Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

The spy on whom the sun never sets: James Bond and England

When Ian Fleming published the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953, Britain was widely seen as a nation in a decline.

During the war years, the UK had been strong, stoic, disciplined, but in the 1950s, it was all about sexual pleasure and self-indulgence (absurd as that looks now) sapping the moral fiber of the nation. On the world stage the United States was clearly the rising star. The old saying was that Britain had an empire on which the sun never set. After WW II it was obviously low on the horizon.

1956 drove this home. Gamel Nasser, the president of Egypt at the time, wanted the US and the UK to help finance the Aswan Dam. After they declined, Nasser retaliated by nationalizing the Suez Canal. Britain, France and Israel then went to war against Egypt, seizing the canal and other chunks of territory. The US and the USSR backed a UN resolution condemning the occupation and American troops went in as peacekeeping forces. Egypt kept the canal; France and Britain got their hands slapped. There was no question who called the shots on the world stage and it was no longer England.

As novelist George MacDonald Fraser writes in The Hollywood History of the World, for Brits a couple of generations older than me the Empire was a fact of life, proof of England’s greatness. I remember some of my teachers in the late 1960s talking about the loss of empire as if they’d been personally diminished by former colonies declaring independence. And of course Kim Philby, one of the top men in the intelligence services, turned out to be a Soviet spy who’d been undercutting the UK’s contributions to Cold War espionage for decades. That betrayal didn’t boost national self-esteem either

Fleming and 007 ain’t having none of that. James Bond in the novels can still travel from one imperial British outpost to another. British intelligence is as formidable and incorruptible as Silver Age SHIELD; the only British traitors are foreigners (ex-Nazi Drax in the novel of Moonraker, Russian Cossack Sean Bean in Goldeneye) until the Craig years. In the real world the CIA was the top dog; in the Bond films Felix Leiter always defers to 007. In Doctor No, where American rockets are SPECTRE’s targets, Leiter still tells 007 he won’t act in Jamaica without British approval. Even when Bond’s on American soil in Goldfinger, Leiter backs Bond’s play rather than acting on his own. It’s 007, Britain’s best, who saves America.

In You Only Live Twice, SPECTRE’s abducting both Soviet and American space rockets. When the nations meet to discuss and argue over this, Britain attends the conference. It’s the British rep who points out the evidence the enemy space vessel landed in Japan, not the USSR but the Americans foolishly refuse to listen. Tomorrow Never Dies treats the prospect of a shooting war between the UK and China as an even match.

Obviously that’s not the heart of the Bond films’ appeal to Americans, or to the fans in multiple other countries, or probably to most Brits today. But I think it’s definitely there.



  1. Le Messor

    wanted the US and the UK to help finance the Aswan Dam. After they declined

    What did they say? “Frankly, my dear, we don’t give a dam?”

    I hadn’t realised Leiter went all the way back to the firs tmovie.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      First book, actually. He’s a central character, in Casino Royale and loans him money to get back into the card game, with Le Chiffre, after he is tapped out.

        1. Jeff Nettleton

          They are pretty decent, with some provisos. Some get rather racist (Live and Let Die, Dr No, especially), sexist definitely, sadistic; but, Fleming was really great at setting the exotic locales (journalistic background) and some of them are very good. My personal favorites are Casino Royale, From Russia With Love, Dr No, Thuderball, Goldfinger, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. For Your Eyes Only is a short story colelction with some good pieces, especially Risico, which provided plot for Act 2 of the FYEO movie. OHMSS is one of the best novels and the film captures it well, apart from the silly “Other guy” quips.

  2. John King

    I would think very few British people (if any) analyse the films enough to be directly influenced in that way.
    However, had it been not been done like that there could have been a more negative reaction if they were seen as belittling the UK (and/or England)

    1. Oh, I doubt anyone thought about it in deep but I can see it feeling “right.” I’ve seen other fiction from the 1950s take the same stance, showing the US clearly deferring to the superior judgment of Great Britain’s representatives.
      The Avengers took much the same tone — Britain is always the target by Sinister Foreign Powers plotting world conquest — but they’re much more tongue in cheek of course.

      1. John King

        It would take some time to investigate – but I wonder how many episodes of the Avengers the villains
        a) plotted world conquest
        and b) were not British

        Most episodes had smaller schemes – the first episode concerned drug dealers murdering a nurse who could have testified against one of the gang.
        Later episodes would put them against assassination bureaus, revenge plots, etc

        “Dead of Winter” would probably be an early episode that did count – it was about reviving cryogenically frozen Nazis – though they were a long way from being anywhere near conquering anywhere

        1. Le Messor

          the first episode concerned drug dealers

          Well, those early episodes were more of a staid, ordinary detective show than a spy spoof. You should probably stat counting at, what, season 2?

        2. There are several Steed/Peel episodes that involve Sinister Foreign Powers (presumably the Eastern Bloc) about to launch a first strike or other attack and success always hinges on neutralizing Britain as an adversary — apparently the US and the rest of NATO is inconsequential in the Avengersverse.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    The Empire conceit is stronger and more direct, in the novels, than the films. In the novels, the foreign nationals who aid Bond are always the product of an English mother, which is a holdover of Victorian adventure fiction (which greatly influenced Fleming). The late Greg Hatcher said it best, on a Radio vs The Martians podcast: Bond is a knight, sent out to slay dragons and wizards. That trumps all of the nationalism and the poorly rendered espionage activities. Fleming didn’t really do actual intelligence work; he was an administrator (though he did throw out ideas during planning meetings). Unlike John Le Carre, he was pretty light on actual fieldcraft. Bond is a mixture of that knight errant, a hardboiled detective, and the suave noble detectives of people like Dorothy Sayers, always of impeccable family.

    1. Fleming has a role in “The Irregulars,” Jennifer Conant’s book about British spies in Washington pre-Pearl Harbor. As you say, he was not a field man.
      In his nonfiction book “Pigeon Tunnel,” which I just finished, Le Carré talks about people assuming he’s way, way more experienced than he is, for example asking him to serve as a hostage negotiator or asking him to put “his people” on their problem (“They don’t believe me when I say I have no people.”).
      David I had not heard that line before, but I like it.

  4. David107

    Then there’s the delightful joke/pithy political comment: “The sun never set on the British empire because even God couldn’t trust the English in the dark”

  5. I’m currently in the middle of “A Spy Among Friends,” about the infamous double agent Kim Philby. It does a very good job capturing the cloistered, clubby world in which British espionage took place, and which John Le Carré pushed back against in his books.

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