Did I get it all wrong? Is my perception and resulting review of Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond unjust? I attempt a differentiation.
The Latin phrase used in the title for this article was, by no means, chosen at random. Penned by Roman poet Ovid, it actually has a deeper meaning for what you are about to read and translates to “the end crowns the act”.
Breaking the Unbreakable
For the majority of Bond fans, the film franchise has always been about tradition. The films had a formula from which they profited and thrived. With the tragic ending of “Casino Royale” in 2006 and the subsequent five films, this formula was sequentially altered and producers broke with the tradition of the straightforward Bond film. Many of us didn’t like it and could not find a way to identify with it. Some even lost interest altogether. The humanization of the character induced demystification.
It was the sacrificial death of Vesper Lynd in “Casino Royale” that sent Bond on a long path of pain, revenge and confrontation with his troubled past, ultimately ending in a hero’s martyrdom in “No Time To Die”. The evolving story arc that spanned five films and fifteen years was something the Bond series had never seen before. It was revolutionary in darkness, complexity, emotion, grit and unarguably boldness.
We saw Bond bleed and cry, saw him physically and mentally tortured. We became witnesses to the ensuing rage, determination and emotion of a man, who we thought was the very definition of an indestructible hero. Bond survives everything. Always comes out on top in the end. This perception, shaped and cultivated by decades, was shattered to the core.
“Everyone has the revolver of resignation in his pocket.”
Ian Fleming wrote this sentence in “Casino Royale”. Mathis says it to Bond. He refers to resigning from the job. But there is another meaning of the word resignation – the acceptance of something undesirable but inevitable.
Having seen “No Time To Die” and read through hundreds of comments online afterwards, you surely get a feeling that a great number of fans have resigned or are not willing to accept the film and its radical ending. I am, in parts, one of them. The reasons vary and undoubtedly the critical voices are the loudest. Ultimately, it comes down to what version of James Bond you have in your head and which one you prefer to see.
I chose a quote from Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel for a specific reason. It was said, “No Time To Die” is an insult to Fleming’s legacy. But is it? Actually, the whole Daniel Craig era pays tribute to Fleming in a number of ways and has more in common with the literary Bond than you think. It is fairly obvious why this fact is overlooked. Modern audiences don’t read as much as previous generations did. Everything is virtual and in many areas, video has replaced the written word. If you haven’t read the Fleming novels, resignation is almost a foreseeable occurence at this point.
In an interview with The Guardian, author William Boyd, who penned the continuation novel “Solo”, remarked that “everybody sees Bond through the filter of the movies.” He called it a mistake since “the literary Bond is a far more interesting and complex character.” An indisputable point.
A literary rollercoaster of emotions
Bond has experienced fierce battle and it comes back to haunt him. In “Dr. No”, when being hailed with machine gun bullets from No’s henchmen, he compares it to German machine gun fire in the Ardennes forest in World War II. Unrelated to his wartime experiences, he is melancholic and makes mistakes. He even cries and throws up upon seeing a dead body.
Fleming’s Bond is cynical but also possesses a tenderness that is not found in the films prior to “Casino Royale”. However, a notable exception will always be “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Naturally, the brutality that his job brings is present front, right and center. He is fighting dangerous, cruel villains.
When in the latest film “No Time To Die”, Felix Leiter tells Bond it is hard to “tell the good from bad, villains from heroes these days”, it is an alteration of a sentence Bond says to Mathis in the novel “Casino Royale” – “History is moving pretty quickly these days, and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
Not even the fact that James Bond “dies” is new. At the end of Fleming’s fifth Bond epic “From Russia With Love”, the reader is confronted with the possibility of the hero’s death as he is poisoned by Rosa Klebb’s shoe. The film version completely discards the literary version because the hero simply cannot die. Having an open ending in 1963 might have confronted the producers with a significant gamble on which was only their second Bond film.
The novel “You Only Live Twice”, in which Bond is briefly believed dead, even features the same passage by Jack London that ‘M’ reads at the end of “No Time To Die”. Yet another link back to Fleming’s work.
Love and loss
In terms of relationships and being the eternal womanizer, the literary Bond is profoundly different to its cinematic counterpart. From the films, we have formed the image that Bond is desired beyond belief and every woman he meets and wants will gladly fall victim to his masculine charm and appearance. Yet, in the novels, several women refuse him.
A notable example is Gala Brand in “Moonraker”. Having worked with him, having looked death in the eye by his side while saving London from a devastating missile attack, she eventually refuses his advances. And Ian Fleming managed to write it so beautifully that you will, inevitably, feel sad for Bond. “He touched her for the last time and then they turned away from each other and walked off into their different lives.”
No comment is made about how Bond feels about it. Mainly, because we probably know. It’s the very last sentence of Fleming’s first James Bond novel “Casino Royale” that springs to mind. He comments on the death of Vesper Lynd with “The bitch is dead now.” He does it in both book and film. Cold and professional.
Along comes “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo. Bond seems able to love again. He even marries for love. A love that is genuine and pure. In the barn, bedded on straw with the icy wind blowing outside, Bond asks the question. It remains unanswered. They are phantasizing about their life together. But instead of settling his character down – Bond often thinks about it – Fleming ruthlessly destroys his world in an instant with machine gun bullets ripping through the windshield and making the hero a widower. The head of his dead wife on his lap, there is a distinct cry to be heard in the 1969 film version. It makes you sad, it makes you think. And it should.
In “Casino Royale”, Daniel Craig’s tougher Bond was infused with the same tenderness and earnestness when he tells Vesper on the beach, that he would leave his professional life behind with the little he has left. Although this scene does not exist in the original 1953 novel, it simply oozes Fleming in transporting the fact, that Bond would actually be willing to quit his dangerous job for the woman he loves.
In “No Time To Die”, Bond visits Vespers grave in Matera. It is the same earnestness that shines through when he seems lost for words before simply saying “I miss you.” In the novel “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, Fleming writes, that Bond frequently visits Vespers grave. It is yet another nod to the original. But immediate danger is lurking even at the most sacred of places.
Pain and sacrifice
On top of the pain brought about by love and loss, Fleming’s Bond is constantly tortured, bleeds, ends up in hospital and has his genitals pulped. We saw that scene in “Casino Royale”, the original carpet beater replaced by a thick rope. The cinematic version of Bond has always used blood sparingly on its hero. The very first time, Bond is actually seen in a state of utter destruction is in “Licence To Kill” after the death of Sanchez. Even if it is just for a split second, Timothy Dalton’s Bond bleeds from a wound on his forehead as well as the nose. His suit is torn to pieces. He looks in the direction of the burning body of Sanchez and lets his head fall with a huge, painful sigh. His eyes squint and you think he is about to break down crying. But it’s Bond. He does not cry. Hopefully no one noticed.
And yet, in “Live and let Die”, Fleming lets his hero cry. Bond and Solitaire are trapped on a small reef in shark-infested waters and when Quarrel finally comes to the rescue with an armada of boats, Bond loses it. “The first tears since his childhood came into James Bond’s blue-grey eyes and ran down his drawn cheeks into the bloodstained sea.”
Beyond all the emotions and the mental turmoils of the literary and cinematic James Bond lies an almost unrivaled love for Queen and Country. Bond sacrifices a lot for the completion of a mission and the greater good. The Daniel Craig films have portrayed that like no film before and probably the death of ‘M’ in “Skyfall” is a prime example here. In regard to the previous paragraph, Bond cries in that pivotal moment.
The elephant in the room
One thing is certain: James Bond never knelt down in front of an enemy. But “No Time To Die” tells a different story. Bond is kneeling down in front of Lyutsifer Safin who holds the most precious thing hostage – Bond’s daughter Mathilde. Sure, eventually Bond is reaching for his gun to eliminate the guards that pose a threat. But he kneels down all the same, even bows to the villain and apologises.
Yes, James Bond has a daughter. She grew up without her father in the five year gap presented in the film. With very little time to take in that fact, Bond is as baffled as cinema audiences. The avid Fleming reader will know, that Bond already had a child once. In “You Only Live Twice”, he gets Kissy Suzuki pregnant. However, Bond remains in the dark about fatherhood as Kissy never told him about it for the very honorable reason of not entrapping him.
Author Raymond Benson expanded the idea with his 1997 continuation short story “Blast from the Past”. In the story it is revealed that Kissy gave birth to a son, appropriately naming him James. Years later, Bond learns of his existence and helps Kissy support the child. But Bond cannot deepen the relationship and makes no effort to do so, primarily because of the traumatic series of events beginning with the death of his wife Tracy.
The end crowns the act
Ian Fleming did not create an indestructible hero. He painted a very careful and complex picture of a battered and broken man who numbs his emotions in alcohol and sacrifices both his own happiness and body for Queen and Country. This conclusion opposes everything that is our definition of a “feel-good-story” and it has done so for the first 40 years of the cinematic Bond.
The reboot with Daniel Craig changed all that. Film after film, we were challenged to accept that this hero is not without pain, loss, grief, anger or psychological turmoil. Looking at the entire tenure of Daniel Craig, the end of “No Time To Die” is ultimately the most personal and precious sacrifice James Bond has ever made. Not being able to ever touch Madeleine or Mathilde again is another painful blow that would forever haunt and torture his mind and soul. More than the death of Tracy and Vesper ever could. What choice would you have made?
“You have all the time in the world.” A hero’s goodbye – the end that crowns the act.