The James Bond films started with a pair of relatively modest but stylish thrillers, Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963).
Yet since the spectacle of Goldfinger (1964), the series has deteriorated from being a trendsetter to becoming a pastiche of Hollywood blockbusters.
A few months ago, the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley wrote this piece arguing that Roger Moore remains his favourite James Bond, as he plausibly possessed the physique of ‘a slightly overweight middle-aged man with a taste for brandy and cigars’, and yet who would still be more believable in the role at 85 than Daniel Craig. I see where he’s coming from.
The publicity for Casino Royale (2006) claimed that Craig’s Bond is closer to the spirit of Ian Fleming’s Bond, and returned to the character’s roots. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
Most of Fleming’s novels were utter tripe; materialistic throwbacks to 1950s consumer culture, with entire pages devoted to such novelties as glow-in-the-dark radium watches, cotton shirts, and the modern miracle of polyester trousers. (Clothes rationing only ended in 1949, and such novelties still seemed luxurious.) While Fleming was a skilful writer of tense set-piece scenes, in my opinion, the bulk of his books were made up of formulaic padding, interspersed with misogyny and sadism.
It’s little wonder, then, that so many of the films have been so bad. Despite some impressive stuntwork, Moonraker (1979) may be one of the worst films ever made, but at least the producers had the good sense to just replicate the plot from Roald Dahl’s original screenplay for You Only Live Twice (1967) instead of adhering to Fleming’s improbable tale of space rockets in the Home Counties. If Die Another Day (2002) had a plot, it was over by the opening titles. If anything, Fleming’s novels were even worse – his last one, The Man With the Golden Gun, was virtually unreadable.
So how does one successfully portray the hero of such bad books? Few have succeeded. Connery or Moore? Sorry, but Bond shouldn’t wear an ill-fitting toupee. Nor should Bond have an awkward combover, á la Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill (1989). Nor should he be as perennially unruffled as either Moore or Brosnan. As for Craig, he simultaneously manages to look both too young and too old for the part.
Step forward the only actor to have effectively played Fleming’s Bond on the silver screen: the much-maligned but never-bettered George Lazenby.
Lazenby was not an actor. The key to appreciating him is to know something of the behind-the-scenes drama of his casting; which is entirely appropriate for the only film in which Bond breaks the fourth wall, being beaten and abandoned on a beach, and telling the audience: “This never happened to the other feller.”
When he got the part, Lazenby was an Australian second-hand car salesman in Chelsea, and part-time model. Apart from some chocolate commercials, he had no acting experience. Hungry for the role, he went to extraordinary lengths to get it. He bought one of Sean Connery’s uncollected suits from Connery’s tailor, and had it altered to fit himself. He bought a Bond-like Rolex Submariner watch. He frequented the barber of Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, and struck up a conversation with him, claiming to be a jet-setting international playboy who raced fast cars for a living. Lazenby deserves some begrudging respect simply for this level of chutzpah. The deciding moment came when he was granted a screen test involving a stunt fight, and accidentally broke the stuntman’s jaw. “That’s our Bond!” exclaimed director Peter Hunt.
If Lazenby looked distinctly ill-at-ease in his only Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), it suited the character. Like Fleming in real life, Bond is a deeply insecure human being, a rough diamond trying to play a smooth charmer. At one end of the scale, Roger Moore was a smooth charmer, while Daniel Craig still seems to be a strategically shaved gorilla thrust into a dinner jacket. Only Lazenby fully conveyed the conflict between Bond’s polish and self-doubt.
As for the best adaptation of Bond, it remains the Daily Express comic strip from the 1950s. It preserved Fleming’s characterisations, eliminated the padding from the plots, while retaining the feel of Harold Macmillan’s Britain, freshly emerged from rationing; proud, but a bit rubbish. Diabolical masterminds abounded, but they were usually operating from a secret bunker beneath a telephone kiosk just outside Basingstoke. If they were extorting secrets, it was for derisorily small sums of money. And while Sir Hugo Drax was a bit of a wrong ‘un, he couldn’t be all that bad, since he was a fellow member of M’s club. Would any of this translate well in the cinema? Absolutely not, but it was a comic strip, so nobody cared.
As for the silver screen, I can’t help but sneer now at Craig's appearing again. Instead, I will lie back and think of Lazenby, who remains the only Bond to have had the courage to wear an orange and brown jumpsuit. I just can’t see Connery having pulled that one off.