in British cinema. Ian Fleming didn’t care for Connery, calling him “a Glaswegian truck driver”, but Connery delivered exactly Fleming’s original conception of the character as a blunt instrument, a neutral figure, an uninteresting man to whom interesting things happened, thus becoming an ideal vehicle for identification and projection.
And Dr No established the constant undertone of spoofiness that makes Bond’s barbarity digestible. There are no jokes at all in the novels of Ian Fleming, an earnest fantasist. The director of Dr No, Terence Young, knew that had to change: “A lot of things in this film, the sex and violence, and so on, if played straight a) would be objectionable and b) we’re never gonna get them past the censors; but the moment you take the mickey out, put the tongue out in the cheek, it seems to disarm.” That effect has been deployed ever since, rendering all complaint about Bond’s snobbishness, sexism, misogyny, sadism and racism ineffectual.
James Bond became phenomenally popular in the Sixties. The great films followed in quick succession, performing ever better at the box office – From Russia with Love in 1963, Goldfinger in 1964, Thunderball in 1965 – and Fleming’s novels sold in vast quantities too, half a million in total in 1961 but 40 million by 1964.
The appeal of Bond to wistful and frustrated patriots was coolly analysed by David Cannadine (James Bond and the Decline of England, 1979). Bond offered the refuge of “an international fantasy world, where decline never happened or where its consequences were minimal, and where it was still possible to pretend that St George could slay the dragon”, he concluded. Many commentators have identified Bond, in his heyday, as a continuing inspiration to Brexiteers, similarly wishful.
Simon Winder, in his brilliant 2011 memoir-cum-study, James Bond: The Man Who Saved Britain, improved on this by owning up to his own adolescent formation by Bond, giving him a special insight into the reassurance he offered to all those bewildered by the end of empire: “As the 1960s progressed, Bond’s ability to maim and kill foreigners became a great consolation to millions of embittered and confused people whose traditional world picture had changed with alarming speed.”
Fond as he is of Bond, Winder is well aware that any actual influence he has ever had, political or personal, might have been almost entirely unhelpful. He suggests, for example, that when it comes to sex this seismic figure must have caused “much unhappiness and considerable confusion and resentment within marriages”. One of Bond’s most exemplary fans is, of course, Alan Partridge (see the episode “Never Say Alan Again” of I’m Alan Partridge).
Bond has frequently changed, of course: no longer much resembling Ian Fleming’s original creation, converted into a prize heritage item instead, universally acceptable. In 1958, in the New Statesman, Paul Johnson denounced Dr No the novel as absolute poison, saying Bond displayed “the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude snob cravings of a suburban adult”. In 2012 Bond was the fit companion to deliver HM the Queen to the Olympics.
In Skyfall (2012) Sam Medes made Bond fully historic, M (Judi Dench) outrageously sanctifying him as a treasurable relic with Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: “Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time…” And in No Time to Die (2021) Bond became a regretful saint, a sentimental family man, before being justly terminated.
He’ll be back, though. James Bond films now are about little other than being another James Bond film. Umberto Eco, a Bond fan, said there was pleasure to be found in immersing oneself in a game of which one knows the pieces and the rules, and perhaps the outcome, drawing pleasure simply from the minimal variations by which victory is achieved. The Bond franchise may have almost no connection to the real world any more, carefully avoiding any implications that may upset global audiences, but the juggernaut rolls on, endlessly profitable.
[See also: What does James Bond eat for lunch?]