A New York Times Review from 1963 enthusiastically declared of the first Bond movie, “It is strictly a tinselled action-thriller, spiked with a mystery of a sort. And, if you are clever, you will see it as a spoof of science-fiction and sex.” However, with the benefit of hindsight, is this really all there is to the movies? Of course they are products of entertainment and can be understood without any historical context. However, it can hardly be denied that correlations from the events of the 1960’s to the 1980’s are reflected within the films. Jeremy Black, history professor at the University of Exeter even goes as far as to argue that the success of the James Bond movies rested upon their “willingness to abandon the stereotype of the Cold War struggle” referring to the facets of villains and threats that Bond deals with. The movies are thus somewhat different to 007’s favorite drink – they are shaken and stirred, reflecting the sometimes calmer and sometimes more turbulent times of Cold War America.
There can be no doubt that the James Bond movies are inherently influenced by Cold War politics. For one, broader themes within the Bond movies indicate what concerned American citizens with regards to political relations. During the time period covered by the films, Dr. No (1962) is perhaps the clearest examples of this. Not only does Bond work together with CIA sidekick Felix Leiter, reflecting the Western based alliances, but also deals primarily with the impeding threat of nuclear disaster. This topic however was by no means unreal. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, showed just how close the game of brinkmanship between the Soviet Union and the United States was. Speaking of these two countries President Kennedy declared: “We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle, in which suspicion on the one side breeds suspicion on the other” (Chafe, 551). Fear of nuclear catastrophe, as was left to Bond to solve, was a common feeling among the American population after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and was omnipresent, as this video clip by the United States Civil Defense shows.
Furthermore, political relations can also be traced through the Bond movies by investigation of the various villains. Characters such as Rosa Klebb, it could be argued, present clear indications of an antipathy within the West for the Soviet Union. Portrayed as a hard-edged, grey suited individual with knives hidden in her shoes, she clearly is not a character that is to be seen affectionately. Similarly, a primary number of the villains within the movies are part of the organization of SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, Extortion) based on real life SMERSH (СМЕРШ and Russian for: “death to all spies”) which is further discussed in the section of Espionage.
However, while clear anti-Soviet references are present, the shift of using an unassociated and undefined organization such as SPECTRE in the films, seems to reflect that western society had moved away from Cold War stereotypes in the 1960’s. This becomes especially clear in this short clip of a briefing between SPECTRE members in “From Russia with Love”.
Here it becomes apparent that the Soviet Union itself is also schemed against. This notion of reinterpretation of classical Cold War lines is perhaps reflected by a real life development of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. A novel class of historians emerged during this time, challenging traditional analysis of the Cold War. Revisionist theories, such as proposed by William Appleman Williams in his book “The tragedy of American Diplomacy” from 1959, now suggested that the Cold War had to a great extent originated through American economic expansions rather than merely Soviet aggression. Foreign and domestic policies such as the Vietnam War and the emergence of the New Left may also have influenced this thinking. The ambiguity of the villains and of SPECTRE therefore, may reflect this new more critical thinking. It is also these subtleties that make the movies historically important to us today, allowing a tracing of shifts in western perception through popular media.
Moreover, later Bond movies such as Octopussy (1983), Moonraker (1979) or A View to Kill (1985) move even beyond this and explicitly portray Bond as working together with KGB agents, as well fighting against enemies that are mutual to the United States/Britain and the Soviet Union. This, yet again, it seems is not surprising considering the political circumstances of the time which showed a novel focus on Détente. The earlier signing of Salt I under Carter and Brezhnev indicated a thaw in the relationship between the two superpowers. Moreover correlations to real-life events can also be found in films that are slightly outside the scope of this course. For example, in The Living Daylights (1987) Bond is sent on a Mission to Afghanistan, possibly coinciding with the real life-invasion of the Soviet Union into Afghanistan in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Lastly, A View to Kill (1985), although filmed just five years outside the scope of this course, should nevertheless be mentioned as the movies increasingly also look into the domestic sphere of the United States. References to the growing importance of the technological industry can be found in this movie which is based around the Silicon Valley, perhaps suggesting the decreasing Cold War constellation. Other topics taken up within the Bond series include the space race, but also other domestic topics are present as well, such as the role of women or drugs.
While many correlations can be found, the movies should not be seen entirely uncritically. Many of the films’ story lines were based on the original books that were written much earlier; how close they stayed to the original varied greatly though. For example, as Black points out, Fleming had originally in the novels taken up the topics of the tensions between and dependence on the United States and Britain in the Cold War era. This seems to be lacking in the movies where the co-working effort of the US and Britain are generally shown as one positive unit. This raised various questions historically- was this taken out of the movies for means of coherency in the story line or could one go as far as to even suggest that the American public chose to see only two sides: the East and the West, “good” and “evil”? Political relations were obviously, in reality, much more varied than portrayed in the films, one example of which is at the very least the ending of Détente under the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It should however also be remembered that it was not the primary objective of the movies to be politically accurate, as they were a money making franchise.
Ultimately it cannot be denied that the James Bond movies reflect real life political relations of the Cold War by means of entertainment for the mass media. Of course they cannot be taken entirely at face value, but the faceted nature of the missions and villains certainly do pick up on and reflect some very real concerns. Therefore, while being loved today for their entertainment value, the movies have a more serious side and relate to Cold War politics that were a central part of the lives of millions of people. Their historical importance in tracing sentiments among a western audience cannot be underestimated.