What James Bond can teach us about Tradition in Modern Times

As the premiere date draws nearer, the anticipation for the 25th instalment of Bond has fans everywhere excited.

The Bond franchise has seen some hits and misses over the years and now is an excellent time to reflect on its successes.

Most recently Skyfall, with its dark, moody lighting, strong characters and a weighty theme driving the drama is, in my opinion, the best Bond.

An Identity Crisis

 

In 1966 Ian Fleming released his final book in the James Bond series, ‘Octopussy and the Living Daylights’, thus sealing Bonds identity in the 1960s.

However, Bond is best known as a screen hero, starting the saga with ‘Dr No’ with Sean Connery on the lead.

The series was to live on for 58 years after the release of the first movie, but by then it had been 54 years since the last book by Fleming was released.

This then brought about the first phase of the identity crisis suffered in the series.

This happened because the movies were based on the books that had been released decades before.

The stories in the movies still originated from the times of gadgets and gizmos accompanied by villains marred by eye patches and disfiguring features.

Because during this period there was no single name competing with Bond in the cinema it could get away with the discrepancy until 1996.

The release of Mission Impossible changed the entire climate around spy thrillers and movies.

With carefully choreographed action scenes by the lead, Tom Cruise, and a serious, grounded, tone which the Bond movies of Timothy Dalton and the final few from Roger Moore were missing.

The introduction of Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye (1995), gave the franchise an action-packed protagonist who could compete with the mission impossible series.

Brosnan brought about the second phase of the identity crisis, where both series drew each other down in a race to the bottom to create the most action-packed action sequences at the cost of the story.

This era of Bond saw the lowest rated movies in the series.

Particular low points included the escape from a villain’s base in an invisible car and windsurfing over a tsunami.

Moving on, Daniel Craig picked up the mantel in 2006 Casino Royale which would become the highest-rated Bond on IMDb.

This new 007 was intelligent, acting on social cues in a poker game, who violently demonstrated his personality with sheer brute force and determination after he barges through drywall and breaks into an embassy to catch a bomb maker.

Even considering Quantum of Solace (a disappointment for both critics and audiences), this brought Craig to what in my view is the best depiction of the character in its 50 years of history.

Skyfall – The end of a Crisis

 

Perhaps because of the success of ‘Casino Royale’, the follow-up ‘Quantum of Solace’, almost had to be a disappointment so we could get the redemption of ‘Skyfall’.

The writers behind ‘Skyfall’ have taken advantage of this Solace’s disappointment and used it as an opportunity to strip back Bond and the service down to their weaknesses emphasising the theme of old vs new.

Bond’s something of an old school good guy firing his final blow with a suave one-liner in a gentlemanly fashion, rather than cracking a computer code in a pair of pyjamas.

Craig acted as a personification of the crisis himself, as an ageing actor and crippled character.

The new villain Silva, who was then up against the perfect foil, abandoned the decadent intelligence service and embraced technology as a new means to his ends with now god-like powers.

Bond must then envelop himself in tradition to overcome Silva, which then gives us the best franchise movie there is.

The HMS Temeraire

 

One of the most compelling clashes with the old and new in the movie lies in Bonds first encounter with the new Q.

Perched on a bench, in the National Gallery at Trafalgar square, with the eyes of an old sailor, Bond waits to meet Q whilst gazing at a painting known as ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up’.

The nineteenth-century artwork depicts the HMS Temeraire, fitted with 98 cannons, under tug to be broken up for scrap despite the awe-inspiring size and acclaimed naval background in the battle of Trafalgar.

Without a word, Bond takes a seat to which Q remarks the painting reminds him of ‘the inevitability of time’.

Unimpressed, Bond begins to stand and leave before Q informs him, he is the new quartermaster.

Bond asserts, to the youthful Q ‘you still have spots’, criticising Q’s age as inexperience.

Q reply’s straight to Bond with ‘age is no guarantee of efficiency’ to which Bond cuts back with ‘and youth is no guarantee of innovation.’

In one quick retort, the entire theme of the movie is laid out.

‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up’ is a visual representation of Bond, an old dog being tugged away into obscurity by technological innovation.

Their rivalry comes from Bond’s fear that Q is here to do just that, though he realises Q is here so they can help each other in a common goal.

This bicker is also reminiscent of Q and Bond’s relationship in films of old.

Silva, the villain of the story, uses new weapons of cyber intelligence that are so complex the so-called quaint intelligence service, working in an opaque world, cannot outwit him on his own playing field.

Whereas Bond is defined by his ability to woo women, physically overcome any obstacle in front of him and the will to put himself in the frontline.

The seemingly untouchable and innovative power of Silva and his new tactics in a time of change come into battle with Bonds traditional ways.

However, as Bond and MI6 age, both will become obsolete if they cannot step up to Silva’s modern challenge, just as the HMS Temeraire did in the hands of the Royal Navy.

Moving away from Bond and back to Q, despite his age, opts for a traditional approach in getting to Silva.

Supplying Bond with as little as a gun, passport and radio Q strips back Bond of all his technological weaknesses.

MI6 know Silva would outsmart them in cyberspace, so Bond takes the battle back into his hands by drawing Silva out into the real world.

Playing to his strengths by putting Bond in the firing line, Bond will use his brutal determination to blow up his childhood home, risk drowning below a lake of ice and kill Silva with a dagger to his back.

In a broader context, Skyfall is also nodding to going back to tradition in its casting of Q since the character had not been part of the series since 2002.

His and Moneypenny’s reintroduction ten years later, suggest that the hero is at his best when human intelligence supports him, rather than innovative technology.

The Car

 

Without a doubt, the most disliked car in all of Bond is the V12 Vanquish, not for its looks, performance or armament but its screen time.

In ‘Die Another Day’, Q unveils what has come to be known as the infamous ‘invisible car.’

This car’s come to be another example of how Bond is a character best suited to the past.

Although he’s flown a whacky gyrocopter, used a Taser phone or been submerged in an Alligator submarine, at least these were either plausible or real.

The decision to bring back the 1965 Aston Martin DB5 fits right into the screen and adds to the overall story.

The car could be brought back into any of the films but is significant now because it’s caught up in the themes between old vs new, Silva vs Bond.

At one point, it’s literally between Bond and Silva when his men are about to breach ‘Skyfall’, and Bond unleashes it’s 60’s arsenal on the unsuspecting intruders.

Ultimately the car is destroyed by Silva, a visual representation of how the New demolishes the Old.

That makes for a fitting end which feels more impactful since it has a narrative impact.

Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses

 

This theme stands out, even more, when Judy Dench’s M is sat before a panel reviewing the countries’ national security’.

MI6’s role in society is now under review since its head office was blown up, and one of their agents was killed.

After being berated by the panel, Ralph Fiennes’s, Gareth Mallory, asks, “Excuse me, minister? I don’t mean to interrupt, but for the sake of variety, might we actually hear from the witness.”

Here M reads off a poem by Alfred Tennyson’s named ‘Ulysses’, and this is a poem based on the heroes’ story in Homer’s epic poem, ‘Odyssey’.

As Odysseus returns to his kingdom, old and weary, Tennyson writes, “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink /

Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d/

Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those /

That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when /

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades /

Tennyson is expressing Odysseus’ desire to live his life out in adventure at sea, all while he ages, reflecting back on his experiences.

Again ‘Skyfall’ alludes to its 50th anniversary and what it means to be 007.

M starts at the end of Tennyson’s poem, “We are not now that strength which in old days.”

This refers to the overall withdrawal from the international influence enjoyed by the British from days of the empire and the evolution of MI6; in other words, the franchise as a whole, since the 1960s.

She continues with “Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;” adding to the overall dramatic effect.

Despite the claims of negligence from the panel, M exalts, “One equal temper of heroic hearts,” meaning the strength of character still exists in her agents.

But acknowledging her limits, she reads “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will” as age takes its inevitable toll on the service.

While also appreciating the innate intention of those working to do well in the world by her hands.

Finishing on “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

As M knows, the service is not what it used to be, but it still is needed more than ever.

As she puts it, “Our world is not more transparent, it’s more opaque, it’s in the shadows, that’s where we must do battle.”

Her reflections conclude that in a world of unholy matrimony between technology and ideology, it’s time to go back to basics where good can prevail.

This continues the overall theme of the war between the Modern and Tradition.

A Stab in the Dark

 

Finally, these themes punch like a sharp knife when at the end, Bond kills Silva.

After defeating Silva’s men and overcoming incredible physical odds, Silva’s heart is pierced in the back by the knife thrown at him by Bond.

This ties all the themes together to triumph over the villain ultimately.

It would be incredibly unsatisfactory for Bond just to shoot Silva in an instant, what’s much more meaningful in his death comes from the instrument of destruction.

The knife represents the killing blow from tradition that Bond delivers.

A handgun would just be to modern in the setting of an old, dilapidated, church in the north of Scotland.

A knife, however, is far more fitting to the setting and takes the theme of old much further by even eliminating Bonds conventional means of murder.

In the gloomy lighting, in the church Bonds parents were buried at, everything comes together to make Silva’s death almost Shakespearian.

No Time to Die

 

Now that the trailer for No Time to Die is finally here, I can only hope that the last instalment of Craig’s career has been worth the wait.

Even if all that’s left of this theme will be a smile and little finger.

Bond does not need to be a character stuck in the dark years as he can still be relevant in contemporary cinema.

‘Skyfall’, a delicious fruit of labour of the director and his crew, gave us the very best James Bond.

I hope it gets even better.

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