In 1954, Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale was adapted as an episode of the CBS anthology TV series Climax!. The episode starred Barry Nelson as “Jimmy Bond,” and was generally loathed by anyone who had read Fleming’s seminal spy novels (including Fleming himself). A Cary Grant-esque Bond may have sounded like gold to television producers, but it was a nail in the coffin for the character’s cinematic potential.
Thankfully, Fleming had fans that were aware of James Bond’s potential. After a few failed attempts by Fleming himself, producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman nabbed the movie rights to Bond in the late ’50s, and embarked on a journey that would eventually result in the first James Bond big screen adventure: Dr. No, starring a then-unknown Sean Connery, premiered in the UK on October 5, 1962. Action movies would never be the same.
Decades after the overnight success of Dr. No, Broccoli and Saltzman’s faith in 007 never wavered. Sean Connery’s riveting take on the debonair killer hooked audiences across the globe (even more so in Japan than the UK or US — the Scottish star was infamously mobbed by Japanese fans during the shoot for You Only Live Twice), but after departing the series following Diamonds Are Forever, the franchise lived on. As other actors embraced the role of James Bond and made it their own, it was clear that the core of the franchise wasn’t a movie star, but a perfect character. The missions could take place anywhere at anytime, as long as Bond had integrity. Malleability is hard to find in Hollywood, but it’s the reason Broccoli’s and Saltzman’s Bond has survived for over five decades.
Not every Bond film has been a critical or financial success, but the longevity and demand of the character has given pop culture one of its greatest archives. 007’s adventures reflect the zeitgeist like few other properties; you can see the evolving world through the lens of the films. Dr. No and the followup From Russia with Love are steeped in the politics and dangers of the ’60s — Connery’s swagger balances the terrors of the times and spins it into entertainment. 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, George Lazenby’s only outing as Bond, is psychedelic in all the right ways. Moonraker put Roger Moore’s Bond into his very own sci-fi adventure — two years after Star Wars blew the collective minds of every moviegoer, young and old. Timothy Dalton embraced Cold War politics in 1987’s The Living Daylights and turned Bond into a gritty action hero that even audiences were unprepared to handle. The films continued to match the large-scale action of modern blockbusters throughout the ’90s, the dashing Pierce Brosnan side by side with high-tech gadgetry and wonderfully goofy set pieces. But following the tragedy of 9/11, global conflict took the wind out of Bond’s sails. There was a demand for realism again. Daniel Craig was the perfect man for the job.
Saltzman eventually ended his working relationship with Broccoli (1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun was there last co-produced effort), and Broccoli passed away after the release of Goldeneye, but their combined efforts ensured that someone would always be there to pick up the baton and run the Bond race. Cubby’s daughter Barbara Broccoli and her half-brother Michael G. Wilson continue to preserve 007’s cinematic legacy, and even more importantly, Fleming’s vision of the character.
Over the years, the Bond series has had its missteps (there may have been one too many Moore-in-costume moments throughout the ’70s and ’80s), but its hard to imagine a world without the classic character. Every month sports one or two major blockbusters, but Bond’s 50 year history gives each installment weight that one-off action flicks can never imitate. Even when the movies are fluffy and brainless (it’s hard to feel an emotional connection in a film like Die Another Day, where James Bond fights an evil North Korean who lives in an ice castle and is bent on taking over the world with a space cannon), they are still culturally momentous, acting as a mirror to who we are and what we want from our entertainment. That’s a demanding role, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Bond. James Bond.
For more Bond 50th anniversary goodness, check out the comprehensive documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007, which chronicles the ups and downs of Bond’s five decades on screen. The entire Bond collection has also been recently released on Blu-ray, in an epic collection aptly titled Bond 50. The set, which includes every Bond adventure in pristine condition and a set of behind-the-scenes extras that dive deeper into the series history, should feed any Bond junkie’s appetite. Or thirst (if there aren’t martinis around).
[Photo Credit: Epix]
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