James Bond: the spy on whom the sun never sets (#SFWApro)

Having caught Tomorrow Never Dies this past weekend, it seemed worthwhile pausing a moment to look at the Bond films’ (and books) view of Great Britain as a really, really great Britain.
As License to Thrill observes, Fleming began writing Bond at a time when England was widely seen as going into decline. Instead of the strong, stoic, disciplined Brits of the war years, 1950s Britain was all about sexual pleasure and self-indulgence (funny as the idea looks from a 21st century viewpoint). And in world politics, the empire on which the sun never sets was looking at, well, a setting sun.
Just three years after Casino Royale came out, the Suez Crisis of 1956 drove this home. Gamel Nasser, the president of Egypt at the time, was preparing to build a massive dam to control the flow of the Nile. After the US and Britain backed off loaning Egypt the money, Nasser retaliated by nationalizing the Suez Canal. Britain, France and Israel then went to war against Egypt, seizing the canal and other chunks of territory. The US and the USSR backed a UN resolution condemning the seizure and American troops went in as peacekeeping. Egypt kept the canal and France and Britain got their hands slapped.
It was a humongous blow to Britain’s prestige and to the sense of the country as an imperial power girdling the globe. For people a generation or so older than my Mum (as George Macdonald Fraser writes in Hollywood History of the World) the British Empire was a fact of life and proof of national greatness. The Suez Crisis proved it was the American century; it would be followed by multiple nations leaving the empire and declaring independence, and then by repeated revelations of how utterly the Soviets had penetrated British intelligence.
In Bond’s universe none of that matters. In the books, Bond crisscrosses the world, traveling from one British imperial outpost to another (as well as outside it). Felix Lightner, his CIA contact, is clearly subordinate. The Reds treat Britain as their greatest threat (no Kim Philbys divulging state secrets to the USSR in Bond). There are no British traitors, only foreigners such as Drax (in the print version of Moonraker) who’ve wormed their way into the country.
This wasn’t unique to Fleming. Sax Rohmer’s Re-Enter Fu Manchu came out in 1957 and the American agents in the book are at pains to stress that if they’re going to work in the Middle East, they need British expertise, because nobody understands the area better than the Brits. As I said when I reread it, it’s hard not to see that as a response to Suez.
The same feel carries over into the Bond movies. In Dr. No, Felix tells Connery’s Bond that even though Dr. No is targeting American missiles, Jamaica and the surrounding waters are British territory so obviously Uncle Sam won’t act without British approval. He’s there as backup, not front man. In Goldfinger, the threat targets America but it’s Bond, not Felix, who saves the day. He also saves the US in You Only Live Twice and View to a Kill, saves the world in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker and saves the NATO alliance in Octopussy.
And then comes Tomorrow Never Dies, in which we’re presented with the possibility of the UK and China going to war, and it’s treated as an equal match. As License to Thrill says, this may have been influenced by Britain’s success in the Falklands War but China is a far tougher nut to crack than Argentina.
I’d hoped to review the movie itself today, but that may have to wait until next week.

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3 Comments

Filed under Movies, Reading

3 responses to “James Bond: the spy on whom the sun never sets (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Another Spy Who Loved Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Is the US empire in decline… or just re-organizing? | power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

  3. Pingback: Books (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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