Franchise's history brings context for new 'Skyfall'

I owe my love of movies to James Bond. Of all the vices 007 could have instilled in me — brawling, smoking, womanizing, drinking and reckless driving — a case of cinephilia really wasn’t such a bad thing to take away from the experience.

As I was growing up, my parents were too busy to police what was on television, so they ruled out TV viewing altogether. But classic movies on videocassette were deemed OK, so I rented Bond’s first dozen or so adventures with relish. Watching the films in no particular order, I didn’t really notice that Bond was growing up over the decades as well, which is why I decided to go back and revisit all 22 Bond movies to put the upcoming “Skyfall” in the proper context.

You learn a lot by watching someone evolve over five decades, especially when the insubordinate secret agent is magically allowed to defy aging by recasting him with someone younger and handsomer every decade or so. I climbed aboard just as Timothy Dalton was taking over, at which point there had really only been two previous Bonds: Sean Connery and Roger Moore (I didn’t count George Lazenby, whose “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” I considered a disgrace to the series — and still do). Now there have been six.

We could debate all day which of the Bond actors is best, but what struck me most upon revisiting the franchise was how different the various leading men are. Sure, they all drink the same signature martini, but the actors’ various interpretations were more or less custom-tailored to their times, like a good tuxedo. (The ’70s were not particularly kind to Bond, least of all sartorially, featuring chubby neckties beneath baby-blue or beige suits.)

But let’s start with Connery, since that’s where Eon producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman began. They picked “Dr. No” as Bond’s debut because it took place entirely on one exotic location (Jamaica) and could be shot relatively cheaply — and also because they couldn’t get the rights to Ian Fleming’s initial, even-more-contained Bond novel, “Casino Royale.”

True to both Fleming’s interpretation of the character and the tradition of hard-boiled heroes that had come before, Connery’s Bond was a tough, take-no-prisoners action figure. He fought with his fists and, in one nerve-wracking scene, tried to remain calm while a tarantula crawled across his chest in bed — which, audiences soon discovered, was where all “Bond girls” evidently belonged.

The character was as ruthless and carnal as the filmmakers could get away with in 1962 under Hollywood’s Production Code, which surprisingly permitted a scene of Bond and Miss Taro basking together postcoitally in the same bed (prior to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” couples had generally been depicted sleeping in separate beds, even if they were married). After sex, Bond turns the duplicitious woman over to be arrested — a kinder fate than he later deals ladies in “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball,” whom he uses as human shields.

Connery’s take on the character is definitely a relic of his time — what a now-female M would in 1995 describe as “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” The producers originally planned to give Bond a steady girlfriend, bringing “Dr. No’s” Sylvia Trench back in the first sequel, but audiences found it more appealing for 007 to claim new conquests on the job, while leaving poor, unrequited Miss Moneypenny pining away for him in the home office.

It took Bond decades to outgrow his sexism, though it was ameliorated somewhat by his lack of xenophobia toward potential mates. Back in the ’60s, if he wanted someone badly enough, he took her by force: In “Goldfinger,” it’s implied that a rowdy roll in the hay was all it took to transform the lesbian Pussy Galore. Even when paired with other agents, he either belittles them (making a “women drivers” joke in “The Spy Who Loved Me,” for instance) or cleans up their messes, as when Britt Ekland’s bikini-clad tush accidentally activates a death ray in “The Man With the Golden Gun.”

Such antics contributed to the cartoonish feel of Bond from the very beginning, exacerbated later by Moore’s comedic take on the material. If Connery played things on his brute strength, Moore was an inherently elegant gentleman, winking and wise-cracking his way through tough scrapes.

While the stars changed in front of the camera, so did the directors behind it, with increasingly flamboyant schemes eventually overtaking the series (e.g. the Bond-in-space adventure “Moonraker”). Though Moore carried on, Eon reset the directors’ roster after “Moonraker,” hiring the series’ second-unit guru, John Glen, to helm “For Your Eyes Only,” the most elegantly European of the 20th-century Bond films. Then things promptly spiraled back out of control, eventually forcing Eon to find a younger actor to replace the 57-year-old Moore.

The beginning of the current move toward a more “realistic” Bond begins as early as the Timothy Dalton days. The Welsh actor’s approach was far less theatrical than his predecessors and marked the series’ first attempt at exploring the psychology of the character: “The Living Daylights” admirably allows him to focus on a single, relatively intelligent love interest, while his next (and final) appearance, “License to Kill,” found Bond relinquishing his double-O status in order to avenge the murder of CIA pal Felix Leiter’s wife.

The series would pick up the “this time it’s personal” approach again in the Daniel Craig era, eschewing traditional “get Mr. Big” missions for intrigues that hit closer to home (something the series had failed to do after killing Bond’s wife at the end of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” then ignoring it in the next film).

But first, “Remington Steele” star Pierce Brosnan would finally get his shot at the character. The Brosnan Bond movies are among the series’ best, and yet they firmly adhere to the old model, featuring gorgeous babes, elaborate gadgets (many of them handily integrated into high-end consumer products) and larger-than-life villains, including a turncoat 006 in “GoldenEye.”

For years, Bond had battled either rival Russian spies or terrorists intent on extorting large sums of money “or else.” Bond thwarted Blofeld in six films (not counting the non-Eon “Never Say Never Again”) before turning his attention to all manner of crazies. How many megalomaniacs could the world possibly have, nearly all of them obsessed with nuclear disaster?

Then something interesting started to happen: The plots began to reflect their times. In 1985′s “A View to a Kill,” Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin aims to sabotage Silicon Valley. “The Living Daylights” finds Bond fighting in Afghanistan, where an American arms dealer is supplying an outmoded Soviet general. Subsequent villains tried to control drugs, satellites, oil, even water. In my personal favorite, “Tomorrow Never Dies,” a Rupert Murdoch-inspired media baron uses his newspaper empire to orchestrate a war between China and the West.

Finally, Eon invited “GoldenEye” director Martin Campbell back to reset the franchise with Craig, a body-sculpted blond with less hair on his chest but more on his head than the toupeed (but otherwise hirsute) Connery. Campbell kept Judi Dench on as M, but eliminated the beloved characters of Moneypenny and Q. In lieu of larger-than-life villains, Bond faced conspicuously small adversaries, while their schemes became too insidiously complex to be quashed in a mere film (Le Chiffre dies early in “Casino Royale,” but plans carry on without him).

The consequences of “Casino Royale” — namely, the death of Vesper Lind — bled into the next film, and suddenly, instead of making sequels, producer Barbara Broccoli was attempting what television had learned to do better: Tell a more expansive story across multiple installments. Which brings us to “Skyfall,” a movie that continues to push Bond into the future by revealing his past — or at least enough of it to make this tuxedo-clad superhero seem a bit more human, which is all well and good, now that Eon has decided to allow some of those elements that had made Bond so appealing to me as a child.

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