In April, 1953 the world was introduced to one of the most enduring and iconic fictional characters of the Cold War 20th century. Casino Royale is the first of the James Bond novels, and launched a series of 13 books, numerous adaptations for the big and small screens, comic strips and more. And made Bond the symbol of the western spy – at least until John Le Carre showed up and did his best to offer an alternative, darker and more realistic version. James Bond is the guy – the epitome of the masculine ideal, he’s charming and suave, brave and cool in the face of danger, sipping martinis and bedding women across the world as he saves us all from assorted evils and takes care of the bad guys. Oh, we swoon, we drool, we aspire and emulate – Bond. James Bond.
The dashing anti-communist womanizer is Britain in the post-war years – or Britain as she aspires to be. Bond is still in charge. Bond directs his American counterparts, not the other way round. Bond is all the glory and achievement of the Empire while in real terms Britain has been reduced largely to rubble, has lost its grip on the colonies, and clearly plays junior-partner to the US in the ongoing march of the west. He’s the imagined-what-was, reminding Brits of who they used to be and making Americans think of who they imagine they could be with the added class an accent provides. It’s all the worst of white 50’s male political culture – but that’s also exactly why it remains so loved. Catchy. Oh, so catchy.
Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale as idealized reflection on his experiences as a Naval Intelligence Officer, and in particular his service in Portugal and an attempted assassination of Germany’s Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen. There’s girls and fights and drinking. And gambling, of course. And it all spells freedom and progress and the good fight. And there’s a good deal in Bond of who Fleming wanted to be, the character allowing some chain-smoking alcoholic Cold Warrior to imagine that all his vices are virtues, to write the hero in his own image. And hey, it worked. Gotta give the guy credit for that. Ian Fleming defined a genre and defined an archetype. Me, though, I’ll stick with John Le Carre when it comes to the spy-game, and I’ll enjoy Ian Fleming’s other great legacy – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Yeah, Fleming wrote that, too, though we don’t often remember it.