most recent and possibly best of all James Bond films, Casino Royale, starring the most recent and possibly best James Bond, Daniel Craig, has among its many charms a notable torture scene—notable for the sheer pain it inspires in viewers (at least male ones) and notable for being funny at the same time. It’s the funniest torture scene I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of a scene in The Punisher. The Punisher’s torture scene differed, however, in that no real torture took place. The torturer created the illusion of torture and the audience laughed because the victim fell for it. (Trust me, you need to see it to understand it. It’s not quite worth seeing the movie just for the torture scene, but if you’re curious enough you’ll be entertained.)
The Bond torture scene, on the other hand, is real torture. James Bond is stripped naked, bound to a bottomless chair with heavy ropes, and whacked hard and repeatedly you know where with a very large rope with a very large, greasy, hard knot tied at the end of it.
My God, it hurts me just thinking about it.
You need to understand that this isn’t just gratuitous violence on the part of the filmmakers. With the exception of Bond’s humor between his screams of agony—humor that’s welcome relief in a very intense scene—director Martin Campbell remained quite faithful to Fleming’s novel.
At this point it’s tempting to say, “Ok then, Ian Fleming is just guilty of gratuitous violence.”
He may be, and probably often is, but not at this point. James Bond taking it in the cojones for Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the very first Bond novel is not only a significant trope for the Bond series of novels, but the defining trope for the entire James Bond series.
Fleming’s James Bond series is about the recovery of British masculinity in the Cold War era. In fact, the series is not just about the recovery of Cold War–era British masculinity, it is in itself an attempt at this recovery.
Casino Royale was my first Bond novel and I only suspected this theme when I first read it. But You Only Live Twice, the last Bond novel published while Fleming was still alive, not only confirmed my suspicions but spelled them out for me. In You Only Live Twice James Bond is sent to Japan to establish contact and rapport with the Japanese secret service to gain information useful to the British. Bond’s counterpart, Tiger Tanaka, at one point takes the time to tell James Bond just what he thinks of the British and why:
“Bondo-san, I will now be blunt with you, and you will not be offended, because we are friends. Yes? Now it is a sad fact that I, and many of us in positions of authority in Japan, have formed an unsatisfactory opinion about the British people since the war. You have not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands. All right,” he held up a hand, “we will not go deeply into the reasons for this policy, but when you apparently sought to arrest this slide into impotence at Suez, you succeeded only in stage-managing one of the most pitiful bungles in the history of the world, if not the worst. Further, your governments have shown themselves successively incapable of ruling and have handed over effective control of the country to trade unions, who appear to be dedicated to the principle of doing less and less work for more money. This feather-bedding, this shirking of an honest day’s work, is sapping at ever-increasing speed the moral fibre of the British, a quality the world once so much admired. In its place we now see a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers-after-pleasure—gambling at the pools and bingo, whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family and of your so-called aristocracy in the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world.”
Bond’s reply and defense of his own country is equally telling:
“England may have been bled pretty thin by a couple of World Wars, our Welfare State politics may have made us expect too much for free, and the liberation of our Colonies may have gone too fast, but we still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports and win Nobel Prizes.”1
In these short paragraphs we see masculinity and its loss defined, and masculinity redefined again. From Tiger Tanaka’s description:
The British lost their empire—whack!
In fact, the British seemed anxious to lose their empire—whack!
The British bungled the Suez Canal2—whack!
British workers are lazy—whack!
The British people are aimless pleasure-seekers—whack!
The Royal Family has been reduced to gossip-column fodder—whack!
Significantly, Bond doesn’t argue with any of these points, agrees explicitly with one, and, in fact, adds two of his own:
Yep, we lost the colonies too quickly—whack!
The British took a beating in World War II—whack!
(Read between the lines: Bond is acknowledging Tanaka’s belief that the British had to be bailed out by the Americans and the Russians in WWII. In You Only Live Twice, the Americans are on the good side of the Japanese Secret Service, having won a measure of Japanese respect by beating them in the war.)
England is a welfare state—whack!
The implicit definition of masculinity in politics accepted by both Bond and Tanaka in this dialogue includes the maintenance and control of an extensive empire, working-class adherence to the Victorian values of hard work and self-sufficiency, a Royal Family treated with deference and respect (rather than serving as a form of middle-class gossip-column entertainment), and success in international conflict—the ability to achieve political goals militarily when diplomacy fails.
There’s much to be said about this, especially how much of it reflects upon contemporary America. What I want to point out here is that James Bond himself exemplifies masculinity by this definition. When he can’t win with his wits and cunning he wins with his fists and gun. You might think Bond is an aimless pleasure-seeker but—and we see this in Casino Royale as well—Bond defers every pleasure when necessary for service to the Crown. Craig’s Bond seduces the wife of a terrorist financier, but only to get information, and when circumstances arise that require him to leave immediately, he leaves immediately. He does not abandon the responsibilities of his job for the sake of comfort or pleasure.
Bond’s response to Tanaka, his defense of the British, articulates the new, Cold War–era British masculinity: “We still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports and win Nobel Prizes.” The new British masculinity is not the masculinity of a polis with worldwide influence, but the masculinity of individual achievement, the masculinity of mountain climbing and sports and Nobel Prizes.
James Bond is Fleming’s paradigmatic individual achiever, exemplar of the new masculinity, the new man among men.
But in both the novel and the film, Bond ultimately works for a woman. In the novels and early films Bond works for the Queen—it is Her Majesty’s secret service, and in all Bond films since Goldeneye he works for a female M played by Judi Dench. I initially hoped Campbell would bring back Sean Connery to play M, but now I see the wisdom of keeping Judi Dench. In Fleming’s world, there’s no societal or political point of identity between a man and his masculinity, so he must seek it only in himself and his own individual achievement. James Bond is Fleming’s embodiment of individual achievement, larger than life, especially post–World War II British political life.
1. Fleming, Ian. You Only Live Twice. New York: MJF Books, 1992. 103-105.