Defining the Genre Through the Character of Bond

The James Bond films are a subgenre of the larger genre of spy films, a genre from which it largely differs.  The spy genre is characterized by the ideals of the classical period of Hollywood.  Spy films feature a protagonist, who represents good and who exhibits the values associated with it—the character is brave, god-fearing, and sworn to protect Western culture from outside forces.   Source: viewimages.comThe spy is the defender of, and thus a believer in, the things Western society places importance on, particularly social institutions, democratic government, and the family.   The spy is always pitted against an evil character seeking to destroy one or all of these things, and it is up to the spy to stop him.  To do so, the spy must act like an archetypical hero, using his superior courage, cleverness, wit, and skill to prevail.   Good triumphs over evil, and government and society are preserved.  However, the James Bond subgenre is better described as Post-Classical, both in terms of chronology and substance.

The James Bond films stand apart from other spy films with their recurring use of specific unique elements.   Source: from all genres follow a formula to some extent—Schatz describes that genres develop a formula because it “gradually impresses itself on a culture until it becomes familiar… through repeated exposure to individual genre films we come to recognize certain types of characters, locales, and events” (Schatz, 16).  However, even compared to other genres, the Bond films seem to follow a very specific set of guidelines, which have proven to be successful.  One critic is quoted as saying that “we already know the Bond formula—it has already earned our goodwill—so our pleasure revolves form seeing how the film-makers execute their turn” (Chapman, 19).   The Bond formula is very particular and comprehensive, and follows the general tenets of a classical spy film.  Like a classical spy film, the stories center on a spy saving the world (particularly the western world) from a diabolical villain.  Bond films also always include other elements, such as gadgets and technology and exotic locations. However, where the Bond franchise largely differs from a classical spy film is with the character of Bond himself. 

The character of Bond is in many ways divergent from the classical portrayal of a spy hero. The character of Bond is unique, and Bond is what largely makes the Bond franchise so different from other spy films.  Chapman argues that “the Bond series is a genre (or at the very least a sub-genre) in its own right.  The Bond series is differentiated from other action movies through the character of James Bond himself” (Chapman, 22).  Bond is like no other spy who came before him, both in method and motivation.  Bond is a character with many vices, including drinking, smoking, and gambling.  In fact, when the character of Bond is introduced for the first time in the film Dr. No (1962), he is doing all three:

At Bond’s very moment of introduction, he is displaying traits that would not be found in a classical hero.   In addition, in the clip Bond flirts with the woman across the table from him, shining a light on what might be Bond’s biggest character flaw—he is a womanizer. 

While an archetypical hero might possess some of these vices, they would ultimately confront them and overcome them; however, Bond not only processes these flaws, but he embraces them, flouts them, and is even known for them.  The audience and the other characters all know Bond’s choice of drink (martini, shaken not stirred) and favorite means of gambling (baccarat) because in Bond’s case, these things are not seen as vices, but as sophistication. 

Bond is wearing a pressed white tuxedo, complete with Carnation, moments after destroying a drug-processing facility in Goldfinger (1964), demonstrating Bond’s impossible level of sophistication and class.
In the character of Bond, negative traits that would have before been ascribed to villains before are now seen as positive characteristics  In fact, they are now desirable characteristics—Bond’s sense of refinement and class spreads into everything he does, from his knowledge of exotic food to his manner of dress, and this refinement is something that the audience is supposed to want to take part in. 

Bond’s refinement also serves as a counterpoint for the violence that is inherent in the character and his job. While Bond might seem very sophisticated and enlightened with his high-class taste and appreciation for the finer things, he is also capable of violence and brutality. Part of what separates the traditional hero from the villain is the reluctance of the hero to hurt or kill when it is not necessary. However, Bond has no such qualms. For instance, in the film Dr. No, Bond shoots a character in cold blood:

Bond knows the villain is out of ammunition but he shoots him anyway—twice—and he performs this cruel deed without acting as if it affected him at all.  It is an action that is the opposite of what the audience traditionally expects from a hero.  Bond seems to have a shockingly callous and desensitized attitude toward death.  In fact, Bond seems to be indifferent towards life in general, trying to savor life with vices such as alcohol, gambling, and women, while simultaneously risking it by exposing himself to danger at every turn. Source: Bond is a character who is famous for his taste and for knowing what he wants from life, but he also simultaneously possesses a disregard for that life. Bond is a character who is famous for his taste and for knowing what he wants from life, but also simultaneously seems to possess a disregard for that life.  This contradiction makes Bond a more complex character than an archetypical spy who is completely valiant and noble in his makeup.

What could be considered Bond’s biggest flaw, and perhaps the area where he diverges most from the classical portrayal of a spy hero, is his womanizing.   Bond is not a character who seeks a family or a stable relationship; rather, his aim seems to be to sleep with as many women as he can.  Every Bond film features at least 2-3 different women for Bond to sleep with (with the exception of the film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), in which Bond gets married—this proves to be the film that is the lone exception to the rule).  However, like his other vices, Bond’s promiscuity is framed in a positive light because women in Bond films find Bond irresistible. 

Bond is portrayed as a character who is seemingly irresistible to women. He is not taking advantage of them—they are throwing themselves at him. (Promotional illustration for You Only Live Twice (1967))
Typically, Bond encounters three types of women—evil women (often temptresses themselves) who Bond is able to take advantage of or turn because of his charm, capable intelligent women who are Bond’s equals but whose reserve is ultimately worn away by Bond’s appeal, and innocent women who cannot help but be overwhelmed by Bond.  In the case of the first two, Bond’s lust for women becomes an asset, giving him an advantage over enemies and making him superior to those who would otherwise be his equal.  In the case of the latter, Bond’s behavior is surprisingly still portrayed positively.  Classically, Bond’s manner toward an innocent girl would be considered corruptive. However, Bond does not corrupt women—they succumb to his charm. Bond is the antithesis of the monogamous hero who values his family and fights to protect them.  Yet, as with Bond’s other vices, his womanizing is transformed into something desirable.   Source: CartoonStock.comBond’s irresistibility toward women is something that men are supposed to want to emulate, and something that women are supposed to gravitate to.  In Bond, womanizing, a trait that typically ruins and destroys a character is transformed into an appealing and heroic attribute—an essential element of the spy that is James Bond, without which he would be unable to save the world.

James Bond is not a hero, but an anti-hero.  Traits that would be considered unforgivable flaws in a traditional hero inform Bond’s character and provide his strength and successes.  Bond is able to take negative attributes and demythologize them.  Chapman quotes GoldenEye (1995) director Martin Campbell as saying “there is no other romantic anti-hero in existence at the moment,” (Chapman, 22) and whether or not that is true, Bond’s sophistication and class surely played a large part in the romanticization of the anti-hero.  The character of Bond demythologizes the hero ideal, but the Bond series does ultimately remythologize Bond as a hero, and the ideal of the spy story in general.  Good still defeats evil and society is still preserved; only the characteristics that audiences look for in their spy hero have changed.

< Back References