Bond and Bourne: The Role of the Individual within the Conservative Influence of Spy Films
By Jacob Mertens, Honorable Mention in the 2010 Frank Capra Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Film Criticism.
There was a moment in my life when movies became an obsession. When I was much younger, I watched films with a casual interest. I felt the same indiscriminate, escapist rush from plunging through the thick overgrowth of my backyard. As I grew older, I began to engage with films not just as entertainment but also as an art form, as a catalyst of ideas and change, and as a reflection of how others see the world. I also quickly learned that no matter how hard I tried to devour every film created, the catalogue of past films is an inexhaustible reserve. While I prided myself on seeing a substantial number of films, there was always some egregious oversight I was being reminded of.
When Casino Royale (2006) was released, signaling the introduction of a new Bond in Daniel Craig, several film magazines jumped at the opportunity to take stock of the series. There were largely pointless ruminations of “Who Was the Best Bond?” or “What Was the Best Bond Film?” Entertainment Weekly, for instance, published an article two weeks after Casino Royale’s premiere, trying to rank the film with the other twenty Bond incarnations (it placed fifth, right after Thunderball, 1965). This was when I realized that up until Casino Royale, I had never seen a James Bond film from start to finish.
I take the time to mention all this for two reasons. First of all, the idea of film being something more than entertainment is integral to the claim I’ll be making in my article. Film should be viewed as art, should be viewed as a reflection of societal subtext, and should be held as a responsible agent of ideology. Secondly, it is important to note that before I ever watched Dr. No (1962), I already knew what a Bond film was.
In Tony Bennet and Jane Woollacott’s book Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero, they note that the Bond films were instantly successful (unlike the Ian Fleming Novels they were based on). Dr. No earned “in excess of 22 million” from “a production budget of $950000,” and each sequel seemed to garner a greater return than the last (30). The ensuing popularity of the Bond phenomenon became incredibly pervasive, with the films “function[ing] as either an explicit or implied point of reference for the rival spy-thrillers which flooded the bookstalls, the cinema and the television screens” (36). In fact, the influence of Bond is so extensive that I knew the set conventions by heart before ever hearing Sean Connery deliver his iconic “Bond, James Bond” for the first time in the film franchise. I knew of the initial meeting with M where the mission would be detailed, I knew that Bond would find his girl to subdue, and I knew that there would be a self-aggrandizing speech by the villain near the third act of the film. This ubiquitous quality is important, because when we consider how indoctrinated we are in the ritual of Bond, we rarely acknowledge that the films have an unconscious agenda.
In addition to their impact on narrative in the spy genre, it is my assertion that there is a conservative ideology that the films reinforce. Within the context of the Cold War, Bond becomes “an exemplary representative of the virtues of Western capitalism triumphing over the evils of Eastern communism” (Bennet 16). Dr. No, in particular, premiered in the same month as the Cuban Missile Crisis and “it is quite possible that . . . the very real danger of nuclear war between Superpowers, created the sort of atmosphere in which a film about the ‘toppling’ of American space rockets acquired a sudden topicality” (Chapman 88). It can be no surprise that Bond would be shaped as a mythic figure of Western propaganda amidst the height of Cold War tensions, not to mention as a way to assert British dominance in the waning days of its once vast empire.
My interest in this article is to examine the role of the individual within the conservative spy infrastructure, taking note of the inherent contradictions of Bond’s pride as a rogue personality. However, I am interested in more than just the initial moments of the Bond series. Nearly forty years after Bond had become a ritualized presence in cinema, The Bourne Identity (2002) premiered, eventually tackling a worldwide gross of roughly 214 million dollars (Box Office Mojo). More importantly, it signaled a focus on the individual by placing his identity in crisis, and by forcing a conflict between Bourne and the spy infrastructure of Treadstone. As Matt Damon stated in an interview, “What [the director] and I always talked about was that the action is always developing the character” (Birth). This attitude reflects a shift in spy films in the motivation of action and spectacle. Specifically, where Bond is driven by his mission, Bourne is driven by a need know who he is.
By examining a call and response relationship between the two franchise opening films of Bond (Dr. No) and Bourne (The Bourne Identity), I will attempt to highlight a link between the two titular characters. I will reveal the individual spy as an appendage of the state in Dr. No, and I will show the consequences of that control in the tragic amnesia figure of The Bourne Identity. My focus will be on the following:
- The “gun prop” as an important symbol of individuality and masculinity.
- The use of editing to either enhance clarity or to obscure understanding.
- The motif of serialization to establish a dynamic between the spy as an individual and the spy as part of a mass collective.
By viewing these themes and how each film addresses them, I will show the beginnings of a divergence in the genre’s conservative leanings, a continuing evolution of how we see ourselves and how we portray ourselves to the rest of the world.
The Gun Prop or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Walther PPK
There is a scene near the beginning of Dr. No that institutes the quintessential debriefing with M, the British Intelligence go-between for the will of the state and the instrumental force of 007. An important detail arises in the scene that has no impact on plot at all, and in fact seems to stick out obtrusively upon closer consideration. Specifically, M strips Bond of his older weapon, the Beretta, and issues him the more efficient Walther PPK. The interest of the incident lies in Bond’s protest:
M: Any comments, 007?
Bond: I disagree, sir. I’ve used the Beretta for ten years. I’ve never missed with it yet.
M: Maybe not, but it jammed on your last job. You spent six months in the hospital in consequence. If you carry a double-0 number, it means you’re licensed to kill, not get killed . . . You’ll carry the Walther—unless of course you’d prefer to go back to standard intelligence duties.
As Jeremy Black writes, “Bond was not a free spirit or an independent force. Instead, he was a British agent” (3). The Beretta, as inefficient as it may be, is a symbol of Bond’s independent identity, pointedly curtailed before the first fifteen minutes of the film. In fact, the action seems to have no significant narrative purpose other than to remold Bond in the image of the organization that controls him.
I would also like to point out that there is a key phrase, “license to kill,” that is introduced in this short conversation for the first time in the series. This concept becomes an important aspect of Bond’s mythology. His ability to kill on demand is a way to assert his control and his masculinity over adverse circumstances, most notably in Dr. No as he foils an assassination attempt from the duplicitous Professor Dent. How appropriate then, that MI6 would dictate and define the terms of that control. How appropriate that when M takes the Berretta from Bond and derisively notes “this damn Beretta again,” the filmmakers frame him in a medium close up with the gun held at the bottom of the frame. M’s body seems to loom over it, emasculating the symbolic prop and asserting the will of the state.
I say all this knowing that portraying Bond as a pawn of the government may seem counterintuitive. After all, Bond swaggers through the film effortlessly. In fact, in Dr. No he somehow manages to win a fistfight without ever losing his fedora. And then, of course, there are the innumerable female conquests (I count three in Dr. No alone), as well as a degree of improvisation in how he completes his missions. Greg Foster, a philosophical writer, picks up on this pattern, writing:
He does take certain liberties in the execution of his orders that make his superiors cringe, particularly when he’s offered an opportunity to indulge his hormones. But on the whole, he fundamentally does what he’s told. M sends Bond to bring down Goldfinger; he brings him down. M sends Bond to break SPECTRE’s diamond smuggling ring; he breaks it. Whatever friction may occur between Bond and his superiors (“Now 007, do please try and return some of this equipment in pristine order”), there is never a moment’s doubt that Bond is an appendage of the liberal political system and that his actions, lechery excluded, are its actions. (126)
I suggest that all the reprehensible and rampant philandering that Bond goes through is little more than a superficial attempt at establishing his own image of self, independent from Britain. In the end, he is only able to sustain his autonomous identity in ways that are seen as inconsequential to the interests of his mission and of his role as the figurehead of Western thought.
I move from Bond to the opening moments of The Bourne Identity. From the very first frame of the film we are given a clear and succinct image of the ruination of the ideological spy. The shot is underneath water, gazing toward the surface. It is night, there is a storm gathering above, and through brief flashes of lightning we can make out the silhouette of a body floating near the left of the frame. In comparison, Dr. No tantalizes the audience by holding off on introducing Bond. First we see Connery’s hands dealing cards, then we move in on a close up of his hands taking out a cigarette, finally we move to a medium close up of the man himself.
With Bourne, we must also wait for our introduction, but instead of building expectations we are left with the impression of a ghost brought back from the brink of death. As Allan Hepburn writes, “If identity is housed in the body, and if that body shirks its identity by going undercover or by disappearing into darkness, the body is also required as a political effect . . . There is no political identity without a body, just as, conversely, there is no body without a political identity” (10). We lose sight of Bourne’s body through the darkness of the water, or even through the bright flashes of lightning. He may as well be part of the roiling water, his entire being ready to evaporate. The image is an easy metaphor for an agent who has lost his sense of self, whose memories have eroded. Bourne is the symbolic consequence of the state’s instrumentation and gradual debasement of the individual.
Bearing this contrast in mind, there is a peculiar distance between Bourne and the gun prop throughout the film. As Bourne progresses through the movie, trying to regain his memories, he specifically goes out of his way to disassociate himself with the gun. In a park in Zurich, Bourne is confronted by two policemen (for loitering of all things). His muscle memory kicks in as he avoids arrest by pummeling the two unsuspecting officers, his hands instinctively going for one of their guns. He stares down at the gun, at the unconscious policemen, and becomes terrified that within his shrouded identity lies a man who could act without thought. The gun is an image of that sentiment, the uncritical pursuit of the state’s will, and being so Bourne goes through the trouble of dismantling it. This action has one clear purpose, the defiance of the state’s imprint on Bourne, an imprint so indomitable that it resides within his reflexes.
This initial action establishes a continuing pattern throughout the film. When Bourne goes to empty out his deposit box, which up until now was his only means of recovering his identity, he clears out the sundry passports and obscene amounts of currency without pause. However, he intentionally leaves the gun, unwittingly cementing himself into conflict with the body of government the gun represents. To Treadstone, Bourne’s actions are seen as erratic and signify a threat that must be dealt with swiftly (Epps 104). There is even an exchange of dialogue that explicitly links the gun to a panicked, flinching reaction to have Bourne killed:
Zorn: I mean he’s got to assume we’re watching the bank right?
Conklin: I don’t know.
Zorn: I mean he cleaned out the box, left the gun. What does that mean?
Conklin: I said I don’t know! I liked it better when I thought he was dead.
Furthermore, when Bourne is repeatedly forced to use a gun to protect himself, he immediately discards it once there is no longer an urgent need for its use. By trying to refuse the possession of a gun, Bourne attempts to expunge his identity as a killer and as a man controlled by unseen forces.
The Use of Editing: Clarity, Confusion, or Headache Inducing Shaky Cam
The filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin was quoted as saying “editing is the creative force of filmic reality” (Pepperman 5). When viewing The Bourne Identity next to Dr. No, there is a clear separation of editing style that seems only logical given the forty-year gap between films. However, I would like to move beyond the more practical assertions of the rapid editing of modern day action film. My intention is to examine how each film’s style lends to the voice of Western ideology, as seen through the threat presented in the car chase sequence. With Dr. No, that voice is clear and succinct, with each cut lasting long enough for the viewer to gain full meaning and appreciation of Bond’s actions. With The Bourne Identity on the other hand, the voice is fractured and distorted, as the editing takes on a chaotic and almost impressionistic approach. What we see in transition from Bond to Bourne is a loss of definitive knowledge. While Bond represents unquestioning belief, Bourne is the embodiment of confusion, doubt, and dissent.
I would like to move past the formalities of catching up on Dr. No’s plot, and move straight into the car chase. The important knowledge to bring in is to know that Bond is facing both the threat of the driver, who we learn is not who he says he is, as well as the threat of the unknown man who follows them. While the complication of two completely unaffiliated bodies of opposition may seem overwhelming, Bond remains eerily calm. The editing first establishes Bond and the driver in the car with a medium shot, and then moves through a logical chain of events. Throughout the sequence, we are given a clear and decisive path of understanding:
- With the first shot, we see Bond driving with the suspicious man and take note of Bond’s precautionary glances.
- In the second shot we are given a sense of trajectory, of movement. This patch of road will become the landscape for the ensuing chase.
- In the third shot we see the speedometer, as Bond notes that the driver has sped up.
- Finally, in the fourth shot we see the reason for the man’s haste. A second car appears behind them, and the car chase begins in earnest.
Throughout the chase, the editing continues with this stringent sense of continuity. We see Bond’s car propel down the Jamaica coastline, followed by a shot of the unknown car barreling in full pursuit. We see an over the shoulder shot where Bond glances behind, followed by a point of view shot of the unknown car gaining steadily. The chase itself only lasts for a brief minute and twenty-six seconds and resolves without fanfare. It is comprised of seventeen cuts, which average to roughly five seconds per shot, more than enough time to grasp the meaning of each encompassing moment of the chase.
What I would argue is that the clarity established through editing is representative of the clarity of Bond’s ideological will. Jeremy Black offers a similar observation in his book The Politics of James Bond, writing, “the films offered a moral universe in which reliance on Bond representing a reasonable order was total and did not need to be stated” (98). To put the statement another way, I would say that Bond’s world or “universe” is not one of ambivalence. The film takes place in Jamaica, one of the last vestiges of the declining British Empire, a country that would gain its independence shortly before the release of Dr. No (Chapman 78). However, the reality of Britain’s imperial “impotence” is negated by the virile spy figure. Britain’s supremacy is reinvigorated through a myth of certainty, and by extension so is that of the Western world.
With The Bourne Identity, we enter a frenetic world of distrust and disorder. In a sense, this is the logical reflection of the spy film. The conventions of the spy genre dictate an experience or fear of betrayal brought to the fore by the danger of “double or even triple agents, moles and the like, so that it often becomes difficult to trust anyone” (Donaldson-Evans 97). By its very nature, the spy film establishes an environment where the threat to the protagonist is not always evident. However, the lucidity of the mission acts as a guiding force.
I would like to consider this idea within the context of the Cold War, where communism itself became an unknowable threat. Recall back to alleged communist subversive screenwriters in Hollywood and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg hiding in the suburbs and Gary Cooper saying that he doesn’t know what communism is but he knows it’s not on the level (Farnsworth). The thread that ties all this unknown paranoiac danger into something manageable is a sentiment of patriotism, an absolute set of ideals that lends definition to a “cloud of uncertainty.” This thread, this jingoistic defense mechanism, this is what Joseph McCarthy exploits as he proselytizes on television sets in static black and white, and this is the underlying purpose of M’s briefings. They establish an unknown, vague threat to the West, and secure Bond’s certainty in his mission.
Of course, in The Bourne Identity there is no briefing and no real mission. Instead, the plot is moved forward by Bourne’s need to know who he is and even that motivation soon dissipates. As Bourne begins to learn the truth of his former existence, that he was an assassin, he abandons his need for truth. And yet, the film continues to coerce Bourne into confrontation, constructing a need for the rogue spy to defend himself. Without the steadying force of a thread of ideology, the turmoil lurking underneath the spy film is exposed in its own sprawling expressive beauty. The chase scene in particular is a staggering example of this, running exactly four minutes long and comprising of a monolithic one hundred and sixty-two cuts.
For those doing the math, it comes out to roughly one and half seconds for every shot, and that is just an average. There are numerous shots that last for a fraction of a second, there are disorientating spatial leaps through the streets of Paris, and there are singular actions that are broken into several edits. This last stylistic flourish is reminiscent of the montage style of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and Pudovkin, all directors of the Russian film movement that relied more on an emotive response than a need to uphold spatial and temporal linearity. The task of tackling the scene as a whole would take an entire article in itself, so instead I will highlight a few key moments of discord stressed through editing:
- The shot selection is constantly changing perspectives and challenging how we view the action. We move from the street, to inside Bourne’s car looking out, to outside Bourne’s car looking in, and finally to POV shots through the windshields of squad cars and civilians cars alike. There is often no fixed axis to orientate the viewer.
- Initially, two police cars are pursuing Bourne. However, the film edits from their chase to a shot of two motorcycle policemen joining the fray. These shots are combined without offering any method to know where the motorcyclists stand spatially in the chase. More importantly, they mirror the duality of threat seen in the Bond chase. However, instead of the calm repose offered through Dr. No’s editing, here the chase simply spirals chaotically.
- Finally, we see the action of a motorcyclist crashing into a civilian vehicle, broken into three separate edits. By fragmenting the single event, the collision gains a quality of dissonance. This tendency of jarring discord seeks to startle the viewer, illustrating the films preference for emotional response over a unity of the progression of events.
The use of editing in either film functions as a way to guide the viewer through the events of the narrative. If we can clearly see what Bond is thinking and what threatens him, we will know that he cannot be harmed. A screenwriting teacher of mine once referenced Bond in a class, stating that that the viewer knows that Bond will always survive the near death scenario you write for him. The way to engage the viewer is to have them wonder how he will survive. With Bourne, the perceived invulnerability of the spy is dismantled through fast cuts and blurred motion. In fact, you would be astonished how many shots edited together in The Bourne Identity are completely out of focus. This formal quality strengthens the intentions of the film to allow the character to be vulnerable, to be defined by vague uncertainty. Jason Bourne, after all, is a man who acts as a spy without the benefit of motive or the security of a central ideology. It is only logical that the editing would reflect the ineffable mindset of a man forced to act on instinct, endangered by those he cannot challenge directly.
007 or 000-7-17-12-0-14-26: Who Needs a Name When You Have a Number?
There is an inherent paradox within the tenets of capitalist philosophy; namely, that the role of the individual is glorified and yet in practice must be subjugated to the authority of the government. How strange then, that, while the Bond films seem poised to reinforce the conservative principles of the West (male gender roles, idealized mass wealth and consumption, obedience and nationalistic vigor of the individual), there is a subtextual acknowledgement of the imposition of the state. I refer to the motif of serialization, or the process by which the genre reduces spies to a categorical number. Let us return again to the exchange of dialogue as M briefs Bond in Dr. No, where his number “007” is mentioned twice. In the first line, it is mentioned casually, “Any comments, 007?” However, after Bond disagrees, the number is more explicitly referenced, as M states, “If you carry a double-0 number, it means you’re licensed to kill, not get killed.” From this reiteration, the viewer can infer that the use of the number is a subversive way for the government to deconstruct the individual into a mere instrument. In fact, it may not even be all that subversive. M may be emphasizing Bond’s number in order to explicitly remind him of his subordinate role.
Of course, there is the possibility that this loss of individual freedom is romanticized in the film. When discussing the briefing, Bennet and Woollacott write:
It is, moreover, important that on such occasions Bond is addressed in his official capacity, by his number, as it is this alone which inscribes him in the position of a subject bound by the requirements of duty, relinquishing the burden of individual responsibility in being called to the service of his country. (105)
The words “burden of individual responsibility” bear great weight. They imply that Bond seeks a way to shirk his troublesome individuality in favor of serving a “greater good.” I steal the well-worn phrase because it highlights a focus on the myth of the spy and of conservative advocacy in general: that the individual’s goals and desires pale in comparison to those of an entire nation. The sentiment hinges on a feeling of inferiority, the deep-seated fear that we are alone in this vast universe and that our lives are insignificant. The state offers to mythologize our existence through Bond, as we live vicariously through his actions, as we witness him becoming more than a man but part of the will of an entire nation. All that is required in exchange is personal freedom.
With Bourne, the serialization takes on a similar meaning. However, the number Bourne associates with is not a code number foisted on him by Treadstone. Instead, it refers to a bank account in Zurich, Switzerland. When Bourne is found near dead in the Mediterranean Sea, the surgeon who saves his life finds this number via a microchip embedded under his skin. Through this detail, we see a more specific shift from the spy as a contrivance of the state, to the spy as a symbolic embodiment of ideology. Hepburn writes that Bourne “is literally written into capitalist ideology as a code for an account . . . His bank account, subcutaneous and ciphered, confirms his identity when he cannot do so otherwise because of memory loss” (6-7). While this is true, the serialization also functions to illustrate Bourne’s former self as a distilled being. Bourne has succeeded where Bond has only tried. Through his amnesia, Bourne’s ghost has truly become a myth. His body acts without being told and his identity has been stripped away, leaving only the remnant ideology of the Western world. However, we must remember the significance of the name “Bourne,” and note that the mythic spy figure is in fact reborn and resurrected in the opening moments of the film.
It is on this note that I offer my conclusion for the article. These two films represent a forty-year metamorphosis of the spy genre, forty years where we see the use of the gun, of editing, and of serialization offering insight into the role of the individual within the state’s machinations. In regard to Bond, we have what appears on the surface to be a strong willed individual, one that takes pride in his name and his conquests and his taste in alcoholic beverages. However, beneath that he is a veritable voice box for the West. In fact, it has been noted in nearly every article discussing Bond’s mass appeal that he seems to transcend the “Britishness” of his character to represent “not just Britain . . . but the West in general, just as the villain’s conspiracy is usually directed against the West as a whole” (Bennet 99). So falls the sanctified individual, absorbed by those in power and absorbed by a set of ideals.
Nearly forty years later, Bourne emerges as James Bond’s spiritual descendent, as a phoenix revival from the murky waters of the Mediterranean. With The Bourne Identity, we finally start to see a divergence in the conservative leanings of the spy film. Without the context of the Cold War, and with the outright distrust of the government in modern times, Bourne stands in as a cathartic presence of righteous anger. He stands in conflict with the very infrastructure that robbed him of his being and reduced him to a number. Through this confrontation, the individual in the spy film is granted recompense.
Jacob Mertens is an undergraduate Film Studies major at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He has previously been published in Film Matters and Atlantis, and has spoken at the Instrumental English: Interdisciplinary Approaches to English Studies Graduate Literature Conference. He will soon be presenting a paper examining the avant-garde filmmaker Michael Snow at the Visions Film Festival and Conference in April. After graduating he plans to get his Master’s degree in screenwriting.
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