Why is Skyfall simply the best Bond film ever? Because Bond has a mid-life crisis? Because it turns out the baddies are right inside British Intelligence, just as they were in John le Carré’s Smiley stories? All that and more …
Rebirth comes in many guises.
Some experience it through baptism of fire; others through baptism of water. For a few, the death of a parent or destruction of haunting symbols from the past can represent the start of a new life. So too can the rediscovery of father-figures and the power-tokens they bequeath. In still other cases, symbolic victory over an evil twin brings freedom from persecution by inner demons, and a virtual reincarnation. The token of this new life is a precious talisman symbolising leadership and power.
In Skyfall, James Bond experiences every one of these rebirths or resurrections, and much more. The “thinking person’s Bond movie” delivers a smorgasbord of narrative and symbolic richness that pillages the textbooks of classical myth and psychology to deliver a hugely satisfying denouement.
It’s not simply that we learn that Bond is shot, that Bond fakes his own death, and that Bond comes back, resurrected and ready for service. Now, a darker, more mature and self-aware Bond is working with archetypes of primal power that shake and stir us. Skyfall’s finely-crafted script puts Bond on the couch.
If you’ve followed my blog posts over the last 18 months, you’ll know that I’ve been writing about my researches into the Seven Levels of Storytelling and how this framework unlocks our understanding of the archetypes at work in all compelling stories. In a series, which includes a TEDX talk I gave on the subject, I have analysed each of the Seven Levels from a different perspective. I hope I’ve been both eclectic and broad-ranging.
My spotlight has fallen upon Entrepreneurs, Celebrities, Romantics, Comics in business, Tragedians in business, Commanders in Chief and more heroes of powerful stories. Along the way I blended a study of the Seven levels of Storytelling with a fresh look at the discipline of Narrativity. Check ‘em out if you have the time.
And I’ve already written about Rebirth – the last of the Seven Levels – from the perspective of nations, companies and of CEOs. Now comes the turn of Bond and his resurrection story.
During the movie’s final sequence, Bond is purified by fire as he flees through a secret tunnel following the destruction of his ancestral Scottish home, then plunges into an icy lake to strangle his opponent, emerging to be reunited with “M for mother,” his dying chief (played for the last time by Judi Dench). Bond only summons the power to slay his evil twin Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardém), the rogue agent persecuting MI6, when a “magical helper” (the gamekeeper played by Albert Finney) hands him his dead father’s hunting rifle and knife. Following his acceptance of a new father-figure (the franchise’s new M played by Ralph Fiennes), Bond finally receives the secret talisman of Britain’s residual power – the battered, many-times-broken china bulldog that looks much like Winston Churchill, and was treasured by the former head of the secret service. The circle is complete.
Skyfall is different and more satisfying, because it takes us into a deeper experience of narrative, where the archetypal story pattern of rebirth and its heroic journey is lived through at multiple levels. It is darker, more austere, subterranean. Much of the narrative takes place in dark underground tunnels that hint we are travelling into an unconscious world where myth comes alive.
So the 50 year-old adventure franchise has itself taken on a new lease of life. With Daniel Craig, Sam Mendes and his scriptwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, the Bond franchise has veered into new, more serious and much richer territory.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the “thinking man’s Bond” does his own thinking too. A recent profile of Craig in Vanity Fair magazine revealed that, as well as starring, Craig had contributed significantly to both the script and plot.
Since Dr No (with Sean Connery) appeared in 1962, a succession of six Bonds have lived through 23 movies and a half a century of tongue-in-cheek adventures that were routinely and rightly ignored by the Academy of Motion Pictures. Bond films have never received an Oscar nomination in the “big six” category. The seven nominations the franchise has received were all minor, despite the estimated US$5.6 billion they hauled in. Producers only took home only two very minor statuettes (Goldfinger; best sound effects 1964. Thunderball; best visual effects 1965). Glamour and tuxedos would never pull Oscars, it seemed.
Skyfall didn’t get a mention at the 2013 Oscars. But it might have if Lincoln and others hadn’t stolen the limelight.
So what has suddenly gone so right for Bond? Simple. It’s all in the storytelling.
Thanks to half a century on celluloid, Britain’s best-known export has become the de facto flag-carrier of national identity. Previously, this was a narcissistic, one-dimensional identity suitable for caricature, as adroitly exploited by the Austin Powers franchise. Bond’s creators did themselves no Oscar-winning favours by with the cutely-named arm candy, such as Pussy Galore.
Many British people laughed at Bond, and took at best a guilty pleasure in watching the cinematic antics of “their” hero figure. Bond wasn’t serious, and the movies weren’t to be taken seriously.
The narcissism of the earlier Bond figures, and the fetishism for dry Martinis, fine tailoring and deadly toys, was one-dimensional. The emphasis was on exteriors, not the world within. In earlier films, the hero’s struggles were limited to frustrating world domination by paper-thin caricatures of evil, while living out a version of the “special relationship” between Britain and the US by cooperating with (and sometimes seducing) CIA agents.
Bond had sunk a long way from the original conception of Anglo-Scottish writer Ian Fleming, who conceived the character while working as a naval liaison officer at Bletchley, Britain’s wartime code-breaking centre.
But Skyfall represents a major shift not just in the tired old franchise, but in Britain’s sense of national identity, too.
From the sophisticated intro music by singer Adele, to the low-tech accoutrements supplied to Bond by the geeky teenager who now passes for “Q”, to the blowing up of the much-despised (by Londoners) bunker architecture of the real spy headquarters beside the Thames, Skyfall hit the 2012 zeitgeist in spades. Britain is back.
In place of girls, gadgets, vanity and violence, comes a darker, more mature and self-aware Bond. London’s grey monotony largely takes the place of the exotic destinations used as frothy backdrops in early movies. Just like advancing age, the past turns out to be a place of strength, not weakness. Maturity is cool. Of sex, there is little or none – apart from one tingling hint of a possibly bisexual Bond.
Just like Bond, Britain is finding a new place in the world. Skyfall presents a new archetype of Britishness for a post-Olympic nation.
All the earlier sturm und drang about Britain’s dwindling, post-colonial power, the humiliation of junior partnership with the United States, the sense of inevitable decline, was in large part dispelled by the triumphant summer of 2012, in which the London OIympics showed the world not simply that Britain could host an event to rival Beijing’s 2008 Olympiad – but went on to win a healthy sackful of gold medals too.
In Skyfall, this new consciousness is adroitly signposted by one of the dominant archetypes of this story and of western civilisation: Homer’s great tale of the return of Odysseus after the Trojan Wars, and his setting forth again.
It’s no coincidence that in the scene in which she testifies to a parliamentary committee, Judi Dench’s “M” chooses to explain the role of British Intelligence by quoting the very same lines of Tennyson’s poem Odysseus that are engraved upon the walls of the Olympic Village. Long before either the medals or the Bond film rolled in, the British public had chosen these lines as the most fitting tribute to the athletes’ prowess.
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield
It was once fashionable for critics and historians to interpret these lines as an unconscious representation of Britain’s slow decline from imperial power. Nothing could be further from the truth. The poem was written in 1833, when the Victorian paint-the-globe-red heyday was yet to come. Likewise, suggests M, Britain’s spies still have much to contribute in an anarchic world where Americans don’t even feature.
And as it was with Odysseus/Ulysses, so it is with Bond. After a tumultuous opening battle scene (in which, incidentally a whole new back-story is laid down for Miss Moneypenny, the secretary so blinded by Cupid that she actually shoots her lover Bond), the hero gets lost on his way home. Back in London, as in Ithaca, the mess is appalling. At the MI6 headquarters, suitors vie for the queen’s favour, while the absent hero’s great bow gathers dust unused.
Just like Ulysses, Bond forgets Ithaca and the road home from Troy. His hurt and rancour cause him to linger on a Turkish beach in the arms of an unnamed Calypso. Only when the near-destruction of Ithaca (the MI6 building) rouses him from slumber, does he return incognito to London.
With the destruction of the MI6 headquarters and its move to the galleries beneath London’s Smithfield meat, the narrative makes an explicit move into the semi-unconscious, the terrain of heroes and myth. Bond makes an explicit request to M for a “renaissance,” a second chance.
Just like Tennyson’s ageing hero, Bond is criticised for his failing strength and scorned by the establishment. He is unable to pass the physical fitness tests required of a field agent. Even the many-times repeated scene in which Bond embodies the mythic Greek hero Perseus, receiving the magical knapsack, sword, shield, helmet and sandals necessary for him to defeat the Gorgon, gets an age-ist spin. Q, the quartermaster who in 22 previous films had been charged with handing over to Bond these “magic weapons,” turns out to be a teenage hacker full of wisecracks who offers him tools from the ancient past – a gun and radio. Bond makes bitter comments about the extreme youth of his new “helpers.”
It is from his own body that Bond extracts a bullet that provides the clue setting him forth on a more conventional, “Bond-like” hunt for exotic locations in Asia. Yet the safe-haven caricature sequences in Shanghai and Macau don’t last long or get much of a nod from the director. The fact that the baddies are eaten by a lurking Komodo Dragon, rather than falling to Bond’s gun, reinforces the dreamlike inconsequence.
The core of the action is psychological battle, rather than a physical struggle. His encounter with Raoul Silva, the “evil twin” is set in a bizarre dream landscape of a deserted Mao Tse Tung-era communist city on an unknown island, replete with broken monolithic statues of fallen heroes.
Bond’s meeting with his own doppelgänger – the twisted former British spy whose unrequited love for Judi Dench’s ‘M for mother figure’ has turned nasty – takes the form of temptation. The hero is offered riches and power in exchange for renouncing his dogged and illogical loyalty to a dwindling nation and a spy service that has already proved itself ready to sacrifice him.
Bond’s rejection of the offer makes explicit the film’s key theme:“resurrection.”
Yet the film goes in to teach us that patriotism – in the form of the broken china bulldog Bond receives as Judi Dench’s legacy in the final scene – is the greatest prize of all.
The escape from captivity in London of the trickster-twin, and Bond’s decision to draw him into a climactic final battle on his own ancestral Scottish terrain, takes the film a huge step deeper into the roots of British identity. The film gives the hitherto-classless Bond a surprisingly posh back-story that also connects him directly with the true heritage of British spy fiction. As they journey towards Bond’s ancestral home in the Scottish Highlands, Bond and M go backwards in time — travelling in the same Aston Martin car used some 20 films ago.
Their destination is Skyfall, the crumbling mansion of the Bond clan still cared for by an ancient gamekeeper, played by Albert Finney.
We learn that as the offspring of a grand Scottish laird, Bond has undergone some terrible trauma linked to the violent death of his parents that left him a child-orphan. This has caused him to reject family and forged the emotional detachment needed for spying.
Nothing remains of this heritage but a crumbling house with its secret passages, and his father’s hunting rifle. This is bedrock Bond, confronting his core identity. With this magical weapon, his knowledge of the house’s secrets and the help of a surrogate father (the gamekeeper), Bond tears his way through a sequence of symbolic rebirths. We are told by the gamekeeper that the secret passage he uses to escape is the same place where he once hid to experience his deepest childhood pain on losing his parents. He has to pass through this hidden memory to gain the resurrection he craves in a tiny Scottish church in the glen.
The final sequence is pure homage. It takes straight into the fictional landscape created by the writer John Buchan, best known for his adventure story The Thirty Nine Steps (filmed in 1935, 1959, 1978 and 2008).
Buchan produced a stream of adventure stories between the two world wars. Immensely grand and immensely Scottish (as Baron Tweedsmuir, he became governor general of Canada), Buchan created the prototype of all Anglo-Saxon adventure heroes, Richard Hannay. He wasn’t above jingoism either: in the First World War Buchan wrote propaganda for the British Army.
Buchan’s core theme was the aristocratic gentleman adventurer who dabbles in intelligence work out of pure patriotism, always coming home to Scotland. There is little doubt that Fleming was influenced by Buchan and that Hannay was in turn the clear fictional prototype for Bond. Fleming, after all, came from a grand Anglo-Scottish family that once owned a merchant bank of the same name.
The homage doesn’t stop there: Buchan’s success opened the way for Geoffrey Household, a successful 1930s thriller writer whose Rogue Male (filmed in 1941, 1951, and 1976) provides at least part of the direct inspiration for Skyfall’s Scottish denouement.
Rogue Male’s unnamed but supremely posh hunter hero, pursued by German secret agents, travels back to his well-known Scottish home terrain and a secret underground lair he uses to outfox his pursuers.
Placing Bond right back into the upper-crust mainstream of the British spy fiction once devoured by generations of public schoolboys was a big risk. Not everyone cares for the deerstalking, much-landed gentry and all they stand for. Bond had always been rootless, classless, sophisticated, yet without an atom of British ruling-class hauteur — and no back story at all. Positioning Bond – albeit as a prodigal son – in the same Anglo-Scottish upper class as Fleming and Buchan, could have backfired badly
Scripting the new Bond plot much closer to the John le Carré tradition of “spies within the MI6 circus,” as in the Smiley stories, also makes for a posher, more establishment Bond. For although le Carré’s (his real name is David Cornwell) own father was a conman, the son went to expensive schools and as an establishment insider went straight into intelligence work before choosing to become an author.
Yet the gambit played by director Mendes paid off, precisely because of the psychological deftness of Bond’s resurrection, and the clever exploitation of archetypal themes that drive the making of all great stories. As at the end of every hero’s journey, Bond is safely back home after his adventure.
Yet the home he surveys from the rooftops of Whitehall is different. After the destruction of his ancestral home and the laying to rest of his own family ghosts, Bond can accept a new father-figure (in the shape of Ralph Fiennes who replaces Judi Dench as M) and a sense of having purified his past.
Bond has achieved his resurrection. But we know that, just as in Tennyson’s great poem Odysseus, the hero will not stop there. In the poem, Odysseus/Ulysses has restored order to Ithaca and placed his son Telemachus in charge. So he prepares to sally forth for a final, heroic journey, “to seek a newer world” in which he and his now-elderly companions will “sail beyond the sunset.”
As Bond reports for duty once again, we sense a new cycle is beginning. Good storytelling knows no frontiers. Erudite or adventurous, know-it-all or knuckle-ride, psychological or structured, it depends on the ability to trigger the patterns of deep recognition that shape the wondering child in each one of us.
©2012 Richard House