Last year’s James Bond blockbuster, No Time to Die, is permeated by a sense of closure. For one thing, the ironically titled movie brings closure to Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the famous fictional spy. By having Bond finally forgive his double-agent former lover Vesper Lynd for her betrayal in the 2006 Bond film, Casino Royale, No Time to Die brings closure to the character’s story arc that began 15 years ago. But it also reverses the misogynistic conclusion of Ian Fleming’s very first Bond book – with its infamous final line (“The bitch is dead now”), and 007’s commitment to never letting any woman take advantage of him again.
There is another type of closure reverberating throughout the movie. Although No Time to Die is the first Bond picture of the Brexit era, its visual, musical and thematic winks to the past serve as a reminder of this franchise’s historical ties to a cosmopolitan – and therefore also European – idea of Britain.
The Bond movies have often been not only blatantly imperialist and chauvinistic, but deeply nostalgic and aspirational in their attempt to create a world in which Britain remains a central piece on the global chessboard. This was encapsulated by the poised, righteous and unshakeable agent single-handedly saving the day against impossible odds.
And yet, even such an Anglo-centric bastion of patriotic pride has a rich history with the rest of the continent. For six decades the films that brought us this quintessentially British character found their place at the core of European popular culture, joyfully integrating the UK’s national identity into continental dynamics: Bond’s soft power was perhaps one of Britain’s greatest cultural influences on the rest of Europe – and Europe, in turn, provided the perfect backdrop to his exploits.
Serving Her Majesty (not so secretly)
The first handful of Bond adaptations (starring Sean Connery and George Lazenby) were made before the UK formally joined what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). But the celebrated British film critic Kim Newman noted in a 1986 article in Monthly Film Bulletin (not available online) how those early entries were aimed at an international market from the outset. They cast stars from French, German and Italian popular cinema to play seductresses and/or villains taking up much of the screen time.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was shot in Switzerland (ski chases!) and on Portuguese beaches, to name just two locations. It gave viewers in and outside the UK the chance to vicariously visit different European landscapes, promoting holiday destinations at a time when the expansion of commercial air travel was ushering in a touristic boom.
The series became a massive success both at home and across the English Channel. In France alone, Dr No grossed almost five times its original cost and Goldfinger sold over 6 million tickets. In West Germany, Bond movies were so popular that their distributor re-released older entries along with each new production.
In turn, the 007 series inspired a flood of imitations and variations. Richard Rhys Davies’ The International Film Guide identifies almost 300 spy films produced in France, Italy, Spain and West Germany just between 1964 and 1968. Most of these so-called “Eurospy” films were co-productions involving companies and crews from multiple countries, shot on location across the continent and widely distributed (sometimes even across the Iron Curtain).
The proliferation of the Bond archetype in western European cinema and its role in shaping a set of references recognisable across the continent (a pan-European imagination) was like a lowbrow counterpart to the efforts – admittedly more deliberate and sophisticated – by formal EEC institutions such as the European Commission and the European parliament to foster a common European identity.
And, while in the early decades of European integration – set against a backdrop of the cold war – these efforts tended to focus on the shared political and social values of western European democracies, it was a cultural identity that acted as a bridge to transcend ideological borders and appeal to those European countries on the eastern side of the cold war divide.
Britain was a central player not only in those early efforts, but also in the push to bring central and later eastern European countries into the EU fold as the Soviet bloc crumbled. Popular culture and “high politics” were never far apart – but culture could reach more freely across the boundaries that constrained political and institutional efforts.
From Europe with Love?
Just as Bond contributed to an anglicising of European culture, so Eurospies also participated in a sort of Europeanisation of British culture. Film historian Adrian Smith has reconstructed the largely forgotten circuit of distributors and cinema chains that used to routinely supply the UK with continental knock-offs of 007 – and not just in the big cities, but provincial cinemas as well.
European vistas and bodies were regularly presented as targets of desire, associating the rest of the continent with exciting adventure and luxury, as seen, for example, in the scenic sequences in Paris, Barcelona and Athens from 1965’s Agent 077: Mission Bloody Mary.
Given James Bond’s historical role as a link between the UK and continental Europe, it seems appropriate that, in No Time to Die, we first find him back in Italy, a country that Daniel Craig has visited in every one of his instalments except for Skyfall, his mind on past and current lovers (both played by French actresses). Cultural entanglement is stronger even than top-level diplomacy.
But if 007 has achieved closure by making peace with his past, the aftershocks of Brexit suggest that it will still take Britain a while to accommodate to its new, post-EU reality. If, as traditionally promised by the end of the film’s credits, “James Bond will return”, it remains uncertain what form the character will take in the future. It’s an uncertainty that uncannily mirrors the UK’s relationship with Europe – and its search for a role in today’s world.