Wednesday, November 19, 2008

James Bond: Now More Than Ever (Conclusion)

...continued from Part One | Part Two...

So Who Is This Bond Fellow, Anyway?

If Bond has no place in the world of real espionage, and if the details of his life, his adventures, and even his face may be changed and changed again at the storyteller's discretion, then where does he belong? Once again, we're back to the challenge of trying to identify the one true Bond with only mood, tone, and character to work with, so let's consider the things about him that never change from one tale to the next.

Bond in a warrior. He never serves mere political expedience or convenience. If any government actually had a man like Bond on the payroll they'd be unable to resist the temptation to have him knock off a bothersome reporter or two every now and then, but Bond never does that. Instead, he fights only clearly identifiable villains who are at least his equals, if not more powerful. More to the point, he fights only enemies that can be defeated. In Bond's world there are no insoluble problems or lingering diplomatic ambiguities.

Bond has a code of honor. He may have a license to kill, but he does so only reluctantly and takes no pleasure in doing it. He will try the disabling knee or shoulder shot rather than the killing shot if he can. (Except when battling his way through mobs of minions and henchmen, but who cares about peasants?) He never kills innocent victims, never accidentally kills the wrong person, and will let a mass-murderer escape to kill again rather than put women or children in the line of fire. In Bond's world there is no collateral damage.

Bond is a gentleman. He is a master of every form of hand-to-hand combat known to man, but his signature weapon (which has its own name, by the way) is a small-caliber pistol, or as Sir Alec Guinness might say, "A weapon with a more civilized edge." Bond always meets his adversaries face-to-face and challenges them to single combat: he never strikes first from hiding or without warning, and he would never call in an airstrike to level a crowded restaurant just to get the one evil man hiding in the basement. Bond's adventures frequently end with götterdämmerung final battles, true, but it's always left to a Felix Leiter or a Tiger Tanaka to do the scut-work of marshaling the faceless but loyal peasant infantry; Bond himself answers to a higher calling. In Bond's world there are no drunken and unreliable CIA mercenaries.

Finally, Bond is a romantic. As he travels on his journey, beautiful women are constantly throwing themselves at his feet, and while he may have dalliances — in some stories, lots of dalliances — there is always one true love waiting for him at the end of the tale. Admittedly the earlier stories of his adventures were often quite bawdy, but that was more a reflection of then-current social mores and the bawdiness has been toned down considerably in recent years. In Bond's world there are no sexually transmitted diseases or pregnant ex-girlfriends.

With all the evidence that has been presented, then, the answer finally begins to become clear. Who is James Bond? He's no noir anti-hero, no undercover operative, and no brilliant intelligence analyst. He's no government assassin, no cold-blooded killer, and certainly no spy.

What he is, in truth, is a paladin. He's a modern knight-errant who roams the world, righting wrongs, fighting evil, and protecting the weak. He's a fantasy hero, and the place he truly belongs is in the Land of Make-Believe and Once Upon a Time, standing shoulder to shoulder with Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, Sir Lancelot, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, and Roland and all his cavaliers, defending the borders of the peaceable kingdom from the never-resting forces of darkness that roam out there in the wild lands.

(P.S. And those of you who are still bothered by Bond's bawdiness should go back and read some of the early chansons de geste, Orlando Furioso, or for that matter an unexpurgated version of the Canterbury Tales. The early aubades and tagelieder in particular are just full of tales of heroic and noble knights who nonetheless are a rather randy lot and never pass up the chance for a good roll in the hay with an unhappily married noblewoman. The idea that medieval heroes were somehow pure and chaste is mostly the work of eighteenth-century bluenose Thomas Bowdler and his imitators, and not an accurate reflection of the actual songs and tales of the Middle Ages.)

Does Bond Have a Place in the Modern World?

Finally, we come back to the question we began with: does Commander James Bond, C.M.G., R.N.V.R., have a useful place in the twenty-first century? The answer is yes, but not for the most comforting of reasons.

The truth of the matter is that real deep-cover human intelligence work is a very disturbing, unpleasant, and ugly business. The truth is that in the world of espionage, "truth" itself is a very rare commodity, constantly attended by a bodyguard of lies and veiled by a smokescreen of ambiguities. The truth is that assassinations and executions — those intelligence operations that are euphemistically termed "wet work" in the jargon of the trade — are utterly stomach turning in their hideousness and frequently result in much blood, screaming, and injury to innocent bystanders.

The irony — some might say, the hypocrisy — of western civilization is that we need those modern paladins who walk the wild forests at the edge of the known world, slaying dragons and goblins so that the petit bourgeoisie might sleep soundly in their beds. But the truth of the matter is that a clear look at the actions of those same paladins will give most people the screaming heebie-jeebies.

And so we need Commander James Bond, Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

Or put it this way: If you want a sickeningly realistic and unblinking look at the world of real wet work, go watch actor Daniel Craig portray Mossad assassin "Alan" in the movie, Munich (2005). But if you want a comforting heroic fantasy, go watch actor Daniel Craig portray James Bond in the movie, Casino Royale.

Personally, I know which one I would rather go to sleep thinking about.