March 29, 2004

Fun with Fleming

In a comment to last night's post, I asked why it was that Ian Fleming dropped Smersh, the Soviet terror operation which employed assassinations and terror against the totalitarian nightmare's enemies, in favor of SPECTRE as James Bond's top adversary. Fleming died in 1964 -- not exactly timed to the end of the Cold War or the fall of the Soviet Union. Today I Nexised Fleming a bit, and came up with some interesting details on Bond (sorry -- I haven't bothered to google these, or see if they're in online archives -- too much trouble for such a fluffy post).

From a London Times article by Anthony LeJeune, published on October 18, 1986, we learn,

Ian Fleming, himself entitled to an Old Etonian tie, knew the reality of secret intelligence, but James Bond, as he said, was an updated version of Bulldog Drummond. Bond's opponents, to begin with, were agents of Smersh, an all too real organization for killing enemies of the Soviet Union: but later, on the rather odd grounds that 'one can't go on teasing the Russians', Fleming changed his villains to Spectre, a fantastical body of worldwide criminals. This suited the film-makers, who eschew political villains unless defunct, like the Nazis, or manically right-wing.

I'd never heard of Bulldog Drummond; he appeared in a series of novels by "Sapper," the pseudonym of Henry Cyril McNeile, who in fact was a Sapper -- an engineer -- in the First World War. Drummond finds the adjustment to civilian life difficult after the Great War, and takes out a newspaper ad seeking adventure. Amazon has a whole bunch of them on offer, although I can't say I was overwhelmed by the sample pages I read. Here, incidentally, is a brief description of McNeile:

Sapper is the pen name of Herman Cyril McNeile, born in 1888 at the Naval Prison in Bodmin, Cornwall, where his father was Governor. He served in the Royal Engineers (popularly known as 'sappers') from 1907-19, being awarded the Military Cross during World War 1.

He started writing in France, adopting a pen name because serving officers were not allowed to write under their own names. When his first stories, about life in the trenches, were published in 1915, they were an enormous success. But it was his first thriller, Bulldog Drummond (1920) that launched him as one of the most popular novelists of his generation. It had several amazingly successful sequels, including The Black Gang, The Third Round and The Final Count. Another great success was Jim Maitland (1923), featuring a footloose English sahib in foreign lands.

Sapper published nearly thirty books in total, and a vast public mourned his death when he died in 1937, at the early age of forty-eight. So popular was his 'Bulldog Drummond' series that his friend, the late Gerard Fairlie, wrote several Bulldog Drummond stories after his death under the same pen name, which had by then become synonymous with fast-paced, intelligent thrillers and complex, vibrant characters.

Of course, the fun thing about going back to the old clips was reading the rather snotty lines about Bond. In a 1992 Guardian article by Adrian Turner, who seems to rather dislike the cinematic 007, the death of Bond is predicted:

After 16 films, plus the dire Casino Royale and Connery's lame comeback in Never Say Never Again, James Bond has no future on the screen. The Bond of the novels survives in Fleming's impeccably written time-warp, a symbol of decadence and a barometer of Britain's political decline in the fifties. As Kingsley Amis wrote in his James Bond Dossier, Fleming 'leaves no heirs'.

I think one could argue that Britain is politically ascendant these days -- boasting the only military that can keep up with the Americans, bridging the Atlantic, stalwart ally in Afghanistan and Iraq (but Turner would probably question that assessment). And I recall, in the days after Sept. 11, a friend wistfully saying it's too bad we can't send Bond after al Qaeda. In any case, the Turner article adds much useful information, including this bit:

The Bond novels are one thing and should be treasured; the movies are quite another. Fleming tried unsuccessfully for years to get his hero on the screen. He knew that was the only way to make real money and went regularly to America, but not to Hollywood, with a bag of optimism and outlines. Casino Royale was bought for $1,000 by CBC in 1954 and turned into a 60-minute drama starring Barry Nelson as (Jimmy) Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre. Fleming then re-sold the rights to Casino Royale for $6,000, and blew it all on a Ford Thunderbird. But none of his grand schemes for a TV series ever came to fruition. He simply converted his screenplay outlines into books - Dr No, Thunderball and the short stories in For Your Eyes Only were all originally scripts.

Fleming seems to have dismissed the idea that a British company might be interested, possibly because Alexander Korda had turned down Live And Let Die in 1955. Perhaps Fleming despaired of the sorts of films the British were making in the late fifties: the realist dramas from the Royal Court Theatre group, the Carry On films and a stream of second world war dramas. At first glance, James Bond didn't fit into this scheme of things at all, except that elements of all these films would eventually form part of the Bond ethos - a working-class hero with a liking for big boobs and bigger puns trounces Hitlerian hoods.

Fleming had all but given up when an approach was made by Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli. Saltzman was linked to the Royal Court Group and had produced the film version of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. Broccoli had produced The Trials Of Oscar Wilde. They became partners and secured a deal with United Artists in London, to finance and distribute the Bond films. Fleming was guaranteed a minimum of pounds 100,000 for the whole deal and the budget of the first film, Dr No, was set at $lm. Saltzman and Broccoli called their new company Eon Productions, and gained valuable publicity when President Kennedy listed From Russia With Love among his 10 favourite books.

I'll be reading From Russia With Love next, incidentally.

One other tidbit -- as Zack of the the excellent Procrastination blog and I both noted, The Spy Who Loved Me was a lame book. Neither of us cared for it. A Guardian obit of Richard Maibaum, who wrote all the scripts for the Bond series until his death in 1991, noted the following:

The author stipulated that the title of his novel The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) could be used, but not the story, which he disliked. Maibaum (with Christopher Wood) therefore elaborated on past plots, but added a worthy female opponent, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), and a seven-foot-two heavy nicknamed 'Jaws'.

And that's enough fun with Fleming for one night.

Posted by Ideofact at March 29, 2004 09:46 PM