With Casino Royale opening on November 17, the James Bond movie franchise now encompasses 21 films and 44 years. Considering how much the world has changed since Dr. No in 1962, what explains the longevity and continuing interest?
Obviously, a journalistic answer will not do. Bond’s appeal stretches across two generations and 6 different actors. The easy answer is that Bond is a hero. This is true enough. But what kind of hero?
James Bond is a work of art, which means that in essence, he is a concept brought down to the perceptual level. What concept do we see in James Bond?
Let’s catalog some of Bond’s characteristics and see if we can find a common denominator.
Bond is a good guy, fighting on the side of freedom and Western values. He is competent, professional, and knowledgeable. He manages to look good under difficult circumstances. For example, one of my favorite small touches that communicates the essence of Bond’s character is from The World is Not Enough, when a fastidious Bond straightens his tie after being briefly submerged while racing a power boat along the Thames river.
Bond is willing and able to do whatever it takes. He can fight, shoot, drink, make love, drive fast cars, ride motorcycles, fly airplanes, helicopters, and even the space shuttle. He can defuse missiles and bombs of all varieties, including nuclear. Throw him out of an airplane without a parachute, he doesn’t panic, but calmly surveys his options and then proceeds to survive, as he did at the beginning of Moonraker, by forming his body into an arrow and flying himself into the parachute-wearing villain, wrestling the parachute away, then strapping it on himself and deploying it in time to drift gently and safely down to earth.
Then there is the mountain climbing sequence in For Your Eyes Only, which had Bond literally hanging by a thread in mid air, forced to save his life and win the mountain by using his shoe laces to hoist himself up the side of a cliff.
Start cataloging all of Bond’s incredible escapes, last minute rescues, spectacular fist fights, martial arts showdowns, car chases, bomb defusings, snow and water-ski runs, scuba diving adventures, skydiving mishaps, and just plain garden-variety “tough spots” the villains put him in, and it adds up to quite a tally of one special quality, something that appeals across time, across generations, across the sexes, across political and religious lines. So what is it?
Art is an actual need of human consciousness because of its ability to bring our highest abstractions down to physical reality. The values to be found in art are metaphysical values, by which I mean, values that pertain to every aspect of existence, to every man and woman in every age, in every country. So what metaphysical value do we see in James Bond?
Ask yourself this: is there some one quality that every human being drawing breath needs to live a normal human life?
Yes. What we need can be termed “metaphysical competence.” Or put simply, the ability to live successfully.
Are we capable of living? Can we deal with what reality throws in our way? Can we overcome the obstacles that lie between us and the values we want to achieve?
In the character of James Bond, we experience the answer as “Damn right we can–and how!” James Bond is a stylized vision of what metaphysical competence means in reality.
What gives human beings the ability to live successfully? Our rational faculty. Our ability to understand how reality works allows us to control reality in ways not possible to other living organisms, such as plants and animals. James Bond doesn’t use magic or faith or supernatural powers to get out of his jams. He is always focused on the facts, always applying the power of reason.
True, none of us will ever have to turn off an atom bomb in under ten seconds, or fall out of an airplane without a parachute, or have to ski backwards down a mountain on one ski while engaging in a machine gun battle with ruthless villains. But contemplating a hero like James Bond gives us the example, inspiration and confidence to exercise our own metaphysical competence in normal daily life. Can we survive graduate school and get our degree? Yes. Can we undertake a challenging career and succeed? Yes. Can we win the heart of the person we love? Yes. Can we raise a child to be a rational, self-confident, independent person? Yes.
And some of us even drive fast cars, fly airplanes, climb mountains, ski, scuba dive––and stay calm when muggers wave guns in our faces.
We’ve all got a little James Bond in us.