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License to Killjoy

As Tom Wolfe wrote, paraphrasing Malcolm Muggeridge, “We live in an age in which it is no longer possible to be funny. There is nothing you can imagine, no matter how ludicrous, that will not promptly be enacted before your very eyes, probably by someone well known.” Back in October, while Harvey Weinstein was being defenestrated near-daily in the news, Rob Long, as part of his “The Long View” column in the dead tree edition of National Review, wrote up a satiric lawsuit featuring a dozen Bond girls suing the living daylights (sorry) out of Her Majesty’s swinging secret agent.

The above-named plaintiffs — and others to be included at a later date — allege that in separate instances the above-named defendant, James Bond, repeatedly made unwanted advances upon their persons, in locations including public areas, private hotel rooms, corporate-jet interiors, ski slopes, and hollowed-out volcano hideaways. Further, plaintiffs claim that defendant refused to accept their demurrals, would not take “No” for an answer, and in some instances used his considerable latitude vis-à-vis License to Kill etc. to coerce, intimidate, blackmail, and relentlessly pursue the plaintiffs into unwanted situations.

Half the article is behind the NR subscriber paywall, but you get the gist of it: how could James Bond survive in the Weinstein-inspired #Metoo era? It turns out that maybe he can’t.

On Friday, London’s Sunday Express ran the headline, “James Bond: Millennials SLAM old movies ‘Sexist, racist and Sean Connery's 007 is rapist'":

He’s a womanising assassin from an age gone by, but is James Bond offensive?

In her debut as M in 1995’s Goldeneye, Judi Dench said to Pierce Brosnan’s 007: “I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.

“A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though lost on me, obviously appealed to that young girl I sent out to evaluate you.”

Now millennials, who recently voiced their offence at 1990s sitcom Friends, have taken to Twitter again to criticise older Bond movies.

One wrote: “Watching old James Bond movies and realised: Dude was low key a rapist.”

Another said: “In the early films, James Bond was a full on rapist! #goldfinger.”

While one tweet read: “Watching old school Sean Connery James Bond movies. He's basically a rapist who occasionally murders a Russian person.”

Are we really at a point where every past movie or TV show must be slowly and carefully explained to hyper-judgmental millennials in full Maoist cultural revolution “ban all the things!” mode? If so, this does not bode well for both future movies, and for protecting the past. In the 1993 book Bond and Beyond, 007 and Other Special Agents, author Thomas Soter described that the creators of the James Bond movie series deliberately attempted with the first Bond movie in 1962, Doctor No, to make their character an anti-hero, a hard-living paid assassin whom the audience would root for, long before the campy Roger Moore era:

More subtle changes occur in the rest of the storyline. A new subvillain has been added, Professor Dent, a colleague of the missing British agent. He attempts to murder Bond on Doctor No's orders, fails twice, and after the second attempt, is killed by 007 in cold blood. That execution appalled not only critics but Bond fans, as well. "The hero is not much better than the villain," observed one, who pointed out that in the books Bond did not enjoy cold-blooded "executions" in which the opponent had no chance to defend himself.

"United Artists was not happy about it," recalled Terence Young. "I said, 'Look, this son-of-a-bitch has just tried to kill him in bed; he's had him waylaid up to this place with the girl and all that to do him in, and you're saying he's behaving wrongly. The man is an executioner. We should never lose that."'

What, in fact, was happening was very conscious: Broccoli and Saltzman were attempting to smudge the line between hero and villain, just as they smudged it between comedy and suspense. Bond's one-liners relieved the tension of an action sequence and distanced the viewers from what was happening. Unlike Fleming, who went out of his way to try and make his hero, villains, and storyline plausible -- with journalistic descriptions of the locations, food, clothing, and current events -- the producers felt success lay through unreality. The grisly would be more acceptable to a wider audience if it were less real.

That extended to the way the team altered the character of Bond. In the novel, he is a somber, fairly dull figure, avoiding anything that may divert him from his goal. In this and other movies, however, the agent is frequently distracted by women. The "bed meter" itself is one sign of that: in the novel he only sleeps with Honey. In the film, the count is three, and one of them is an enemy agent (Bond's lax morals are underlined in that case: when they finish making love he hands her over to the police.)

Bond was the most unusual hero the sixties had seen yet, a forerunner of the anti-hero. By simplifying his character the producers guaranteed his appeal locked into the larger audience of men identify with Connery and women who were his cruel good looks. Nostalgia also played consciously or not Doctor No resembles a Flash Gordon serial of the 1930s, with the hero constantly thrown into cliffhanger situations and miraculously managing to escape them.

Near the end of his book, Soter quotes from a 1987 New York Times profile of Timothy Dalton, then-recently hired to replace the aging Roger Moore, on how he prepared for the role by reading Ian Fleming’s novels to come to grips with the character as the author intended, rather than attempting to simply ape Connery and Moore:

'I felt it would be wrong to pluck the character out of thin air, or to base him on any of my predecessors' interpretations,'' Mr. Dalton says. ''Instead, I went to the man who created him, and I was astonished. I'd read a couple of the books years ago, and I thought I'd find them trivial now, but I thoroughly enjoyed every one. It's not just that they've a terrific sense of adventure and you get very involved. On those pages I discovered a Bond I'd never seen on the screen, a quite extraordinary man, a man I really wanted to play, a man of contradictions and opposites.

''He can be ruthless and determined, yet we're constantly shown what a serious, intelligent, thinking, feeling human being he is. He's a man of principle too, almost an idealist, but one who sees that he's living in a world without principle, in which ideals are cheaply bought and sold. He's a man who wants human contact; the need for love seems to overflow from him. Yet he can't afford emotional involvement, he can't fall in love or marry or have children, because that would prevent him functioning in a world where the possibility of his death is ever-present.

''Above all, I realized that he hates to kill. He recalls that when he was young, he thought it was all in the cause of righteousness, but now he perceives his assassinations as dirty murders. He kills himself by killing someone who's himself on the other side. Yet he carries on, always regretting it, always trying to shut it out of his mind. Altogether, it seemed to me that Bond was a complex man, with many more facets than I'd realized. Not a shining knight, but someone deeply unhappy with his job, suffering from confusion, ennui, moral revulsion and what Fleming calls accidie.''

* * * * * * * *

''And of course he's fun, he has a lust for life. He gambles, he drinks, he drives fast cars, he has casual sex or at least falls in love for a rather limited time. But that's because he lives on the edge of life and wants to live it to the full while he's still got it. To me, that's perfectly human.''

Fleming, "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman obviously correctly gauged the tastes of audiences of the 1950s and ‘60s for Bond to have become such an iconic and long-lasting character. No wonder today’s 20-somethings want to see him banned rather than contemplate how the same movies that entertained their grandparents send them to their safe space woobies.