2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge (Book 4) Licence To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films

Bond. James Bond.  Even those iconic words came as a sort of accident in the franchise as a means to properly introduce the cinematic Sean Connery version of James Bond to the world, as he playfully engages with the overlooked Bond girl Sylvia Trench.  These are the types of things you learn when you read way to many texts about James Bond, some completely academic, using Lacanian psychoanalysis and high level political theory to consider the image of Bond, while always pulling back to understand that he is entirely a creation of the late Ian Fleming.  I will admit that I do not mind this approach in the slightest, but on repeat, as it has been pretty much all summer can get a bit daunting and a fresh alternative is always welcome.  Thankfully, James Chapman's A Cultural History of the James Bond Films provides the perfect way to approach the fifty plus year franchise, while also considering the ways in which it has influenced film studies, political landscapes and the general manner with which moviegoers see the action film.  Furthermore, where works often lack in an ambition to paint in the most minute of details the initial encounters in the filmic inception of one of the world's highest grossing franchises, Chapman picks out ever possible piece of key evidence, without it ever appearing nauseating or excessive.  It is also in this very commitment to exactitude that Chapman's narrative becomes important, precisely because other "dossiers" on the evolution of James Bon have come out under the very watchful and critical eyes of EON productions, whose narrative reflects one that tries its best to vilify all participants whose involvement was either stifled financially, or in the case of poor George Lazenby completely removed as a result of backdoor politics.  Indeed, as great a documentary as Everything or Nothing proves to be, it is great to see the larger story of the James Bond film franchise depicted, acknowledging that famous names like Bruccoli and Saltzman carry an iconography about them, while also remembering that since making the films were very much a business, sometimes financial strong arming happened, allowing for Chapman to make some absolutely astute suggestions between the quality of work in certain films and the pros and cons of the respective production experiences of each.

Another benefit of Chapman's particular reading is that despite it affording an occasional critical and theoretical reading of the films, it does not fall into the trap of kowtowing to the contemporary works in the genre, as a means to draw in young, non-Bond fanatics into the mix.  As the title suggests, it is a history of the film franchise and as such most of the text does center on the first decade of films, which Chapman makes expressly career proved integral, if not outright necessary, to the success of more recent works like the backwards looking Casino Royale.  The section that Chapman provides for the great Sean Connery could almost double as a mini-biography for the actor, in its detailed accounts of his discovery, implementation and eventually cementing as the image of James Bond.  This is particularly key to discussing the James Bond films because Connery over the recent years has come to disdain talking on the subject of Bond, partially due to his eventual falling out with the producers and his own retirement from acting.  In fact, if it were not for the laboriously researched audio commentaries on the recent release of James Bond blurays, I would be willing to call Chapman's writing on Connery the most detailed available.  Of course, as a clear fan of the films, Chapman also has opinions about the works that cloud how he considers their importance and presence, yet, where other others would be overly embracing of bad movies or dismissively flippant towards decent works, Chapman tempers his opinions with grounded arguments and factual evidence.  Indeed, he comes down quite hard on You Only Live Twice, which has become wildly dated and highly offensive by contemporary standards of race and gender identity.  Similarly, he is an advocate of On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Moonarker (my personal favorite in the series) despite their being dismissed by fans.  For the first, he explains how shifting attitudes in cinematic narrative and a push for a darker film, based entirely off of Fleming's book no less, resulted in the poor success of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Lazenby was indeed fine in the role.  As for Moonraker, he embraces the excess and absurdity of the film, noting that it fell in line with the style of Bond films of the era, while also drawing attention to the larger implausibility of an old-school Bond existing in the increasingly globalized and post-colonized world.

Best Film Discovery of the Book:  While I had seen the entire series by the time I encountered this book, I do agree with Chapman on his defense of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which has become vilified by many for what they see as a complete misstep in the franchise's image and style.  Chapman argues the opposite and instead suggests that it was an attempt to make Bond more adult and realistic, which occurs to much success in the contemporary films.  If anything Lazenby's Bond was well ahead of its time.  If I cannot sell you on it, I would suggest reading it in Chapman's words.


  1. Very eloquent review! I'm intrigued by the fact that the book focuses a lot on the early movies because of how integral they are to the franchise as a whole. I wonder if contemporary audiences realize how crucial those early films are?!

    1. It is a great question and one that divides many scholars and fans of Bond. Some purist would suggest that all must be considered to understand the filmic Bond on a large scale, while others would say that it is contingent upon era and audience tastes. Mind you, many people forget that the franchise is now fifty years old, affording it a generational gap unique to the franchise film. Having seen all 23 films nearly back-to-back for a research project, I can say that not all of the early films are crucial, particularly a few of the more socially reprehensible Connery works, but awareness of say Dr. No and Goldfinger are certainly beneficial.