For Conservative Movie Lovers: Ian Fleming, Sean Connery, and ‘Goldfinger’ Part 6
A curious aspect of the Bond legend is that Ian Fleming’s socialite wife despised the character. She went so far as to host upper-crust parties at which she and her lettered friends -- literary giants such as Cyril Connolly, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Evelyn Waugh -- cattily disparaged her husband's popular creation as embarrassingly lowbrow, the English equivalent of American pulp fiction (and thus the modern heir to the “Boy’s Weeklies” of Orwell’s famous essay). “Utterly despicable,” was Muggeridge’s quoted verdict in Time magazine soon after Fleming’s death. “[Bond is] obsequious to his superiors, pretentious in his tastes, callous and brutal in his ways, with strong undertones of sadism, and an unspeakable cad in his relations with women, towards whom sexual appetite represents the only approach.”
During the same period, various Leftist writers began penning spy stories of their own in reaction to Fleming’s potent brew of unapologetic clubhouse masculinity (smoking, drinking, gambling, golfing, seducing) and unqualified patriotism, favoring a more, shall we say, morally nuanced look at the Cold War. Author John “The United States of America has gone mad” le Carré, then finding fame with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963 -- good guys die, bad guys win, yay!), considered Fleming’s books “cultural pornography,” and mused that in the real world Bond's “misty, patriotic ideas” would hardly prevent him from betraying his country at the first opportunity. “Because if the money was better,” le Carré snickered with certainty, “the booze freer, and women easier in Moscow, he’d be off like a shot.”
Into this maelstrom of anti-Fleming derision came a little volume called The James Bond Dossier (1965), penned by a more notorious member of the English literati, academic-cum-novelist Kingsley Amis. A savagely witty writer, a world-class drunkard, and a conflicted serial adulterer (all qualities shared, you may recall from our previous installment, with Bond’s creator), the overarching critical statement of his book was simple enough: “Inside that conservative dark-blue worsted suit and under the same skin as a bearer of the hard-earned double-o prefix there lurks an intruder from another age,” a “Byronic hero,” who “is lonely, melancholy, of fine natural physique, which has become in some way ravaged, of similarly fine but ravaged countenance, dark and brooding in expression, of a cold or cynical veneer, above all enigmatic, in possession of a sinister secret.”
James Bond “enigmatic”? Mrs. Fleming and her writer pals, secure in their superiority over Fleming’s simplistic nonsense, found that laughable. To them Bond was predictable and formulaic, about as enigmatic as the flashing neon sign outside of a gambling den or whorehouse. Yet against these prevailing critical winds Amis used The James Bond Dossier to build a countervailing case, one that posits that 007's adventures “were more than simple cloak-and-dagger stories with a bit of fashionable affluence and sex thrown in.”
Guided by a close reading of the novels, Amis notes a number of startling truths about the character. Contrary to so many other fictional detectives, Bond “has no perceptible interest in the arts. . . his library is small. . . his mind is a completely utilitarian organ.” He argues convincingly that “this is an enormous refreshment after the dozens of adventure and thriller (and straight) heroes whom their authors load with learning or arty accomplishment as a reassurance, I suppose, to the more obdurately highbrow reader that he needn’t be ashamed of enjoying the stuff.”
Amis also revels in the way Bond “unreflectingly enjoys what we can no longer feel quite comfortable about” -- drinking, smoking, womanizing, driving fast -- but then astutely mentions the scene in Thunderball where Bond's doctor reports the damage hard living is doing to his body and psyche. Fleming here hints at the ultimate, off-page end for his hero -- a dark fate forged not by prepubescent wish-fulfillment, but by the same sense of dissolution and melancholy that haunted the author's own final years. Such details, each deftly highlighted by Amis, give James Bond true depth.
In answer to feminazi critics decrying the (in one female reviewer’s words) “adolescent inferiority feelings compensated for” by Bond’s caveman misogyny, Amis corrects the record with aplomb. A thorough study of Bond’s varied dalliances leads to the inescapable conclusion that “However much amateur lip-curling toward women in general Bond may go in for, he never uses an individual woman unkindly, never hits one, seldom so much as raises his voice. (Rosa Klebb and Irma Blunt are admissible exceptions). . . Bond’s habitual attitude to a girl is protective, not dominant or combative. . . Women take to him because he likes them and knows how to be kind to them.” And then, Amis' wickedly sly coup de grace: “Critical horror at Bond’s sexual victories, I feel, can have its own element of ‘compensation’.”
I've always found Judi Dench’s weirdly passive-aggressive, ball-busting, feminist-fantasy M of the recent Pierce Brosnan/Daniel Craig movies a nauseating false-note of a character (and one echoed by Joan Allen’s equally implausible attempt at grizzled gravitas in the Bourne films). But it wasn't until reading Amis' forty-five year old book that I figured out why. He points out that the M of the books is an old-school, world-weary, bridgeclub-and-cigar father-figure, one who engenders, in Fleming’s words, “a great deal of [Bond's] affection and all of his loyalty and obedience,” and is happily “loved and obeyed” by our hero throughout the series.
M's masculinity, you see, is a crucial element to the series: a valuable link between the cold and cynical modern world and the old, towering, Kipling-esque England of war and empire, a place of great civilizational confidence. “What (if anything) holds [Bond’s] elementary moral system together,” writes Amis, “is belief in England, or at any rate a series of ideas about her.” It’s remarkable to see a writer who built his name on withering sarcasm praise Bond's bedrock patriotism as "more sympathetic than the anguished cynicism and the torpid cynicism respectively of Messrs le Carré and [Len] Deighton.”
Amis realized early on that “Politically, Bond’s England is substantially right of center,” a world (Amis takes the quote from Dr. No) “of tennis courts and lily ponds and kings and queens. . . .”:
The England for which Bond is prepared to die, like the reasons why he’s prepared to die for it, is largely taken for granted. This differentiates it, to its advantage, from the England of most Englishman of Bond’s age group. Negative virtues are even more important in escapist than in enlightening literature, and not the least of the blessings enjoyed by Mr. Fleming’s reader is his absolute confidence that whatever any given new Bond may contain, it will not contain bitter protests or biting satire or even witty commentary about the state of the nation. We can get all that at home.
All of this met with the approval of our literary tour-guide -- after an early flirtation with Communism, Amis had grown ever more disenchanted with the Left. He began to hate the overweening stupidity of the "permanent revolution," cloaked as it was in faux intellectualism by zealots “who think student freedom is impaired when a college applies its statutes; who buy unexamined the abortion-divorce-homosexuality-censorship-racialism-marijuana package.” Or to put it another way: it was one thing for conservative women to occasionally frustrate the lecherous Amis by politely rejecting his advances, and quite another for an entire phalanx of glowering feminists to shriek "All sex is rape!" while spouting pithy inanities about fish and bicycles. By 1967, he was disgusted enough to publicly state “I think a half an hour with a convinced lefty is enough to make even the most progressive person wonder a bit whether Conservatism might not have a little more to offer.”
Shocked at his apostasy, the Left condemned much of Amis’ later work as misogynistic, racist, imperialist, homophobic -- all their usual show-trial charges. Amis remained unbowed, supporting Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s while continuing to detest the loony fellow traveling of many of his friends. I particularly like how he challenged his late-in-life pal Christopher Hitchens on the younger writer’s asinine idolization of Lenin (a toxic infatuation which continues to this very day -- the next time Hitchens grandstands about arresting the Pope and putting him on trial, everyone should keep in mind exactly whose century-old tactics the writer is emulating).
Amis died in 1995, his end hastened by a lifetime of prodigious drinking. Between benders he had managed to write three well-regarded, affectionate books on boozing, even as alcoholism slowly killed him. Oh well -- some people overeat and keel over from heart attacks, others choose hooch. There's worse ways to live and worse ways to die, as both Fleming and Bond well knew.
During one high point of The James Bond Dossier, the agnostic Amis laments the number of critics, both liberal and conservative, who accuse the Bond books of a “total lack of any ethical frame of reference,” and who see the character and his exploits as “both anti-human and anti-Christian.” To the contrary, he retorts:
I should have thought that a fairly orthodox moral system, vague perhaps but none the less recognizable through accumulation, pervades all Bond’s adventures. Some things are regarded as good: loyalty, fortitude, a sense of responsibility, a readiness to regard one’s safety, even one’s life, as less important than the major interests of one’s organization and one’s country. Other things are regarded as bad: tyranny, readiness to inflict pain on the weak or helpless, the unscrupulous pursuit of money and power. These distinctions aren’t excitingly novel, but they are important, and as humanist/Christian as the average reader would want.
Amen. This goes for the films, Goldfinger chief among them, as well as for the novels. Perhaps Fleming’s imaginary, pulp-fiction England -- colorfully decorated as it is with outrageous villains, enormous breasts, bracing drinks, good smokes, and all the rest of it -- isn’t quite the elegant “precious stone set in the silver sea” of Shakespeare’s fancy. But in a fallen, “progressive” world veering ever closer to the stuff of Orwell, we’ll take it.
James Bond -- that magnificent battler of Communism and preserver of the old order -- remains a blessed salve to conservatives, an antidote to the anti-Western fulminations of so many lauded writers of the modern era. Amis ends his wonderful book on an unembarrassed, heartfelt note, the sneering Malcolm Muggeridges of the world be damned:
Most of the above had already been written when Ian Fleming died. I hope I’ve sufficiently conveyed my admiration for what I think he did best. When a few Easters have gone by without a new Bond adventure, regret at the passing of his creator may well help to bring about an assessment of his proper place in literature. This, as I see it, is with those demi-giants of an earlier day: Jules Verne, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle. Ian Fleming has set his stamp on the story of action and intrigue, bringing to it a sense of our time, a power and a flair that will win him readers when all the protests about his supposed deficiencies have been forgotten. He leaves no heirs.
Ian Fleming’s spy fiction was pulp. Bond is pulp. And yet I agree with Amis: beneath all of the “Sex, Snobbery and Sadism” of a book (or a movie) like Goldfinger lies more honest humanity, morality, and existential truth than has been mustered up by most of the “nuanced” and “complex” novelists of our time over their entire award-winningly wretched careers.
This concludes our look at Ian Fleming’s rousing James Bond adventure Goldfinger starring Sean Connery. Come back next week for the beginning of an all-new For Conservative Movie Lovers series, only at Big Hollywood.
Previous posts in the series “Ian Fleming, Sean Connery, and Goldfinger”
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
FURTHER READING and VIEWING
Goldfinger is available in a special edition chock-full of extras both on Blu-ray and on regular DVD. You can also rent the flick from Netflix, of course. If you’ve seen it before, revisit the film armed with everything you’ve learned in this series. If you were deprived as a child and this is your first time seeing it, you’re in for a real treat. From the moment Connery sends his Miami hotel masseuse on her way with a stereophonic smack on the behind, you’ll know this isn’t the Bond pre-approved by the gelded metrosexuals who run modern-day Hollywood.
In an interview long after Goldfinger's release, the actress Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore) fondly remembered that, “[producer Harry Saltzman] used to say that women came out of a Bond film dreaming of Bond, and men came out walking tall.” Check out this forty-five-year-old film, with its hero trapped in the amber of the culture of your parents and grandparents, and see if it still possesses the power to inspire those feelings in modern viewers.
The James Bond Dossier by Kingsley Amis. Amis wrote another Bond overview called The Book of Bond, or Every Man His Own 007 (1965) along with the first Bond pastiche, Colonel Sun (1967). But it is his first foray into the field that remains closest to my own heart. The various ways he skewers the tired, politically correct arguments of the “better Red than dead” critics of the Bond series are priceless.
Ultimately, the book does for Fleming’s hero much of what the great bookman Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933) once did for that classic detective -- it makes him deeper, more complex, more real, and thus more satisfying a fictional creation. Great fun all around, and most enlightening.
And for those who missed it, check out an old article from Big Hollywood’s Russ Dvonch, wherein he dissects the script of Goldfinger and used it to demonstrate how to structure and write a good movie screenplay. Interesting stuff.