Today it was announced that Bond 24 will be titled ‘SPECTRE’. As Sam Mendes, the director, explained in the press conference for the announcement of the film title, the Bond car and lead actors, it will resonate strongly with Bond audiences. The movie poster features a bullet hole in a pain of glass and the resulting damage appears to tentacle like extend across that surface (see above for the original image of SPECTRE in the Bond films of the 1960s).
For now, as is the want of the Bond franchise, we don’t have much to go on. Bond will follow, thanks to a cryptic note, a trail that leads to the sinister organisation, SPECTRE the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. While Bond uncovers SPECTRE, the new M battles apparently to keep MI6 as a functional entity, a challenge that familiar to his late predecessor who discovered that the Quantum organisation was embedded within her organisation’s ranks. For all of that, it was a disgruntled ex-agent that claimed the life of Judi Dench’s M rather than a Quantum assassin.
As someone who has followed and written on the geopolitics of James Bond I am intrigued by the resurrection of SPECTRE, which in a way could make sense given the re-booting of James Bond following Casino Royale. As a newly minted 00, we have followed Bond through three missions with Skyfall being the latest involving cyber-based mayhem in London. I have my views about that film and while Bond’s ageing body is clearly an important element in the narrative development there is also troubling aspects, especially how the film addresses the fate of female characters. The femme fatale is despatched quickly, M dies in the Bond family chapel and Moneypenny goes from being a field agent to office secretary. As many scholars have noted the gender politics of James Bond films leaves plenty of room for discussion and dissent.
SPECTRE is a tran-national network. We first learn of its (filmic) existence in Dr No. The evil genius reveals to Bond over the dinner table that he works for SPECTRE and mocks Bond for his conventional understanding of the Cold War and its geopolitics. As Dr No retorts, ‘East, West, just points of the compass, each as stupid as the other.’ While Bond manages to thwart the SPECTRE plan to disrupt US rocket launches, it is clear that defeating and indeed killing Dr No did not destroy SPECTRE itself. If anything as From Russia with Love and Thunderball revealed, SPECTRE’s capacity to plan its operations is global in scope. Operating in Paris, under the cover of being a humanitarian organisation supporting refugees, its membership headed by Blofeld prove adept at planning all manner of operations from narcotics rings to the theft of NATO nuclear missiles. Bond and MI6 have their work cut out and SPECTRE capacity to recruit widely makes it difficult to predict who and where its next operations might enrol. It is not until Diamonds are Forever that SPECTRE was retired from the Bond franchise after terrorising the world and testing the skills and endurance of James Bond for a decade.
While SPECTRE was retired from the Bond franchise, it made a brief reappearance in 2001 when some journalists and commentators noted that perhaps the fictional terror organisation had unwittingly prepared us for Al-Qaeda network. Just as disaster movies were invoked on September 11th as a visual trope for making sense of a terrible set of events, so James Bond movies were being invoked as prophetic – anticipating the footloose trans-national terror network responsible for planning and executing the 9/11 attacks on the United States. And as with Blofeld, Osama Bin Laden was portrayed in some quarters as the evil genius directing operations from a variety of locations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To compound the association still further, however, it was also reported that British service personnel were used Bond’s names like Goldfinger and Blofeld to code name their operations in Iraq.
Bond 24’s return to SPECTRE via Quantum is intriguing. As Quantum of Solace revealed what made Quantum different to the SPECTRE of the 1960s was infiltration. Post 9/11 Bond movies have been far more about blurrings. In the 1960s, SPECTRE might have threatened global annihilation but it failed to penetrate M’s office in London. SPECTRE could and did put Bond in compromising situations and imperil British geopolitical interests but it did not threaten London and the UK. Quantum, by way of contrast, breaches those boundaries and they do so under the command of M played by Judi Dench. The first female head of MI6 has to bear the brunt of these new realities in ways that never seemed to trouble her male predecessors who could dispatch Bond safe in the knowledge that their office was not going to be blown up.
Whatever happens SPECTRE was good to Bond and Britain. The US might have had the money, the rockets, the satellites and the like but it was Bond and his modest gadgets along with some support here and there from allies who foiled SPECTRE and earned the respect of US agents and even the gratitude of the US president in Goldfinger.
After dealing with a disgruntled agent in Skyfall, the appeal of a trans-national network will no doubt work well to convey the messy realities of Bond’s professional and private life, and the precariousness of his country’s position in a world where the ‘points on the compass’ don’t reveal a great deal.
Filming wise – we are told that locations include Pinewood London, Mexico City, Rome, Tangier & Erfoud, Morocco, Sölden, Obertilliach, and Lake Altaussee, Austria. Bond has been Tangier before as well as Austria (The Living Daylights and Quantum of Solace). Mexico City is new and indeed apart from Licensed to Kill (the second Timothy Dalton film), Latin America more generally has not featured that strongly in the franchise (although note Moonraker and Brazil and the slightest of references in films like Octopussy).
And as Bond scholar James Chapman reminds us, the resurrection of SPECTRE might also tell us something about earlier disputes and tensions over part of the Ian Fleming portfolio. As Chapman notes:
But SPECTRE didn’t have an assured future. A rival producer called Kevin McClory had collaborated with Fleming on a Bond film project in 1959 which was never made. He claimed that Fleming had used plot elements from his script, including SPECTRE, in the 1961 book Thunderball. Although McClory then collaborated with Bond producers on the film of Thunderball in 1965, he attempted to mount a rival Bond film – eventually realised as Never Say Never Again (1983) – based on the original unmade screenplay. With the Bond films such a lucrative cash cow and teams of highly-paid lawyers involved, SPECTRE disappeared from the official James Bond series.
But only into hibernation, it now seems. Eon Productions has now reacquired the legal rights to SPECTRE, and so the announcement of the name suggests that the next Bond will see the return of 007’s arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Like Chapman, I don’t expect to see a little white cat sitting on the lap of a rejuvenated Blofeld but what will be interesting to see is whether SPECTRE has a different operating model to the foot-loose Quantum.
Bond will return in 2015 and I for one look forward to seeing further trailers.
KD (updated 7th December 2014)