The James Bond Movies of the 1980s (Book Review)

THE JAMES BOND MOVIES OF THE 1980s by Thomas A. Christie
2013, Crescent Moon Publishing, 341 pages. 

How pleasing to see the emergence of a scholarly tome that is devoted to a decade in 007’s cinematic history typically overlooked by many a critic and many a fan. Perhaps this lack of recognition is understandable - after all, it was a decade when Bond's cultural and box-office lustre was strongly contested by the ascension of blue-collar cinematic heroes. And after 1989's LICENCE TO KILL, Bond disappeared from our screens for six and a half years, admittedly due to protracted legal wrangling. But this absence nevertheless left the unflattering impression that the creative output in the 1980s (particularly the late 1980s) had been wanting.

In fact, the decade was a very solid one creatively - and it was a most interesting decade in terms of how the Bond creative team responded to - and grappled with - a diverse range of cultural developments. As author Thomas A. Christie skilfully explicates, the form of the Eighties Bond films was influenced by a variety of factors: artistically, there was the filmmakers’ conscientious move away from the more ostentatious 1970s Bond template, whilst preserving a focus on the popularised “action set piece”; geopolitically, there was - amongst other developments - a deepening of Cold War tensions (which steered the Bond creative team toward approaching Cold War themes from a more complex, multi-layered perspective); and in literary fields, Ian Fleming’s novels were being afforded increased critical esteem and were now noted for their analytical worth from a historical perspective. Thus the Bondian action spectacles and fantasies of the Eighties were imbued with a more ominous, Fleming-esque atmosphere of danger and distrust.

And this 10-year, 5-film output from Eon Productions was provided by a regular creative team of director John Glen, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, and the writing team of Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson (George MacDonald Fraser proved the only “interloper”, contributing to the screenplay of 1983’s OCTOPUSSY). Interestingly, this team of regulars presided over what appeared one of the most dramatic handovers in the series’ history; that is, when Timothy Dalton took over the 007 role from Roger Moore. (The handover was not quite as jarring as popularly thought, given there were some subtle developments in Moore’s characterisation that, in many respects, provided an entry point for Dalton’s more funereal spy).

Through his comprehensive analysis, Christie charts how the Bond film canon developed and evolved during the 1980s, with the Bond character, for instance, moving from Cold War hero to rogue agent. The analysis is unpacked through nine accessibly short yet dense and well-researched chapters: Cold War Geopolitics; Anglo-Soviet Relations; Anglo-American Relationships; Villains; Women; Audience Reception; 007's Influence on 1980s Popular Culture; 007's place in 1980s Film Culture; and a chapter devoted to the rival Bond film of the Eighties, 1983's NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. Each chapter can be read as an independent piece or as part of a whole. Complementing this work is a scene-by-scene analysis of what is arguably the high-water mark of Eighties Bond, 1987's THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS. 

That the Eon-Bond creative team of the 1980s was made up of the aforementioned group of regulars has sometimes led to the quick summation that a certain “workmanlike” ethos had prevailed during the decade. But Christie’s research and analytical skill reinforces the level of ambition and sense of devotion that the said team provided to the Bond series, as well as reveals the often-rich layers to be found within the films themselves.

Christie’s text also provides a range of incidental pleasures. I enjoyed, for instance, his overview of the contributions from the films’ music composers, particularly as Christie recognises how John Barry, who scored three of the Eighties Eon Bond films, actually embraced some of the more atypical moments in those films, giving said moments a sprinkle of escapist élan. Christie similarly acknowledges an irony or two to be found in the decade; for instance, that LICENCE TO KILL, in veering so far away from the Cold War or fantastical scenarios that audiences had become accustomed, actually provided a context conducive to seeing Bond operate in a manner more reflective of Fleming’s ruthless and oftentimes melancholic blueprint. Ditto the majority of the Eighties Bond films who, for all their Cold War tensions, displayed an "engagement with issues antithetical to Soviet communism, including free-market capitalism, the global arms trade, and the supremacy of corporate interests." Welcome, therefore, to Max Zorin, Franz Sanchez, Brad Whitaker, etc. and the "New World Order" - an order that, by the end of the decade, had essentially superseded the East-West frictions that opened it.

To summarise, then, this is a most involving piece of scholarship, superbly written and carefully considered, and providing due recognition toward a solid and engaging - yet under recognised - series of films. Furthermore, the text elucidates how said films engaged with the zeitgeist of the time. All in all, it provides a most welcome historical overview of James Bond Cinema in the 1980s, and it serves as a reminder that escapist cinema can be as nourishing as it is enjoyably junky.

The website of author Thomas A. Christie - http://www.tomchristiebooks.co.uk/

Published 1 March 2015

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