Few movie icons, besides Godzilla, have graced the screen as frequently as super spy James Bond. Some 50 years after Sean Connery first took on the role, fans continue to obsess over who might play him next (for now it’s still Daniel Craig) and what the upcoming film will be about. This Wednesday, possible details of the 25th James Bond movie set the internet abuzz.
Many of the Bond films are based on the original books by Ian Fleming, who created the character in 14 books he wrote between 1952 and his death in 1964 (two of them were published posthumously). What fans of the films may not know is that when Fleming set out to write his famous books, he sought not just to create a cunning action hero, but a homage to the crumbling British Empire.
In 1946, Fleming built his house, which he called “Goldeneye,” in the then-British Colony of Jamaica. It was a place he loved specifically because it reminded him of the empire’s old days, says Parker. There, colonial race and class structures held firm, and Fleming was treated with the deference and respect that he believed he, as a white British man, deserved.
But by the time he began writing his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952, he could see the changes happening in Jamaica as British power crumbled. And he wasn’t happy about it. “He didn’t like the fact that black people were getting the vote and that they were forming political parties and demanding much more respect,” Parker explains. “So he created James Bond as this sort of consoling fantasy for himself and his readers.”
Britain’s descent as a global power was a constant motif in the novels. Fleming used the books to bemoan that the British, in his opinion, had become broke and lazy; complain that Americans were money-obsessed; and take shots at any racial and national group he felt threatened Britain’s power.
Yet as the empire continued to decline, so too did Bond. Parker notes that by the later novels, Agent 007 is falling apart, constantly drunk, and aware that the empire is essentially over. In one later scene, “Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service, taunts him, ‘You have not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands,’” Parker recounts in The Huffington Post. “Bond has not the energy to disagree.”
Beginning in 1962, the James Bond action films picked up Fleming’s obsession with the British Empire. The first movie, Dr. No, was filmed in Jamaica just a few months before the country won independence. Yet Parker says that the movie still portrayed it as a place where the empire’s control was firm, and the idealized British superiority that sparked the original novels is still apparent in the films.
Similarly, Parker says that nostalgia for the British Empire still plays a role in U.K. politics today. “Some of the people who voted to leave the European Union were really motivated by that same fantasy that is James Bond,” he notes. “The fantasy that Britain can still go out with its buccaneering spirit into the world and punch above its weight.”