Humour in the Bond films, and reflections on the portrayal of Bond
A short essay by Stuart Fernie
Welcome to my page about the James Bond films, in which I will try to examine their appeal, and how Bond has changed over the years.
The Bond films have had an immense impact on the shape of nearly all the adventure/action films which have followed them. The series developed the concept of "serious comedy" well beyond anything that had been produced up to that point, became the benchmark for other productions, and made the others seem camp or lacking, by comparison.
It is difficult to analyse or define the exact nature of the appeal of the Bond films, but for me the essential factor (certainly in the earlier films) is their knowing approach to the telling of a ridiculous tale which is seriously told. This "seriously jocular" approach carries the base material to a higher cinematic plain. The books were well written adventure stories which were fun and engaging, but their cinematic interpretations managed to combine adventure with a knowing self-mockery, adding an element of wit and entertainment missing from the original material.
Exotic and ridiculous situations are set up with great care, attention to detail and atmosphere, and above all with due regard for the serious development of character and storyline. Then, after considerable effort to be convincing, clever dialogue or even simply a reaction from one of the characters, suggest that the makers and actors are well aware that this is all just a bit of fun after all, and are willing to share the joke with the audience.
This is, I think, a key element in explaining the appeal and success of the early Bond films - the audience is party to the joke, while Bond's adversaries are not.
The audience wants to identify with the hero, and in a sense the Bond films allowed the audience to be involved with him and the plot through conspiratorial humour. In a very real sense the audience partnered Bond in his adventures as he made jokes at the expense of his enemies or indeed the very situations in which he found himself. His witticisms are aimed squarely at us in the audience - indeed few other characters would be in a position to fully understand the implications of his remarks or see the irony contained in them.
Examples of this type of humour can be found throughout the early films, but particularly strong examples are to be found in "Goldfinger" (the golf match), "Thunderball" (clay pigeon shooting with Largo), and "Diamonds are Forever" (the superbly written infiltration into the training centre sequence).
A line of dialogue may be delivered not to another character, but addressed almost directly to us in the audience ("Thunderball" - "Wait 'til you get to my teeth"). In this respect the producers chose the perfect incarnation of Bond in Sean Connery.
Connery is a master of effortlessly addressing the audience to convey sarcasm which only the audience can truly or completely understand due to its fuller knowledge of events and characters in the film. He manages to combine perfectly lightness and seriousness. He achieves a sense of authenticity and humanity through a series of carefully observed reactions and "ticks", yet constantly reminds us that what we are watching is an elaborate joke - be it through the dialogue itself, the way it's delivered, or just a look. Of course the balance has to be correct. If "Never Say Never Again" has a strong point, it is in its witty humour - its main weakness is in its failure to take the plot seriously enough or to develop its characters.
As the series progressed it must have been difficult to maintain the quality of the writing, and indeed the jokes, though still present, have become just that - jokes, rather than witty and knowing reminders that this is all a set-up. Of course the original style does not suit every actor and those who have gone on to play the role have played to their own strengths, but with the gradual disappearance of this "knowing" humour the series has become weaker and increasingly dependent on other factors. This is not to say the films are less enjoyable, but they are undoubtedly less witty than they once were.
So, what makes a good Bond?
Few film series have maintained so consistently their fan base while adhering fairly rigidly to a familiar structure. Indeed it is largely by adhering to this structure that the fan base has been maintained. The films' fans seem to want to relive their cinematic experience without it simply being repeated. New situations, villains, and girls provide the opportunity to recreate the entertainment afresh, but within the constraints of a familiar pattern. Yet there have been significant changes and developments within the formula, including a shift in emphasis on humour, and the very way in which Bond is played.
Certain films have been more successful than others (financially and "artistically"), and I think the "secret" is in getting the right balance in the elements that go to make a Bond film.
The knowing, witty, self-mocking humour of the early Bonds evolved into a more general ambiance of lightness and fun, and even that has been diluted to some extent in the more recent additions to the series. Essentially they remain fantastic tales told seriously with flashes of fun and humour to indicate they should not be taken too seriously, but over the years there have been attempts to incorporate greater psychological depth in the storylines (and principal characters). This is undoubtedly an attempt to win over or involve audiences in the face of competition from other series such as the Die Hard films, the Lethal Weapon series, the Indiana Jones films, and even the Star Wars series (to name but a few) which, while they all owe a significant debt to Bond, have all dealt with the motivation of their principal characters to a greater degree than the Bonds.
If the audience doesn't care about the fate of the principal character the whole exercise becomes somewhat pointless. It is essential, then, to have the central character show human characteristics which can inspire empathy. This can be achieved by means of showing reaction to a particular situation, revealing inner feelings and attitudes. A perfect example of this is the scene in "Goldfinger", in M's office, which takes place shortly after the death of Jill Masterson, in which Bond makes very clear his feelings toward Mr Goldfinger, and displays his resultant short temper with his superior. In the more recent films (notably Timothy Dalton's and Pierce Brosnan's outings), there has been an attempt to dig more deeply into potential character flaws or personal weaknesses in Bond, giving him greater psychological depth.
I seem to remember reading that for Fleming, Bond was always intended as a fairly non-descript "hook" for a good story. I think the same theory might apply to the films. Clearly it would be damaging to the film NOT to have Bond show human characteristics, but it can be equally damaging, given the entire premise of fun and entertainment, to dig too deeply into the psyche of what was intended to be an instrument of entertainment.
It seems to me that the weakest films in the series are those in which this balance of humour, humanity, and psychological depth is slightly askew, and this can work in both directions - the film can be too light, or too heavy. If it is too light, we feel we are simply going through the motions and the film becomes truly "formulaic", while if it is too heavy, the depth sits badly with the attempts at humour, and the audience is unsure of what to make of the film as a whole.
Of course, criticism of this kind is quite redundant in the face of the series' continued success and popularity. The early films have a unique flavour and style, and it was with these films that I grew up. It is perhaps unfair to compare the later Bonds which played to the strengths of the lead actor, but I think it is fair to say that while the early Bonds were innovative and led a virtual revolution in cinema entertainment, the later films have become somewhat derivative not just of themselves, but of the very films which were inspired by the style of the Bond originals.
George Lazenby was a perfectly adequate lead in an action film. His main problem was that he followed Connery and his lack of experience meant he could not attain the same degree of sophistication and "knowingness" in his performance. Here for perhaps the first time, a Bond film was an action film with jokes.
Roger Moore (who was one of the original contenders for the role) maintained the humour and indeed developed a more obvious but less telling style of jokiness. He has his own appeal and the series remained great fun, though significantly less clever and involving than the previous efforts.
Personally I thoroughly enjoyed Timothy Dalton's interpretation in "The Living Daylights". This represented a new and more serious departure for the Bonds. By the time of Dalton's appearance the films had grown somewhat stale and repetitive. A new approach was required, and Dalton's more serious interpretation was quite refreshing. Sadly, the character of Bond is probably not strong enough to warrant such a treatment, and would tend to limit what an actor can do with him. I think Dalton was also let down by the producers' continued attempts at humour which didn't sit very well with other aspects of this new approach.
Pierce Brosnan is, financially speaking, the most successful Bond yet. While I enjoy his performance I'm afraid I find the films themselves less entertaining and increasingly derivative in style. I thought "The World is not Enough" looked tired and lacked any great spark. "Die Another Day" maintains the more serious approach of recent times - to the point where Bond is captured, tortured, and held in captivity for 14 months. This storyline took me somewhat by surprise, though it struck me that this was perhaps a good way to go - if it could be maintained. Sadly, the second half of the film reverted to the fantasy elements of some of the previous films, failed to capitalise on the good work done in the early part, and made the whole a curious mixture of styles. Humour is much reduced, though I did enjoy spotting the references to previous films.
That said, for sheer consistent entertainment value, it is hard to beat any of the Bond films.
Casino Royale - Bond is dead. Long live Bond.
The new Bond film represents a significant departure in style from the "traditional" Bond fare. It is less, yet it is more.
The previous Bond films, especially the early ones, were clever and playful. This film is less self-aware, less playful in that it doesn't toy with the audience and its perceptions of reality, and is much less funny than its predecessors (a blessed relief in some ways, as recent attempts at humour have been crude and ham fisted). It is also much more engaging (emotionally as well as plot-wise), intense, thrilling and human.
This is surely what Dalton wanted to do (and perhaps even tried to do), but didn't quite succeed as the producers (albeit understandably) insisted on working within the existing (and highly successful) framework or formula.
The Bond films were original and ground breaking, but as the years passed they became derivative of the very films which were inspired by them. Now at last the producers appear to have put some thought into their product, particularly character and storyline, rather than follow their formula.
To be fair, they have tried on occasion to depart from this, but they were always drawn back to their ever weakened formula - weakened by familiarity, a lack of genuine wit (replaced by crude one-liners), and the misguided perception that bigger is always better.
With "Casino Royale" we have an action - adventure film with a storyline which is no longer an excuse or setting for action sequences. By and large these sequences actually fit the plot reasonably well and lend themselves to character development! There is a build up of tension and an effort to integrate them with the storyline. There is also, and this is a major element in the success of the film, an intensity and energy in the action sequences, perhaps in part because of the increased level of emotion and character development. Of course, let's not get this out of proportion - this is still an action film with over the top action sequences, but they are entertaining without appearing overly concocted or forced.
This is also one of the first times we have actually focused on the character of Bond. Normally he carries or advances the fun plot and has nearly always been a two dimensional character. Here we are given a glimpse of the workings of his mind and the problems he faces, with the result that genuine tension, instead of just entertainment, is produced - not to the extent that we consider questions of morality, but enough to make us consider Bond as a man rather than a puppet going through the motions for our entertainment.
For me, the only real weak point in the storyline/script is the way in which Bond falls so heavily for Vesper. I understand this is necessary for the final twist, and it is reasoned out to some extent, but I'm afraid for me it remains unconvincing or at least required further justification. Bond has just been promoted and is highly motivated - he is unlikely to be willing to give it all up so easily. That said, this is surely a minor quibble in what is a very engaging and exciting thriller.
Daniel Craig makes an excellent and human Bond, backed up by a carefully considered and well written script. Before this film, I would have said (indeed I have said!) that the character of Bond was not strong enough to carry a more serious film. However, in the hands of director Martin Campbell, whose handling of action sequences injected intensity, and whose more intimate scenes lent the film humanity, we have a film which delivers a new style of Bond film which is more likely to ensure the continued longevity of the series.
Of course, we are left with an intriguing question about this new direction. Where will they go from here? If Bond reverts to the cold and jokey cardboard killer he once was, this goes against what has proved to be a most popular new direction, but if he remains open to doubt, this goes against the conclusion of our new film. Perhaps the answer is simpler than I am suggesting - just keep him human.
Quantum of Solace - Bourne again Bond?
So, did the producers keep Bond human in "Quantum of Solace"? Well, yes - up to a point. Here Bond is supposed to be so enraged over Vesper's death and her apparent betrayal of him, that he sets off on a cold-hearted mission of revenge. The problem is that we really only ever hear about his rage and upset. We, the audience, are not privy to moments that would reveal his inner feelings. Yes, there are times when he is clearly thinking of her, but by and large he behaves in much the same way as he did in "Casino Royale" - determined and ruthlessly professional. If we are to believe he is severely affected by Vesper's death, we need to see evidence of such, and not just hear about it.
I just can't say I was particularly taken with this new film. It seemed very contrived to me, with needless complications and countless implicit Machiavellian dealings going on. A Bond film is not really the place you'd expect to find vague hints at existentialism, yet everything here is quite grimy and everyone seems willing to compromise, with the possible exception of Bond himself. However, for this level of storyline to be successful, we need fully rounded characters and characterisation, and as I suggested above, this is lacking. Characters are brought in and disposed of in order to suit the advancement of the contrived tale at the heart of it all, and even there, the plan is hardly earth shattering - extortion on a large scale, but quite lacking in imagination.
The action sequences are, of course, very well executed, but even here there appears to be a certain spectacle and entertainment value missing. Edited a la Bourne, these sequences are thrilling, but not as knowingly entertaining as they once were. Even in "Casino Royale" we gasped in disbelief at some of the stunts, and the camera work reflected the desire of the director to surprise and entertain us, but here we have well produced action sequences which do not reveal the knowing Bond attitude and humour.
Bottom line, the story and script are trying too hard to be gritty, tough and "modern". Bourne is Bourne. Bond does not need to try to be something else. Reproducing visual technique is one thing, but playing with the fundamental concept of having fun with a fantastic tale told in a relatively realistic way is a dangerous way to proceed.
"Casino Royale" represented something of a departure from the traditional Bond film, yet it managed to retain a glossy entertainment value which is missing in this film.
Daniel Craig continues to impress, revealing humanity behind the professional facade, and proving an excellent action hero. Sadly, I feel he was let down by the script in this outing. As I have said before, you have to wonder if the producers genuinely understand what is appealing about Bond.
One final thought. What I found memorable and worthwhile in the early films was the humour - the knowing and witty playfulness with the audience. I have to say I miss that, but I find this new engaging and human Bond infinitely more enjoyable than the crude and formulaic Bond we have been given in recent years.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found it worthwhile.
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