Tuesday , May 21 2024
The eras of James bond may be better defined by the directors behind the camera rather than the actors on the screen.

From Terence Young to Sam Mendes: The Many Faces Who Shot James Bond

Most appreciations—or denunciations—of the 50 year film series based on Commander James Bond of Her Majesty’s Secret Service have one thing in common. The various eras of the franchise are usually described in terms of the actor carrying the brand-name in the title credits. Who is better than whom? If Sir Sean Connery is Number One, who’s Number Two? Daniel Craig, Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Dalton, Roger Moore, or George Lazenby? Your call.

But there’s another way to look at how the 23 films of EON’s official productions can be analyzed: the directors. For example, it’s easy to say Connery was the best Bond of all—but which Connery? I think there were two.

Arguably, but not by much, the main man who shaped the cinematic 007 that set the bar for all to follow was the first director of them all, Terence Young. By all accounts, it was Young who took a rather rough-hewn Scot under his wing and molded the ex-boxer in Young’s own sophisticated image. It was Young who showed Connery how to dine in fine cuisine settings, helped him pick tailor-made suits, and how to make 007 a more elegant figure than Ian Fleming had crafted in the original novels. As a result, Dr. No (1962) introduced a template that would grow and evolve, at least for a few years.

While many have looked to the 007 films of the ’60s as over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek fantasies, it’s worth remembering the Young films, particularly From Russia With Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965) were comparatively down-to-earth, gritty spy adventures. In both these films, it was Bond vs. Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s S.P.E.C.T.R.E., an international criminal organization with very earth-bound objectives. In From Russia With Love, Blofeld’s gang was out to embarrass the British Secret Service by photographing 007 in a lurid honey trap. Bond’s gizmos were easily carried in a simple briefcase. His most physical opponent was a Russian gent (Robert Shaw) he had to battle in a very tight train compartment. His other opponent (Lotte Lenya) was armed with a poisoned knife in her shoe. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, 007 was only an observer as two gypsy girls had a savage cat fight.

In Thunderball, the detective story was about an elegant, one-eyed nasty (Aldofo Celi) who stole two nuclear bombs. By comparison with what was to follow, this plot was a rather plausible, believable threat in 1965. It helped, of course, that the three Young films kept close, very close, to the original Fleming texts.

Then came Hamilton, Guy Hamilton.

Actually, Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964) preceded Thunderball by one year, but Hamilton’s James Bond was a rather different kettle of fish from Young’s version. That was obvious in the first moments of Goldfinger, when Connery appeared in a wetsuit with a fake seagull on his head. Suddenly, the wetsuit was stripped away to reveal an immaculate dinner jacket underneath. By design, as Hamilton has said many times, this scene was to show right off the top that a fantastic adventure was about to begin, and only the unwary would take a single scene seriously. In addition, it established the idea of a pre-title sequence that had nothing to do with the story to follow.

It was Hamilton who also created the template of Bond films being a series of set-pieces, and many of these set-pieces didn’t have to have anything to do with carrying the story. For example, what was the point of Goldfinger singling out one gangster who didn’t like his plan, give him a case of gold, only to have Oddjob shoot him, crush him in a car, only to bring the cubed vehicle back to be smelted to get the gold out? Meanwhile, after an elaborate staging to show off his master plan, Goldfinger simply gases all the other gangsters. What was the point? Simple spectacle. This wasn’t Terence Young’s Bond, even if the same actor was donning the tux. Oh, it was also Hamilton who shaped Desmond Llewelyn’s cranky portrayal of Q, a personality that would remain for nearly 40 years.

Hamilton would repeat many of these same tropes in Connery’s return in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, an effort intentionally modeled on what made Goldfinger so successful. Ironically, Hamilton would then be the one to helm the first two Roger Moore outings, Live and Let Die (1972) and The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), two comparatively stripped-down projects. Instead of facing a super-sized Blofeld launching satellites into space or stealing space capsules, the early Moore was tracking drug smugglers in Harlem and Jamaica or going after a master assassin who had his hands on a solar-power unit. That might have been Terence Young territory if not for the flying cars, pot-bellied redneck sheriff, the midget Knick Knack, and other reminders we’re not in MI6 headquarters anymore.

But even before Moore picked up the Walther PPK, we got a sense of what was coming in 1967’s You Only Live Twice directed by Lewis Gilbert. In many ways, Gilbert out-Hamiltoned Hamilton. After all, YOLT opened with a monster space-ship gobbling up a U.S. capsule in space; the movie ended with a spectacular battle inside a volcano. In between, there are plenty of pointless scenes padding the plot. Bond is captured, tied to a chair, and about to be tortured—but—the seductress (Karin Dior) frees him, takes him up in a helicopter, bails, and leaves him to die in a crash. Yep, a logical sequence. If you’re being chased on the streets, call up “the usual”—that is, a helicopter carrying a large magnet that can pick up cars and then dump them in the bay and presumably nobody is noticing on the streets. Yea, that’s “usual.”

Gilbert returned ten years later to take Moore to depths and heights Gilbert didn’t reach in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) (which many have described as a YOLT remake) and Moonraker (1979). Arguably, while Moore says Spy was his own favorite Bond film, a case can be made that Moonraker was the zenith of the Moore era. Like Spy, Moonraker gave us all the silliness of Jaws, all the pop culture in-jokes, and a super-sized bad-guy headquarters. Unlike Spy, however, Moonraker gave us the first memorable Bond villain, Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), than we’d seen in many a moon.

So far, we’ve had two interpretations of Moore’s 007—Hamilton and Gilbert. Then came Glen, John Glen.

But, to back-track a bit, not only was George Lazenby a one-time 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the film was helmed by one-time director Peter Hunt. That’s rather understating his participation in the 007 universe. He had been a film editor for Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger; he served as supervising editor and second unit director on Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. As a result, from the very beginning, Hunt was responsible for the quick-cut editing that gave the Bond films their distinctive fast-paced style. For example, he’s credited with assembling the ground-braking train fight between Red Grant and Bond in From Russia With Love.

For OHMSS, Hunt’s objective was a major challenge. He had an unknown actor taking on the world’s most famous role and everyone involved knew a major gamble was in play. For example, composer John Barry contributed the most Bondian score possible to help support the idea that a former model was now “the other fella.” Fortunately, OHMSS was the last 007 film to be closely modeled on a Fleming novel, and the love story between Lazenby’s Bond and Diana Rigg’s Tracy di Vicenzo gave the story an emotional depth never shown before and rarely equaled since. As it happened, Hunt had been unhappy about many of the choices made by Hamilton and Gilbert, so his directorial direction was very much a return to the style of Young.

Likewise, John Glen was a longtime participant who rose in the ranks, working on eight Bond films for over 20 years. In fact, he worked under Hunt as editor and second-unit director for OHMSS. He returned as second unit director for The Spy Who Loved Me, including shooting the famous scene of Bond’s ski jump ending with the parachute opening with the huge Union Jack. He was also the director behind the sky battle between 007 and Jaws in the opening sequence of Moonraker.

While he didn’t have a new actor to break in when he became the director for 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, Glen had the mission of bringing 007 back to earth, and FYEO was greeted as a much needed corrective in the Bond trajectory. After Moore had taken Gilbert’s answer to Star Wars as far as he could go in Moonraker, it was time for an old-fashioned Fleming-inspired Cold War thriller.

EON producer Albert Broccoli was so happy with Glen’s work that the director would go on to helm a total of five Bond movies. To date, no one else has matched that record. Glen directed Moore’s final two efforts, Octopussy (1983) and A View to a Kill (1985). For my money, these movies were essentially focused on scenic locations with a script tailored to fit the settings rather than character or story development in between the luscious photography. Your tastes may differ.

Whatever disappointments felt by this reviewer regarding Moore’s swan songs, Glen continued to supervise the short-lived Timothy Dalton era in The Living Daylights (1987) and License to Kill (1989). Glen had the challenge of not only introducing a new Bond in terms of a new actor, but a new Bond in nearly every aspect. Stripping away nearly every trope associated with Moore, Dalton’s Bond was a return to the Fleming and, dare I say it?—Young-flavored 007. This time, to the disappointment of many, the best actor (to that point) to play Bond wasn’t bad, but dealing with defectors and drug smugglers just didn’t have the same impact as the larger-than-life villains of old. Perhaps the sequence most praised was the oil tanker chase in License to Kill which critic Roger Ebert described as one of the most exciting chases in Bond history.

Six years would go by before a new 007 film would bring back the logo to the screen, but, to date, only one director in the new era would get a second bite at the Bond apple. In 1995, Martin Campbell directed Goldeneye, the return to Hamilton-esque fantasy for Pierce Brosnan. Ironically, Campbell came back in 2006 when the pendulum swung back to greater realism for Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale. In both cases, Campbell seemed the right man for the job—having Bond race around St. Petersburg in a tank for Brosnan; having Craig’s Bond tortured physically and emotionally in Casino Royale.

Otherwise, new directors would have only one film to make their mark on the mythos. For Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Roger Spottiswoode gave Pierce Brosnan his Goldfinger, at least in terms of giving us a new larger-than life baddie (Jonathan Price’s Elliott Carver) and a memorable Bond girl (Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin). The likes of such characters hadn’t been present in many a picture. For 1999’s The World is not Enough, both Brosnan and director Michael Apted, best known as a documentary filmmaker, wanted a darker, grittier Bond. They got their wish, producing one of the most downbeat, low-key projects executed in the franchise.

For Brosnan, the final hurrah was Die Another Day (2002), designed to be a celebration of the forty years of the cinematic James Bond and the twenty films produced to that time. New Zealand’s Lee Tamahori was permitted to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, and the film looked more like a pastiche than homage. An invisible car racing around a melting ice palace?

So how do we describe the Brosnan tenure of four films with four different directors? The range is from the tortured coldness of World (as in Electra King’s choke-collar) to the torturously ridiculous cars and touching all the bases in between. That’s at least two different Brosnan Bonds.

Then, after Die Another Day, it was very clear popular tastes had changed once again. Everyone making action movies was influenced by the success of the Jason Bourne films and the popularity of the dark Batman reboot. Casino Royale proved the reboot idea was just what 007 needed with a return to a Fleming/Young spirit and tone. However, the transition didn’t continue smoothly. It’s difficult to hold director Marc Forster completely responsible for the shortness and thinness of Quantum of Solace (2008). True, Forester insisted he use his own team rather than EON’s usual company, chose not to use a pre-title sequence, and held off using the gun-barrel logo until the end. But this lowly regarded opus, among Bond fans at least, was produced during a crippling writer’s strike. This literally resulted in Forster and Craig having to invent a script as they went along. For many, Quantum is the Bond movie they most want to forget.

Finally, fifty years after it all began, we have Sam Mendes’s Skyfall, the most highly-praised Bond offering since Casino Royale. And rightfully so. Mendes was able to, once again, hit all the right notes—character development, drama, action, and humor. That’s “humor,” not the clown-face comedy of Sir Roger Moore. In short, the formula shaped by a certain Terence Young.

Admittedly, any quick overview like this one will oversimplify many points and commit many sins of omission. In particular, there would have been no Bond series without Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. The legacy would have been much different without the leadership of Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, who gave the directors under them considerable leeway and deep pockets for their individual creative choices.

Now, we can only speculate about the future. Will Mendes return or will yet another director opt to put his own stamp on the rebooted franchise? We know Craig will be back and it’s likely Bonds 24 and 25 will be a two-part story arc. But one never knows in the world of James Bond. What is certain is that the pendulum always swings back and forth, from realism to fantasy, from the templates of Terence Young to those of Hamilton and Gilbert with those of Glen in between. The ghosts of James Bond past like Young and those retired from the fray like Hamilton and Gilbert must be smiling—what they created lives twice, three times, and more. As critic Rex Reed once observed, only the logo remains the same.

About Wesley Britton

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