10/24/2012 08:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bond at 50: Skyfall 's Notable Premiere Harkens Back to Bond's Late Imperial Beginnings

Tuesday night's world premiere of Skyfall in London was a major touchstone of the James Bond film series' beginnings 50 years ago. Held at the Royal Albert Hall, featuring the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, it marked the continuum in Britain's ongoing quest for identity from its late imperial stage of the early 1960s to its emphatically post-imperial present.

Skyfall, which doesn't open in North America for more than two weeks though it goes wide across the UK on Friday, is getting mostly rapturous reviews so far from the British press and Hollywood trades. And it's doing so by updating its own past. Some spoilers follow, though a full-on review of Skyfall won't come till the film is released in the US.

It's all very English, and of course decidedly global, in this year of the London Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

Skyfall's uber-villain Raoul Silva (Oscar-winner Javier Bardem) taunts Bond (the excellent Daniel Craig): "England, the Empire, MI6 ... You're living in a ruin. It's over. Finished. What are you doing clinging to this notion of nation?"

What indeed?

Skyfall is nearly upon us.

In a period of less than four years in the early to mid-1960s, the Bond film franchise was launched and accelerated to the stratosphere on the strength of four films, each of which did better than the last: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. By the fourth film, the series was on the verge of tipping into over-reliance on tech, massive sets, and risible megalomaniac villains, not that such things don't have their charms.

Dr. No came out at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the classic brinksmanship showdown between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. (Which was settled in a remarkably intelligent manner as most involved came to their senses.)

The Cold War was bigger and more dramatic than ever, and James Bond a secret agent very much of the time.

There was just one odd thing. He wasn't an American, he was a Brit, and the British Empire was very much in its sunset stage, an ironic state for the only empire on which the sun had never set.

Actually, though, Bond being a Brit -- and specifically an Englishman -- made all sorts of sense for his literary creator, Ian Fleming. For Fleming, a devoted Tory imperialist who had a fascinating time in World War II as a precocious twenty-something Royal Navy commander serving as special assistant to the head of naval intelligence, the creation of Bond was a reaction to the rapid decline and dismantling of the Empire after the war.

Fleming's solution to the dilemma of rapid power fade was rather ingenious, and in some ways mirrored, in others prefigured, the solution sought by British leaders, with whom he was very well acquainted. Fleming hosted Prime Minister Anthony Eden at his Jamaica estate, GoldenEye (later the title of a key Bond film), after the 1956 Suez crisis, one of Britain's last attempts at a major imperial power play. The writer reasoned that if Britain could not be a superpower in the post-World War II world, it could be a clandestine power.

This was something right up the alley of Fleming, who had helped devise some wild schemes for special operations units in the war, a few of which actually worked. In James Bond, also a Navy commander, also in intelligence and special ops, he created an exemplar of Britain's supposed secret prowess in the clandestine world.

While the reality may have been rather different -- British intelligence was in fact tormented by KGB infiltration, embarrassed by high-profile defections to Moscow -- there was enough there to support the fantasy. The Secret Intelligence Service (Bond's MI6) tutored the enthusiastic American amateurs of the Office of Strategic Services, the Franklin Roosevelt-created outfit that turned into the CIA. The Special Air Service became a model for special forces soldiers around the world.

The 50th anniversary restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, one of cinema's great epics and an historic touchstone for the Bond series, arrives on disc next month.

But there was a particular fantasy about Bond, the sense that "one man," as the ads kept intoning, a gifted "gentleman agent" as Fleming had it, could single-handedly save the day, dispatch the villains, win the girl(s), and look and sound cool while doing it. (In real life, like the ex-Navy SEALs who died in Benghazi, shocking some of my friends who had imagined them invincible, Bond would likely get killed much of the time. He has no superpowers, after all. But hey, it's a movie.)

As it happens, that's a core English fantasy, reflected in imperial British history.

Fittingly, Dr. No also came out just before the release of Lawrence of Arabia, one of the greatest epics of all time, about a man of history with characteristics very similar to those of Bond.

Not the gadgets and girls, of course, for the film implies that T.E. Lawrence, magnetically played by Peter O'Toole, was gay and there weren't many high tech gadgets about in the Middle East in World War I, but the gentleman adventurer/military officer who makes all the difference is very much there.

With his expertise and imagination, the Oxford archaeologist Lawrence, who rose from lieutenant to colonel in a few short years, spurred the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which confounded the plans of Britain's enemies. Of course, for all the derring-do, it didn't end so well from Lawrence's standpoint. He got caught up in his fantasy of freeing Arabia, only to find that his own exquisite machinations were really in the service of larger machinations. After suffering the frustrating experience of seeing his Arab friends betrayed at the Paris peace talks, he worked for a time for another gifted gentleman adventurer, then Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, then pursued anonymity as an enlisted man, authoring a few well-known books before dying in a motorcycle crash at 46.

So clearly for Bondian purposes, we forget the last 15 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia (which actually have more the flavor of a Bourne picture) and focus on the romantic notion of it all, that "one man" who can make all the difference.

And so the Bond film franchise has, with bouts of occasional world-weariness thrown in, for the past 50 years.

Bond is the ur-action hero. The quips, the stunts, the guns, the girls, the tech, the whole panoply of what we know as the action picture became globalized with the blockbuster breakthrough success of Goldfinger, which gave rise to the even bigger, though less iconic, success of Thunderball. (The latter film is dated today by the excessive underwater footage, which was unique in 1965 but a little dull now.)

The difference always between Bond and other action heroes is that Bond, no matter how brutal, retains the style and panache, perhaps even the code, of an English gentleman.

The ties between Bond, the royals, and Britain's post-imperial identity as a global cultural power were clear at the opening of the London Olympics, when Bond met Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace and proceeded by helicopter to the Olympic Stadium where their stunt doubles parachuted down to the delight of the crowd and a global television audience.

Goldfinger is the Bond film that made the series a global sensation in 1964 and 1965.

That association continues with Tuesday's world premiere at Royal Albert Hall and the impending release of the latest musical score, all recorded at Abbey Road, the home studio of that other enduring English icon of the '60s, the Beatles.

After all, there is not an Empire, but there is a Commonwealth. There is not a superpower, but there is a clandestine power of expertise and daring, and, even more to the point, a soft power of cultural leadership and delight.

Small wonder that there is a special resonance between the Bond franchise and some of today's leading newer cultural properties.

Reviewers are noting that Skyfall has a particular resonance with Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, which demonstrated how a superhero film (Batman, like Bond, performs superheroic feats but has no superpowers) can inquire deeply into both character and present historical dynamics.

Which is a tip of the hat in the opposite direction from that of The Dark Knight Rises which, as I wrote here in "Considering The Dark Knight Trilogy," has a huge plot twist remarkably like that of The World Is Not Enough.

And in the best drama series of the decade, Mad Men, we see the characters affected by the Bond films as the '60s march on, finally to the point of the series being potentially rebooted at the end of its controversial fifth season in a stunning sequence set to the brilliant theme song of the 1967 Bond film, You Only Live Twice. My piece on the recent season finale can be found at the end of The Mad Men File.

Sean Connery was the first Bond, the Bond of the Mad Men era, ultra-iconic figure that he became.

Was he the best Bond? Well, he was in the first movie I remember seeing, Goldfinger, so on one level of course the answer is yes. Connery's certainly the measure for all others. But I tend to alternate between Connery and Daniel Craig, who brought a sensational new interpretation in Casino Royale, the brilliant 2006 reboot of the series. And there are times when I favor Pierce Brosnan, who brilliantly brought the post-Cold War Bond to life in the excellent 1995 series reboot, GoldenEye.

Casino Royale rebooted the Bond series in spectacular fashion in 2006.

Which is not to say that Timothy Dalton, Roger Moore, and George Lazenby didn't have much to recommend them in their interpretations.

Truth be told, quite a few of the Bond films are really not that good. Generally from the Roger Moore era, they are often quite enjoyable in a boozy holiday movie marathon, where the camp and gaudy gadgets and crashing humor entertain. Viewed separately, as films, several do not hold up.

You can see my Bond-related pieces here at the Bond 50 Archive.

Actually, there is a big difference between the Bond of the first quarter century and the Bond of the second quarter century.

We get the unreconstructed Bond in the first quarter century with Connery, Lazenby, and Moore. The "sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War," as the great Judi Dench's M tellingly types Brosnan's Bond during their first meeting in GoldenEye.

With Dalton, Brosnan, and Craig, we get the Bond who, though hardly short on testosterone, is far less likely to be slapped with a sexual harassment suit. The modern, more civilized, though no less fierce and fit, Bond.

Both versions work in their films, even when the films aren't very good.

I have a feeling that Skyfall is going to be seen by a great many people as very good indeed.

Sam Mendes is an exceptional theater director who won the Oscar for American Beauty. Whose star, Annette Bening, as it happens, told me when Craig was being talked about for the role that he is a great actor who would make a great Bond. That was when so many people on the Internet hounded the poor fellow, insisting he would be an absolute bust.

But anyone who had seen him in the powerful British crime drama Layer Cake or Munich, Steven Spielberg's fascinating tale of the Mossad hit team which took out, one by one, the terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics had to know that he could play Bond. He's the best actor to play Bond and he is highly credible in the action sequences, while bringing depth, darkness, decency, and a dry humor to the role.

His debut in the role in Casino Royale was fabulous. He was also quite good in Quantum of Solace, an underrated smash hit which suffered from shaky Bourne action cam syndrome and a shaky script.

Now, after a four-year delay caused by the near crash of its parent studio, the Bond film franchise returns to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its beginning with Skyfall, to be released in the UK on Friday and across North America two weeks later.

Yet another excellent reason to look forward to the end of this election season!

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