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James Bond in the Cold War

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I think you are a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.
– M, describing James Bond, GoldenEye

For over 50 years, James Bond, the best-known secret agent in the world, has attracted a huge, and constantly growing, audience to the cinema since his first appearance on the big screen in 1962. It appears that James Bond arrived at just the right point in time and was precisely what people of the Sixties wanted. Terence Young, director of the first Bond film Dr. No, once said that the film's release seems to have hit not only the right year, but the right week of the right month of the right year.

When examining a cultural phenomenon of such breadth, it is impossible to neglect the historical context: the James Bond films are always set in the context of the respective times they were produced. In order to analyse James Bond's relation to the Cold War, Bond films, from Dr. No onwards, when seen as objects of observation, thus show that James Bond's ongoing popularity is in part a product of the Cold War.

Ian Fleming and Dr. No

The novel Dr. No by Ian Fleming was published in 1958, as the sixth of the James Bond series. Fleming had previously been sent, officially by The Times, but in reality by the British Foreign Office, to Russia as a spy in the 1930s. In 1939 he had joined British Naval Intelligence, rising to the rank of Commander. When the war ended he moved to Jamaica, but his career as a writer initially had little impact. After writing four Bond novels to only modest success, he killed off James Bond at the end of his fifth novel, From Russia With Love. Sales of his Bond books then sky-rocketed after American President John F Kennedy named From Russia With Love as one of his top ten favourite books of all time.

Fleming wrote Dr. No in early 1957. His inspiration was Sax Rohmer's character of Fu Manchu, and he based the novel on an unused television drama script he had written for NBC in 1956, entitled Commander Jamaica. Following the lack of interest in that television series, and the raised sales of his James Bond novels, Fleming adapted his already-existing story outline to become a new novel. He had previously set the second James Bond novel, Live and Let Die, in Jamaica.

Historical Context

Production of the James Bond film  Dr. No began in 1961 and the film, the first of the official film series, was released on 5 October, 19621. Thus, the time we are interested in is from 1956 to 1962, or more roughly speaking the late Fifties and the early Sixties.

After the Second World War, there was also an increasing fear of a nuclear war. During the 1950s the nuclear arms race between East and West, in particular between the USSR and the USA, was accompanied by competition in science, especially in the Space Race. On 4 October, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into the Earth's orbit, resulting in America suffering 'Sputnik shock'. The people of America were confronted with a seemingly superior opponent, which fuelled the fear of a nuclear threat. Both these elements, the technological competition of the Space Race and the threat of nuclear war, are present in Dr. No.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Ian Fleming's novel remarkably foreshadows elements of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Revolution of 1956-9 had resulted in a Communist government under Fidel Castro. The USA placed an economic embargo, preventing all exports to the country except food and medicine. The Americans then attempted to invade the island at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, an attempt that failed.

Cuba's relations with the Soviet Union became closer while those between the USA and Cuba deteriorated. In 1962, Castro allowed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to secretly place Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. America discovered that these missile bases were being built and the crisis reached its peak between 16-28 October, with nuclear war only one step away. However, diplomacy and negotiations between Khrushchev and President Kennedy prevailed. The USSR agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, and the USA, in turn, similarly agreed to remove their missiles from Turkey.

Dr. No and the Cold War

Ian Fleming's novel Dr. No remarkably predicts elements of these coming conflicts: the story is set in Jamaica, and on the small, fictitious, nearby island, Crab Key. On this island lives Doctor Julius No, a German-Chinese mad scientist. Working for international criminal organisation SPECTRE, the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, he plans to disrupt the American space programme with an atomic-powered radio beam.

Parallels between fact and fiction can easily be drawn: first of all, a near-Communist organisation is causing America trouble from an island in the Caribbean; in reality, Cuba, in fiction Crab Key. Secondly, the fictional sabotage of American rocket tests reflects the real importance of the Space Race. The fact that the island is radioactively contaminated mirrors the omnipresence of nuclear power. The over-naïve belief that radiation can easily be 'washed off' – as it is done with Bond and the Bond-girl Honey Rider after they had explored the island – is simply the icing on the cake. It echoes the real, naïve, belief that Americans can 'duck and cover' to survive a direct nuclear attack by hiding under tables.

The very fact that James Bond, a super-cool secret agent, was so close to these real world conflicts – as if he himself had actually been involved in them – is an important factor in his becoming so popular. The producers of the film, EON2 Productions, were aware of this. The reason Dr. No, the sixth novel of the series, was chosen to be turned into the first film was because of its modern appeal and relevance. Great efforts were made to make Dr. No feel modern and contemporary; for instance, in No's underground lair, a painting is visible. This is a copy of Goya's The Duke of Wellington, which had been stolen when the film was in production, and its disappearance was still a topical matter at the time of the film's release3. Terence Young's quotation from the beginning substantiates this theory that the producers knew exactly what they were doing and when they were doing it.

It is true that initially the producers were undecided about whether to adapt Dr. No or Thunderball, the most recent novel at the time that EON Productions signed a deal with United Artists, as the first film. They decided against Thunderball due to its legal entanglements, as it was based on a screenplay Fleming had co-written with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. However, this doesn't contradict the statement that the producers deliberately chose Dr. No because of its historical relevance. Thunderball's plot involves nuclear weapons secretly hidden on an island off the coast of America, in this case the Bahamas, threatening Miami. This, too, is similar to the threat of nuclear weapons on the island of Cuba off the coast of America threatening American soil.

The first James Bond film might never have been successful on the big screen if it hadn't been for the Cold War. But how much is a fictional character of his calibre and popularity able to influence popular belief?

Theoretical Approach

From a theoretical point of view, the influence of mass media on the public has been researched to a great extent. Basically, there are two competing theories for analysing media: one states that mass media reflects standards, values and beliefs of society (just like a mirror), while the other suggests that mass media controls them. These theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is possible for some elements of the media to reflect society while other elements are pioneering, on the cutting edge and lead society to places not previously explored. Neither of these theories has ever been completely verified. It is therefore appropriate to think about both of them in a more distinct way. Instead of considering one of them the ultimate truth, both theories should be treated as equally valid: mass media reflects society's standards, values and beliefs as well as it controls them.

Practically speaking, this means that, when making a film, the producers (ie everyone who is involved in the production) have to keep in mind that there is an audience which has to be willing to watch the film; therefore, the film has to reflect, at least to a certain degree, the audience's expectations. On the other hand, the producers (again everybody who is involved, be it directors, financiers, and even actors) have their own objectives, which are (apart from the entrepreneurial constraints to make as much money as possible) an attempt to control or even manipulate society, although this might be done unconsciously. In addition to that, political affairs are mostly too complex for an ordinary individual who therefore relies on the opinion of others – or, as in this case, films and other media. However, it is impossible to predict the reactions of an audience and thus completely control the audience's beliefs.

Why a British Secret Agent?

The name's Bond... James Bond.

Having discussed the historical context, and coming back to Terence Young's quotation, how come James Bond arrived at just the right time? Why was it a British secret agent that became the hero of second half of the 20th Century cinemas?

Britain is geographically located between Russia and America and took a role of an arbiter in the East-West conflict, having been allied with both Russia and America during the war. Britain, despite no longer having an Empire, was an equal player on the world stage. Britain was the third country in the world to have developed a nuclear weapons programme, exploding its first atomic bomb on 3 October, 1952, ten years and two days before the world premiere of Dr. No. This was only three years after the USSR had developed its first nuclear weapon. Since 1958 Britain had developed its own space programme, yet rather than being a rival to America, had maintained the close relationship to the USA after the war. And this is exactly what James Bond does in the novel, and the eponymous film, Dr. No. He befriends America, personified by CIA agent Felix Leiter.

Director Terence Young, as well as many of the film crew, was also an experienced director of British war films, and so familiar with the process of making impressive action films, even if never before quite on this scale.

The Cold War in Subsequent Films

Dr. No was the first, but certainly not the last, James Bond film to feature Cold War themes. These include not only a serious nuclear threat, but also rivalry between a Communist and a Democratic nation which potentially could result in war, often manipulated by a third party. The Democratic country is usually either the United States or the United Kingdom, with the Communist country either the USSR, China or North Korea.

Interestingly, even though the Cold War theme runs through many Bond films, the Communist countries themselves are rarely the actual enemy. In From Russia with Love, for example, the producers took the decision specifically not to have the Soviet agency SMERSH4 as the true enemy, as they are in Fleming's novel, but to replace them with the fictional SPECTRE. Similarly, You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me, which have very similar plots, see external forces playing the West and the Soviets against each other.

Films which contain Cold War plot elements include:

  • From Russia with Love
    A former SMERSH operative, Rosa Klebb, defects to SPECTRE and plans to obtain a Russian Lektor5 decoding machine by persuading Britain to send their agent, James Bond, to steal it, thus creating friction between Russia and Britain. Of course, the fact that the Cold War is in full swing is what allows SPECTRE to play the British and Soviets off against each other. In Klebb's words, Who can the Russians suspect but the British? The Cold War in Istanbul will not remain cold very much longer..

  • Goldfinger
    Goldfinger conspires with Chinese atomic scientists to explode a cobalt and iodine atomic device to irradiate America's gold stored at Fort Knox. China would gain economic chaos in the West, while the value of Goldfinger's gold would increase by at least ten times. Goldfinger also threatens that any attempt to locate the bomb could result in its detonation elsewhere, including the Cape Canaveral Space Centre or outside the White House. In the original novel, Goldfinger worked for SMERSH and Russia, rather than for China.

  • Thunderball
    Two British nuclear bombs are used to hold the world to ransom, with SPECTRE threatening to destroy major cities in Britain and America. This film was later remade as Never Say Never Again.

  • You Only Live Twice
    Spacecraft from both the USA and the USSR are disappearing, with each nation blaming the other. The neutral UK is the only country looking for a third party, and so Bond is dispatched to discover the truth before a nuclear war can erupt.

  • The Man with the Golden Gun
    Assassin Scaramanga6, known as the 'Man with the Golden Gun', lives in Chinese waters and pays rent by performing assassinations for his landlords.

  • The Spy Who Loved Me
    Allied and Russian nuclear submarines are disappearing. The USSR and UK co-operate to save the world from the nuclear destruction planned by insane shipping magnate Karl Stromberg.

  • For Your Eyes Only
    A British spy ship carrying a top-secret ATAC7 device, which could be used to order British nuclear submarines to launch their missiles, is sunk off the coast of Albania. Wealthy international drug dealer Kristatos plans to sell this device to the KGB.

  • Octopussy
    Renegade Russian General Orlov plans to detonate a nuclear bomb in an American military base in West Germany. He believes that, should the device detonate, America would be blamed for the disaster, their forces would leave Europe and so Russia could then conquer much of Europe unopposed.

  • A View to a Kill
    A former KGB agent plots to destroy Silicon Valley in America. Bond saves the day, and thus is awarded the Order of Lenin by the KGB.

  • The Living Daylights
    A Russian general named Koskov defects to Britain with the aid of a Czech cellist who impersonates a KGB sniper. Koskov claims that his superior, General Pushkin, has initiated Smiert Spionom (death to spies), an assassination programme endangering all British agents unless Pushkin is killed. The plot involves Russian arms deals, opium smuggling and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

  • GoldenEye
    Although it was filmed in the 1990s, GoldenEye still deals with Cold War history. In fact, the opening flashback sequence is one of the few cases in which the Soviet Union is Bond's actual enemy. The Cold War's legacy remains as nuclear-based weapons from that era are used in the present.

  • Tomorrow Never Dies
    Once again the legacy of the Cold War remains in the opening sequence, as a terrorist arms bazaar deals in former Soviet weapons, including those of a nuclear variety. The main plot involves an immoral newspaper baron manipulating Britain and China into declaring war against each other.

  • The World is Not Enough
    The plot involves a theft of nuclear material from a former Soviet nuclear weapons facility in Kazakstan and a plan to irradiate the Bosphorus by blowing up a nuclear submarine outside Istanbul.

  • Die Another Day
    This film revolves around the Korea conflict, between communist North Korea and democratic South Korea, echoing the East/West divide of earlier films.

  • Casino Royale
    M longs for the simplicity of the Cold War, when spies who made grievous mistakes had 'the sense to defect'.

Later Contemporary Themes

Of course, the Bond films adapted and were influenced by themes other than the Cold War. For example, one very strong influence was the television series The Avengers, with Avengers stars Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee all appearing in the series8. By the time of Diamonds Are Forever, inferior Avengers-style silliness had infected the films, to the detriment of the plot.

Topical themes continued to influence the Bond films of the 1970s, including the blaxploitation of Live and Let Die and the energy crisis plot of The Man with the Golden Gun. Another example of the Bond series adapting to current trends can be seen following The Spy Who Loved Me. Despite announcing that the next Bond film would be For Your Eyes Only, the success of Star Wars ensured that Bond would jump on the science-fiction bandwagon and instead return in Moonraker.

The obsession with Silicon Valley during the 1980s is reflected in A View to a Kill; the antics of newspaper barons Robert Maxwell, Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner inspired the plot of Tomorrow Never Dies in the 1990s. By the early 21st Century Bond became self-referential, with both Die Another Day and Casino Royale recreating Ursula Andress' iconic introduction in Dr. No.

Post 9/11 Bond films have often featured 'there are traitors among us' storylines, including in Die Another Day, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Skyfall pits Bond against a former agent who has turned rogue.

More than the Cold War

Although the serendipity of Dr. No's release taking place during the Cuban Missile Crisis would account for the film's initial success when first shown in cinemas in 1962, this does not in itself explain its continued popularity. It remained popular in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, not only when broadcast on television, but also people continued to purchase the film in the home video market long after the Cold War had ended. If the film's success was only based on the timing of release, its popularity would have ended as soon as the crisis had. As Dr. No retains interest today, it shows that there is more to the film. Part of this is of course due to Terence Young's direction. The music by Monty Norman and John Barry is sublime and iconic, but it is the film's stars that are most fondly remembered today.

Sean Connery remains for many the definitive actor to play Bond. He had previously worked with the director on Action of the Tiger (1957), and in order to feel comfortable in his tailored suits, Connery was ordered to sleep in a shirt and tie to get used to them. He was cast after the producers, Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, viewed his 1959 Disney film, Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Swiss model Ursula Andress was cast after Cubby Broccoli saw one of her publicity photographs, in which she was emerging from the sea in almost exactly the same pose as her character Honey Ryder would first be seen. Her voice was dubbed by Monica Van der Syl, but that did not prevent her from returning to the world of Bond by appearing in Casino Royale (1967) as James Bond 007 – also known as Vesper Lynd.

Not everyone was impressed, however. The film was condemned by the Vatican for Bond's cruelty and sexual aggressiveness, and across the Iron Curtain, the Kremlin stated that Bond personified all the evils of capitalism.


To conclude, James Bond is a cultural phenomenon that cannot be overlooked. It is an ongoing juggernaut that has always adapted to the circumstances of its time during the last 50 years and will most likely continue to do so for the next 50 years. It is hard to imagine modern cinema without these films, where the mere introduction of the protagonist can give you goose pimples:

My name is Bond. James Bond.
1Also on 5 October, 1962, 'Love Me Do', the first single by the Beatles, was released. James Bond and the Beatles would change the film and music world forever.2EON stood for 'Everything Or Nothing', reflecting their commitment to big-budget spectacle.3The painting was later recovered in 1965.4Short for 'smiert spionom', the Russian for 'death to spies', SMERSH was a real Soviet intelligence organisation. It was never as powerful as the Bond novels portray.5Originally a Spektor decoding machine in the novel, this Enigma-like device was renamed for the film to avoid confusion with SPECTRE.6Scaramanga is played by Hammer star Christopher Lee, Ian Fleming's cousin.7Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator.8In return, Sean Connery was the villain in the 1998 film version of The Avengers.

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