7.02.2008

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

After reading books from two British authors written around the same time period, both about spies and spying, I'm beginning to get a taste for it. But whereas Our Man in Havana is satirical, Ian Fleming's eleventh novel in the James Bond series, On Her Majesty's Secret Service is deadly serious.Since I grew up watching Bond films, I went about reading the books as an afterthought; so much is made of the ballyhooed author that I was curious to see what the character in the books is like compared to film.

I never liked the OHMSS film, and I can't imagine I ever will. I find it to be cheesy, somewhat corny, and worst of all boring. Knowing now the differences between book and film, I'm sure that the film was a victim of the times, much like the Roger Moore films of the 70's (and Diamonds Are Forever). All you need do is look at the poster below and cringe at its tag line of "Far Up! Far Out! Far More":The Bond movies started becoming a separate entity than the Bond books early on, focusing on gadgets, lust, outrageous action sequences, and one-liners. (With the rare exception, hopefully that era has been subdued with the most faithful (and best) adaptation ever, Casino Royale.) I can say I could go on about it, or how I liked the book better because of this or that, but I don't feel like going into one of those cliched debates. But, I was looking forward to the book because I wanted to see how Fleming plotted out this most crucial of Bond stories. I can say that at least the movie followed the basic plot, which is a lot more than I can say about You Only Live Twice, the book follow-up but movie predecessor. Huh?

(Aside, opinions are like assholes: everybody's got one. In as much as my old friend loves OHMSS -- "On Her Majesty's Secret Service is not a disaster. Quite the opposite: this is the best James Bond film yet made. Yes, I said "best"." -- I will never understand how he despises The Usual Suspects. So it is.)

Fleming's action writing is flat-out solid. His Bond is a no-nonsense realist in this manner, who does not enjoy having to kill an adversary, even when it is in self-defense. That said, he draws a world where characters are often brutally dispatched, and a sense of timing and luck matter as much to the hero as being ruthlessly efficient. Here's a passage from when Bond makes his escape from Piz Gloria:
    The guard was there, bent over something that looked like a time sheet. The neck was offered. Bond dropped the Gillette in his pocket and stiffened the fingers of his left hand into the old Commando cutting edge. He took the two steps into the rooom and crashed the hand down on the back of the offered neck. The man's face hit the table on top with a thud, bounced up and half turned towards Bond. Bond's right flashed out and the face of the Rolex disintegrated against the man's jaw. The body slid sluggishly off its chair on to the carpet and lay still, its legs untidy as if in sleep. The eyes fluttered and stared, unseeing, upwards. Bond went round the desk and bent down. There was no heartbeat. Bond straightened himself. It was the man he had seen coming back alone from the bob-run on his first morning, when Bertil had met with his accident. So! Rough justice!
That kind of stuff illustrates his edge, but also a Fleming habit that I find to be almost comical -- the overuse of exclamation marks when relaying Bond's thoughts. "What a sport he was!" "He must stop acting the part, being a stage nobleman!" "So that was that!" "Did I leave the iron on!" Okay, that last one was from Airplane, but it just makes me giggle to think that James Bond is so excited in his own head.

The other primary reason I read the book was to get Fleming's take on the one relatinship Bond had where he tied the knot -- Tracy. On this, I have to give a tempered pass to the way it is presented, because this was 1963, and Fleming very much wrote in the style of the uber-masculine dominate fantasy male, sadly at the expense of developing female characters, including his wife.

(The best one-shot encapsulation from the movies that comes to mind is a scene from Goldfinger, where Bond is getting a massage (by a girl named 'Dink' -- the overly sexual names are by and large movie constructs) and Felix Leiter comes to have a meeting. Bond literally spanks the girl to get her to move along and his explanation to her is "Man-talk." Brilliant! Just like in Sex And The City!)

That said, the entire basis for the "relationship" is this: Tracy is depressed and suicidal over the loss of a son (from a previous marriage), and has been acting erratically. Bond happens onto her in casino where she makes a large bet and loses, but has no money to pay. He gallantly pays he tab, whereupon she offers to pay him back by sleeping with him. Well, after a solid day of fucking like grand-champions, not only is she cured of the blues, but now in love with him. As Fleming would write, Quelle romance! It's just really hard not to see this as a skewed male fantasy and horrible sexist stereotype. I mean, you can practically see some male chauvinist diagnosing Tracy and going, "You know, what you really need is a good fucking." Thanks, doc! Cured!

So, they don't have any interaction thereafter until she saves his life after his Piz Gloria escape, where as a complete afterthought, he thinks:
    Bond suddenly thought, Hell! I'll never find another girl like this one. She's got everything I've ever looked for in a woman. She's beautiful, in bed and out. She's adventurous, brave, resourceful. She's exciting always. She seems to love me.
Note that she 'seems' to love him is a distant sixth on his list of marriage attributes.
    She'd let me go on with my life. She's a lone girl, not cluttered with friends, relations, belongings.
Except for that father who is the biggest criminal in Italy. But what a good fellow!
    Above all, she needs me. It'll be someone for me to look after.
Why not become a nurse?
    I'm fed up with all these untidy, casual affairs that leave me with a bad conscience. I wouldn't mind having children. I've got no social background into which she would or wouldn't fit. We're two of a pair, really. Why not make it for always?
Well, there you have it, a match made in heaven. And kids wouldn't be much of a bother, as long as they stay out of my sexy lifestyle, of course! That's the entirety of the James Bond thought process and really that about the whole of their relationship until she gets shot in the end.

Fortunately, the 'romance' is a minor part of the book, like Bond's afterthought of commitment. The central plot of the book is Blofeld's plans to conduct biological warfare on the United Kingdom, a plan which resonates a lot stronger today than it did in years past. In fact, the briefing which Bond is given is extremely light and almost childish compared to what every American knows today. Still the tight action, combined with a plot than rings eerily prescient, makes for a fun read.

(As a final note, in the movie, Blofeld's global threat of biological attacks is for ransom. And for what? So that he will be given general amnesty for his crimes, basically a pardon. Given what we know now, this would be analagous to Dr. Evil holding the world ransom for... one MILLION dollars!)

1 comment:

Jaquandor said...

Given Blofeld's criminal history, I always thought that amnesty and recognition as Count de Bleuchamp was an ingenious demand....