There are few aspects of fandom that touch off as much controversy as debating the best era of James Bond. Since the franchise has gone through so many permutations, which 007 you prefer says a lot about you.
Considering that Bond is ultimately based on a series of books, there is a strain of orthodoxy that insists that the stories and the portrayal of the spy should match Ian Fleming’s concept as closely as possible. This contingent is more likely to favor hardboiled versions of the character, probably split down the middle between Daniel Craig and Sean Connery fans. Beyond those are more casual fans who gravitated towards the unique slants of the others.
I definitely fall into the latter camp.
This may seem to contradict some of my other blog postings where I tend to rail against reboots, bastardizations, and cover-band continuations of sacred source material. The difference is that I simply have no particular sentimentality to the source material. The reason I don’t is that I do not look up to a super-macho cold-blooded killer and chronic womanizer as a role-model, despite the fact that he continually saves the free-world from megalomaniacs. You might say that the only guy suitable for a dirty job like this is some form of psychopath. But in order for me to really enjoy a film, above all else, the protagonist needs to be likeable. And the classic James Bond is just much too grim.
This is where taste is so subjective. In many of my other blog posts I tend to rail against modern films that offer darker and darker protagonists. I’m not against any and all anti-heroes. In fact I’ve been known to like some of them. But when it comes to James Bond, I prefer a softer, cuddlier variety, no matter how implausible it may be.
I think today in particular, due to Daniel Craig’s popularity, this preference for a gentler Bond is a waning minority. However, there is also (as always) a generational component in this. Craig is a Bond for today insofar as he is not far off the mark from a Jason Bourne or Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt. Today’s action stars tend to be extremely proficient and acrobatic and with even less remorse over the carnage they leave in their wake than Rambo. This, in my opinion, reflects a videogame culture in which people who impede the hero’s progress are merely inanimate game pieces to remove from the board. This game aspect focuses on simply moving through an obstacle course and “winning”. So the viewing experience is like watching a sporting event. The underlying moral imperative is not so important. It is ultimately a glorification of individual triumph, not unlike the process of sitting down to play a game start to finish. With James Bond in particular, there is also the perversion of the idea in the gore-porn of the Kingsman franchise, something I’ve ranted about before.
Now that I have (as usual) painted a depressing case of 21st century cultural decay, I will go back in time and explain why Roger Moore will forever be the James Bond for Generation-X.
It’s important to remember that by the time Moore took over the role, Connery’s reign had already “used up” Ian Fleming’s best novels. The franchise therefore had to, for the first time, start to decide how to take the character in new directions which were more about the film continuity and not the increasingly outdated 1950s source material. Also, the 1970s were just a different era from the 60s Mad Men style of Connery.
In retrospect I think this is why the Moore Bond films are so uneven and why they tonally shift around. There was a lack of clear vision on where to take the franchise. At times it seemed to want to hold onto its hardboiled roots, and other times it seemed to want to transform itself more and more into kid-friendly slapstick and borderline self-parody. Perhaps the intention was to be all things to all people, but by the tone see-sawing back and forth, it is difficult to really lock into the vibe of its world and stay there long enough to really buy into it. When it was serious for long enough, you’d think “OK, this is serious Bond” and then there’d be some absurd physical stunt that would destroy suspension of disbelief. Some entire films are more serious in tone than others, causing confusion as to what kind of Bond Moore was even supposed to be, vs. what he wound up delivering in his performance.
So if you look at the Moore era in total, despite excellent box-office numbers, one can sense a franchise that was going through somewhat of an identity crisis. No other Bond actor’s films are as inconsistent.
If this is the case, why would I be writing so many words in defense of the Roger Moore era? It should be obvious, shouldn’t it?
It’s my firm belief that the right actor can elevate source material. I also believe that bad casting decisions can make a great story less enjoyable. For instance, I was not really impressed with Ryan Gosling in La La Land because I find the actor to be kind of annoying.
When you have the right actors with the right amount of on-screen charisma, they can make the worst dreck in the world watchable. Johnny Depp, for instance, is really the only reason to watch the Pirates of the Carribean movies. In films like these, the story falls away and it becomes nothing but appreciating the stagecraft of the lead actor. This is the saving grace of the Moore era.
If I were to define Moore’s presence, I’d say it’s a combination of the kind-heartedness of a Tom Hanks and the vulnerable rogue quality of Harrison Ford, and then topped off with the proper polish of an English gentleman.
A surprising fact is that Roger Moore is actually three years OLDER than Sean Connery. At the time that he took over the role, Moore had already played a spy in The Saint, which was no doubt a big reason why he was chosen in the first place. It was Moore’s boyish features and more intact hairline that may have made it seem as though he was younger. Nevertheless, as the 70s progressed, Moore’s Bond came across as decidedly mature.
Being a child in the 70s, I was on a deep quest for male role-models. In the early days, it was Robert Reed in the Brady Bunch, Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man, and Roger Moore as James Bond. Considering that Moore held onto the role for a massive 12 years, when I was the formative ages of 3-15, it’s hard to shake the idea that he owned it, even though he appeared noticeably tired and frail by the time of A View to a Kill. It’s hard to think of other actors who held onto action roles like this for so long other than Ford as Indy or Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.
The main reason Moore’s Bond is endearing is, I think, that despite whatever was in the script, Moore brought a self-deprecating brand of humor and general good-naturedness to the role, which came forth from his own actual personality. I think Moore, at heart, was a comic actor, not an action star, and he was an expert of timing and body-language.
Moore himself confirms the notion that he personally tried to soften the character’s personality, as this interview from 2008 mentions:
While making The Man With the Golden Gun, director Guy Hamilton wanted Bond to be tougher and had him threaten to break Maud Adams’ character’s arm to get information, he writes. “That sort of characterization didn’t sit well with me. … I suggested my Bond would have charmed the information out of her by bedding her first. My Bond was a lover and a giggler, but I went along with Guy.”
As the tone of the Moore Bond films occasionally shifted to hardboiled territory, Moore’s personal aversion to play the role in a cold-hearted manner is something you can subliminally feel. So when he does go through the motions of being a badass, it doesn’t read as true, because Moore is a nice guy and wanted Bond, despite his vices, to be a virtuous hero. It was during those times where you got the sense that Moore is playing Bond rather than being Bond, as if he’s temporarily possessed by an external force. As such, any acts of questionable morality almost get a free pass.
To really get to the zeitgeist of the Moore era, though, you have to look at the most significant recurring component, which were his fights with Jaws.
I am not a Bond expert, so I don’t know the full back-story on why it is the Jaws character kept reappearing, but if I really can’t think of anything else across all of the Bond movies that is as unashamedly FUN as the fights between Jaws and Bond.
On its surface, there’s no reason for a fight between a spy and a hired assassin to be “FUN”. In fact, it seems preposterous, but it’s the way those fights were choreographed and how the two actors played through them that made them so special.
A central conceit of the spy genre is the notion that conflict between one side and the other is strictly business, not personal. How the disconnect between allegiance to a “side” and overall feelings about the antagonists tended to play out is with the occasional romantic affairs Bond would have with evil female agents. One moment they’d be in bed together, and the next moment they’d have to resume the chess-match of spycraft and double-dealing. But that formula had become a cliche by the 70s.
It’s not hard to conceive that when you mix male and female super-agents that they’d wind up in bed together even if, in the end, they’d wind up trying to kill each other. This plays into the trope of the femme fatale.
The innovation was to craft a male equivalent…
The beauty of the acting in these fights is not only do you not sense any personal animosity between the two, over time you almost get the sense they like each other.
This came across in how Moore and Kiel eventually began to “greet” each other. Kiel would smile (revealing his metal teeth) and Moore would respond by smiling and cocking his head to the side. I mean, you could almost see them running together and hugging before starting the obligatory fight, one which audiences had come to expect would never result in the death of either side.
Having to kill each other is just the unfortunate nature of their job, but if they weren’t on opposite sides, maybe they’d head out and grab martinis together. I don’t know if this was their intention, but the dynamic is the same as that between the wolf and the sheepdog in this classic Looney Tunes short:
It was this increasingly slapstick and absurd quality in the Moore era that earned it the most raspberries from Bond purists, but to a youngster with no allegiances to the source material, it was exactly what I wanted. No matter how silly, I loved it. It was THE reason to see a Bond movie. If it didn’t have Jaws, it just wasn’t the same.
The highlight for Jaws was in the movie Bond fans seem to hate the most, Moonraker. This film just happened to come out when I was at the height of my love-affair with Star Wars, and so despite it jumping on the bandwagon, I loved it, especially Jaws eventual moral flip from foe to friend. All the best moments are in this great highlight-reel:
He was a well-loved character and very well-defined. We didn’t have any big dialogue scenes, because he didn’t speak until the last line of the second film. But his reactions and everything else were always perfect.
If there’s the one emerging pattern in my reviews, is that I prefer likeable lead characters who do the right thing. These lighter characters are few and far between these days, and it’s also hard to find people with a similar taste for old-fashioned heroism. The general feeling is that goodness simply isn’t realistic, that even protagonists have to be riddled with vices and neuroses. I guess I prefer characters who we can aspire to become rather than merely reflecting how flawed we are. Bond was never meant to be that kind of hero, but during the Moore era, he became one. I’m just grateful to have grown up at a time when Bond came closest to becoming a white knight, and I’m grateful that we actually went through 2016 without losing Moore like we lost so many other celebrities!