Celebrating Timothy Dalton’s James Bond

Timothy Dalton may have only two Bond movies to his name, but he was, Mark argues, the quintessential secret agent…

Timothy Dalton is the best actor to play James Bond. Although this article will also pitch the opinion that his portrayal of Bond is also the best, it remains true that Dalton is the best actor out of the very exclusive club of thespians who’ve portrayed 007 on the big screen. Prior to taking the role in 1987, he’d been a Shakespearean actor and had honed his craft on the stage.

Eon Productions had been badgering him to take the role for a while too – he turned it down three times, including an initial scheduling conflict that would have prevented him from starring in The Living Daylights. From the beginning, he had an idea of Bond that was very different from where the series had been headed over the course of the 1980s, hoping to bring the character down to Earth.

“I think Roger was fine as Bond, but the films had become too much techno-pop and had lost track of their sense of story,” Dalton said in a 1989 interview.  “I mean, every film seemed to have a villain who had to rule or destroy the world. If you want to believe in the fantasy on screen, then you have to believe in the characters and use them as a stepping-stone to lead you into this fantasy world. That’s a demand I made, and Albert Broccoli agreed with me.” 

Over the course of the two films he appeared in, 1987’s The Living Daylights and 1989’s Licence To Kill, Dalton brought a harder edge to Bond, more self-conscious of some of the character’s foibles and vices, without every other character taking him to task over it, as they do in GoldenEye. The first thing you notice about his stern, wolfish portrayal is that he thrives upon revenge in a way that had seldom been seen.

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Before the straight-up revenge plot that runs through his second outing, The Living Daylights sees Bond targeted as the lynchpin of a scheme to assassinate Russian General Pushkin, a British ally. Two agents are assassinated on Bond’s watch, and Pushkin is framed as the architect of a revived Soviet Intelligence programme called Smiert Spionom (‘Death To Spies.’)

The second of these is the grandest showcase of Dalton’s ability to convey pure, frightening fury. After grappling with a stuffy MI6 agent called Saunders in the earlier parts of the film, Bond starts to build a mutual respect with him as they work together. Moments after a grateful exchange, Saunders is murdered by an automatic door, in one of the more ignominious death scenes of the series. 

Dalton’s glowering initial reaction is much less composed than other Bonds might have been, leading to him pulling a gun on a small child with a balloon. That doesn’t make him sound cool and collected, but in both films, we see how this version of Bond uses his anger to exact cold, meticulous vengeance on his enemies. 

This is pretty much the whole plot of Licence To Kill, which producer and co-writer Michael G Wilson compared to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. There is something uniquely awesome about the idea of Dalton’s Bond as a lone samurai, particularly when his personal vendetta results in his suspension by M, as he resorts to infiltrating the baddies who attacked CIA agent Felix Leiter and his bride, and imperceptibly turning them all against one another. 

They still find time for the action scenes and brutal showdowns that characterise Bond films, of course, but given this Bond’s tendency to make things personal, the stakes are often much higher. Away from plots to “rule or destroy the world”, the explosive ending of Licence To Kill centres around destroying tankers full of drugs and petrol, all to get back at Sanchez for hurting Bond’s mates. When it’s all over, it’s one of the few times we ever see Bond cry, and Dalton breaks the mask of secrecy he’s been wearing for the whole film and shows utter relief.

That, specifically, is what makes Dalton’s version of Bond the most effective: he’s inarguably the most secret agent of the bunch, with the emphasis on secret. Rather than inflicting massive property damage or faffing about with hover-gondolas, he does some actual spying. The Living Daylights is hardly Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it’s the closest to an actual espionage thriller that the Bond series had mustered since From Russia With Love.

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He uncovers the conspiracy against British Intelligence and General Pushkin, not by conducting explosive hit-and-miss investigations around the world, but by courting the real villain’s girlfriend, Kara Milovy. This leads to another difference in Dalton’s portrayal: the 1980s made aspects of the series formula slightly awkward, with concerns over sexually transmitted diseases, and repositioned gender roles in the wake of Britain electing its first female Prime Minister. 

After four films of trying to carry on regardless, and occasionally coming over all Carry On as a result, this version of Bond simultaneously resolves both. In addition to his aforementioned introspection, Dalton cuts a more monogamous figure than any previous version of the character. His relationship with Kara is not so seductive, but rather surprisingly chaste – he’s more of a cad than a scoundrel, if there’s much of a difference there. 

Bond being Bond, that doesn’t mean Kara’s still around for Licence To Kill, but his relationship with Pam Bouvier again marks his Bond as more romantic than sexually driven, ultimately spurning the advances of his enemy’s girlfriend in order to jump off a roof and into a swimming pool with Pam. Even if it wasn’t quite up to 21st century standards (Die Another Day totally doesn’t count as 21st century standard – it’s an aberration that escaped from the mid-1980s), 007’s attitude to romance and women was shifting.

There are shortcomings to this more serious Bond, most notably that he’s not great at delivering quips. Certainly, the car chase with the Slovakian police in The Living Daylights occasionally scans more like a stunt on Top Gear than a James Bond action sequence because of Dalton’s delivery. He’s usually too angry while he’s dispatching foes to get in any puns, but his finishing one-liners are still up to snuff, most memorably with “He got the boot”, at the end of his first outing. 

One of the more impressive aspects of Dalton’s performance is that he actually did most of his own stunts, proving himself equally game for the things that the audience expects from the character, while still making Bond his own. To celebrate the films on their own merits, as well as what Dalton brought to the table, director John Glen executed some of his most impressive stunts in these two films, most notably in the scene where Bond and Necros fight while dangling from the back of a cargo plane in The Living Daylights, and the articulated lorry tilt from Licence To Kill.

The transition from Moore to Dalton was the biggest reboot the series had seen until Casino Royale literally took Bond back to the beginning. I would say that Daniel Craig is close to being as good an actor as Dalton, and while his portrayal is distinctive and new in its own way, I think the newest films show how ahead of their time this double bill turned out to be.

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With Skyfall now playing in cinemas nationwide, it should be noted that most Bonds come into their own on their third outing – Connery had Goldfinger, Moore had The Spy Who Loved Me and Brosnan was arguably at his best in The World Is Not Enough. It’s a shame, therefore, that Dalton never got to reprise the role again. Legal issues, which must seem trifling in hindsight, dogged the series throughout the early 1990s. 

A third instalment with Dalton was in development, and initially planned for 1991. From online reconstructions of this project, it’s been said that the film would have taken place in Hong Kong, but clearly wasn’t so far along in production that they’d yet realised how ridiculous it would have been to reveal a robot female henchman in the third act. Given how Dalton only announced that he would not return in 1994, there must have been some point where he was considered for GoldenEye, which is a tantalising prospect in its own right.

In closing, we refer to Dalton once again, reiterating his position on a realistic Bond in another interview. “It’s very important to make the man believable so you can stretch the fantasy. Whether people like this kind of Bond is another question.”

Perhaps his kind of James Bond isn’t everybody’s favourite, but if you’ve been labouring under the delusion that he wasn’t any good, then there’s definitely enough in The Living Daylights and Licence To Kill to justify revisiting Timothy Dalton’s take on this most iconic of characters. 

Skyfall is out now. You can read our review here.

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