HIS EXPLOITS HAVE been chronicled in more than 20 movies. He has been portrayed by six actors, has bedded umpteen of the world's most beautiful women and fought the bad guys everywhere from underwater to outer space. He has persisted as a pop-culture mainstay for more than half a century, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
How does James Bond do it?
"I think the reason for our longevity has been [that] we've kept with the times and reinvented ourselves time and again along the way," says Barbara Broccoli, co-producer of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, set to open Friday, the 21st in a series of films that dates back to 1962's Dr. No and the first to star Bond No. 6, Daniel Craig. "You have to change. If you don't, you die."
Fair enough; some credit for the survival of England's favorite secret agent as a box-office draw goes to the franchise's refusal to stand pat. Bonds and Bond girls and Bond villains have come and gone. The world has changed, and yet new generations of movie audiences keep delighting in the adventures of agent 007. The 20th film in the series, 2002's Die Another Day, was the biggest moneymaker yet, pulling in nearly $432 million worldwide.
But the answer goes deeper than that, and touches on the qualities that made Bond appealing in the first place -- his masculinity, ingenuity and unswerving, self-contained moral compass.
Plenty of other cinematic heroes have tried to remain viable, but none have succeeded so spectacularly. Inspector Clouseau couldn't survive the death of Peter Sellers, even though Roberto Benigni and Steve Martin both tried reviving the character. Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan and Tarzan are strictly yesterday's news. And fans aren't clamoring for revivals of Dean Martin's Matt Helm or James Coburn's Derek Flint.
Even on this, his 21st go-round -- or 23rd, if one counts the "unofficial" Bond films Casino Royale (a 1967 spoof with David Niven) and Never Say Never Again (released by a rival producer in 1983) -- 007 is dominating the cinematic headlines everywhere.
"Every time a movie comes out, everybody says Bond is a dinosaur, and he's past his best," says David Black, chairman of the 2,000-member James Bond International Fan Club, on the phone from his home in York, England. "But over here, every 10 minutes, there's something on television about Bond and the new film. They can't help talking about it."
Fact is, people have been talking about James Bond since 1953, when Ian Fleming, a retired British intelligence officer, published his first novel centering on the exploits of a suave, high-class secret agent with an affinity for getting the dirty jobs done and a propensity for associating with the most beautiful women while doing so. Casino Royale proved a major hit (much to the surprise of Fleming, who reportedly figured his success would never extend beyond a certain niche audience), and a literary franchise was born. Fleming, who died in 1964 at age 56, would write 12 novels and nine short stories featuring Bond.
From the start, audiences have identified with Bond. True, few are really like him -- witty, urbane, ingenious and athletic, a force for good, a babe magnet of the first order. But if men haven't seen themselves in Bond, they have certainly wished they could.
"It's hard to find a heterosexual male in the world who doesn't dream of emulating Bond and his lifestyle," says Lee Pfeiffer, editor of Cinema Retro magazine and co-author of The Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007. "Other heroes have been diminished over time by being either too unrealistic for people to identify with, or showing a vulgar side to them that diminished their original characters."
As for women, they've long dreamed of being swept off their feet by their very own James Bond, particularly as embodied on the screen by Scottish actor Sean Connery, who inaugurated the role with Dr. No and would go on to play 007 in six more films. Handsome and droll, rarely flustered and always ready with a quip, Connery's Bond was a crowd-pleaser from the start.
"I wanted to be a Bond girl from the time I was 11," says Deborah Lipp, the fortysomething author of The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book. "To this day, there aren't three or four things I enjoy more. I love James Bond."
Lipp's appreciation for Bond goes beyond the character's considerable sex appeal. "He is the perfect combination of fantasy and reality," she says. "He's not a superhero; James Bond is a person. He lives among us, and yet he lives a life of adventure and fantasy and excitement. It's exotic. He travels all over the world. He's stylish and classy, but he's also edgy."
Not to mention au courant.
Bond has thrived as a franchise, thanks partly to his producers' decision to keep him utterly contemporary, not to present him as a period piece by setting their stories somewhere in the past. That continues a precedent set by original producers Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and continued by Broccoli alone after Saltzman sold his share of their company, Eon Productions, in 1974, and carried into the new millennium by his daughter and stepson, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who took over the franchise with 1995's Goldeneye. Bond may have been a literary creation of the 1950s, but onscreen, he's never been less than modern.
Broccoli "adhered to a vision from the beginning," says Lipp. "His vision was of a hero who lived today and tomorrow. ... If those movies were period pieces, there might have been five of them, might have been 10 of them. But they would have stopped."
That firm sense of the present is reflected in both the movies' villains -- from Communist spies to evil media moguls to North Korean terrorists -- and, even more famously, the gadgetry. Bond was using portable miniature spy cameras and jet-propelled backpacks decades before they became part of the real world.
"Broccoli researched technology and always had the latest technology in his movies," says Lipp. "That portable copy machine that was in On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1969, that was based on current technology and was in development. It wasn't on the market yet, but it wasn't impossible."
Keeping the films current has also enabled each generation to discover and embrace its own version of Bond, confident that he bears only slight resemblance to the 007 their parents embraced. Moviegoers who grew up in the mid-1970s retain a fondness for Roger Moore's tongue-in-cheek Bond, while '80s audiences were raised on Timothy Dalton's darker, more professional secret agent. When Pierce Brosnan took over with Goldeneye, Bond became more complex, less cocky. This was a Bond who felt pain when he was hit, felt conflicted by some of the things he was called upon to do.
And his toys got even more outrageous.
"The move from [1989's] The Living Daylights to Goldeneye isn't just a change from who Bond is," says Jacob M. Held, a professor of philosophy at the University of Central Arkansas and co-editor of the book, James Bond and Philosophy. "They went from being spy movies with some action in them to full-blown action movies. With Pierce Brosnan, he's driving tanks down the street. They get a little extreme in the gadgetry, they move toward the action genre a little, to make them relevant to younger audiences."
It worked. Together, the four Brosnan Bonds brought in nearly $1.5 billion worldwide.
He knows what's right
But beyond the debonair sex appeal, the actors and the gimmicks, there's a thread of righteousness, a sense that good will always triumph somehow, that winds its way through the Bond franchise and keeps audiences coming back.
"He's always been a good guy," says Lee Pfeiffer, "and he's always stood for, hopefully, the values that we all share. ... I guess you could say that he stands for truth, justice and the capitalist way."
Bond has never suffered from the moral ambiguity evinced by such modern-day superheroes as Spider-Man, Batman and the X-Men. When it comes to 007, there's always been, in Held's words, a sense of "moral clarity and closure."
"You're always given an undeniably evil villain or problem, and Bond is always going to fix it, he's always going to solve it for you," Held says. "You can take Bond and put him in any circumstance, and let the [audience] play out their fantasy role. They can think, 'Here's the problem, and we could deal with it, if only we had somebody like James Bond.' "
Perhaps best of all, Bond doesn't wait for someone to tell him what's right. He isn't at the mercy of some namby-pamby politicians who couldn't tell left from right without commissioning a poll first.
"James Bond is someone who looks inward for his morality," says Glenn Yeffen, publisher of Dallas-based BenBella Books and editor of James Bond in the 21st Century: Why We Still Need 007. "He knows what he needs to do, and asks for permission later. ... I think there is a public hunger for someone who knows right from wrong and does what he needs to do, who can make the hard decision that the politicians are afraid of making."
Back to Bond basics
Of course, how well the new James Bond, Daniel Craig, will continue the tradition is the question du jour among Bond aficionados. Despite some initial misgivings -- many couldn't accept the notion of a blond Bond (his hair has been darkened for the movie), and insisted Craig had neither the stature nor the unforced gravitas to play the character -- most seem willing to give Craig a chance. Many appreciate that the producers are taking a chance with this Bond, returning to Fleming's very first book for their story and re-imagining Bond as a more serious, less flippantly casual hero, one closer to the character Fleming originally envisioned.
Explains producer Barbara Broccoli, "After Die Another Day, the most successful film in the series, even though we were riding high, we felt ... the world had gotten so serious, and we had gone as far as we could go in terms of the fantasy element, that we really needed to go back to a more realistic story line."
Warns Pfeiffer, "They're throwing out the formula that has worked for more than 45 years. In the last Bond, the humor was way over the top, there was too much emphasis on gadgets and cheesy CGI effects. But with Casino Royale, they're taking a big risk in redefining the very character of Bond and bringing him back to the basics. There have been dark Bonds before, which have always worked for the better artistically, but not always for the better financially. That's why this represents a huge risk for the producers."
Still, Bond is Bond, and he's been money in the cinematic bank longer than any other character, so it wouldn't be wise to bet against him. In bringing 007 to the big screen, filmmakers have tapped into a vein of storytelling as old as mankind itself, and as durable.
"If you look at Greek mythology," says Deborah Lipp, "you have gods. Gods are immortal, and they can't be defeated. Whatever stories you tell about them, they live on a higher plane than we do. Then you have heroes, like Jason or Perseus. They're usually half human, and they struggle, and they die. They're going to win, but it's not going to be easy.
"In our modern storytelling, Spider-Man and Superman are gods. James Bond is a hero."
A BOND FOR EVERY ERA
Fourty-four years after first hitting movie screens in Dr. No, James Bond is still the man. Or men, as these six Bonds can attest.
"He was a pure Cold War character, ruthless, a misogynist. He was very happy to throw a woman in the path of a bullet, if it would save him."
- Glenn Yeffeth
Editor, James Bond in the 21st Century: Why We Still Need 007
"He was an inexperienced actor, and it showed. He was so physical. He could really throw a punch."
- Deborah Lipp
Author, The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book
"He came at a time when, I guess, we needed a little loosening up. He was a James Bond who took himself not so seriously at all."
- Glenn Yeffeth
"The Timothy Dalton Bond was not a likable person. He's supposed to be mean and cruel and not terribly funny. ... A secret agent would be a very dark person, a very cruel person, not somebody you'd want to have a drink with."
- Jacob M. Held
Editor, James Bond and Philosophy
"He was someone who actually was not cold and heartless. You could always see that he felt the pain when he made those life-and-death decisions."
- Glenn Yeffeth
"Once he agreed to do the character, he took three months of intensive fight training, underwater training and weapons training, all to make it very realistic and very believable. But he also brought a lot of complexity to the role and reveals a lot of character that should intrigue Bond fans and people who are not necessarily Bond fans."
- Barbara Broccoli
Co-producer, Casino Royale