Roger Moore’s James Bond: appreciating the raised eyebrow

An appreciation of the late Roger Moore, and his importance to the James Bond series...

It took me a long time to realise this but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense: Roger Moore is the most important actor to play James Bond. For while Sean Connery created the icon, Roger Moore is the reason why we are still trotting out to the cinema. This premise might sound like sacrilege.

As I’ve gotten older, and four movies into Daniel Craig’s tenure, my thinking has shifted considerably. Whereas I used to wish that the movies followed the books, I’ve finally recognised that they are – to be blunt – horrifically outdated in their portrayals of women, non-white people… really anyone who is not a middle-aged white English man (or Scots-Swiss, in Bond’s case). They also took themselves way too seriously. I think we can all agree that the movie versions of Bond are far more appealing than Ian Fleming’s original character.

And the Daniel Craig movies, at least after his debut, have gone too far toward being respectable and highbrow. I found myself wanting the silliness back. Spectre was heading in that direction – except when it was trying to be a serious relationship drama about Bond’s childhood and an attempt at retconning his movies into some overarching plot.

In the years since its release, I’ve ruminated on this premise, and I think it’s right. Roger Moore is the most important actor to play James Bond. But why him? Why not Connery?

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First, a bit of context. Moore assumed the role of Bond at a point when the series was considered moribund and outdated. George Lazenby, Connery’s original successor, had been rejected. Connery had come back on a one-off basis to resuscitate the series with Diamonds Are Forever, which provided only a brief reprieve.

Why did Moore succeed where Lazenby had not?

Partially this has to do with the relative talents of the actors, but more crucially this has to do with the material they were given. While the movie is one of the best in the series, the filmmakers behind On Her Majesty’s Secret Service failed their inexperienced leading man. To watch the first 30 minutes of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is to see a filmmaking team at odds with itself, as they debate whether to ignore their original leading man or try to conjure him. They dress Lazenby in Connery’s hat in the gunbarrel, turn the credits into a clipshow from the previous movies, and make various references (the props in his desk; the little man whistling Goldfinger) to the guy who is not there. Even Lazenby’s one liners feel forced (“He branched off”). It takes about 40 minutes for them to stop referring to Connery, and the movie comes into its own. It’s a testament to how good the movie is that this Act One identity crisis does not torpedo it.

It is significant that Roger Moore ended up being Bond #3 and not #2. Whoever went after Connery was going to have a hard time making the role his own. As the first man through the door, Lazenby took the bullet that Moore did not have to. When it came time for re-cast No. 2, the Bond producers had figured out a way to recast the character that would allow them to destroy the idea that only one man could play Bond.

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With Roger Moore, the production team made the decision to tailor the role to the actor rather than the other way around. It took a few movies for his version to be fully established, but right from his introduction in Live And Let Die it is clear that Moore’s Bond is very different from his predecessor. Rather than merely imitate Connery’s sophisticated thug, Moore’s Bond is a killer comedian, with a penchant for Cuban cigars, puns and, eventually, a Lotus Esprit as his vehicle of choice. Where Connery was more comfortable beating the hell out of anyone who got in his way, Moore relied more heavily on gadgets and wit to get out of jams.

Unlike Pierce Brosnan (and, to a lesser extent, Daniel Craig), the filmmakers behind Moore’s movies were extremely consistent in how his Bond was portrayed. While that might be a recipe for sameness, when viewed across seven movies, his version turns out to be surprisingly adaptable. As Max Williams noted in his retrospective reviews on this site, Moore’s Bond could fit in a variety of different contexts that it would be nigh-on impossible to imagine with any of the other Bonds (Craig in Diamonds Are Forever would be amazing). Whether he is driving a car underwater (The Spy Who Loved Me), disabling a bomb while dressed as a clown (Octopussy) or vengefully kicking a villain off a cliff (For Your Eyes Only), Moore was always believable (even if the movies aren’t).

While the jokes have been made about the excesses of the Moore years, and the self-referential humour he brought to the role, it was the perfect approach at the time. The movies were no longer at the forefront of popular culture, and with their PG rating they could not compete with the more adult thrills of Dirty Harry and its ilk, which took the set pieces and the humour, but upped the violence and the sex. By leaning into the irreverence, Moore inoculated the series against irrelevance.

And while he did arguably stick around way too long, having a safe pair of hands headlining the series enabled the series to survive through the rise of the early blockbusters. It is thanks to the combination of Moore’s adaptability, humour and the length of time he played the part that the series persevered.

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There is a certain section of the fanbase think his self-parody hurt the character, granted. Yet countering that, Moore’s importance should not be underestimated. Not only did he give the series a second wind, he proved that the character of Bond could live beyond Sean Connery. Most significantly, while the argument could be made that Moore ‘destroyed’ the idea of who and what Bond is, he also opened up the character to reinvention, expanding the character’s horizons to virtually limitless variations.

Rather than variations on Connery, after Moore Bond could be camp and silly, or cold and gritty; he could beat a guy up in an elevator, go into outer space, drive a car underwater or chase a free runner across a construction site. Simply put, without Moore, there is no Dalton, Brosnan or Craig. Without Roger and his flared pants, we don’t get Bond tied to a chair, one of the best scenes in the series. It is because of Moore’s silliness that the producers could feel confident enough to go against type and cast a (relatively) short, blonde character actor as James Bond, opening up all sorts of possibilities for future 007 casting.

And just remember, Roger Moore took Bond to space. After that, anything is possible.

Rest in peace, Mr Moore. You’re already being missed.