(Guest post by Greg Forster)
After the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, it was formally at war with Germany, but American attention was primarily focused on the Pacific theater. This was only natural given that the impetus for our engagement was Pearl Harbor, but another contributing factor was widespread anti-British sentiment among American elites. This animus against Britain had been one of the key causes of America’s prewar isolationism, and Churchill worried that he would have difficulty drawing the U.S. into full engagement in the European theater.
Casting about for some way to counteract this problem, Churchill lit on the idea of rounding up some charming and sophisticated English gentlemen – some of whom weren’t previously contributing much to the war effort, or anything else for that matter – and sending them to Washington on a combined charm offensive/intelligence gathering mission. Led by Roald Dahl (yes, that Roald Dahl) their job, recently recounted in Jennet Conant’s The Irregulars, was to wine and dine the American elites in order to 1) improve their impression of Englishmen and 2) keep their ears open for any useful rumors. Whether the Charge of the Aristo Brigade accomplished much for the war effort is doubtful, but there is at least one respect in which the program had a major impact on world history.
One of the men sent to Washington on this “espionage as aristocratic glamorfest” mission was Ian Fleming. The rest is history.
In his paean to Fleming, Mark Steyn observes that all the basic elements that make Bond what he is were present right from the beginning in the first book, Casino Royale – and that the 2006 “reinvention” of the Bond movie franchise in the film version of Casino Royale consists in the filmmakers having done away with all the cornball stuff that the earlier movies had added to that basic foundation over the years, allowing the core Bond to shine through. As the title song says, “The coldest blood runs through my veins/You know my name.”
Now, from what we can tell in the previews of the new film, it appears that Marc Forster (no relation, alas) is adding another innovation to his vision of Bond – storylines that span multiple movies. Bond has had recurrent villains before, of course, but never an ongoing storyline. The rise of epic storylines has recently done wonders for network television, after having been pioneered on high-quality niche shows like Farscape and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And at about the same time network TV was noticing the narrative power of season-long story arcs, The Lord of the Rings proved that movie audiences were open to ongoing storylines across multiple movies. Now Forster wants to take things to the next level and try doing it with movies that aren’t growing out of a preestablished book series (like The Lord of the Rings) where the epic story arc is already well established and has a fan base. It’s daunting, but it’s the next natural step to take.
And where better to try it than with James Bond? Nobody realized it until now – well, nobody but Marc Forster and the rest of his creative team – but with hindsight, the franchise has always been begging for this. And nowadays, when it’s so much harder than it used to be to get audiences to see espionage as material for epic drama, it’s a genius move. I can’t seem to find it now, but one clever fan put together a desktop image for the new movie consisting of flames formed into a ghostly image of Vesper Lynd, with the tagline “payback’s a bitch.” (If you get the reference, you’re a true Bond fan.) Bond has pursued villains, even Blofeld himself, out of vengence for a girl before, but making that the whole ongoing reason for his neverending war with SPECTRE is absoultely brilliant.
Though of course it hasn’t been called SPECTRE for a long time now, due to an inconclusive legal battle 47 years ago (no kidding) over the rights to the movie Thunderball – ironically, one of the worst Bond films ever made. Or perhaps it’s more karmic than ironic: when the producers allowed Bond to become nothing more to them than an excuse to make money, they incurred divine wrath, manifested in the loss of the SPECTRE name.
When I was a teenager, I played the official James Bond role playing game and they called the criminal conspiracy TAROT, and each of the organization’s divisions was named after a Tarot card. (I forget what TAROT stood for.) In the video game based on From Russia With Love a few years ago they were calling it Octopus. In the new movie it’s now called Quantum. But we all know it’s really SPECTRE.
The producers waiting for resolution of this same legal battle is also the reason there were no Bond films between License to Kill (1989) and Goldeneye (1995). And it wasn’t until 2001 that the rights to the James Bond character were unambiguously settled on one rightsholder. But they still only got the character – the other material from Thunderball, such as SPECTRE, is still too radioactive to touch.
Shudder to think that about half the country wants the judges to rule us, even though the judges can’t even look after James Bond properly. I mean, if they can’t be bothered to provide a clear resolution of a conflict when something as important as James Bond is on the line, why are we surprised that they have trouble deciding whether or not it makes sense to require American servicemen to die for the sake of a paperwork error?
In this edition of Pass the Popcorn I forego the traditional review of the franchise from its origin to the present day, not only because the task is too great for me, but also because I’ve already offered a unified field theorem of the Bond franchise and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
Expectations for Quantum of Solace are, of course, enormous. That’s more or less inevitable when you make a sequel to a groundbreaking film. So, my fellow Bond fans, the name of the game now is anticipation control. The great secret to movies is to just go in and enjoy what’s there, if there’s anything at all to be enjoyed. Critical evaluation can come later. It’s hard enough to do when expectations are low, as the critical response to Speed Racer showed. It’s all the harder when expectations are high.
Alas, I won’t be able to see it opening weekend. But it looks like I can probably contrive to see it next weekend. Until then: arm yourself, because no one else here will save you.