For years, when asked, I would say that my favorite Bond movie was From Russia With Love. It had a few of the one-liners that soon became a staple of the format, but it also had a credible story, rooted in Cold War realities, and James Bond himself was tough but vulnerable, both towards the ladies and towards bullets, rather than the solid steel superman who can defeat innumerable enemies, elude automatic gunfire from every direction, and perform the decathlon without breaking a sweat. As they went on, under Roger Moore and later Bonds, they increasingly became entertaining cartoon stories with billionaire villains manipulating the elements — the weather, outer space, the moon, the ocean depths — and Bond overcoming insuperable odds with quips and Q’s technological toys.
Don’t get me wrong; I succumbed to all this — and to the songs, the Bond girls, the high camp patriotic gestures (union jack parachutes, etc.) and the opening credits devised by Maurice Binder, the genius who invented the sexually explicit silhouette. But I always had a guilty feeling about doing so, as when eating an entire packet of dark chocolate digestive biscuits at one go, and I felt that the Bond franchise would be improved by returning to its more realistic roots in the Ian Fleming novels.
Well, that has been done in the most recent Bond saga, Skyfall, the third in the franchise with Daniel Craig as Bond. Craig would not have been my first choice as the latest Bond. I would have liked the part to go to Jeremy Northam, the versatile classical actor, who has both the suavity and the coldness for the Commander Bond of the novels. (He was apparently considered for the part but expressed lack of interest.) But Craig is also a first-class actor who has turned out to be a very strong and persuasive Bond. With each of his three performances, he has moved closer to the Bond of the novels while also being a distinctly recognizable figure from modern Britain.
Skyfall is a gripping and entertaining movie — that’s the most important thing to know about it. It is also a near-perfect blend of Fleming’s Bond and the Bond of the high–Roger Moore period. It doesn’t overdo the one-liners which were used effectively to undercut the idea that Bond was facing real risks. It keeps more of the “special effects” fight scenes than I might wish: Bond is still slightly too invulnerable for my taste in the London subway scenes. (I don’t think I’m giving anything away; we all know there’ll be another Bond movie.) In one particular it moves farther away from the standard Bond formula than even I want: We don’t see nearly enough of the exotically beautiful Berenice Marlohe as the doomed Severine. But the central change is that its plot moves towards greater realism — while not quite arriving there — in two respects.
First, the villain is not a billionaire lunatic with some sci-fi vision of how to destroy the world while comfortably watching from a drawing room on Mount Everest or underwater but a former MI6 agent betrayed by the service. He is still something of a super-villain insofar as he performs extraordinary feats of programmed destruction. But he has at least one foot in the real world of terrorist groups and mortal threats by “non-state actors.” Indeed, that transition is underlined in the film by a remarkable speech put into the mouth of M (played, as before, by the redoubtable Judi Dench) addressing a skeptical parliamentary oversight committee, in which she asks if its members feel safe in a world in which their moral enemies are anonymous and might include the person sitting next to them, or a neighbor, or an apparent policeman.
M’s question implicitly asks us whether we are up to this new and formidable challenge. Her audience of British politicians no longer disposes of the imperial power that once governed a quarter of mankind. Is a relatively poorer and a much less powerful Britain — is a middle-aged and wounded 007 — still capable of engaging in this new struggle? An American audience in the cinema will, and should, feel the force of that same question. M answers it with a defiantly un-ironic quotation from Tennyson’s great Victorian poem “Ulysses”:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth. That which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
In a Bond movie this is the only possible answer to the question — and in this Bond movie it is not an exercise in high camp patriotism. Is it the answer that Cameron’s Britain and Obama’s America will give in real life? We shall see.
The second respect in which Skyfall moves towards greater realism is the climactic fight in the Scottish Highlands ending in two deaths in a ruined chapel. Bond and his two allies are outnumbered in this battle, but their preparations for it are sufficiently strong for its outcome to be credible. That outcome is, besides, not the usual unqualified triumph, if it is a triumph at all.
So if Skyfall approaches realism without quite getting there, what is the next and final step required to do so? Surely Bond has to take on the challenges alluded to by M but in the actual political forms in which they appear in the modern world. Rogue MI6 agents do exist, but they usually write articles for the Guardian rather than becoming super-criminals. They don’t deserve powder and shot from 007. The real-world villains are the intelligence agencies of China, Iran, Russia, et. al — perhaps with Indian secret agents playing the Felix Leiter role of Bond’s friend in such struggles — and, still more obviously, the jihadist network of, ahem, “non-state actors.”
Mark Steyn has pointed out in the Corner that the Highlands climax takes us back to the origins of the modern thriller in the novels of John Buchan such as The Thirty-Nine Steps and Mr. Standfast. Buchan’s villains were almost always real-world ones — the Wilhelmine Germans in The Thirty-Nine Steps and a combination of Imperial German agents and Islamist fanatics in Greenmantle. Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson tells me that historical research has confirmed that the plot of Greenmantle was rooted in real attempts by Imperial Germany to rouse the masses of the Muslim world against the British empire. Yet it is still oddly topical today. Mutatis mutandis – i.e., Chinese, Russians, or even North Koreans in the role of Kaiser Wilhelm – Greenmantle is a plot waiting to be ripped off for the next Bond movie.
Of course Bond would first have to defeat CAIR for that to happen.