A full 54 years ago, speaking to (what else?) Playboy magazine, Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, parried accusations that the character should be regarded as a villain. "I don't think that he is necessarily a good guy or a bad guy." Fleming remarked. "He's got his vices and very few perceptible virtues except patriotism and courage, which are probably not virtues anyway." Read that again. He has vices. He doesn't have any real virtues. If you think James Bond is a fascist pig then Fleming seems largely on your side.
The conversation is older than that. In 1958, The New Statesmen, reviewing Fleming's Dr No, concluded that Bond exemplified "the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult."
When Timothy Dalton took over as the movie Bond in 1987 there was much discussion of how the Aids crisis would change the character's behaviour. It did a bit. But such was his Imperial boorishness that, nearly a decade later, the first female incarnation of M, flintily inhabited by Judi Dench, still felt able to describe him as "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War, whose boorish charm [is] wasted on me". That was a generation ago. What's more decrepit than a dinosaur?
All of which is a long-winded way of confirming that there's nothing new about calling James Bond a Grade-A bastard. His own creator said as much. The film series was explicit in its agreement. There is, however, something profoundly unsettling about a recent video, compiled in the wake of the #MeToo movement, detailing Bond's repeated, casual mistreatment of women. A sequence involving Daniel Craig and Bérénice Marlohe from the relatively recent Skyfall requires some contextualisation to reveal its underlying queasiness, but the scenes with Sean Connery are shrouded in no such ambiguity.
In Thunderball, he grabs an attending physiotherapist and forces his horrible Scottish lips on her reluctant face. In Goldfinger, he wrestles, ahem, Pussy Galore into the literal hay and, not reading her attempt to strangle him as a "no", does what he always ends up doing. (The book's suggestions that Pussy Galore is a lesbian are more lightly worn in the film.) In Diamonds Are Forever, now rendered even less palatable by the addition of a safari suit, Bond rips a woman's bikini top free and aggressively wraps it around her neck. And so on.
There is, of course, a long tradition of “ravishment” in popular fiction. The covers of historical romances used to abound with images of bustled women being held down by men in billowing shirts. Precedent is no justification. Bond is forcing himself on women who have made their lack of interest clear. He continues until he has his way.
The most notorious passage in all of Fleming's books appears in Casino Royale when Bond behaves similarly towards Vesper Lynd. "The conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would have the sweet tang of rape," he writes. Is that clear? James Bond was a rapist.
Unsurprisingly, the British tabloids caricatured recent objections as the "PC gone mad" ravings of snowflake millennials (how that generation has resisted the temptation to stick our heads on spikes I cannot say). On its front page, under the headline "Flake Britain", the Sun addressed the story alongside tales of "walk-on girls" being banned from darts tournaments and the banning of a stage production of Are You Being Served?
Bond cannot be so openly misogynistic that we yearn to see Goldfinger's laser bifurcate his Walther
Pull yourself together. Nobody will be banning James Bond. Despite mixed reviews, Spectre, the last film, took in a very healthy $880 million. Just six years ago, Skyfall became the highest grossing film ever in the UK. The studios are currently involved in a bidding war to distribute Daniel Craig in a 25th episode that, due in the autumn of 2019, needs to find a director pronto.
The current conversation on sexual abuse offers challenges to the team behind that film. James Bond cannot function as a full-on, demonic anti-hero like, say, the protagonist of Patricia Highsmith's indestructible Tom Ripley novels. He should be ambiguous. He should offer guilty pleasures. The sexual aggression of Connery's Bond is now so offensive that any repetition would rightly render such a character unworkably malevolent.
Bond has to be just sexist enough for us to savour disapproval, but not so openly misogynistic that we yearn to see Goldfinger’s laser bifurcate his Walther. There is room for a clever scriptwriter to turn the current controversy to the franchise’s advantage.
The canny producer Barbara Broccoli, keeper of the Bond flame for decades, could signal such an intent by hiring a female director. Susanne Bier, director of the excellent espionage series The Night Manager, has already expressed an interest.
With one bound they would be free. Well, freeish.