James Bond, Spectre & Blofeld in the 21st Century

We look at how SPECTRE finally returned to James Bond 007's world after 40 years... and just what that means for the Daniel Craig era.

This article contains Spectre spoilers.

Eon Productions and Sam Mendes’ Spectre has been a long time coming. Three years after Skyfall, the most successful James Bond movie since Thunderball (that was 50 years ago, folks!), Bondmania has returned for the Daniel Craig era like no other since Sean Connery left. Thus simply as a Skyfall follow-up, expectations ran at an all time high for the 24th 007 film.

But for the most passionate set of Bond fans, and even for Eon itself, Spectre is more than just the sequel to the one with Javier Bardem; it marked a homecoming for 007 films since it is the first time all of 007’s beloved trademarks have been under one roof in at least 44 years. Perhaps if you want to consider the legal wrangling that it took to make a faithful Casino Royale adaptation happen in 2006 (which is a whole other story), this is the first time they’ve ever had complete control over Bond’s entire pantheon and destiny.

This is of course highlighted by the very title that trumpets the return of SPECTRE and Bond’s most feared nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, after their lukewarm 1971 send-off in Diamonds are Forever. And yet, judging by the divided reaction to Spectre, that homecoming has turned out to be a far from joyous one.

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Despite standing poised to be the highest grossing Bond film ever in the global market, Spectre will not do Skyfall numbers in the U.S. and faces increasingly negative criticism from both critics themselves as well as Bond fans. And for a movie that has so much going for it—including a stellar cast led by Daniel Craig, a well chosen rebooted Blofeld in Christoph Waltz, and one of the best pre-title action sequences in franchise history—it is almost strange to see online reaction calling it the “worst Bond in 30 years” or absurdly suggesting that Quantum of Solace’s Jason Bourne-wannabe antics were superior to this classical 007 approach. But therein lies the rub: that very same traditional approach is what jars so violently with Daniel Craig’s 21st century Bond—especially in regards to SPECTRE.

This evil organization of (S)pecial (E)xecutive (C)ounter-intelligence, (T)errorism, (R)evenge, and (E)xtortion has been with Bond since the beginning of his cinematic career. While having not appeared in any of Ian Fleming’s early James Bond 007 novels, SPECTRE was in every one of Sean Connery’s Bond films not named Goldfinger. This secret cabal of international terrorists and corrupt industrialists were behind the titular villain’s apolitical scheme to disrupt Cape Canaveral in 1962’s Dr. No. Similarly in 1963, the even better From Russia With Love saw producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman rework Fleming’s source material so that it was SPECTRE out for revenge on James Bond that led him to tussling with Robert Shaw’s Red Grant and Lotte Lenye’s high-kicking Rosa Klebb.

By the time Thunderball rolled around, Bondmania was in full-swing and Connery had a definite nemesis in the shadowy “Number One,” a bald silhouette with a penchant for murdering underlings and pampered kitties. In fact, it was almost an anti-climax by the time that Number One was revealed to be a mere mortal in 1967’s You Only Live Twice, where Donald Pleasence played the one-eyed Ernst Stavro Blofeld with campy severity.

Blofeld would officially appear in two more subsequent adventures from Broccoli and Saltzman, but never was he played by the same actor. He appeared again in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) where he was interpreted with surprisingly robust physicality by Telly Savalas—aka the only Blofeld who actually would put on skis to chase Bond, as opposed to leaving the violent stuff to his minions—and then once more in Diamonds Are Forever. In that last picture, Charles Gray embodied the fiend, but SPECTRE had seemed to lose its phantom menace following seven movies. A defining element of the Connery era (and George Lazenby’s one-and-done stint in Secret Service), Blofeld disappeared following Connery’s weakest installment as little more than a comical nuisance.

So in a sense, it might have been for the best that SPECTRE vanished from Bond lore. But in reality, the real cause of Blofeld’s original demise is much more unsatisfying than any lack of follow-through on the magnificent On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ending.

I suspect that both generations of Eon Productions’ dynasty, first during the Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman years, and now the current Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli ones, would have loved to see SPECTRE return before 2015. But the sad truth is that it wasn’t until 2013 that Eon was finally able to even touch Blofeld again.

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The reason for SPECTRE’s mysterious departure lies not with the actions of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but rather with one Kevin O’Donovan McClory. For it was McClory who helped author Ian Fleming (and Jack Whittingham) invent Blofeld and SPECTRE, and it was also McClory who then kept Bond away from the villains for the better part of a half-century.

Before Dr. No had been a glimmer in Cubby Broccoli’s eye, Ian Fleming tried to jumpstart Bond’s film career by developing a screenplay with producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham. The result was an unproduced treatment that served as the basis for Fleming’s 1961 novel, Thunderball. McClory reacted to that book using their shared ideas of a nuclear warhead’s theft by a secret, Illuminati-esque espionage group—SPECTRE—by suing Fleming in court. In the aftermath, McClory ended up with the filmic rights to Thunderball, and Thunderball alone.

Ergo, by the time McClory was attempting to launch his own Bond film after the first two Eon movies had already used SPECTRE and even featured Blofeld’s vocal cameo, Broccoli and Saltzman made a deal to adapt Thunderball (while also giving McClory sole producer’s credit at that!) on the condition he not try to adapt Thunderball again for 10 years. McClory agreed, and made the Bond film most remembered for jet-packs, swimming pool sharks, a villain’s eye-patch, a daring Sky Hook stunt, and Claudine Auger’s Domino appropriately sporting only black-and-white beachwear in the Bahamas—none of which actually occurred in McClory’s original unproduced script (which is all he had legal claim to). Nonetheless, McClory remembered everything about that film, including its staggering box office, when he spent the whole of the 1970s trying to launch a remake of it at rival studios.

He wouldn’t succeed until 1983’s Never Say Never Again, which dusted Sean Connery out of double-0 retirement, but its effect on the Eon produced films was immediate. As soon as it became evident within a few years of Diamonds that McClory would indeed attempt a remake of Thunderball, there was no mention of SPECTRE or Blofeld henceforth. And after the McClory-Connery competition became imminent, we got our final acknowledgement toward the evil Bond organization in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only—where before the opening titles, Roger Moore’s James Bond visits the grave of Tracy Bond (Blofeld’s victim in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and then drops an unnamed, bald, and Persian cat owning villain down a smokestack to his ignominious death. Fans knew it was Blofeld, lawyers couldn’t prove it, and I imagine Cubby Broccoli wished it were McClory who Moore waved goodbye to.

Yet, even by For Your Eyes Only, SPECTRE and Blofeld seemed like a distant memory. What was once a permanent fixture of the defining Connery and swinging ‘60s era of Bond movies was far removed from the generally even more fantastical, standalone Roger Moore flicks. And considering that Blofeld’s long-overdue death was tacked onto Moore’s most serious and “gritty” Bond adventure (as well as one of his best), it appeared thoroughly out of place. By ’81, Bond seemed to have outgrown Blofeld’s shadow.

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Still, SPECTRE’s influence was ubiquitous in every avenue of pop culture, except Bond. The group likely served as the inspiration for Hydra, Marvel’s anti-SHIELD secret organization created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby the same year that Thunderball was released. They also were a heavy influence on the Mission: Impossible TV series’ “the Syndicate,” a mob organization that increasingly became the heroic IMF’s evil nemesis and counterpart in later seasons. And amusingly enough, both made it to the big screen before Spectre in the last 18 months with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Yet, Eon has never forgotten the bald ailurophile, even after he became the biggest and best punchline of Mike Myers’ Bond parodies. It’s why a SPECTRE-like organization was strongly hinted at during the last third of Casino Royale, Eon’s reboot of 007 in the 21st century with Daniel Craig. It’s also what Quantum of Solace’s dippy “Quantum” was supposed to stand in for with the less than satisfying 2008 follow-up. But in addition to Casino Royale breathing new life into Bond in 2006, another major event happened for the franchise that year: Kevin McClory passed away at the age of 82. While it’s sad he passed so soon, he also had spent much of the 20-plus years since Never Say Never Again trying to remake Thunderball again. In contrast, his children and estate did not feel such a personal vendetta against Eon Productions.

In 2013, the McClory estate sold the complete rights to Thunderball (and its characters) to Eon. And all of a sudden, even Skyfall’s massive success seemed like the footnote. SPECTRE and Blofeld were finally back!

The resulting film, which tries to be both Sam Mendes’ direct continuation on the themes and plotlines of Skyfall, and the SPECTRE movie that Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli dreamt about with hints in Casino Royale, is a bit torn between those two impulses. It is one step further into the 21st century Bond’s world—which for once has as much to do with the current actor as it does with Connery—and two steps back into the ‘60s Bondmania that Daniel Craig has so confidently brushed off since 2006.

The end result is a movie that is both the most traditional Bond adventure since Die Another Day and something that is trying to reinvent those classic tropes. It’s mixed, but perhaps Bond fans should accept that this is always what SPECTRE was meant to be.

At the risk of alienating plenty of Bond fans, I would argue that Spectre is easily the second best Bond movie to feature Blofeld as a prominent villain. But perhaps that is because the only truly great Bond movie to feature Blofeld’s face is 1969’s undervalued On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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That sixth and often forgotten Bond film would have been one of the top five classics had Sean Connery agreed to do one more. In fact, George Lazenby is in my opinion the absolute worst Bond of the franchise, and it is still a credit to that film’s quality that it works so well.

Many of its creative successes have nothing to do with SPECTRE. Peter Hunt, who was a long-time editor for Eon since Dr. No, made his directorial debut (and only Bond outing as helmer) with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and he displayed a much surer hand for pacing than any of Connery’s later Blofeld-heavy films; Secret Service moves confidently in two-and-a-half hours from a love story between Lazenby’s admittedly stilted James and Diana Rigg’s electrifying Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo (or just “Tracy”) to the most ‘60s plot imaginable on top of the Swiss Alps during Christmas Eve, and finally to a cathartically charged gun battle assault in the third act that still influences films like Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

Then there is also the aforementioned Tracy, who is the first and only woman besides Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale that Bond convincingly falls in love with. And the term “woman” must be stressed since Rigg’s Tracy is a fully formed and independent character, as opposed to a black-and-white bikini. Her death at the end of the film due to Blofeld’s vindictiveness is still the saddest moment in all of Bond history.

… But it worked, not least of all because it had so little to do with SPECTRE. The best movies featuring SPECTRE always had them as an intangible threat. In Dr. No and From Russia With Love, the villains operate with full autonomy even if it’s hinted they work for a shadowy cult. In Thunderball, SPECTRE is more pronounced and the quality is noticeably reduced. Yet only in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever are SPECTRE and Blofeld the main visible threats, and the result are films that give in to camp and silliness.

In Secret Service, much like Fleming’s novel, SPECTRE is not directly mentioned because the organization is supposed to be licking its wounds. Blofeld is attempting to regroup after several defeats at the hand of Bond. It’s not Bond vs. the shadow; it’s two European snobs in a pissing contest.

But to return to SPECTRE, an evil invisible empire with fingers everywhere, is to return to the campiest and most fantastical films of Sean Connery’s era. This is not a bad thing unto itself; I actually enjoy many of the campy Bonds (though more from Roger Moore’s heyday than Connery’s declining ones). But in the 21st century, Daniel Craig’s Bond “doesn’t go in for that sort of thing.”

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Recall when Q said those exact words about exploding pens in Skyfall? The irony should speak for itself since he gives Craig’s 007 an exploding watch in Spectre. This is the real issue about SPECTRE in 2015 (not just the movie Spectre). These villains hearken back to a time gone by when Bond was accepted to be a superhero by fans—an adult cartoon with sex, super-villains, and silliness.

In the 21st century, what has reinvented Bond during the Craig era is that he is not a superhero, at least not in the ’60 or ‘70s sense: he is brooding, tortured, and supremely moody. He is no longer a complete male fantasy, because he can never fully enjoy himself. Some fans still await the moment where Craig turns into Connery, but that can never be since Connery loved being James Bond while Craig’s version loathes the bitter malcontent he grew up to be. You cannot be the ubermensch male fantasy when you—as Vesper so astutely points out in Casino Royale—wear your suits “with such disdain.”

This is the reason I am not diametrically opposed to Blofled now being revealed in the new continuity as “Franz Oberhauser,” a childhood acquaintance of Bond. Yes, it’s silly and inane, but so will always this shadowy organization be—and honestly, Craig’s Bond works better when he has a personal stake in the narrative with the villain. It’s like Connery and, well, the rotating cast of SPECTRE bad guys in the 1960s. It’s kind of his M.O.

Spectre of course still has its flaws, but mostly from not embracing this kind of implicit lunacy. For example, they painstakingly establish Blofeld is behind all of Craig’s previous villains, which is plausible for at least Casino and Quantum since both set up a Blofeld-like figure even before Eon got the rights back. Yet, they do not want to give Blofeld a “take over the world” scheme, which left the character without motivation in a film that seems afraid to accept Blofeld’s inherent cartoonishness. Similarly, Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann is meant to be the new Tracy, a la On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, yet the film doesn’t give her nearly as much to chew on in being her own woman, unlike that iconic and fiercely independent Diana Rigg performance.

And then there’s that issue of  Spectre‘s entire third act appearing underwritten, but again this might be a result of trying to find a dour tone in line with Craig’s Bond instead of embracing the kind of madness SPECTRE (and Eon once upon a time) courted.

However, the suggestion that this finely crafted action movie with a near-silent 12-minute opening of adrenaline is in any way worse than half the Bond oeuvre, including the one where Bond knocks a Blofeld henchman into a pool of ill-tempered piranhas while dressed in Japanese “yellow-face” make-up (You Only Live Twice) is rose tinted glasses.

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So, please bring back Craig for one more, and Waltz and Seydoux too (at least if they can work on developing chemistry between Seydoux and Craig in the interim). But they should finish this five-film arc with SPECTRE. Embrace what that means by bringing Craig’s 21st century Bond to his roots. This was inevitable ever since the words “our organization” were uttered in Casino Royale. Craig’s Bond might not have fun, but it’s finally time Eon does so again.