It’s hard not to get whisked away in the hurricane that blows across every form of media whenever a new James Bond film is released, particularly for those of us who admit to being from the apparently “Great” British Isles. That said, with a worldwide box-office gross of just over one billion US dollars, it would seem that there are quite a few countries throughout quite a few continents where people have felt compelled to see Skyfall.
The far-reaching, ineluctable nature of Ian Fleming’s hero has coaxed the world into watching Bond once again and has seen a plethora of opinion about the latest instalment, directed by Sam Mendes, spilled all over the internet. Indeed, it has been revealed that the 2013 Oscars, in which the film has five nominations, shall include something of a celebration of James Bond’s fifty-year contribution to cinema; such is the level of importance attached to the character, the stories and the films.
All of this sounds impressive, undoubtedly, but it is the view of James Bond from abroad that I really want to discuss. Surely there must be a more clinical explanation than the British charm of this all-action nationalistic cliché?
In fact, I too made up one fraction of the millions in foreign lands across the vast seas, oceans and channels (I was in France) who were attracted by the tectonic pull of the most exportable of all British characters. Here is an account of my trip to see Skyfall, from the perspective of a foreigner watching a foreign film in a foreign country, relatively speaking.
From Paris, Without Love
Experiencing Bond on the big screen in France – specifically, Paris – is like an old coin: an unpolished experience, but with two sides nonetheless. After that dreadful analogy, I’ll start with the negatives.
Being able to book your tickets, but unable to reserve specific seats is the well-organised-but-late-to-everything person’s nightmare, and this is exactly the system in Parisian cinemas, and exactly the type of person I claim to be. As my brother and I sauntered into the grand Gaumont lobby at Montparnasse and handed our tickets to the usher who was keen to check our age identification, two things crossed my mind.
First, cinemas in France are rather strict and employ a surprising level of vigilance, given that it’s easier to buy a beer than to watch a mildly violent film. Secondly, I thought about how pointless it is coming to the cinema with somebody else with this system in place, given that if you leave it too late in arriving, you will end up sitting either so far back that you might as well be outside sipping on a continental lager bought by an underage drinker, or alternatively, you’ll be separated from one another, which would somewhat ruin the idea of going together in the first place. In reality, you’re likely to be both separated and a considerable distance from the screen. Parfait.
As we entered screen number four, it appeared more a battle ground than a venue for public entertainment, with people pushing past, shouldering you out of the way so that they could secure seats for them and their companions. It was every man for himself or every group, at least. A strange, animalistic atmosphere had descended upon the huge, dimly-lit salon. We waded through the aggressive Frenchmen who were all willing to risk their lives for a seat. I yearned for a license to kill. At the back, after a number of rejections from seat-savers, we found two together. We sat, and realised that despite being approximately five miles from the screen, this was the best we would get. Next time, we’d come earlier and queue, as only the British do best.
With that in mind, and the inevitable pre-movie bladder weakness playing havoc with my sanity, I became a little irritated by all of the French voices around me. A most uncharacteristic sense of imperialism had instilled itself in throat, as I felt outraged that I, a British man, was forced to sit at the back of a film that was essentially my country’s finest export in the visual arts, simply because the French were rubbish at organising their cinemas correctly. Something along the lines of “bloody useless bureaucratic bastards” was on the tip of my tongue, but I refrained, conscious that this was not the time for nonsensical quips that were tantamount to an offensive generalisation of the population surrounding me.
I could barely hear the adverts attempting to brain-wash and sell even more poorly seated cinematic experiences to me. They had seen my driving license before the film for identification reasons, so they knew my nationality. Hailing from the same land as the great James Bond whose legacy perpetually fills these rooms of eager film-fans, I felt that I should have been given priority seating – a tragic reflection of my sense of self-importance, particularly at an internationally celebrated film event. I wouldn’t even claim, either, that this was due to some sort of deep-rooted British superiority complex. It’s a fairly human reaction to try and use any benefit at your disposal to improve your position, be it cinema seating or otherwise. Embarrassed, I kept quiet and awaited the beginning.
As the film started, some French chaps behind began giggling like school girls and scrabbling around for their popcorn as if it had been announced that all snacks must be consumed within the first ten minutes of the spectacle. With the finest French attitude and accent I could muster, I said something condescending under my breath, and continued being the passive Brit I had been a mere fifteen minutes before, when the idea of going to see the new James Bond film had seemed pleasant, if not exciting.
At this juncture, I should just clarify that I am in love with France and its language. There’s not a higher level of praise I can give this country other than to say I wish to spend a lot of time here, as I have already. So despite all of this French-bashing, please take it with a heavy pinch of salt and a consideration that my tongue is firmly placed in cheek.
That brings me nicely to the positive aspects of being in France to watch the great spy in his anti-sweat suits as he traverses train tops with the strength of the Hulk and the skill of the artful dodger, and indeed to the crux of this piece: the question of how Bond is viewed overseas and why the films are so popular elsewhere.
Bond’s Foreign Appeal
The French, as highlighted by the aforementioned bumbling buffoons behind, don’t buy into the whole “British is best” bullshit and it is an entirely refreshing realisation. James Bond is one of ours, no doubt, but even the most wide-eyed, gentle-natured, patriotic British dreamer must see the ridicule that is pointed at them like an MI6 standard-issue pistol every time they delve into the world of 007.
Of course, there is a clear distinction between the Bond who appears on the screen and the one who sleeks coldly through the pages of Ian Fleming’s original works. For now, I will concentrate on Bond for the cinema.
Foreigners have a real attachment to James Bond, but it’s a different feeling to the one we have for the character and the films. In the UK, Bond is partly the undying symbol of military superiority we wish we still had, and the polite imperialism that still exists to some extent in modern attitudes. He is British strength and intelligence, mixed with a loveable, yet chauvinistic charm that we turn a blind eye to, despite the growing emphasis on political correctness. James Bond is British humour, and bridges an indefinite gap between all eras in which he has been contemporary. Bond is therefore a timeless British idea as well as a timeless fictitious character.
Outside of the UK, there is not a character from the same mould. Bond is a unique slice of British pride, and somehow, this has become exportable all over the world. He’s a slice of history, and a reflection of modern British views all in one, which is as captivating for foreign audiences looking in as it is for us, as we celebrate this extension of British representation on top of the 2012 Olympics, the Royal Family and the Pound Sterling. For foreign viewers, Bond is a humorous depiction of what is British and indeed of British foreign policy. In the UK, we take it a little more seriously because he is ours, and he always will be.
Fortunately, we all appreciate the great, if sometimes ridiculous entertainment that the numerous adaptations of Fleming’s character and his stories have given us over the last fifty years.