PHILADELPHIA — "I wish I had had James Bond on my staff," John F. Kennedy is quoted as saying in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, when war with Russia looked imminent. Dr. No, the first of the 007 movies based on Ian Fleming's spy books, had just opened — October, 1962 — in theaters in the United Kingdom.
Dr. No — released the following May in the United States, and starring Sean Connery as the unflappable lady-killer with a license to kill, dispatched to the Caribbean to stop a madman from disrupting U.S. missile launches — was enough of a success that another Bond movie, From Russia With Love, followed.
And then Goldfinger. And then another. And another, with their gun-barrel opening-title sequences, their brassy John Barry theme music, their Bond villains, Bond girls, Bond gadgets.
On Friday, Skyfall, the 23d 007 enterprise, with Daniel Craig in his third turn as the British intelligence operative, opens in theaters — the 50th anniversary of the formidable franchise. (The rogue 1967 romp Casino Royale, with David Niven and Peter Sellers, isn't considered part of the official 007 oeuvre.) To date, the Bond movies have earned more than $5 billion in worldwide box office.
Yes, people have been ordering their vodka martinis shaken, not stirred, for 50 years.
"Ian Fleming created an amazing character," says Craig, who has followed in the footsteps — and the tailored suits — of Connery, George Lazenby (an Aussie, and the forgotten Bond, appearing only in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service), Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan. "There's this internal conflict in the way Fleming wrote Bond," Craig says.
"You know, he's an assassin. The whole idea that he kills people is something that Fleming really fought with. ... He fought with that emotionally. That's who the character is."
The character is more than that, though. Down through the decades, the different Bonds, and the men who played them, mirrored what was happening in the culture, in the tenor and temperament of the day.
"Each actor defined their time, and reflected the times," says Barbara Broccoli, who worked on her first Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, when she was 17 and has served as producer on the last seven. Her father, Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, who died in 1996, cofounded the franchise with Harry Saltzman way back when.
"You can look over the history of the last 50 years and you can see, in terms of trends and technology, things that were happening in the world reflected in the films."
The early Sean Connery Bond, then, shivered with the chill of the Cold War. With the Carter and Reagan administrations (Reagan was a fan of the Bond pictures — he went on TV and read from a teleprompter to say so), "détente" became the buzzword — a word that issued suavely from Moore's mouth in 1981's For Your Eyes Only.
The late-'80s Dalton James Bond took on a darker aspect for darker times, turning his attention to drug lords (Licence to Kill) and arms dealers (The Living Daylights).
But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the almost careless cool embodied by Brosnan's Bond during the 1990s, and into the new millennium, had to go.
Enter the grimmer, gutsier MI6 agent introduced by Craig in 2006's Casino Royale.
"We were making Die Another Day and 9/11 happened," Broccoli says. "And at the end of the making of Die Another Day, which was quite fantastical in its approach, we decided that we had to make a change in direction. It didn't seem appropriate for Bond to be at all flippant, or fantastical, in the post-9/11 world.
"And we had the opportunity to make Casino Royale, which was the first book Fleming wrote, the Bond coming-of-age story. ... And we wanted Daniel Craig. There was just no question in my mind that he was the right guy for the role."
Bond geeks begged to differ. When news of Craig's casting got out, the furor was, well, furious. (Ironically, Sam Mendes, Skyfall's director and a lifelong Bond fan, was one of those early Craig naysayers.)
"We fought for him not unlike Cubby and Harry fought for Sean Connery," Broccoli says, harking back to the brouhaha over the casting of the Scottish wrestler-turned-actor to bring Fleming's espionage agent to the screen.
"I felt it in my bones that Daniel would be able to express Bond's inner life and the conflicts and inner demons, and also give Bond the humanity he needed for today's climate.
"And fortunately the whole world agreed with us — like they did with Sean Connery."
Other things have changed in the Bond films too. The 1960s Bonds, especially, smacked of the "sex, snobbery, and sadism" that a literary critic famously found shot through Fleming's books.
With every new Bond picture, new Bond girls are paraded out (Skyfall's French model/actress Bérénice Marlohe, and Naomie Harris as the new Moneypenny). But Ursula Andress' bikinied beach bunny in 1962's Dr. No gave way to Denise Richards' nuclear physicist in 1999's The World Is Not Enough (totally believable!).
And M, Bond's boss, became a Ma'am. Judi Dench took over the role in 1995's GoldenEye and has served in that position ever since.
"I would love to take credit, but that wasn't my idea," says Broccoli, who points to GoldenEye's writer, Bruce Feirstein, and director, Martin Campbell. "The only thing I was concerned about was that the character would be well conceived, and that it would be played by someone with authority — that it wouldn't just be a gimmick. And certainly Judi Dench brought such integrity to the role. I think it was a masterstroke. She's been a fantastic part of this series for 17 years.
"M is the only person that Bond has to answer to. And I think the fact that it's a woman has made it even more interesting. It has reflected, yes, the changing role of women in society, and it's important that these films change with the times — and what could be better than for Bond to have a female boss?"
As for Craig, whose steely, solemn Bond goes AWOL as the tumult of Skyfall and the villainy of its demented bad guy, played by Javier Bardem, are unleashed — he's not exactly sure how his take on 007 speaks to the zeitgeist.
"I'm not a self-conscious sort," the star says. "They employed me, they knew what kind of actor I was, and when I came to it I wanted Bond to have a kind of emotional journey. I'm more than aware I wasn't going to start doing Ibsen, or British kitchen-sink dramas — I wanted to make Bond movies. But no one ever said, ‘Don't make him human.'?"
"So I suppose that's what I've done," he says — he has put the humanity back in this global icon.
"But I couldn't really tell you how that applies to the zeitgeist," he adds, with a Bondian grin. "Apart from the fact that I'm alive, and I'm doing it."
In addition to the excellent documentary "Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007," the 50th anniversary of the first James Bond film brings with it a slew of commemorative books, including:
—"Bond on Bond: Reflections on 50 years of James Bond Movies" by Roger Moore. The third actor to play Bond, Moore waxes nostalgic about his involvement and the 007 canon.
—"Bond on Set: Filming Skyfall" by Greg Williams. The official behind-the-scenes account.
—"James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters." DK Publishing's lavish coffee table collectible.
—"The James Bond Archives" by Paul Duncan. Picture-packed chronicle of the 50-year series.
—"Life 50 Years of James Bond by the Editors of Life." From the pages of the photo mag, a visual album of the 007 film series.
—"The Music of James Bond" by Jon Burlingame. A chapter for each Bond flick, with backstories on the music, from the signature "James Bond Theme" in "Dr. No" to John Barry's scores.