Over Thanksgiving weekend during his long sojourn back home in the country, The Courtier finally managed to see “Skyfall”, the latest offering from the James Bond franchise. There are many good things about this film, which other reviewers have discussed in their posts and which I will not attempt to repeat here. However I want to draw the reader’s attention to one aspect of why the film is so good, and it has to do with the classic plot device of the man on the run, who decides to make a last stand.
It is hard to believe that 5o years have now passed since Mr. Bond first sauntered onto the big screen in “Dr. No” back in 1962. Since that time there have been a number of terrific films (“From Russia with Love” being my favorite), some simply enjoyable, and some real turkeys in the franchise. Increasingly the relative merit of the film as a piece of cinema seems to have little or nothing to do with its box office. This tells us something about how the world has changed since the days of Sean Connery and Cubby Broccoli.
For example, I saw the last Pierce Brosnan outing as Bond, “Die Another Day”, with a good friend from England. He had flown over from London to visit here in Washington for a long weekend, and was looking forward to seeing the movie. He had not only read all of the original Ian Fleming novels, but was a definite Bond aficionado, interested in places and things associated with both Fleming and his famous creation.
When we left the theatre after seeing the film, neither of us could say much, at first. I was appalled by many things. The weird face-transplant aspect of the story confused me no end, for example. Or there was the rather obvious and ham-fisted double entendres in almost every scene involving the various Bond girls, rather than being carefully sprinkled here and there for a laugh to break the tension, like in a good detective film.
Then my friend broke the silence and said, “I think that’s one of the most awful Bond films I’ve ever seen,” and it made me realize I was not just being precious about it. Yet despite the painfully apparent awfulness of the film, it was financially the most successful of all of the Brosnan turns as Bond, raking in well over $400 million at the box office. So why is this case? Do people no longer care for good stories?
Increasingly we have seen that films which use a great deal of special effects to the point of not even really attempting to suspend our disbelief make huge profits for the studios. There is a hunger for these types of films internationally, because dialogue and plot matter less than big explosions or throwing human beings, albeit virtually, into some sort of grist mill. It is much easier to sell an action film to a non-English-speaking audience than it is to sell one in which acting and dialogue matter more than seeing people running about shooting things.
This is not to disparage these types of adventures at all, of course, for we enjoy these neo-mythological stories as much as our ancestors did the original versions, seated around a campfire or a hearth hearing tales of people like Achilles or Gilgamesh. Yet there is a sameness to many of them now, which I find rather tiresome. For example, the thematic villain at present seems largely to come from the nihilist tradition, to the point where it is overdone. I could not help but feel, for example, that Javier Bardem – whom I do not care for as an actor anyway – was trying to channel his inner Heath Ledger in “Skyfall”.
Yet despite certain faults what “Skyfall” does do very well is to give a rather unexpectedly splendid nod to the origins of this particular type of film genre, which go back to earlier novelists like John Buchan and G.K. Chesterton, writing about the good man on the run. When the film heads to Scotland, and we get a lot of the Bond back story for the first time on film, the director is taking a risk, as my youngest brother (a filmmaker himself and a huge Bond fan) pointed out. Yet this part of the film works because we are drawn into the idea of the man under siege from evil in his own home: he knows what is coming, and he makes his preparations to take his stand against it.
Bizarre as this analogy may seem this is why, even these many years later, we can still find enthralling what might otherwise be just another 90’s slapstick comedy, “Home Alone”. There is some flicker of James Bond, or Richard Hannay, or Gabriel Syme in the character of Kevin McCallister. The boy knows his home is about to come under attack, and that he cannot hope for reinforcements. He decides to take a stand to defend himself, and after a fashion his family, even though they have abandoned him – not unlike Bond who, at about the same age, is in effect “abandoned” by his parents when they are killed.
While “Home Alone” and “Skyfall” are obviously quite different films, that moment when a man decides to stop running and take a stand transcends genre, to touch on the universal virtues of courage and heroism. When so many action-adventure films have become enamored of a lumbering amount of noise and spectacle over telling a good story, they forget the point of having a hero to begin with, whether his powers are ordinary or enhanced in some way. The hero knows who he is, rather than whinging about his fate. He reaches a crossroads where he decides, “I’m taking stand, here and now,” for the people he cares about.
It is refreshing to see a Bond film where one is encouraged to think and reflect, rather than simply ogle beautiful women, exotic locations, and cool cars. All of these things are in “Skyfall” of course, for it would not be a Bond film without them. The Bond films are often categorized as little more than escapist films for the male psyche, but in the good ones, such as this, there is more to them than that.
The point of telling these kinds of heroic stories is in fact to encourage us men to be heroic. What so many modern action films get wrong is that they focus on the details, rather than on the man himself. The trappings of the hero, whether they are a Walther PPK and a shaken vodka martini, a Batmobile and a hooded mask, or a red cape and blue tights, are all just iconography, just as a medieval knight had his coat of arms painted on his shield to distinguish him from the other men in the fight. No matter how deadly the weapons or shiny the armor however, said trappings do not make the hero, for heroism has to come from within. It is why in “Skyfall” when Bond loses one of his iconic props that our masculine hearts wince at the sight, but we cheer the hero as he keeps on going.
The vast majority of us will never be faced with a full-out assault by an enemy, armed to the teeth and bent on our destruction. Yet we are all tested in life with difficult, frightening situations, where there seems to be no hope of success, and from which we would like to run away. In finding the courage to face these fears, and do what needs to be done, we become better men as a result. In the end, that is what the action-adventure genre is supposed to do for us, and it is what this latest addition to the ongoing story of James Bond does very well indeed.
James Bond (Daniel Craig) brooding over London in “Skyfall”