Let’s take a break from the prevailing political concerns of the week to examine something of a cultural milestone. Friday’s opening of Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the world’s longest continuously running film franchise, also marks the 50-year anniversary for the series.
In 1962, a fairly successful Dr. No was released to mixed reception. The story was a short and brutal space-age thriller, based on one of a series of novels written by Ian Fleming. Fleming had developed his star character in a romanticized atmosphere of sex, well-made cocktails, cold-blooded murder, fine dining and exotic locales, all out of step with and yet intoxicating to the ’50s generation of salesmen and homemakers.
The Vatican denounced the initial film’s unrepentant sexuality, while the Soviet Kremlin attacked it as an epitome of Western capitalist decadence. Such sensational publicity ensured a larger budget for successive adaptations, and by 1965, Bond was shattering box office records while simultaneously coming into stride with the times, leading one critic to remark that, “The Cinema was a duller place before 007.”
Indeed it was. James Bond became a model for the new action genre as well as a ’60s icon using a framework of highly stylized espionage to turn the spy into the modern anti-hero, a smirking killer whose idea of doing good is getting the job done and getting as much pleasure out of it as possible. This suave, hedonistic image made an impression, and early Bond films boosted everything from tourism to bikini sales and a curious obsession with the manner in which martinis were made.
Over the years, 007 has reached many high and low points without ever stopping for more than a few years at a time. It has collected myriad fans, while altering its format to reflect changing times. The inclusion of Judi Dench as Bond’s first female boss in 1995’s Goldeneye marked one of the more radical changes in the narrative. In her first on-screen conversation with the storied agent, she cuts him down to size as a womanizing, dinosaur relic of the Cold War.
Since that moment, the series has been toying with ways to make the final jump into contemporary self-reflectiveness without sacrificing its classic appeal. The latest film will no doubt take cues from some of the more serious genre exercises of the past few years such as The Dark Knight, and will benefit highly from the inclusion of an acclaimed dramatic director, Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition).
The official acceptance of 007 as a transgenerational hero, who is undoubtedly here to stay, is an exciting thought for longtime fans. It’s also a reason for everyone else to take a second look at this fictional universe, either as a historical curiosity or a voyage into our changing ideas of politics, sex, culture and heroism.
ANDREW RUSSELL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.