Bond an enduring classic
007 films remain popular with all ages, genders

By Ryan Robbins
Special to the NEWS

It has been 35 years since Sean Connery flipped open a gun-metal lighter, lit a cigarette dangling from his lips and introduced himself: "Bond, James Bond."

Four actors and 17 films later, James Bond is the most successful film series of all time. More than 2 billion people have seen a Bond film at the theater, not including the Soviet Union, where Bond was banned during the Cold War, and China. "Tomorrow Never Dies," the series' 18th and latest installment, has grossed well over $100 million in six weeks of release and more than $200 million internationally, making it one of the most successful Bond films yet.

Why is James Bond so popular after all these years?

Perhaps because Bond represents the ultimate escape from a world that takes itself too seriously sometimes.

"James Bond is the author's pillow fantasy," Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, told a reporter in 1963. "It's very much like the Walter Mitty syndrome -- the feverish dream of the author of what he might have been: bang, bang, bang, kiss, kiss, kiss, that sort of stuff. It's what you'd expect of an adolescent mind, which I happen to possess."

We can thank Fleming's adolescent mind and premarital jitters for bringing us 007. Longing to write the ultimate spy thriller, Fleming, a former British Naval officer, began writing off his premarital jitters on Jan. 15, 1952, when he began his first Bond book, "Casino Royale." He borrowed his hero's name from that of an ornithologist who wrote the book "Exotic Birds of the West Indies."

"(I thought) my God, that's the dullest name I've ever heard, so I appropriated it," Fleming said. "Now the dullest name in the world has become an exciting one."

Indeed, after Life magazine reported that one of President John F. Kennedy's favorite novels was "From Russia, With Love," Fleming became America's best-selling thriller writer.

Movie producers Harry Saltzman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, however, brought Bond to the world when they brought 007 to the big screen in 1962's "Dr. No."

"Dr. No" introduced moviegoers to a world they had never seen before: quick pacing, exotic locales, minimally clad girls, villains with outrageous plots to control the world and a hero every man would die to become and every woman would die to spend a night with. Bond wasn't your typical hero. He could be as bad as the villain if need be, shooting unarmed men.

When I told a female friend of mine recently that I'm a Bond fan, I expected her to roll her eyes and tell me Bond is stupid. Instead, her eyes brightened, she raised her thumbs and said, "James Bond is the best!"

Such is the appeal of Her Majesty's most prized secret agent.

My friend told me her father, a big Bond fan, took her to see "GoldenEye" for her first cinematic Bond experience two years ago.

Like my friend's father, my father introduced me to Bond. He took me to see "A View to a Kill." I was 13 and didn't know what to think of a mad villain who laughed in the face of adversity and dropped one-liners here and there, nor did I know what to think of a secret agent who drove through Paris in a car that had been cut in half like it was ordinary fare.

I soon realized half the fun is trying to watch the Bond films with a straight face. With double entendres and characters with names such as Pussy Galore, Holly Goodhead and Xenia Onatopp, the films and novels possess an adolescent boyish charm that prompt teen-age boys to giggle and adults to chuckle.

Although the films have changed over the years to include more shoot 'em up action, you'll rarely see copious amounts of blood that other action movies promise. You also won't hear Bond or his enemies mutter the "f"-word. Try as they might, Bond's imitators just can't match 007's classiness and sophistication, which are themselves part of the joke.

When the lights go down and the Bond theme plays as white dots slide across the screen to open revealing the inside of a gun barrel, you know you're in for another exciting adventure.

James Bond will of course save the day in the signature pre-title sequence, and escape just in time. The question is how will he do it this time, and what glib remark will he offer in doing so?

This commentary originally appeared in the Feb. 3, 1998, edition of the Bangor Daily News.
1998 Ryan R. Robbins.