James Bond, perhaps the best-known secret agent in the world, has attracted a huge, and constantly growing, audience to cinemas ever since his first appearances on the big screen in the 1960s. It appears that James Bond came at just the right point in time and was precisely what people of the sixties wanted, or as Terence Young, the director of the first James Bond film Dr. No, once put it: the film’s release seems to have hit “not only the right year, but the right week of the right month of the right year.”
When examining a cultural phenomenon of such breadth, it is impossible to neglect the historical context: the James Bond films are always set in the context of the respective times they were produced. In order to analyse James Bond’s relation to the Cold War, the first film Dr. No should serve as object of observation and thus show that James Bond is a product of the Cold War.
To set a relevant time frame for the historical context, we need to take a look at when the Dr. No was created. The novel by Ian Fleming was published in 1958, as the sixth novel of the series; Fleming’s work on the novel can therefore be assumed to have taken place in the years 1957 and 1958. The according film, which was the first of the film series, was released in 1962; the production of the film began in 1961 and lasted until 1962. Thus, the time we are interested in is 1957 to 1962, or more roughly speaking the fifties and the early sixties.
After the Second World War, when during the 1950s the confrontation between East and West emerged, and with the two positions hardening, there was also an increasing fear of a nuclear war. The “nuclear arms race” between USSR and USA was accompanied by a competition in science, especially in the so-called “Space Race”. On October the 4th 1957, the Soviet Union won “the first run”, so to speak, by launching the first artificial satellite into the Earth’s orbit, resulting in the “Sputnik shock”. America was confronted with a seemingly superior opponent, thus fuelling the fear of a nuclear threat.
Other than that, Ian Fleming’s novel remarkably foreshadows elements of the “Cuban missile crisis” of 1962. After the Cuban revolution in 1959, resulting in a communist government under Fidel Castro, Cuba’s relations to the Soviet Union became closer while those between the U.S. and Cuba continuously kept getting worse. The Americans failed in an attempt to invade the “Bay of Pigs” in 1961 and placed an economic embargo on Cuba in 1962, escalating into the Missile Crisis in the same year: because of the actions of the American government against Cuba, Castro and the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to secretly place strategic nuclear weapons in Cuba. In October 1962, the USA discovered that missile bases were being built and the crisis reached its peak; nuclear war was only one step ahead. However, diplomacy and negotiations between Khrushchev and President Kennedy, in which the USSR agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba and the USA, in turn, agreed to remove their missiles from Turkey, prevented a “hot war” at the last moment.
Both these elements, the technological competition of the “Space Race” and the threat of nuclear war, are obviously present in Dr. No, as we shall see in the next section.
James Bond, Dr. No and the Cold War
As stated before, Ian Fleming’s novel Dr. No remarkably predicts elements of these coming conflicts: the story is set in Jamaica, and on the small, fictitious, nearby island, Crab Key. On this island lives “Dr. No”, a Chinese mad scientist, whose plan is to disrupt an American rocket with an atomic powered radio beam. There you go, parallels between fact and fiction can easily be drawn: first of all, a near-communist organisation is causing America trouble from an island in the Caribbean; in reality, it is Cuba, in fiction it is Crab Key. Secondly, the sabotage of American rocket tests in fiction reflects the importance of the “Space Race” in reality. The fact that the island is radioactively contaminated mirrors the omnipresence of nuclear power in those days. The over-naive belief that radiation can easily be “washed off” – as it is done with Bond and the Bond-girl “Honey Rider” after they had explored the island – is simply the icing on the cake.
This very fact that James Bond, a super-cool secret agent, was so close to these real world conflicts – as if he himself had actually been involved in them – is an important factor for his becoming so popular. The producers of the film must have been aware of this: it is for this reason that the plot of Dr. No, the sixth novel of the series, had been chosen to be turned into the first film: because it fitted so well into that period of time. Otherwise, the first novel, Casino Royale, or any other novel of the series could have been chosen. Terence Young’s quotation from the beginning substantiates this theory that the producers knew exactly what they were doing and when they were doing it.1 James Bond might have never made it on to the big screen if it hadn’t been for the Cold War.
How much a fictional character of his calibre and popularity is able to influence the popular belief will be examined in the next section.
From a theoretical point of view, the influence of mass media on the public has been researched to a great extent. Basically, there are two competing theories for analysing media: the one states that mass media reflect standards, values and beliefs of society (just like a mirror), while the other theory suggests that mass media controls them. Though both of these theories are mutually exclusive, neither of them has ever been completely verified. It is therefore appropriate to think about both these theories in a more distinct way: instead of considering one of these theories the ultimate truth, both of them should be treated as equally valid: mass media reflects society’s standards, values and beliefs as well as it controls them.
Practically speaking, this means that, when making a film, the producers (i.e. literally everyone who is involved in the production) have to keep in mind that there is an audience which has to be willing to watch the film; therefore, the film has to reflect, at least to a certain degree, the audience’s expectations. But on the other hand, the producers (again everybody who is involved, be it directors, financiers, and even actors) have their own intentions, which are (apart from the entrepreneurial constraints to make as much money as possible) an attempt to control or even manipulate society, although this might be done unconsciously. In addition to that, political affairs are mostly too complex for an ordinary individual who therefore relies on the opinion of others – or, as in this case, films and other media. However, it is impossible to predict the reactions of an audience and thus completely control the audience’s beliefs.
To conclude the theoretical approach, it can be assumed that the James Bond films reflect the public opinion but also attempt to control it, as some of the films are financed by important institutions, for example Moonraker by NASA or Goldfinger by the American Army.
Why a British secret agent?
After having discussed the historical context, and coming back to Terence Young’s quotation, how come James Bond arrived at just the right time? Why was it a British secret agent – of a nation that successively lost its status as an Empire after the Second World War – who became the hero of the second-half-twentieth-century cinemas?
Having a British secret agent as the protagonist on the big screen is an attempt to put Britain back on the map: during the 1950s, Britain more and more took over the role of an intermediator in the East-West conflict but still maintaining the close relationship to the USA after the war. And this is exactly what James Bond does in the novel, and the eponymous film, Dr. No. This is the reason why James Bond could remain British, as he is in the novels; a fact which, by the way, was completely different in a 1954 American TV film production of Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale: James Bond was Americanized into a “Jimmy Bond”, a CIA agent. Besides that, the character that is American in Fleming’s novels, Felix Leiter, was turned into a British “Clarence Leiter”. However, this TV film is (and was) not of much importance.
To conclude, James Bond is a cultural phenomenon which cannot be overlooked. It is an ongoing phenomenon that has always adapted to the circumstances of its time during the last forty years and will most likely continue to do so for the next forty years. It is hard to imagine modern cinema without these films, where the mere introduction of the protagonist can give you goose pimples: “My name is Bond. James Bond.”