Dixi et liberavi

In defense of Roger Moore as James Bond

Roger MooreOur hero James Bond is unthinkable detached from the modern, secularised, Western, post-war climate. As one of the moderns Bond is his own authority, is entirely rationally motivated and entertains no religious beliefs. The post-war super-power bipolarity he takes for granted as he acknowledges the supremacy of the Western, "enlightened" way of life. He shares this background with most other Europeans and Americans born after 1940. But, obviously, Bond is in possession of far more authority, self-sufficiency and autonomy than the rest of us. In fact, with Bond there is more of everything. Thus he always turns a temporary defeat into a situation of power and control. Faced with the most severe predicaments (e.g. being cremated alive in Diamonds are forever), there's no hysterical panicking, rather a cool "stress" which never really deviates from the basis of rational evaluation of pros and cons. Even in his most emotional moments (e.g. in the end scene of On Her Majesty's Secret Service where Teresa, his first and only wife, is killed just hours after the wedding) he is still very much composed, he "picks himself up, dusts himself off and starts all over again" just as in the song. This pattern repeats itself over and over, regardless of the current state or situation he is in. Therefore it is fair to say that no one could possibly be a better representative of modern, rational life-mastering than Mr. Bond.

Bond is a perfect specimen of the accomplished, efficient and determined man, a splendidly charming (though lethal) epitome of secularised modernity. But the picture is of course more complex than this. We must not forget that Bond, despite his impressive ability to end up on top of any situation, really lives an extremely limited life: he has "sacrificed" his life to the service of the Crown, to "England" and the hazardous duties she keeps bestowing on him. Bond is in fact nothing but a slave, a modern slave, an obedient tool for the British Intelligence Service MI5. So on the one hand Bond is the greatest hero of all times in that he keeps defeating powerful enemies that threaten to destroy human civilisation, on the other hand this extreme potency is tempered by (perhaps also dependent upon) his subordinate position under the "Crown" and his corresponding "blind faith" in the values and world-views that this institution stands for. This paradox seems to supply Bond with a "double nature" as it were: his autonomy is only a simulacra; his flashy, modern secularity a mere façade in that his strength deep down is based on submissiveness and humble obedience (a fact that his many dangerous opponents never cease to attract his attention to).

The paradox also has a moral aspect. Seen from one angle Bond has no morals at all; he is promiscuous, he lies, hurts, maims and kills (remember that 007 has a governmentally issued licence to kill). Seen from another angle, however, Bond is so morally disciplined (loyal) that it almost eradicates him as an individual human being. So: he pays for his lack of virtue by maintaining absolute, religious-like standards of loyalty towards the institution that not only has employed him, but has moulded him into the man he has become. Indeed, his immoral behaviour seems a very small price to pay weighed up against the tasks he is asked to perform. But the moral paradox remains: Mr. Bond acts—responsibly and conscientiously—in accordance with the higher principle of saving humanity from disaster and devastation, yet in pursuing this higher principle he readily tramples on many individuals, be they innocent or not. The fate of the individual is to him less important than the attaining of his goal, his predefined end always justifies the necessary means. Thus James Bond is a "true believer", an old-fashioned crusader in a flamboyant and spectacular wrapping.

Given this background it is perhaps somewhat odd that most Western males since 1961 (the year the first film Dr. No premiered) would love to roam the universe of James Bond. However, it is certainly not odd taken into consideration that in this universe all pretty women worship Bond as a god and here justice is no longer a dreary duty to be fulfilled, but instead an excuse for an adventurous and adulterous life. But alas, in envying (and to some extent trying to copy) Bond's seemingly untroubled indulgence in hedonism, these Western males completely fail to acknowledge Bond's sacrifice, the sacrifice that ultimately makes his indulgence legitimate: his eviction of basic comforts and pleasures that the very same males would probably consider untouchable: family, close friends, stability, predictability and peace of mind. How many, confronted with the choice, had really been willing to swap the one for the other? Probably not very many. Perhaps not even Bond himself—that is: if he were a real person. But he isn't a real person, he is a super-hero. Not everyone is ready to accept the difference between the two.

If Bond were a real person, it would hardly be worth while to make a film about him, let alone 20. The film about the real Bond would probably be nothing more than a dull documentary about the inner workings of a bureaucratic department and its appointed officials: endless meetings and loads of paperwork day in and day out. Roger Moore, in taking on the role of James Bond in Live and let die in 1971, was very much aware of this inherent contradiction in the character of Bond, i.e.: Bond as a sturdy government official and Bond as a fantastic superhero. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph years later (in the mid-nineties) he explained thus: "I can analyse the difference between Sean [Connery] and myself. Although Sean delivered some very funny lines, he was not playing it for comedy. I was. I played it all tongue-in-cheek, because I don't believe in Bond as a hero. It's a load of nonsense. How can you be a spy when any bar you walk into, the bartender says: "Ah, Mr. Bond. Shaken not stirred?""

Moore's Bond is a person who easily jokes away his own superiority, but who becomes grave and sinister as innocent people are threatened or injured. Thus in For your eyes only he smirks as the goons from Hector Gonzales come up on the side of Melina Havelocks Citroën 2CV which he is driving, knowing very well that although he and Melina are "out-horse-powered" the villains still haven't got a chance. Of course, had this been a real situation, the pursued person would have been tense and full of adrenalin; instead Moore serves us a calm nod and a smile thereby making fun not only of the character he is playing, but also of the viewer who is tempted to believe in the magic of the character. In another scene in the same film he displays an altogether different attitude. When Liesl, Colombo's mistress and Bond's one night stand, is brutally killed, he is deeply hurt and for a brief moment the film is brought to a halt and one takes oneself in thinking: "Oh, come on, you haven't got time to mourn over her...". But that's Moore in a nutshell. He tolerates no harm to innocent people. And he shows it, or, he lets his character show it. Moore switches between light-hearted comedy and deadly seriousness throughout his career as James Bond, an attitude that has become Moore's trademark.

Let's look into this and let's start by returning to the Sunday Telegraph-interview. Here Michael Caine is quoted saying that Moore is probably prouder than he lets on about his role as Bond: "I would take what he says with a pinch of salt. He's very grateful for what James Bond did for him. I just think he would very much like to be taken seriously." The problem, says Caine, is that Moore has never been pushed far enough in his acting career: "He's never had to really tear himself inside out, although I think one day he will do it. He's like the very beautiful girl in films—she doesn't have to do anything except stand there. And Roger was always so handsome and had such a great physique that he never had to do much more."

Says Caine: "He's never had to really tear himself inside out..." If this is true, could it be because he never really wanted to tear himself inside out, or never managed to? Could it be that Moore carries "something" inside him that he will not—nor is able to—display to the public, not even to himself? Then everything he does display must be derived and secondary in comparison to this "something". In the interview Moore admits that he used to lack confidence so badly that he had to invent a persona to get through life: "I have created Roger Moore. Before, I could never walk into a restaurant on my own. So now I play this character—the suave English gentleman." Notice that he is not talking about James Bond, but a persona called "Roger Moore". So even before Moore takes on an artistic role, he is already in a role: the role of "Roger Moore". He apparently had to create a substitute of himself in order to face both the stage and his own life. This substitute is a role that can do all the things that his Self lacks confidence to: it can behave elegantly and speak eloquently, it can look people straight into their eyes and not let anyone tell him what to do, it can have fun. To create such a role is therefore the opposite of tearing himself inside out. The latter would imply that he laid his Self open to the world, mirrored it as it were—with all it's insecurity, anxiety etc.

Moore wisely keeps his Self to himself. So when he acts, it is not "him" acting, but his created persona. This clearly makes his interpretation of Bond rather superficial. But far from being something that invalidates Moore's interpretation of Bond, this makes his interpretation marvellously ironic—an irony that perfectly mirrors the aforementioned ambiguous nature of James Bond. You may recall Bond's "double nature": his parallel superiority and submissiveness. My point is that Moore's interpretation mirrors this fundamental trait splendidly in that he acts out both the jester and the reflecting-sensitive individual, the individual that really concerns itself with the fate of other people.

Moore serves us his acclaimed tongue-in-cheek as soon as Bond is about to demonstrate his silly superiority one way or another—for instance as he leisurely drives up on a beach with his submarine Lotus dropping a small fish out of the side-window as a gesture to the paralysed onlookers in The spy who loved me—and by so doing he prevents us from taking this guy seriously, which would in fact be rather silly. Said a humble Moore in the Sunday Telegraph-interview: "It's easier to knock yourself before somebody else does it. That way, if they want to say terrible things about me, they're a little late." Translated into our context: it is easier (and much more humorous) to make a joke out of Bond before somebody else (e.g. a critic) does it. Moore's constant smirking ultimately reveals to us that Bond is, and should never be, anything but a jester, i.e. an obedient servant of the Crown who is dreaming of becoming the saviour of the world. In Moore's translation the Bond films are most of all vivid depictions of the daydreams of a government official. Nothing Moore.

On the other hand we have the grave, silent, lamenting and participating Moore, the reflective-sensitive individual. This part of the role represents indeed a sharp contrast to the witty Moore, but represents also a fascinating parallel to the submissive and obedient Bond. By showing empathy the way he does, i.e. by creating such a great contrast between the humorous and the serious part of his interpretation, Moore not only shows us that he has feelings and that he wants Bond to show feelings as well, but rather that he is just as "submissive and obedient" with regard to his experiences of injustice and suffering as Bond is submissive and obedient with regard to his service under the Crown Almighty. Both Moore and Bond, although covertly, admit a fundamental lack of control in their lives (despite their impressive handling of women and other significant dangers): Moore cannot guard himself against an experience of injustice whilst Bond cannot guard himself against his propensity to be led and steered by the omnipresent "Queen and Country".

The upshot of all this is that Roger Moore has exactly the needed qualities to do James Bond in a way that really convinces us, not of the immaculate glory of the hilarious James Bond-character, but of the impeccable beauty of the person who takes lightly on his own assets, but who reacts sharply to injustice committed towards others. Moore uses the character of Bond to draw such a person for us. Thereby, in Moore's unique personification, Bond is no longer a fantastic super-action-hero out of this world, but instead quite the opposite: a moral example to each and everyone. But, of course, these exemplary powers are hidden behind a thick veil of humour. That's the beauty of it.