Critics leave secret agent neither shaken nor stirred

August 2, 2002

How has James Bond retained his appeal for six decades? Maybe it's the evergreen allure of the alpha male, suggests Adrian Mourby.

James Bond is 60 this year and he is pretty lucky to have made it so far. A hard-drinking, womanising and violent snob, Bond has lived the life to which his creator Ian Fleming could only aspire. In 1999, a journalist for Men's Fitness , David Bowker, spent one day in the life of Commander Bond, as detailed by Fleming in his fourth novel, Goldfinger . Lunching on partridge, Mouton Rothschild, turbot and ten-year-old calvados, smoking his way through 60 Gitanes, then downing two of Bond's personal martinis (Gordon's gin, vodka and a half measure of Kina Lillet) before a mammoth dinner with liberal access to the brandy bottle, Bowker concluded:

"I was pissed. Hardly surprising that by the time he was 50 Fleming had a purple face and an arse as wide as the satellite dish in Goldeneye ."

One thing we can be sure of, as the schedules prepare for the 40th anniversary of Bond's film debut - and the golden jubilee of Casino Royale - is that 007 is several parts fantasy. Hardly capable of moving, let alone saving the free world, Fleming died at the age of 56, having refused to give up his hero's martini-and-60-Gitane-a-day regimen. So is there anything more to Bond than escapism?

Jeremy Black, professor of history at Exeter University, believes the agent's enduring appeal lies in the moral certainties of his world, something to be found both in the books and on screen. "In the Sean Connery and Roger Moore films, there is no sense of moral confusion about either Bond or the Britain he represents. The films offered a moral universe in which reliance on Bond, representing a reasonable order, was total and did not need to be stated."

He adds that Bond is a crossover figure, "both the last gasp of Edwardian Britain and a modernising figure, an intelligent hero who does not follow the rules of the Establishment but is an Establishment figure".

In Black's opinion, Bond continues to appeal because he has a very plastic nature, eminently capable of reinvention, most recently in the guise of the less promiscuous, non-smoking, non-gambling Pierce Brosnan.

But one aspect of Bond has remained constant. Black, like many commentators, believes 007 has always reflected the way in which men would like to project themselves, something Connery captured from the outset. "Bond's character was well realised by Connery. Unlike David Niven - Fleming's choice for the part - Bond had to be self-contained, not self-satisfied. Connery revealed the spare, pared-down character of Bond and the inner bleakness alongside the style."

Moreover, Bond was a child of his time. The 1960s was a time of rising disposable income in the UK. "For societies spending more on clothes, cars, gadgets and foreign travel, Bond set new standards and made objects such as sports cars and espresso machines stylish and desirable. At a time when for most Britons a foreign holiday meant Majorca or Benidorm, Bond went to exotic locations, such as the West Indies, India or expensive ski resorts."

Black cites the columnist Paul Johnson, who in the 1960s saw Bond as offering snobbish parvenus a guide to good living in a rapidly changing society. According to Christine Geraghty, professor of film and television studies at the University of Glasgow, the role of class is crucial to any understanding of Bond's early appeal, particularly given that the film version followed hot on the heels of the angry young man's eruption onto the British drama scene.

"The new-wave hero was often rather contemptuous or frightened of the traps of femininity and, in his defiance of the establishment, clung to his male, working-class roots," says Geraghty, adding that Connery's Bond represented a further development for the new British hero. "The crucial shift was that, while retaining his anti-establishment defiance and strong masculine presence, he adopted - unquestioningly - the good life, including the girls, which the upper classes enjoyed. Most new-wave heroes didn't survive the switch to 1960s London, but Bond was in a position to establish himself as values shifted."

What, though, of Bond in the 21st century? John Beynon, author of Masculinities and Culture, has observed the changing appeal of Bond with particular interest. "I can remember growing up in the 1950s and 1960s when the novels were regarded as risque, with more than a touch of the sadomasochistic about them. Bond was a quiet, closet figure for people who wanted a sexy read," he says. The film Bond was, however, an "old-style hero who was taking on evil but in an exciting glitzy way full of technology and women galore, a man who was sexually liberated in a very macho way. The thing about Bond," Beynon says, "was that he was enormously confident in a time of great social change. He was all that regional and provincial kids wanted to be. He won all the fights, he was sexy and humorous."

By contrast, Beynon sees Brosnan's Bond as having been feminised and revamped by focus groups. "He is now an institution without identity. Nowadays, I'm sure a committee sits down to decide, for instance, what will be the Bond appeal worldwide after September 11."

Geoffrey Miller, professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, looks on the Brosnanification of Bond as arising not so much from changes in society but from the producers' increasing need to pacify certain trends in film criticism. "Bond used to be able to seduce a woman and leave her, with no emotional commitment, within 24 hours. But he's changed in recent years because the producers know that that kind of behaviour would be called misogynistic by the film critics of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and would stop the film getting a four-star rating. But Bond's primary audience, which is 16 to 24-year-old males, doesn't care about feminism. They would be happy with him as he always was and if we didn't have film criticism I believe Bond probably would not have changed at all."

In Miller's opinion, what appeals about Bond has in essence hardly changed at all over the past 50 years. He has always been the ultimate alpha male. "I tend to take an evolutionary perspective," he says. "An icon like Bond has a whole list of 'fitness indicators' advertising his suitability. He's attractive, sexually capable, brave and possessed of technical ability."

Bond, he adds, "taps into our biological awareness of what an alpha male should be". But the new Brosnan version "is less of an alpha male. From an evolutionary point of view, men who show concern and commitment are lesser men," Miller says. "They are only showing those things because they are weak and have less to offer." Peter Jachimiack, a lecturer in media and culture at the University of Glamorgan, believes the new Bond to be less changed than we might imagine. "If we are to base the transformation of his character, over the decades, upon his recent rejection of sexist behaviour - then, clearly, there is little evidence of this change. Quite simply, Brosnan's Bond still exudes an incredibly similar attitude to his leading ladies as did Connery's Bond to his respective female co-stars. Indeed, I believe that all that has happened is that the obvious, and now unacceptable, 1960s misogynies have been replaced by more obscure (and, thus, more palatable) 'sexisms' of the Bond of the new millennium."

In Jachimiack's view, September 11 has gone some way to reminding women of "the appeal of the 'macho' version of masculinity, where men - the mainly male New York fire teams - risk everything to save the woman". He cites Tanya Corrin of The Observer , who wrote: "In a time of political and gender instability, masculine disregard for danger is still a redeeming - and magnetic trait - in a woman's eyes. While everyone was running away from the towering flames, the firemen were racing towards them. Quite simply," Jachimiack says, "machismo still attracts an audience."

For Geraghty, however, Bond's appeal remains predominantly masculine. "We shouldn't forget the spectacle and the Bond accessories, the male 'toys' in the films. The films were sold on action and spectacle and the spectacle was of the ideal male ego in perfect control and coming through all sorts of dangers, including those posed by women. I'm not sure about the Bond films particularly appealing to female audiences, but one can certainly see why they have had a particular fascination to men."

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