History, Legacy & Showmanship
Monday, 10 June 2013 02:01

007… Fifty Years Strong: An Interview with James Bond Historians

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Let us continue the James Bond 50th anniversary celebration, shall we?  Last autumn, around the time Skyfall was being released to theaters, the Blu-ray set was hitting retailers and the anniversary hype was in high gear, I had this idea that it might be interesting if I could round up a few of my James Bond historian friends, turn on a recorder… and talk James Bond, and then perhaps turn that into an article.  It didn’t happen (primarily for logistical reasons).  But a few months later the next best thing did happen. That is, separately-conducted interviews that have been edited into a round-table format.

In the information age it seems everyone is an expert.  There are millions of fans of the James Bond movie series and quite a few of them no doubt are an expert on all matters related to the series.  In my view, though, the real experts – the best of the best – are the ones that have taken their passion and knowledge of all things James Bond to the next level and have succeeded in writing books on the subject (and in some cases producing documentary films).  As such, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to ask a handful of these experts the same set of questions pertaining to the subject of the James Bond movies and why the series has endured.  Interviewed for this article were Jon Burlingame, John Cork, Bill Desowitz, Paul Duncan, Charles Helfenstein, Mark O’Connell, Lee Pfeiffer, Steven Jay Rubin, Bruce Scivally and Dave Worrall. 

First, some introductions that establish the credentials of the participants.

Jon Burlingame is the author of The Music of James Bond (Oxford University Press, 2012).  He also authored Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks (Watson-Guptill, 2000) and TV’s Biggest Hits: The Story of Television Themes From Dragnet to Friends (Schirmer, 1996).  He writes regularly for the show-biz trade Variety and has also been published in The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.  He started writing about spy music for the 1970s fanzine File Forty and has since produced seven CDs of original music from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for the Film Score Monthly label.

John Cork is the author (with Bruce Scivally) of James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002). He also wrote (with Maryam d’Abo) Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond (Abrams, 2003) and (with Collin Stutz) James Bond Encyclopedia (DK, 2007). He is the president of Cloverland, a multi-media production company, producing documentaries and supplemental material for movies on DVD and Blu-ray, including material for Chariots of Fire, The Commancheros, The Hustler, and many of the James Bond titles. Cork also wrote the screenplay to The Long Walk Home (1990), starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek.

Bill Desowitz authored James Bond Unmasked (Spies, 2012). He is the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), a contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and contributing editor of Animation Scoop at Indiewire. He has also contributed to the Los Angeles Times and USA Today.

Paul Duncan is the editor of The James Bond Archives (Taschen, 2012).  He has edited over fifty film books for Taschen, and is currently preparing The Charlie Chaplin Archives for release in 2014.

Charles Helfenstein is the author of The Making of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Spies, 2009) and The Making of The Living Daylights (Spies, 2012).

Mark O’Connell is the author of Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan (Splendid Books, 2012).

Lee Pfeiffer is the author (with Philip Lisa) of The Incredible World of 007: An Authorized Celebration of James Bond (Citadel, 1992) and (with Dave Worrall) The Essential Bond (Boxtree, 1998/Harper Collins, 1999).  He also wrote (with Michael Lewis) The Films of Harrison Ford (Citadel, 2002) and (with Dave Worrall) The Great Fox War Movies (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006).  He is the founder (with Dave Worrall) of Cinema Retro magazine.

Steven Jay Rubin is the author of The James Bond Films: A Behind-the-Scenes History (Random House, 1981) and The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia (McGraw-Hill, 2002). He also wrote Combat Films: American Realism, 1945-2010 (McFarland, 2011) and has written for Cinefantastique magazine.

Bruce Scivally is the author (with John Cork) of James Bond: The Legacy (Abrams, 2002). He has also written Superman on Film, Television, Radio & Broadway (McFarland, 2006) and Billion Dollar Batman: A History of the Caped Crusader on Film, Radio and Television from 10¢ Comic Book to Global Icon (Henry Gray, 2011). He teaches screenwriting, film production and cinema history and theory at the Illinois Institute of Art-Chicago and Columbia College.

Dave Worrall is the author (with Lee Pfeiffer) of The Essential Bond (Boxtree, 1998/Harper Collins, 1999) and is the publisher of The James Bond Collector’s Club magazine.  He also wrote (with Lee Pfeiffer) The Great Fox War Movies (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006).  He is the founder (with Lee Pfeiffer) of Cinema Retro magazine.

And now that the participants have been introduced, might I suggest you begin playing your favorite 007 soundtrack album and prepare a martini (shaken, not stirred, of course), and then enjoy this conversation with some of the world’s foremost experts on all things James Bond…

Bond 50 on Blu-ray

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits):  Why is the 50th anniversary of the James Bond movie series worthy of celebration?

Jon Burlingame:  There have been plenty of character and story franchises throughout film history, but none that have lasted as long (especially under a single aegis) or proven as resilient as James Bond.  He emerged as a Cold War hero and has managed to change with the times, both in terms of geopolitical background and filmmaking trends. 

John Cork:  First off, we got a great Bond film for the anniversary!  Second, because Bond makes us happy.  He still represents everything we aspire to in so many ways – some level of invincibility, some form of the love we have for the very British combination of adventure, dry humor and good taste.  We celebrate them because, for better or worse, they changed the film industry.  And, finally, the anniversary gave us some wonderful examinations of the series in book form – Charles Helfenstein’s wonderful look at the mid-way Bond, The Living Daylights; Bill Desowitz’s unique view of Bond through the eyes of the actors who played 007; Jon Burlingame’s vibrant history of the music of 007, a book only he could have written; and Paul Duncan’s official archive work that is really quite spectacular.

Bill Desowitz:  It’s the longest-running franchise and a cultural legacy about power and strength and survival that continues to have an impact.  And it’s a testament to survival and durability and lasting appeal.  In an era where so much is disposable and so little consensus, Bond continues to be there for us as cinematic comfort food, as a tradition that gets passed down from family to family, from generation to generation, particularly from father to son.  It was a thrill taking my two sons to see their first Bond in a theater (Quantum of Solace), and they eagerly awaited Skyfall.  They also enjoyed seeing some of the earlier movies in a theater during the 50th anniversary celebration last year.

Paul Duncan:  As far as I am aware, this is the only film series to last fifty years.  Not only has it lasted, it has thrived, developed, and regenerated itself, creating the template for the modern action film.  It has given so much pleasure to so many people around the world, that it seems appropriate to celebrate the achievement.

Charles Helfenstein:  It’s a celebration of quality from start to finish – from Ian Fleming’s superb research, action packed but elegant writing to the Broccoli mantra of putting every dollar on the screen.  While the series has had some dips in the road, it is a remarkable fifty-year streak of compelling entertainment.

Mark O’Connell:  Because half a century in any industry is an achievement.  And it is half a century that has been marked with success, creative savvy and industry fortitude as the good ship 007 navigates through evolving studio and box office pressures.  Despite its global reach, the Bond franchise is still run by the smallest corner shop in an age of corporate superstores.  The industry of Bond – the employment, merchandise, tourism, the artistry, what it represents for cinema owners the world over – is a crucial cog in the history of popular culture.

Lee Pfeiffer:  There is no other film series that comes close to surviving fifty years.  There have been characters like Batman and Superman that have been in films for decades before Bond, but these were not consistently done by the same production company.  What makes the Bonds unique is that Eon Productions has been behind every one of the “official” 007 films.  The series has thrived through decades, despite the public’s fickle behavior towards pop culture icons.  Every time the series seems to be running out of steam, the producers find a way to reinvigorate.  It’s quite remarkable, really. 

Steven Jay Rubin:  In the case of the James Bond films, celebrating a 50th anniversary is a huge toast to the consistent quality, popularity and historical significance of the series.  For over fifty years, the Broccoli family has provided a motion picture product that has enthralled generations of moviegoers, never alienating the family adventure audience that has been its stock in trade.  The films can be violent and sexy, but the producers have never crossed the line, providing the closest thing we have today to a stamped guarantee of entertainment for the entire family.

Bruce Scivally:  Never in the history of cinema has there been another series that has remained vital for so long and has been produced by the same family.  The first Tarzan movie was released in 1918, and Tarzan movies are still being produced, but the films are not part of one unbroken series from the same producer.  The same goes for Sherlock Holmes.  James Bond, however, has been on cinema screens since 1962, and all of the films have been produced or executive produced by Albert R. Broccoli, his stepson Michael G. Wilson or his daughter Barbara Broccoli.

Dave Worrall:  Any institution that relies on commercialism and has proved to be successful and profitable is worthy of celebrating.  In the film industry even more so, as fads generally burn themselves out.  It’s a great achievement.

Coate:  To what do you attribute the enduring appeal of the series?

Burlingame:  During its first fifteen years the films were made by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who – against the odds – kept making movies (with three different actors playing 007) that people wanted to see, continually upping the action and outrageousness quotient.  In subsequent years, with Broccoli alone in charge, Bond remained popular (and that continues today with Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli in charge).  The character is in many ways a hero for the ages, as someone who battles evil on behalf of all of us; accomplishes feats that the average guy wishes he could; and is as attractive to women as he is admirable to men.  That’s a movie hero any producer would wish for.  And by watching and employing what’s working in other successful action films, Bond filmmakers have also managed to stay current while keeping their own very specific approach.

Cork:  Style.  Bond films almost always feel different, but not like, say, an Iron Man film, where one has no foot in reality. Bond’s world isn’t the world as it is; it is the world as we would like to imagine it. 

Desowitz:  Bond’s power and freedom are very thrilling and sexy, and are underscored by the iconic elements of the franchise.  It’s also comforting to have a world savior protecting us while at the same time rebelling against the very authority that sanctions him with a license to kill.  As Pierce Brosnan told me, “...he remains somewhat timeless, somewhat trapped within a period of time as well.”  And the producers have managed to find actors to convey different personalities in keeping with the times.  Today, Daniel Craig is very much a post-9/11 Bond reaching back to the angst of the Fleming books.

Duncan:  I think the enduring longevity of James Bond is a tribute to the good business practices and artistic sensitivities of the producers.  Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli began the series with Dr. No in 1962, Cubby continued on his own from The Spy Who loved Me, then with his stepson Michael G. Wilson, and finally Michael and Cubby’s daughter, Barbara Broccoli, evolved the series from GoldenEye onwards to the latest film Skyfall.  Not only do they put all the money up on the screen, but they are smart enough to give the directors, actors, production designers, special effects supervisors, and stunt people the creative freedom to experiment and try new things so that they produce their best work for the movies.  The result is that these four producers have an incredible track record that no other production company can match –  twenty-three films over fifty years and every one of them made a profit, because every one of them entertained a worldwide audience.  Over the years, the series has been “rebooted” as a new actor takes over the role of Bond, or because of changes in the market, but the cinema Bond always remains very close to Ian Fleming’s depiction of Bond in the novels.  This is the secret of the franchise’s success – you don’t mess with a proven formula.  I think this is also the reason why Daniel Craig’s interpretation of Bond has been so successful – he is probably closer to Fleming’s Bond, and Connery’s original interpretation, than any of the other actors who have played the role.

Helfenstein:  James Bond is an aspirational character, the ultimate male fantasy.  We want to own the coolest gadgets, vanquish the evil doers, wear the most stylish clothes, thwart death with aplomb, and make love to the most beautiful women.  The Bond films let us do that.

O’Connell:  Quality.  Integrity.  Style.  And then some more integrity for good measure.

Pfeiffer:  The producers always seem to find the right Bond for the right era.  It’s inconceivable that audiences today would accept Roger Moore’s overtly humorous interpretation of the role, but it’s just as valid to say that Daniel Craig would have been considered far too somber for audiences in the 70s and 80s.  There is also a first class, larger-than-life feel to all of the Bond movies, even the weakest entries. 

Rubin:  Brand recognition combined with consistent quality equals enduring appeal.  We have few guarantees in our movie choices and most of those are short-lived. People will stick with a quality product, just like they’ll stick with their favorite radio station, steak house, liquor of choice and route to work.  We want comfort in selection and the Bond films do that more effectively each year.  The fact that grandparents can share their love of a character with grandchildren also doesn’t hurt.  After fifty years, the Bond movies have a terrific following.  Who hasn’t seen at least one Bond movie?

Scivally:  The 007 films combine the classic appeal of hero epics in the St. George and the Dragon mode with the tough, cynical anti-heroes of American noir fiction, like Mike Hammer.  When the films came along, they added humor to the mix, plus a kind of transparent consumerism and embracing of technology that made the films seem very modern.

Worrall:  Initially, pure guaranteed entertainment of the highest order.  The audience have never been short-changed, and the producers have worked hard to up the ante every time.

Coate:  If Ian Fleming or Albert Broccoli were alive today, how do you think they would feel about how the series has played out?

Burlingame:  Fleming was a practical man and I suspect that, while he might have distanced himself from the increasingly outrageous storylines and “superman” aspects of the Bond persona of the 1970s and beyond, he would have seen the films as a financial boon and a constant source of new readers for the old books.  I have no doubt that Broccoli would be very pleased with how his children have handled the Bond cinema legacy; they have taken what is essentially a family business and continued to thrive well into the 21st century.  Bravo to them.

Cork:  I think Ian would have been mortified by the Bond of the 70s and 80s, resigned to the Bond of the 90s and eternally grateful for the Bond of Daniel Craig.  That’s my perception of Fleming’s feelings. Personally, had the 70s and 80s tried to play Bond as the same character in From Russia With Love, the series wouldn’t have lasted.  I was fortunate to have known Cubby a bit, not closely, but honored to have conversations with him about Bond.  He would be over the moon, but not about the content of the films.  He would have been so honored and proud that Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have carried on his legacy and made it their own.  They didn’t screw it up, and that would have meant the world to him. 

Desowitz:  I think Fleming would be pleased that Bond has returned to the conflicted spy of his books; Broccoli would be proud that his children have found great success and prestige with their own Bond suited to the times.  By the way, Harry Saltzman would be proud as well because the serious touch is in keeping with the dramatic side that appealed to him as a producer.  There’s a kitchen sink element to Craig’s Bond that harkens back to Saltzman’s signature.

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