With a new instalment of the 007 franchise having finally been released after a lengthy covid imposed delay, the fictional spy character became the subject of headlines when it was announced that actor Daniel Craig would be stepping down from the role.
As fans agonised over whether the so called ‘woke’ trend in popular culture would result in the character being recast with a female or black actor in the role, a host of journalists were spurred to pen their own personal affirmations of affection for writer Ian Fleming’s suave, unflappable MI6 agent.
One such article, published in the Times on the 13th November and titled ‘How James Bond beat the Soviet Union’, loosely reviews a recent book by Fleming’s nephew James Fleming, Bond behind the Iron Curtain, which hones in on the role perceived to have been played by the 007 films and books in the ‘culture war’ between the imperialist and socialist camps during the cold war.
The premise taken by the author and extended by Thomas W Hodgkinson, in his Times article, is that the crafting of the James Bond character was done in such a successful way as to represent a successful form of psychological warfare against the Soviet government, through ridicule, insult, and the using of ‘the Russians’ specifically as reference point for all manner of grotesque, cartoonish villains on screen and in print.
That the very essence of the franchise from its inception in the 1950’s was anti-communist goes without saying, but it’s clear how irresistible Hodgkinson finds the notion that the fictional Bond leaped straight from the screen into the psyche of the CPSU’s politburo members to taunt them in their sleep, and revels in the suggestion that Bond, the “amoral, polyamorous hero who kills without remorse, became a symbol of everything the East hated about the West”.
Hodgkinson’s article is a good example of that peculiar phenomenon, so brilliantly and cruelly sent up by comedian Steve Coogan through his Alan Partridge character, whereby Bond serves as a route to escapism for the frustrated, culturally confused male of western capitalist society, providing a fantasy world where guns, gadgets, speedboats and cars become toys to assist in the heroic exploits of espionage carried out by the protagonist, as he sloshes down fancy booze and effortlessly beds one compliant young woman after another.
Rather than the unsurprisingly poor reception garnered by the film Dr No in the Soviet newspaper Ivestia in 1962, which Hodgkinson describes as the USSR ‘declaring war’ on 007 and which James Fleming evidently uses as a springboard to launch his story of his uncle’s creation as a real ‘top secret weapon’ in the cold war arsenal of imperialism, it is the reasons for James Bond’s popularity with target audiences – particularly the British cinema goers of the 1960s – which are worthwhile considering.
In the post-war period, whilst Britain had been instrumental in the formation of Nato under the Atlee government, and workers were able to enjoy a steadily rising standard of living and material benefits, the post-war reconstruction came at a price, with development reliant on US loans and exploitation of remaining colonies, as successive countries gained independence from the old British Empire.
The historic economic and naval supremacy which Britain had previously maintained was weakened not just by the war but by the wave of independence movements across the world that followed, often communist led, which shook the foundations of imperialism to their core.
To put it frankly, two superpowers had emerged from the second world war, and Britain was not one of them; its imperialist ruling class having made a series of concessions to the demands of British workers and having, through necessity, accepted a junior role to the US in the cold war front against the expanding socialist camp.
When you add to these factors the ferment of social change occurring during this period, such as the political struggle of the women’s movement to make the contraceptive pill available to single as well as married women, and the growth of US influenced youth subculture, pop culture and the immigration from the newly independent commonwealth countries, it seems obvious that the James Bond mythology would be offered up as the perfect antidote for all the concerns and qualms that any traditionalist, patriotic British worker might have about this new, unpredictable world.
Rather than a clever form of cultural warfare against the USSR, Fleming’s creation, and its enduring popularity as a franchise, emerged in response to the need to nurse the wounds inflicted on the prestige of British imperialism during the post war period, perfectly embodying the aspiration of the establishment to present itself and its intelligence services as indispensable assets in the battle against communism, holding their own, and executing the most daring of tasks with a finesse unmatched by their American counterparts.
The production and promotion of such a character represents an attempt to create a national totem that could carry the idea of an influential, classy and experienced British imperialism forward in a world in which much had changed; asserting the validity of Britain’s global relevance for the benefit of its home population, and reassuring everyone that fast cars, gratuitous violence and scantily clad women are all good avenues for entertainment in the new, modern Britain, marrying a conservative traditionalist mindset of power projection with the increasingly liberal pop culture that was developing.
That this was successful, and endures through the schoolboy-like idolising of the fictional Bond apparent in Hodgkinson’s review, is beyond dispute, but Fleming’s Bond Behind the Iron Curtain also reveals that the success went far beyond this, finding obsessive fandom at the top of the US foreign policy elite.
With accounts of President Kennedy taking advice from Bond author Ian Fleming on how to defeat Fidel Castro, and Fleming claiming Allen Dulles as his ‘best friend’, one feels that the upselling of a notion of British intelligence supremacy through the popular films hit the target which the British establishment really needed it to; endearing it to the new ‘top dog’ of US imperialism and its world outlook of American exceptionalism.
So, we are told, on meeting with Kennedy, Fleming “proposed a range of harebrained schemes. America should fly a massive cross over Havana at night to imply to the traditionally Catholic Cubans that God was annoyed with their atheist leader. Or they should drop on the Cuban people wedges of cash with labels reading, “Compliments of the United States” and that Allen Dulles’ CIA, whilst succeeding in making a knife-tipped boot used by a villain in one Bond film, failed to replicate the bugging device featured in Goldfinger (or overthrow Fidel Castro).
Of course, the hilarious thing about all this is that whilst Fleming had been churning out the Bond novels which Kennedy apparently became so enamoured with during the 1950s and which were soon to be adapted for cinema, there was indeed a very real, charismatic, quintessentially British master of espionage operating at the highest levels of the imperialist intelligence services, who had nerves of steel, worked effectively, accepted the necessary brutalities involved, and could move effortlessly through high society sloshing down fancy booze when required, and who also appears to have been somewhat irresistible to a number of women.
This was Kim Philby, the Soviet spy who rose to the top of MI6 to become the head of its anti-Soviet bureau and also the MI6 liaison to the CIA in Washington.
Over the course of 3 decades, Philby used his position to thwart imperialist plans of counter-revolution and subterfuge against fledgling socialist states around the world, deflecting suspicion and successfully maintaining his innocence for a number of years even after his Soviet allegiance had been partly exposed.
How humiliating it must have been when, in 1963, the year after Dr No was released in cinemas, this suave, upper class agent of imperialism turned out to have been bluffing all the 00s, Qs and Ms at MI6 and the CIA all along, when he finally took heed of a fellow double-agent’s warning and defected from the western intelligence hub of Beirut to Moscow, becoming a household name in both the East and the West.